-Opening narration to Chris Carter's Harsh Realm (1999), voiced by Lt. Thomas Hobbes (Scott Bairstow)
In 1999, Chris Carter and 1013 Productions, producers of The X-Files (1993-2002) and Millennium (1996-1999), created a third genre series for Fox television. It was called Harsh Realm.
The series -- about a virtual reality version of America existing after a terrorist attack on New York City -- was advertised with the tag-line "It's Just a Game" and broadcast just three episodes before an abrupt cancellation. In all, nine hour-long installments were made.
The abrupt (and inconclusive...) end to Harsh Realm was intensely disappointing, especially to the dedicated fans who actually followed the series on Friday nights at 9:00 pm (the same slot that Joss Whedon's Dollhouse now struggles in...). Viewing numbers were low in terms of network TV expectations, and the series had been under promoted (though TV Guide named it one of the best new shows of the year).
Making matters worse, Harsh Realm faced more than its share of controversy during its short life. For instance, the series was widely derided by critics as an uninspired copy of 1999's The Matrix, even though Harsh Realm was in production concurrently with that blockbuster. More to the point, Harsh Realm was shot in Vancouver on the same budget as your average network medical drama and thus simply could not compete visually with the trail-blazing Keanu Reeves epic.
Perhaps more significantly, the creators of Harris Publishing's Harsh Realm comic book sued Chris Carter when the TV adaptation failed to acknowledge them or their artistic contributions to the series. [NOTE: Actually, the comic was acknowledged in the end credits in the first episode.] The comic-book creators were victorious in their suit, and beginning with the second episode, Harsh Realm episodes featured during the opening credits a title card which specifically noted that the series was "inspired" by the comic-book work of James D. Hudnall and Andrew Paquette. Finally, some years after the TV series' cancellation, Harsh Realm star Scott Bairstow apparently had some...uh...legal difficulties, and did some jail time.
In short, any good historian could probably enumerate abundant reasons why Harsh Realm never achieved the large-scale, avid following of Chris Carter's other video endeavors, but virtually all of them have nothing whatsoever to do with the program's actual quality.
Because, in point of fact, Harsh Realm is constructed upon the same sturdy pillars of good story-telling, symbolic representation, strong characters and dynamic world view that so ably supported The X-Files or Millennium. Indeed, James D. Hudnall and Andrew Paquette should have been credited for their original work from the beginning and to do otherwise was wrong-headed folly.
Yet by the same token, the TV series Harsh Realm takes relatively little of substance from the comic book beyond the "grunge speak" title. To wit, the TV series features brand-new, original characters and boasts an entirely different narrative thrust (it's a military/political struggle rather than the comic's noir-ish detective story...) Of course, the TV series also appropriates the comic's central concept of a virtual reality world, but the TV "harsh realm" and the comic-book "harsh realm" are completely different in every significant way: both visual and thematic. The comic book virtual world is based on overt fantasy concepts (a world of goblins, elves etc...) whereas the TV show more closely adheres to Chris Carter's personal view of the 1990s world: one of bureaucracy, conspiracy, geo-political turmoil, and domination of the many by the few.
After a brief preamble involving Lt. Thomas Hobbes (Bairstow) on a peace-keeping mission gone wrong in Sarajevo in 1994, the action in Harsh Realm shifts rapidly to Fort Dix, New Jersey in the year 1999. There, a disenchanted Hobbes plans to leave the Army permanently in just a few short months. He wants to relocate to California with his beautiful fiancee, Sophie (Samantha Mathis). But even as Hobbes plans to start a new life, he is ordered to report to a secretive, white-haired colonel (Lance Henriksen) for a new, classified assignment. Hobbes is escorted to a secret bunker and -- after a "final supper" -- ordered to "play a game," a virtual reality game called...Harsh Realm.
This "Harsh Realm" game - a simulated war scenario -- was created by the Pentagon in 1995. Utilizing information from satellite cartography and the latest U.S. Census, the war gamers have created a duplicate of America, down to every last location, person and even pet. But there's an important difference between the worlds. In this virtual version of America, a suitcase nuke was detonated in New York City at noon on October 31, 1995 ("Camera Obscura"). Four million Americans died in 2.5 seconds. "Ground Zero" was located... in Manhattan. The game developers hoped to test American military (and civilian peace-keeping) capabilities after such a catastrophic terrorist attack, but they never could have anticipated what occur ed next.
The hero the Army first sent into the game world -- the most decorated veteran in United States Army history, Omar Santiago (Terry O'Quinn) --took over Harsh Realm. Out of the ashes of the apocalypse, this soldier carved out a brutal, military dictatorship for himself. The so-called "United States of Santiago" now encompasses five states...and a great percentage of the Eastern seaboard. Santiago believes "one man can have it all here..." and ruthlessly protects his position of authority.
