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Harsh Realm – Pilot (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.

– Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, The First Part, Chapter XIII

Harsh Realm is essentially a war story, or a collection of war stories.

To be fair, there are other themes that bleed through the show’s short nine-episode run; a critique of late-stage capitalism, a healthy dose of Chris Carter’s patented nineties existential spirituality, an exploration of American masculinity. The show plays on all sorts of genres across its short lifespan, from horror story to western to modern noir film. However, all of these unfold against the backdrop of a world locked in total warfare. The opening scenes of The Pilot unfold against the Siege of Sarajevo, setting the tone for the rest of the series.

Tom's not here, man...

Tom’s not here, man…

Carter tends to wear his cinematic and televisual influences on his sleeves. The X-Files was a spiritual successor to Kolchak: The Night Stalker, with a little bit of The Parallax View and The Silence of the Lambs thrown in for good measure. Millennium launched in 1996 and owed a lot to the look and feel of David Fincher’s work on se7en. Harsh Realm owes a lot to the resurgence in war movies towards the end of the twentieth century, coming less than a year after Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line both scored Best Picture nominations.

On the commentary for The Pilot, Chris Carter notes that the show’s protagonist was named for the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Carter cites that Hobbes’ most famous observation is that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The same might be said of the life of Harsh Realm.

Fading out...

Fading out…

It is worth pausing to discuss the context of Harsh Realm. Although the show was (infamously) cancelled after only three episodes were aired, it is a pretty important part of Carter’s filmography and of the larger history of The X-Files. Part of this is down to timing. Harsh Realm was developed by Carter as part of a new contract with Fox, a contract that looked set to earn the producer between $25m and $30m, solidifying his place as a bona fides super-producer of twenty-first century television.

The reason for this level of investment in Carter was obvious. The X-Files was a show that was increasingly past its prime. The move to Los Angeles had made it more expensive for Fox to produce, David Duchovny was growing increasingly restless, and the ratings for the sixth season were down for the first time in the show’s run. In a lot of publicity leading up to the broadcast of the seventh season, it was suggested that The X-Files would be quietly retired in May 2000. As such, Fox needed something to fill that particular hole in their broadcast schedule.

"I'm going to be really glad I put on these noise-cancelling headphones..."

“I’m going to be really glad I put on these noise-cancelling headphones…”

It was clear that Millennium was never going to be a viable replacement for The X-Files. The show had made a strong first impression with record-setting viewing figures for the network, but its ratings had dramatically eroded over its three-season run. To be fair, Millennium was still alive when Carter shepherded Harsh Realm into production in March 1999. In fact, archive promotional materials for Harsh Realm feature Terry O’Quinn talking about Omar Santiago while in costume as Peter Watts.

As The Pilot was shot and edited, there was still a remote possibility that Millennium might get a fourth season and that Carter might oversee three of Fox’s prime-time dramas across the new season. Indeed, the decision to kill Peter Watts off at the end of Goodbye to All That was likely a pragmatic decision; it freed the actor up to appear as a regular on Harsh Realm just in case Millennium did get a fourth season at the last possible minute. Ultimately, however, Fox decided not to renew Millennium and decided to broadcast Harsh Realm in that Friday night slot.

"Dang, I should have kept those noise-cancelling headphones...

“Dang, I should have kept those noise-cancelling headphones…

“In a weird way, if you look at Millennium and Harsh Realm, you can say that Harsh Realm kind of booted Millennium off the air, which now – looking back – is very unfortunate,” Carter reflects. Fox were unsatisfied with the performance of Millennium on Friday nights, and thought that they could do better. This would turn out to be rather ironic, given that Harsh Realm would draw abysmally low ratings – even compared to the declining viewing figures for Millennium. Keeping Millennium on the air might have been the shrewder bet.

