Harsh Realm: the Complete Series Review
Harsh Realm began life as a comic book series in 1993. Created by writers James Hudnall and Andrew Paquette, the comic (inspired by a dream Hudnall had) dealt with a hero travelling into other “pocket” universes created by corporate computers and rescuing people trapped therein. In late 1998 the series caught the eye of Chris Carter who was looking round for inspiration for a new series to work on. His two previous shows were apparently coming to the end of their natural lives - Millennium was not expected to be picked up for the 1999-2000 season and David Duchovny had made it quite clear that he would be leaving The X Files that same season, which everyone was taking as a sign that that show would end too. Thus Carter had a year to get a new show up and running so that, when Fox Mulder was finally raised to the heavens in May 2000, he would have another show on the go that he could devote all his creative energies into for the foreseeable future.
That was the plan anyway...
There is not a lot of the original comic to be found in Carter’s version of Harsh Realm. As Hudnall said at the time, “He wanted the show to say 'Created by Chris Carter,' so he made enough changes to satisfy that.” The characters are all new, as is the basic premise. US soldier Lt. Thomas Hobbes (Scott Bairstow) is recruited to enter a virtual reality world, known as Harsh Realm, which was created for the use in military training simulations. A rogue General, Omar Santiago (Terry O’Quinn), has hijacked the program and taken control of the virtual domain for some sinister but as yet unknown purpose, and the only way to get rid of him is to assassinate him within the game. On entering it, Hobbes finds himself trapped in a world where nothing is real aside from the fact that if you die in it, you die in real life too. Santiago rules over the game space, which geographically is identical to the real world, like a mixture of Fidel Castro and Colonel Kurtz, a dictator whose iron grip on the military ensures no one can oppose him. Hobbes, whose mission is known to the General, is forced to travel through the realm, fugitive-like, all the time waiting for his chance to kill Santiago and end the game, to get back to his fiancée in the real world. Along the way he meets up with Mike Pinnochio (D B Sweeney), an ex-soldier in Santiago’s army who is now on the run himself, and the mysterious Florence (Rachel Hayward), a mute with healing powers.
At the time of broadcast, critics, seeing the virtual reality setting, likened Harsh Realm to The Matrix but, aside from the fact they both take place in computer-generated worlds, there’s not much similarity. Harsh Realm is a much more militaristic series, and at times feels rather like a version of The Fugitive set in Cuba. While we can never forget that we are in a computer simulation (when people die their bodies flicker and disappear, there are occasional glitches in the software meaning that people can pass through otherwise impregnable barriers etc) day to day life is pretty the same as in the real world. People eat, sleep and struggle to survive, and you won’t find anyone bending the laws of physics, conjuring weapons up from thin air or downloading new knowledge into their minds to make a task easier. If you want to travel from A to B you have to physically do it – there’s no convenient jump points to move across. And wearing cool black coats is definitely a no-no if you want to avoid detection.
Another significant way that it is different is that in this world most of the people are not real at all, but instead virtual characters, no more alive than Duke Nukem or Lara Croft. And this brings about one of the fundamental flaws in the series – we are expected to care about these people, and be concerned about their safety. Hobbes certainly is, risking his life again and again to protect what are, in actuality, little more than lines of computer code, and this insistence becomes more and more tiresome as the series wears on. In one episode he nearly throws away everything to save the life of the computerised version of his dead dog while in another he gets all hot and bothered over a digital version of his bride-to-be, a version that doesn’t even know who he is. This isn’t heroism or a display of humanity, it’s just daft, and, far from being a person you would wish to follow as a potential saviour, he’s someone you want to grab by the neck, shake firmly and hiss “What the hell do you think you’re doing? They’re not real!” (something his sidekick, Pinnochio, does at regular intervals to minimal effect). Only once during the course of the nine episodes does he demonstrate some sense in this regard, when he guns down a group of clones a programming error has created – and he only does that because he has to.
Hobbes as a character is not a good choice to lead the series. In addition to the above flaw, he is also not particularly bright, and has none of the charisma needed for a lead. He makes rash, foolish decisions, most notably at the moment when he has a straightforward chance to leave Harsh Realm and doesn’t take it. Meant to be a turning point in the series, the moment when he finally, voluntarily, accepts his mission (which, to be fair, he had to do at some point to avoid lasting bitterness about his situation), it comes across instead as a bizarre, foolish thing to do that makes no sense. His rationale is that Santiago poses a threat to the safety of the real world – fine, but surely he would be in a better position to combat that if he had a better control over going in and out of Harsh Realm at will? After he’s consulted with real world people about the most effective strategy? After, most importantly, he has met with his fiancée Sophie and told her she is alright (which, in the early episodes especially, is his one true aim).
His two companions are a bit better. Pinnochio (which is a silly name to give a character such as him) is, on the surface, a bit of a cliché - he is a former member of Santiago’s army on the run, embittered and thinking only of himself who nevertheless turns out to have a heart of gold. However his story turns out to be much more interesting than that as it slowly becomes clear that he doesn’t actually want to leave Harsh Realm at all. The reason for this he keeps hidden from Hobbes, which could have provided some very intriguing conflicts down the road, as well as how he himself reconciles his difficult situation. Another potentially interesting character is the mute Florence. Initially not making much of an impact, she comes into her own in a couple of the later episodes, her empathy coming to the forefront in the episode called Three Percenters and her past being filled in in Manus Domini. Having a mute character is a risky move and the writing itself doesn’t really carry it off, but Hayward manages, just, to imbue her with enough presence to compensate. Not so good is Samantha Mathis as Hobbes’ fiancée, being far too cold and aloof to convincingly display the heartbroken emotion she is called upon to show, and her disappearence in later episodes is no great loss. Terry O’Quinn is also a bit lacklustre as the main villain – he demonstrates none of the magnetism of personality that most dictators are known to have. (It is ironic that Santiago only comes into his own when played by another actor in Cincinatti.)