Hobbes's mission is to "take out" Santiago by any means necessary. To "remove" Santiago's virtual avatar from the Harsh Realm simulation and restore freedom to the virtual country.
Unfortunately, Hobbes' superiors haven't told him the whole story. He can't return to "the real world" (and consciousness) until Santiago is dead, but much more troubling...if he dies in the game (or is "digitized"), Hobbes also dies in reality. And, Hobbes' isn't even the first man to make this attempt to beat Santiago. Literally hundreds of soldiers have gone to Harsh Realm before him...and none have been successful. None have returned. At the conclusion of Harsh Realm's pilot, we see a Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque shot of all the games players: a hospital room that seems to stretch to infinity; with slumbering men and women on hospital beds, tended to by inscrutable technicians; their minds wired to a different reality.
Back in the real world, Sophie is informed by the Army that Hobbes' died on a secret mission, but she is soon approached by a beautiful -- and perhaps treacherous -- informant, Inga Fossa (Sarah-Jane Redmond), and told about a conspiracy of silence. That if she wishes to be reunited with the love of her life, Sophie must expose the lies of the U.S. Government. This mission becomes even more important to Sophie when she learns that she is pregnant with Tom's child. Fossa promises to get a message to Tom in Harsh Realm...
Once trapped inside the wild terrains of Harsh Realm, Hobbes joins up with other fugitives who are also on the run from Santiago. Mike Pinocchio (D.B. Sweeney) is a rogue soldier who volunteered for duty in the virtual world and was once Santiago's top lieutenant. Now, he's a rogue and scoundrel, a gun for hire. Hobbes' other associate is the mysterious Florence (Rachel Hayward), a mute warrior with the unusual power to instantaneously heal the wounds of others.
Over the course of nine episodes of Harsh Realm, Hobbes' attempts to complete his mission and finally get home. In "Leviathan," he travels to the poverty-stricken Pittsburgh Encampment, where he and Pinocchio are captured by soldiers of fortune and nearly sold to Santiago. This episode meditates on the idea of the human soul, and asks if a Virtual Character can possess one.
In "Inga Fossa," Hobbes steals into Santiago City and locates Santiago's secret portal, from which he can travel from Harsh Realm into the real world and back. Hobbes nearly returns home, until he is told by Fossa of Santiago's "Final Solution." Santiago is planning "The Ultimate Terrorism," the destruction of the real world so that only Harsh Realm, and Santiago's domain will continue to exist. Hobbes decides it is better to stay in Harsh Realm and defeat Santiago there...
In "Reunion," Hobbes ends up a slave in a work camp with Pinocchio, and encounters a virtual representation of his dying mother. In the real world, Sophie visits Hobbes real mother, who is also dying of cancer. A double death (in Harsh Realm and in reality) spurs a strange miraculous (if brief...) connection.
Finally, the last episode of Harsh Realm, "Camera Obscura" takes Pinocchio and Hobbes to Ground Zero in Manhattan, where a disfigured, manipulative priest keeps two families in a perpetual state of conflict for strange, personal reasons.
Over the nine episodes of this short-lived series, the virtual reality world of Harsh Realm is developed and expanded upon in fascinating, unexpected ways. "Leviathan" reveals that in Harsh Realm there is no religion...no God, no belief in an afterlife. It's a world "without Christian values," according to one character, and that line of thought becomes an existential undercurrent of future segments. In "Manus Domini," for instance, Hobbes ponders the Healers and their origin. Why do they exist? Why did programmers create them? Or, were they created by a "higher power" after all? One beyond the ostensibly "faithless" world of the game.
In terms of technology, Harsh Realm introduces a number of "game"-oriented concepts. It turns out that "unprogrammed game space" exists, and can form short-cuts from one part of the realm to the other. "Reunion" reveals the existence of "skull bugs," mechanical control devices implanted in VC (and human) brains that...can burrow through brain matter...bloodily. "3 Percenters" presents the idea of a programming error: of VC characters who can absorb and replicate the personalities of others...much to the detriment of the originals. It's sort of Harsh Realm meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And "Cincinnati" introduces the useful "digi-wand," a handheld device by which a digital character can re-shape and re-fashion his features...the equivalent of virtual plastic surgery. Santiago uses it for diabolical, wicked and brilliant strategic ends. Then there's the Camera Obscura of the final episode, a strange oracle or "seeing" device that appeared at Ground Zero after the nuclear explosion and is believed to foretell (or perhaps manipulate...) the future.
In terms of unique characters, Hobbes, Pinocchio and Florence meet not only the mute, female Healers and the "VC" in Harsh Realm, but steely-eyed Trackers ("Reunion"), deformed Mind Readers ("Manus Domini") and bounty hunters armed with digitizing devices ("Leviathan"). The series encompasses pastoral settings ("Manus Domini"), urban locations ("Camera Obscura") and, like all Chris Carter productions, is gorgeously presented. The camera work, in particular, is highly cinematic, despite the relative lack of visual effects.