Nevertheless, all of that was in the future. Fox had big plans for Harsh Realm when the show was greenlit. Although most commentators correctly predicted that it would take the Friday slot currently occupied by Millennium, there was some suggestion that it might actually play as a companion to the seventh season of The X-Files on Sunday nights. Even before The Pilot was broadcast, there was the suggestion that Fox was ready to move the show to Sundays when The X-Files was eventually retired. Talk about tempting fate.

"I'm sorry I said Millennium's pilot was better."

“I’m sorry I said Millennium’s pilot was better.”

Harsh Realm began from a position of great prestige. It was hoped that the drama would be the first of a whole new slate of content that Carter would produce for Fox. The network was hoping for a second new show to appear in 2000, and the studio was eager to get a sequel for The X-Files: Fight the Future on track for a release date in late 2000. However, nothing would work out quite how Chris Carter and Fox had hoped. Looking back over the short and sad history of Harsh Realm, a superstitious observer might suggest that the production was cursed from the outset.

Even before the show’s broadcast, Carter found himself embroiled in a heated lawsuit with comic book creators James D. Hudnall and Andrew Paquette, who felt that they were not properly credited for their contributions to the show. The lawsuit was ultimately decided after the show had been cancelled. As for relations with Fox, it seemed like Harsh Realm fell between administrations. Harsh Realm was in development around the time that Doug Herzog was named Chief of Programming at Fox; Herzog would enjoy a tumultuous relationship with Carter during his brief tenure.

A ring of truth to it...

A ring of truth to it…

This is to say nothing of subsequent revelations about lead actor Scott Bairstow, who would enter an Alford Plea in 2004 when charged with the sexual assault of a twelve-year old girl. The Alford Plea is a plea bargain that does not concede guilt on the part of the accused, but recognises that they would be found guilty in a trial by jury on presentation of the facts. The sexual relationship between Bairstow and the victim in question began in 1998, when she was twelve; it continued until summer 2001.

Although the accusations would not come to light until long after the show had been cancelled, these revelations make Harsh Realm uncomfortable viewing. This is particularly true considering the interactions between Bairstow and children on the show; in keeping with themes and anxieties consistent with other Ten Thirteen productions, children are an important part of episodes like Three Percenters, Manus Domini and Camera Obscura all feature our leads interacting with young characters.

"So much for chip and PIN..."

“So much for chip and PIN…”

The Matrix also casts something of a long shadow over Harsh Realm. The Pilot was filmed in March 1999; The Matrix was released on the last day of that month. It seems perfectly reasonable that Carter would have been unaware of The Matrix during the development of Harsh Realm, but there was no way that the broadcast of the first episode in October 1999 could escape comparisons to the groundbreaking cyberpunk thriller. Of course, Harsh Realm had nowhere near the budget to compete with The Matrix in terms of scale.

There was, it seems, something in the air in 1999. A significant amount of nineties pop culture was dedicated to the idea that reality was nothing but an elaborate lie. Maybe it was existential millennial angst, maybe it was the culmination of the spiritual crisis of the nineties. The Matrix is perhaps the most obvious example, but there are plenty of others. The Thirteenth Floor was ultimately overshadowed by The Matrix; in contrast, The Truman Show was distinct enough that it its own pseudo-reality avoided too many overt comparisons to The Matrix.

"Don't forget eXistenz!"

“Don’t forget eXistenz!”

Unsurprisingly, Carter found himself fielding questions about The Matrix in the run-up to the release of Harsh Realm. The producer attempted to distinguish his concept from that of the blockbuster movie:

I had not — I didn’t know about The Matrix until our show was shot, so — I saw it and there were elements that I think you’re going to find in any kind of parallel world idea. So I think there were some similarities. I was impressed by a lot of what they did in that movie. I was super impressed by the special effects in that movie. I think that Harsh Realm, even though it is a virtual reality idea, I think it is much different than The Matrix. And I think that what we’ve done, too, is we’ve set the stage for many episodes of this show, where a show like The Matrix I think might have to change its concept a little bit in order to do the same thing.

