By Matthew Kresal
As Matt Mitrovich noted recently on Twitter, alternate history primary residence continues to be literature. Something that isn't surprising since, after all, you're reading this on the blog of a publisher dedicated to publishing works of alternate history. Yet, as Mitrovich noted in that same tweet, imagining versions of the past has made in-roads into other media, particularly in the last decade. Yet, for every The Man in the High Castle (itself inspired by a novel) or For All Mankind, there are projects which have either failed to make an impact or never made it to the screen at all. One such example aired a little over a decade ago on US cable channel Spike. Alternate History: Nazi's Win WW2 should have been the launch of a series of half-hour episodes looking at various scenarios from their point of divergence to effects on the present day. Yet Spike's Alternate History never went beyond its opening installment.
And seeing the pilot, it isn't hard to see why.
On the surface, Spike was an odd choice for such a series. Spike had a long history, having launched as The Nashville Network (TNN) in the 1980s with a focus on country music and NASCAR, the channel had undergone a rebrand as The National Network in 2000 before being rebranded again as Spike in 2003 with re-runs of various Star Trek series and James Bond film marathons being part of its programming. Indeed, it promoted itself as "the first network for men" throughout that period. By 2011, Spike was re-focusing again, trying to combat its reputation as having become low-brow in recent years thanks to series such as 1000 Ways to Die. Perhaps it's unsurprising that a channel with an identity crisis would pursue making an alternate history series, though it also explains why its sole episode became what it did.
As the title might suggest, the pilot episode of Alternate History focused on that most cliched of AH topics: the Nazis win World War II. Not the most original choice, but one aimed at a broad audience. Indeed, the opening title sequence mentions the other big AH cliche, the Confederacy winning the Civil War, alongside JFK avoiding his assassination, and the dinosaurs never going extinct. Even so, there might be something worthwhile in examining the scenario from a new angle, right?
Except that the premise the series is being built upon here is exceptionally flimsy. The point of divergence being a failed D-Day invasion, itself not an entirely original concept, but one that occurs solely due to the decision to mass-produce the ME-262 jet fighter. The ME-262 goes about staffing the beaches and ships of the invasion force while taking out the Allies' aircraft, causing the invasion to fail. Then, having stopped D-Day with jets, the Nazis are, a year later, able to arrive with U-Boats launching V-2 rockets off the American east coast. Only the V-2s come with nuclear warheads, which take out Boston and New York City, forcing an American surrender with a solemn FDR signing over the surrender documents to Hitler in the White House, leading to Nazi banners draped over the building and Hitler's face on Mount Rushmore.
In short, a victory brought about by wunderwaffe. As Alexander Wallace noted last year, writing about the 1945A short film, these "ungainly panaceas for all the woes of the German war effort" have become staples of countless Nazi victory scenarios. While the ME-262 was very much a real aircraft, and the episode makes an allowance for it going into production far sooner than in OTL, the idea that it single-handedly could have turned the tide of the Normandy Landings is an absurd one. The use of U-Boat launching V2s is arguably more plausible, given the Nazis conducted test launches toward the war's end. The problem is, contrary to what the narrator tells viewers, the Nazi atomic bomb project never got anywhere near close to a successful bomb, for starters. Let alone give the Nazis time to go about the mastering of warhead miniaturization to have it fitting onto the V-2. The lack of mentions of either the Soviet Union or Japan in the scenario (or of the British) further compounds the plausibility issues, to put it mildly.
Having moved from the past to the present, the Nazi America of the 2010s is guilty of more AH cliches. There's the over the top analogizing to the present, from a Nazi internet (complete with "Fascbook" as a social media site and "Goebbels" as a search engine) to its opening with US Border Patrol trying to stop illegals at the southern border, except its Jews trying to escape to Mexico. Or that, having won the war, a Nazi US would have become an extension of the Nazi wartime economy and domestic situation, seeing the new batch of leaders employing slave labor in factories making munitions and military hardware (for what conflict and against whom the episode never postulates) and the Holocaust brought to American shores. One that is then carried out unchangingly for the next seven decades. Perhaps nothing highlights the failure of imagination than the episode's conclusion bringing the two together in a take on the then occurring Arab Spring as word of the Holocaust leaks out, leading to protests in Times Square and a government response summed up in the narrator's cringe-worthy final line: "Nazis do what Nazis have always done." It's a twist on the ending of Robert Harris' seminal Fatherland, but not a particularly good one.
Nor is it redeemed as a production. To say this had a low budget would be the kindest way to put it, with sequences depicting the ME-262 and nuclear-armed V-2's looking as though they've come out of a computer game from a decade before its production. The live-action scenes also highlight the budget issues, with shaky cameras and crowd shots that amount to a handful of actors shot from below, or the use of green-screen to put Hitler throwing out the first pitch of this timeline's equivalent of the 1955 World Series. In fairness to the makers of the pilot, the production values and use of talking heads (including Turner Classic Movie host Ben Mankiewicz discussing how the Nazis might have made use of American film studios) in a half-hour format is in keeping with Spike's programs of the era, such as the aforementioned 1000 Ways to Die. The problem here is that while that budget might allow darkly humorous vignettes on odd deaths, it doesn't afford much time or resources to explore the kind of wider-ranging scenario this pilot tries to do.
In the end, it's no surprise that Alternate History: Nazis Win WW2 never aired on Spike again after August 24, 2011, nor did any follow-up episodes ever make it to air. Its legacy lies in scathing reviews from the time and the odd internet video (such as the one from AlternateHistoryHub on YouTube that brought it to this reviewer's attention), with the episode itself now viewable in middling quality in unofficial uploads. Yet, for those who manage to find it, Spike's failed pilot offers plenty of lessons, albeit in how not to create an alternate history scenario.