The big drawback in terms of Harsh Realm, ironically, is the sense of "sameness" that underlines the pilot, "Leviathan" and "Inga Fossa." In all these episodes, either Hobbes, Pinocchio or Florence are captured and rescued, while in the real world, Sophie puzzles out the mystery of Hobbes' "death." Excepting the pilot, the next two episodes are probably the weakest in the series...and these were the only episodes that aired on network television. The shows are good, just a little plodding; a little dull. But beginning with "Reunion," the quality of Harsh Realm takes a noticeable and dramatic uptick as the stories become more creative, more out there, more involving. The run from "Reunion" through "Camera Obscura" is quite extraordinary, with distinctive, memorable, engaging storylines.
Like his other series, Chris Carter's Harsh Realm is a deeply-layered work, one rife with symbolism, social commentary and perhaps most importantly, clever literary allusion. The series, for example, is very clearly a deliberate variation on the Greek epic poem, The Odyssey, by Homer. In that tale, Odysseus -- a soldier -- attempted to return home from Troy but the journey took him a decade. Ten long and miserable years away from his wife, Penelope. The Odyssey, much like a TV show itself, was highly episodic, with Odysseus encountering a variety of nemeses, including sirens, Lotus-Eaters and the Cyclops Polyphemus. Harsh Realm also concerns a heroic soldier's "long journey home," his separation from his wife/fiancee, and as mentioned above, Hobbes becomes involved with a number of nemeses who are both more and less than human. The tenth, unproduced episode of Harsh Realm was even called "Circe," after a character (a witch...) featured in The Odyssey.
In The Odyssey, Penelope had to deal with suitors, who hoped to persuade her that Odysseus was dead. Even this plot point is echoed explicitly in Harsh Realm, as the Army attempts to convince Sophie of the same thing about Tom, though in this case to protect a conspiracy not to inherit wealth.
Harsh Realm also appropriates some core concepts from Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness (1902), which involved a man on assignment to capture a fellow countryman, Kurtz. Kurtz had developed a reputation as a "universal genius" amongst the indigenous people in "The Dark Heart of Africa." Heart of Darkness was refashioned as a war drama in Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), and given the military framework of Harsh Realm, perhaps it is more appropriate to reference that production here. Because Santiago -- like Brando's Kurtz -- has gone "native," in essence setting up the "local" world of Harsh Realm as his personal kingdom. This idea is true to Conrad's story, which warned against the dangers of imperialism. That's the core idea of Harsh Realm: an interloper (and his military minions...) invade the virtual reality world of Harsh Realm and develop it exclusively for their use. The "VC" are just a resource to be used...not "real" people.
The hero of Harsh Realm, Thomas Hobbes, is not just Odysseus, either. He is named after the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the author who wrote Leviathan in 1651. Leviathan -- which also happens to be the title of Harsh Realm's second episode -- concerned autocracy...and its benefits. The philosopher Hobbes believed that government should control religion, the military, the civil apparatus and even the judiciary. He felt that man's natural state was lawlessness, and it was this "natural state" which caused man such hardship, tragedy and strife. Harsh Realm's Hobbes appears to be the antithesis of this autocratic philosophy, at least as far as the nine extant episodes go. He is a man who believes in freedom and liberty, and seeks to free Harsh Realm from Santiago's iron, tyrannical grip. One can never know for sure, but there is an undercurrent in the series that suggests Hobbes may not always feel this way. As he goes along, from episode to episode, he witnesses the lawlessness and inhumanity of Santiago's world. Had the series lasted several years, and Hobbes succeeded in destroying Santiago, one wonders if he would have imposed a Hobbes-ian peace upon the scattered societies of Harsh Realm, essentially becoming the new figurehead. The last scene of the show might have seen Hobbes displacing one Kurtz to become Kurtz himself.
We never saw that happen, but even Mark Snow's score -- which sampled bits of Mussolini speeches -- hinted at some of the autocratic themes and narratives Carter's show deliberated on. How much government? What kind of government? What's the right balance? Today, these ideas are more relevant even than they were in 1999.
As for the Han Solo of Harsh Realm, Mike Pinocchio, his name obviously comes from Curt Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883), the story of a puppet who dreamed of becoming a real boy. In the world of Harsh Realm, Pinocchio is a "real" soldier who -- for his own secret reasons -- decides he wants to live as a "virtual" boy in a fake world. As Pinocchio's wooden feet were burned off in The Adventures of Pinocchio, so does Pinocchio lose a leg in the series episode "Manus Domini." In fact, as we learn, Pinocchio was disfigured and (lost a leg) in the real world, and that's the reason he ultimatelychose a "dream" life rather than to continue in the real world. Thus we might say that, like Hobbes, Harsh Realm's Pinocchio is the inverse of his literary namesake.