One of Carter’s great strengths as a producer has always been an ability to recognise certain trends and moods within the zeitgeist. The X-Files itself was the perfect show at the perfect time, but this is also obvious in the timing of some of his individual scripts for the show – like F. Emasculata, for example.

"I think he's trying to tell you something..."

“I think he’s trying to tell you something…”

The development of Harsh Realm likely owes a lot to the work of William Gibson. The show’s portrayal of cyberspace as a “new frontier” seems to fit with Gibson’s ideas about the evolution and expansion of cyberspace. Given that Carter had worked with William Gibson and Tom Maddox on Kill Switch during the fifth season and would work with them again on First Person Shooter during the seventh season, it feels like this is a rather likely point of intersection for the ideas that led to Harsh Realm.

Gibson and Maddox had expressed an interest in contributing a script to Harsh Realm. Certainly, Gibson’s themes concerning cyberspace mesh quite nicely with the broader themes of Carter’s work. Over the course of Harsh Realm, the digital frontier becomes a vehicle for explorations of familiar Ten Thirteen concepts like the role of small isolated communities  in an increasingly globalised world (Ten Percenters), abuse of power by those in authority (Reunion) and the even colonisation of North America by the European settlers (Cincinnati).

Couched in mystery...

Couched in mystery…

While the comparisons to The Matrix were unfair to (and perhaps ultimately to the detriment of) Harsh Realm, it seems strange that Fox could not capitalise on the similarities to lure in perspective viewers. On the commentary to The Pilot, Chris Carter recalls William Gibson’s endorsement of the show:

William Gibson saw the pilot and liked it very much. It had come on the heels of the success of The Matrix. He called The Matrix a $70m trailer for Harsh Realm. But that didn’t turn out to work to our benefit.

Given that The Matrix was the hottest film of 1999, it seems like a television show exploring similar ground should have been a smash hit. People were interested in the sorts of questions and stories that linked The Matrix and Harsh Realm, despite their unrelated simultaneous development.

Off the grid...

Off the grid…

Perhaps the strangest thing about Harsh Realm is that the show is carefully structured so as to make it accessible to viewers. The X-Files had really resonated with contemporary viewers, but Carter’s work on Millennium was decidedly more esoteric than his breakout hit. With dark and grim stories about serial killers focusing on a protagonist in his fifties with a wife and young daughter living in a big yellow house, Millennium was never going to be as hip or exciting as The X-Files had been.

There is nothing wrong with this, of course. There was something decidedly uncompromising about Millennium that suggested it would never find the same broad audience that had turned The X-Files into a global hit. The X-Files was a populist sensation that resonated with an entire generation; Millennium felt more like the work of a television auteur who was not going to compromise his vision to make the show any easier to sell. In contrast, Harsh Realm goes out of its way to seem more exciting and dynamic than Millennium ever was.

D.B. Error...

D.B. Error…

This is reflected in a number of different ways. The most obvious is the fact that the primary cast of Harsh Realm feel surprisingly young. Gillian Anderson was only twenty-four when she was cast as Scully, but she was costumed in such a way as to make her look older. Scott Bairstow was twenty-nine when he took the role of Thomas Hobbes, but he looks a lot younger; he was fresh from his work on Party of Five, where he made an impression as a college student during the fifth and sixth seasons.

Bairstow’s youthfulness is quite telling. On paper, Hobbes is pretty much exactly the same character as Frank Black. Carter has talked extensively about how he originally conceived Frank Black as an old-fashioned wholesome romantic hero; the kind of protagonist who was being gradually phased out in favour of more ambiguous characters. While Frank Black evolved dramatically under the care of Glen Morgan and James Wong, he was initially conceived as a very straight arrow.

Among the ruins...