The scripting itself is variable. One big mistake the writers make is in giving Hobbes constant voiceovers, in the form of "letters" to Sophie, a conceit that doesn't really work. Narration that was so effective on The X Files just sounds pretentious and hollow here, spouting pap that is occasionally nonsensical (“They didn’t realise their lives were to be destroyed in a baptism of fire,” Hobbes intones solemnly at one point). Furthermore, it is sometimes intrusive – there are several scenes, most notably the one in the pilot in which he walks through the devastated remains of his barracks, that would have been so much more effective if they had been played silently instead of having him tell us how rotten and shocking it all is. We can see that for ourselves, thank you very much. (Imagine the opening of Twenty Eight Days Later with a narration). Another problem is that quite a few of the stories run along entirely predictable lines, which makes for rather boring installments. The writers (a mixture of veterans from Carter’s past series and newcomers) manage to provide moments that range from truly excellent (the sequence in Manus Domini where Hobbes and a soldier have to extricate themselves from a mine) to truly dire (the risible moment in which Hobbes catches sight of his fiancée through his dying mother’s eyes in Reunion, a scene that makes no sense at all). There was definitely potential for growth (as Carter himself said, the premise is much less restrictive than on his other shows) and episode like Kein Ausgang and Cincinatti, while flawed themselves in execution, certainly show what could have been done with the series, given a little time. There's even scope for telling dare it be said, Star Trek-like parables, something the better episodes do flirt with. Either way, you can almost feel the learning curve the writers were going through - the later episodes in the set are without exception better than the earlier.
The production side of things, however, is excellent. The various urban locales the characters travel through all show individual character, whether it be the post-apocalyptic grungy New York, Native American-led Cincinatti, or the enforced starchiness of Santiago City itself. Out of the city walls, it's fairly easy to recognise the rural locations that make Vancouver such an attractive filming location, but even there there's enough variety, from cornfields to woods to large lakes. Other episodes include a large worker's complex, an open-air community village and, in the pilot episode, the wrecked remains of the military base. There's certainly no tightening of purse strings here (not least in the early sequence where Hobbes is chased by the military in a helicopter) and the show's look never gets repetitive.
All TV shows have birthing problems, and it is unfortunate that we have to judge Harsh Realm on the basis of nine episodes only. The fact that viewers turned off in their droves during the first three is not surprising - saddled with a less than inspiring lead, plot holes and weary riffs on old X Files ideas (military conspiracies, an inside informer and so on) there was little to encourage people to come back. If only the first three hours hadn’t been so weak, the series might have been given a lifeline but in TV first impressions are critical. The writing does get steadily better as the show goes on but the fact that the show is hampered by a lacklustre lead and has an awkward premise makes it hard to believe it would ever have risen to the heights of Carter's previous two shows. As it stands, there is not enough to recommend the series, other than for Carter completists. A misfire.
The nine episodes come on three dual layered disks, four episodes per disk, with the last disk containing the ninth episode and the extras. All episodes are subtitled (including, pleasingly, the commentary tracks) as are the extras (aside from the TV spots). The menus are static, and third disk opens with trailers for the DVD releases of Millennium, Harsh Realm, the X Files and a teaser for Alien vs Predator.
Variable. The picture is often very crisp, but every so often there are scenes marred by a layer of grain surprising on a show this new.
Perfectly fine, a good 5.1 mix with enough oomph during the battle scenes. Dialogue comes across clearly as well.
Two commentaries, both on the pilot episode. Chris Carter’s is disappointing – he only touches briefly on reasons why he felt the series didn’t do as well as he was hoping for, and doesn’t have too many insights into the show. Dan Sackheim’s is better – although there are periods of silence he has more to say and is more interesting to listen to, even if he is a little dry at times.
Inside Harsh Realm
Twenty five minute Making Of that follows the pattern of those found on the X Files/Millennium sets. With contributions from all the main production team, as well as the players themselves from the time the show was shooting, this covers all aspects of the show from inception to cancellation. Nothing revelatory but a very good overview.
Creating the Logo and Title Sequence
Enjoyable featurette looking at the development of the logo and title sequence. Interesting to see all the logos they didn’t go with.
FBC Pilot TV Spots
Three trailers for the pilot. They do their job – can’t see what could have been in them that would have turned people off.
FX TV Spots
Fox screened all nine episodes some time after the series was cancelled, and promoted the show on the fact that they were showing the unaired episodes. Here are two examples which work pretty well.
Harsh Realm never quite manages to grab hold of the potential it had. Neither intriguing enough to appeal to new viewers nor fresh enough to grab fans of Carter's other shows, it just doesn't deliver as it should, with too many weak (or simply dull) episodes. That said, a good amount of effort has gone into this set - the two commentaries are welcome, and the documentaries are brand new - but at only nine episodes there is really not enough here to warrant a purchase.
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6 out of 10