"Florence" the healer seems named after Florence Nightingale, the legendary angel of mercy. And Harsh Realm's final episode, "Camera Obscura" brilliantly re-stages -- at a post-nuclear ground zero -- the story of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet (1883). In this tale, two warring families (not the Capulets and Montagues but Stewarts and McKinleys) threaten to annihilate one another over a petty squabble. Meanwhile, young Aethan McKinley (Romeo) and Fallon Stewart (Juliet) have fallen in love in secret and carry on a relationship. They are encouraged to do so by an interfering "man of God," not Shakespeare's Friar Lawrence, but the deformed, prophetic priest played by Robert Knepper.
As many others have noted, there are other literary allusions in Harsh Realm too. As Hobbes is about to enter the Harsh Realm virtual world for the first time, he gazes down at his chair, and scrawled (madly...) on the arms of the chair are the words "Siege" and "Perilous." If you are familiar with Arthurian legend, you may remember that this writing harks back to the so-called Perilous Seat at the Round Table, the Empty Chair reserved for the greatest of knights or heroes (the one who brings back The Holy Grail). That too, is Hobbes' destiny, perhaps metaphorically. Santiago might be the Holy Grail of Harsh Realm, or Hobbes' white whale.
Harsh Realm balances these classic references and allusions with Carter's particular and peculiar (and wonderful...) brand of up-to-the-minute speculative imaginings. You may recall how the first episode of The Lone Gunmen (in March 2001) forecast the 9/11 attack on Manhattan down to the target (the Twin Towers) and the choice of weapon (jet-liners). The same episode also predicted that such an attack would be a tremendous boon to defense contractors...who would suddenly be developing new weapons for our military industrial complex. That too, proved accurate. Harsh Realm also hints rather dramatically at the shape of things to come in the early 21st century and particularly the War on Terror Age. One episode, "Leviathan," laments Santiago's "culture of fear," something we can all relate to after those color-coded DHS Terrorist Attack Warnings. Another episode, "Cincinnati" seizes on the phrase "failure of imagination" as the reason for a battlefield defeat; the self-same phrase employed explicitly by the 9/11 Commission tasked with studying the reasons why the September 11th attacks were successful. Harsh Realm (especially "Camera Obscura") also obsesses on the "ultimate terrorism," a suitcase nuke detonated in an American city. Fortunately, this hasn't happened (and hopefully will never happened), but it is a scenario that, after 9/11, has been widely raised (and feared) by media, security agencies, and the populace.
The history of television isn't just about numbers; it's about being in the right place at the right time. Imagine, just for a moment. that a program like Firefly or Harsh Realm had aired on cable, or heck -- even the CW. If they had done so, both shows would have likely lasted seven years, been heralded as masterpieces, and would have drawn "blockbuster" level (for cable) ratings that far outstripped those of recent "hits" like Battlestar Galactica (2005-2009) or Supernatural. But because these turn-of-the-century shows aired on Fox, not a smaller channel, they didn't get the numbers that were predicted...and they disappeared after too short a season. I can't claim Harsh Realm is as good as Firefly, but I can state, with confidence...it was headed in that direction. The last several episodes of the series showed incredible development and improvement. The world, characters and situations of Harsh Realm had, by episode nine, become intriguing, and truth be told, more-than-a-little addicting.
If you enjoy The X-Files and Millennium, I suggest you visit Harsh Realm...but be patient. Get to the poetic episode "Reunion," which suggests a kind of emotional/human bridge between the worlds (and the idea that virtual avatars may share our souls with us...), and you'll be glad you hung on. Get to the brilliant "Cincinnati," in which Santiago shows us why he is the most fearsome man in Harsh Realm, and you'll be convinced that you're watching a genre series of unparalleled genius. Get to "Camera Obscura" and its post-apocalyptic Treasure of the Sierra Madre-esque parable about man's quest for wealth (especially gold), and you'll be convinced that Chris Carter caught lightning in a bottle again, for the third time.
Only...those great episodes never even aired in 1999. So the Harsh Realm of the series title doesn't merely refer to a comic book or a virtual world. It actually references something far more dangerous: the cutthroat, no-second chances world of network television at the beginning of the 21st century, a period of decline. Harsh Realm died as dramatic TV died; as reality TV was born. A smart genre series of paranoid speculation and deep philosophy gave way to Who Wants to be a Millionaire five nights a week, Temptation Island, Survivor, Big Brother and the like. Dramatic TV came out of its slump in 2004 (with the advent of Lost, for instance...) but by then Harsh Realm was "virtually" a memory.