Among the ruins…

Hobbes feels a lot like Carter’s version of Frank Black, with the most significant difference being his relative youth. On the commentary, Carter talks about Hobbes in many of the same terms that he had earlier applied to Frank Black, painting Hobbes as an old-fashioned idealistic hero:

Scott Bairstow playing the character of Tom Hobbes. Named after the philosopher, but ironic to that. Hobbes’ most famous quote is, I think, that life is short, brutish and nasty. But this Tom Hobbes is a romantic, an innocent, an optimist. Which is what interested me in the character and in the story, about a man who’s selfless, willing to risk his own life – or ultimately his bride – for his friend here. That’s the kind of heroism we don’t see in life these days, but we see it more in the battlefield. It’s just not legal tenable to act heroically, which is why I think these stories resonate with us now.

It is not too difficult to imagine Thomas and Sophie growing up to start a family that looked quite like that started by Frank and Catherine Black in their yellow house. Sophie is just as much a romantic ideal for Thomas as the yellow house was for Frank.

We who are about to level up, salute you.

We who are about to level up, salute you.

(This does hint at what becomes a problem in later episodes; Harsh Realm often struggles with the character of Sophie as a regular cast member in much the same way that Millennium did with Catherine. Episodes like Leviathan and Inga Fossa do try to give Sophie her own plot thread, investigating her husband’s disappearance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really go anywhere in the nine episodes that were produced before Fox shut down production on the series. She pretty much disappears from the second half of the run.)

Harsh Realm is very consciously a “young” show. At Carter’s direction, composer Mark Snow skewed his score towards electronica. Moby would prove to be a massive influence on the soundscape of Harsh Realm, influencing the design of the opening theme and even featuring in the teaser to Leviathan. In what is a surprisingly graphic sex scene for a Chris Carter script, Inga Fossa features two primary characters stripping down for action in a military headquarters. The Dallas Morning News singled out Mike Pinochio’s “gutter-level language.”

Ready player one.

Ready player one.

Even the structuring and themes of Harsh Realm seem designed to cast as wide a net as possible. In many ways, Harsh Realm could be seen as a synthesis of Carter’s work on The X-Files and Millennium. The show certainly inherits The X-Files‘ mistrust of authority. When Hobbes is drafted in to play the game, General Dunham laments, “I hear you were once a true believer, a man of caliber and resource.” He seems to have become disillusioned. Similarly, the closing shot of The Pilot is designed to evoke the iconic closing scene of the first episode of The X-Files.

Harsh Realm reconnects with the themes of surveillance and paranoia that underpin The X-Files, but were expressed more subtly in Millennium. Both inside and outside the virtual reality, Harsh Realm seems sceptical of those entrusted to protect. When Hobbes is recruited to find Santiago, he notices that General Dunham made a passing reference to intimate details of his life. “How’d you know I was thinking about moving to California?” Hobbes wonders. “Who wouldn’t move there who’s lived here?” Dunham replies, unconvincingly.

"The answer, by the way, is not 'David Duchovny'."

“The answer, by the way, is not ‘David Duchovny’.”

As with The X-Files, it seems that Harsh Realm is wary of unchecked government authority. The eponymous computer programme is contextualised as part of the end of the Cold War; the United States vanquished all its enemies in this world, and so had to manufacture a new world to conquer. “It’s a simulated war game,” General Dunham explains. “A virtual-reality game used to teach situational war strategy. Pentagon developed it. Kept it under wraps. Cold War came to an end. You know the rest.” If you’ve watched The X-Files, you do.

“Technology and the threat of nuclear annihilation in the last half of the 20th century have changed the world forever,” the introductory video explains. “They’ve changed war and its consequences as they have forever changed the battlefield and the warriors who must still fight on them.” It seems like Harsh Realm presents this virtual domain as the inevitable consequence of political realities. It might not be too far off; the United States military has invested substantially in “neuro warfare” and “virtual reality combat.”

Coded perfectly...

Coded perfectly…

Within the virtual reality itself, General Omar Santiago is very much a Chris Carter antagonist; he is a middle-aged white man in a position of authority who plans to use that power to reshape the world to his whim. Santiago is just more overt than the Cigarette-Smoking Man, unfettered by the constraints of the real world around him. Omar Santiago is a United States military officer, but he is framed so as to evoke foreign dictators. His army is called “the Republican Guard” and his emblem recalls the Victory Arch in Baghdad. He is alien and familiar simultaneously.

The visual language of Harsh Realm draws from the war genre. In the late nineties, the war genre saw a significant resurgence in popularity. Perhaps it was tied into the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War; perhaps it was rooted in something deeper and more psychological. The 71st Academy Awards nominated two Second World War films for the Best Picture Oscar in March 1999. HBO and BBC’s Band of Brothers would bring the Second World War to the small screen in 2001, winning frequent Ten Thirteen collaborator David Nutter an Emmy.

Lost at sea...

Lost at sea…

Carter explicitly acknowledged his cinematic inspirations. “What I wanted to do was to do a TV show that had elements of some of my favorite movies,” Carter explained. “Paths of Glory, Platoon, Blade Runner, a lot of really good early war movies. And this was my way of doing that, using a contemporary element, which was the virtual reality element.” During a lot of the publicity for the show, Carter made a conscious effort to play down the explicitly science-fiction elements of the show and the influence of the comic book on his show.

Carter always had a keen eye for the nineties zietgeist. The X-Files captured the national attention because it came along at just the right moment to be part of the national conversation. Millennium was a little bit too eccentric to ever really hold public attention, but it still arrived at a time when the popular consciousness was absolutely fascinated with serial killers. Harsh Realm was very much a heady blend of the existential uncertainties and the interest in war narratives that surged to the fore during the late nineties. The Matrix meets Saving Private Ryan.

Where in the world is Omar Santiago?

Where in the world is Omar Santiago?

It could be argued that Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line existed on the opposite side of a larger debate in the nineties about the portrayal and the narrative of war. As Leonard Quart and Albert Auster argue in American Film and Society Since 1945:

Saving Private Ryan ends, as so many of Spielberg’s movies do, with a conservative moralisation when the dying Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) commands Private Ryan (Matt Damon) to, in his phrase, “earn this”, that is, spend the rest of his life trying to live up to the sacrifices of the greatest generation, a debt that apparently never can be paid in full and that requires submission to a more or less ideological view not only of World War II but of war in general. The meaning of the “greatest generation” concept is that war in the service of the state as the representative of the people is the highest form of human courage and self-sacrifice. In any case, this is not a counter discourse by part of the effort in the nineties and the new millennium to redeem war as a heroic activity that had temporarily been tarnished by the bad press about and the negative public reactions to the Vietnam War. This redemptive discourse celebrating war has not been without its negative consequences during the years of the George W. Bush administration. It made opposition to the state and its wars, which defined the Vietnam generation even if it didn’t reflect the truth about the majority, a less-than-heroic behaviour that might well reflect out-and-out cowardice.

This larger discourse about how the nation should talk about war was of clear interest to Carter. Much of Carter’s work was about interrogating and examining authority, and so this sort of discussion merited a great deal of exploration and investigation.

Follow our leads...

Follow our leads…

(Harsh Realm is not the only time that Carter engages with the narratives of warfare. The third season of The X-Files was very much a critical history the conventional and heroic narrative of the Second World War, suggesting that a lot of contemporary America was built on moral compromise that is ignored in historical discussions of the era. It was quite a provocative theme, particularly given that the third season was broadcast on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War.)

The opening scenes of Harsh Realm establish this mood quite clearly. Hobbes and Waters are introduced during the Siege of Sarajevo, which had become one of the defining “war is hell” stories of the nineties. It is heavily implied that the events in Sarajevo are what cost Hobbes his faith in the military as an institution. The Siege of Sarajevo took place between April 1992 and February 1996. It stunned the world, which seemed to stand by and watch as a major European capital city seemed to tear itself apart.

A hole lot of trouble...

A hole lot of trouble…

It has been argued that the Siege of Sarajevo was so shocking to the world because it was presented as a state close to total warfare, with civilians active targets and participants in the large-scale destruction. As Claire Garbett notes in The Concept of the Civilian:

Contrary to the traditional image of ‘armies on the battlefield’, this state of violence does not figure combatants as the sole participants of conflict. Neither can it be understood in terms of harmful interactions between individual combatants and civilians, or as instances of collateral damage ‘producing’ civilian victims. Rather, the siege of Sarajevo requires recognition of the perpetration of widespread and systematic violence against a civilian population. It necessitates an understanding of the collective victimisation of this civilian populace, that is, against all civilians of the city of Sarajevo.

Indeed, the vast majority of pop culture’s engagement with the Siege of Sarajevo focused on the intersection of the conflict with civilian life in the city, contrasting the ordinary day-to-day life of a large European city with the brutality on display.

They should screen this better...

They should screen this better…

The Siege of Sarajevo is frequently told as a collection of individual stories. Vedran Smailovic became one such story, a cellist playing in the ruins of the National Library. His story inspired The Cellist of Sarajevo, much to his own frustration. The image of beauty pageant contestants holding a banner reading “don’t let them kill us” came to adorn the cover of the Passengers and Pavarotti’s Miss Sarajevo. Individual stories bled out from the conflict, like that of “Arrow”, the anonymous twenty-year-old journalism student who became one of the city’s most dangerous snipers.

As the world stood on the cusp of the new millennium, Sarajevo seemed to slide backwards through time. Sarajevo had hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984; less than a decade later, much of the city was in ruins. The siege was frequently characterised as a massive regression, described as “a siege of medieval barbarism” in contemporary reports. Some retrospective evaluations also use the word “medieval”, while others compare it to the atrocities of the Second World War. (In particular, the Siege of Leningrad.)

Lost in the woods...

Lost in the woods…

It really seemed like civilisation had collapsed in on itself, which makes the Siege of Sarajevo the perfect introduction to Harsh Realm. In fact, the episode creates its first explicit link between the real and virtual worlds during that introductory sequence; while saving Waters inside the collapsed building, Hobbes notices graffiti that will come to adorn Santiago’s troops later in the same episode. The show does not run long enough to suggest a plot reason for the coincidence (is Sarajevo Harsh Realm? was Santiago in Sarajevo?), but the thematic point is made.

As noted above, Harsh Realm can be seen as an integration of some of the broader themes of The X-Files and Millennium. Broadly speaking, The X-Files was a show fascinated with the interaction between the past and the present – the legacy of the sins of the father, the erosion of the weird and eccentric spaces in America by the forces of globalisation. In contrast, Millennium was about fear of the future – the kind of world that we would leave to our children, the clock ticking towards doomsday. Harsh Realm synthesises the two ideas into a single cohesive thematic arc.

The children are our future...

The children are our future…

The trappings of Harsh Realm are futuristic – perhaps even apocalyptic. The show takes place in a virtual reality United States after the detonation of a nuclear bomb in New York City; Pinochio’s car looks like something from Mad Max II: The Road Warrior. There is a repeated emphasis on technological advancement, with episodes like Reunion and Cincinnati hinging on impossible gadgets and do-hickeys as central plot points. General Santiago’s plans to attack the real world provide a ticking clock.

At the same time, the central themes of Harsh Realm suggest that anarchy and war are mankind’s natural state – that civilisation is just an illusion, and that mankind is ready to turn on itself with the slightest provocation. Harsh Realm suggests that all wars are ultimately expressions of the same war. Kein Ausgang finds Hobbes and Pinochio fighting in the Second World War; Cincinnati forces Santiago to wage his own Northwest Indian War. (Inga Fossa even suggests that sex itself becomes a form of warfare.)

World in ruins...

World in ruins…

It seems that the philosopher Thomas Hobbes might have been right in his cynical commentary on human nature. As executive producer and director Daniel Sackheim notes on his commentary on The Pilot, this is part of the irony of the naming of the lead character:

Actually, the name Tom Hobbes is… he’s named after the nineteenth century philosopher who believed in predestination. That people are inherently selfish and power-hungry, which is more or less what the character discovers in his journeys in this piece.

Thomas Hobbes finds himself thrown into a world that would seem to validate the beliefs of his namesake. Over the course of the show’s awkwardly truncated first season, Hobbes manages to find hope amid the ruins of this half-destroyed world.

I like Mike...

I like Mike…

In the world of Harsh Realm, the past and the future are not as different as we might like to think; the only thing that has changed is the technology that mankind uses to inflict suffering upon one another. The underlying philosophy remains constant; people are cruel and violent, authority is open to abuse. The X-Files‘ guilt over past wrongs and Millennium‘s anxieties about future uncertainties are ultimately tied together. This fusion finds expression in the cameos of Lance Henriksen and Gillian Anderson in The Pilot.

As with everything else about Harsh Realm, it is worth bearing in mind that only nine episodes were ever produced. It is hard to draw too much from the opening nine episodes of a cancelled show. In fact, it seems quite likely that the cynicism of these early instalments exists primarily to establish the stakes for the journey of Thomas Hobbes. Harsh Realm makes it clear that Thomas Hobbes is on a hero’s journey to “redeem” the virtual world, one soul at a time. Even in The Pilot, it is suggested that Hobbes salvages something of Pinochio’s soul.

Bush war...

Bush war…

(This does lead to the rather uncomfortable recurring suggestion that the amorality and lawlessness of the virtual world is a result of its “godlessness”, an idea explicitly articulated in scripts like Leviathan and Manus Domini. This comes perilously close to suggesting that the only reason morality exists is because of belief in an afterlife and divine retribution, which is an incredibly cynical – and perhaps insulting – take on the connections between religion and morality. It also sets up an awkward “Hobbes-as-Christ” dynamic.)

One of the first season’s recurring motifs is the idea that the real world and the game world are not so different after all. Mirrors and reflections are a recurring motif across the first season, and the implication is that perhaps the virtual world is just more explicit about its brutality and its injustices than the real world. After all, Harsh Realm offers a glimpse of a world made by man; it is horrifying. “Is this what the world will become?” Hobbes ponders. “Is this nightmare I’m in only a mistake away? What are we that we would need to create such a place as this?”

Going dark...

Going dark…

To be fair, as interesting as Harsh Realm is, there are some teething problems. This is the first episode of a very experimental show. Even within the opening nine episodes, there is a sense that the production team are trying to figure out what exactly the show is and how exactly it is meant to work. The same thing happened during the first season of The X-Files and during the first season of Millennium. It just so happened that Harsh Realm got cancelled before it hit something like Beyond the Sea or Force Majeure.

That said, The Pilot simply does not work as well as the first episodes of The X-Files or Millennium. The first episode of The X-Files has David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Similarly, there is a reason that Chris Carter counts the first episode of Millennium among the finest hours of television that he ever produced; it is stunning and striking and memorable. The first season of Millennium really floundered in the wake of that first episode, trying to figure out how to replicate that mood and intensity on a weekly television schedule.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

The Pilot is a well-produced episode of television. It conveys a lot of information in a very effective manner. It contains a number of memorable set pieces and never sacrifices exposition for momentum. It introduces a fairly large cast and it managed to turn downtown Vancouver into a convincing copy of Sarajevo. On technical level, it is a fantastic accomplishment that bodes well for the season ahead. It is a solid base from which a fantastic show might spring given enough time and care.

However, it just lacks the “oomph” of the best Ten Thirteen productions. There are a lot of reasons for this. Daniel Sackheim is a reliable director, but he is no match for David Nutter or Rob Bowman or Kim Manners. While The Pilot packs considerable whallop, it never looks as exciting or dynamic as something like Kill Switch. The angles and the framing are all very familiar; the stunt work and the special effects are impressive, but they are never presented in a jaw-dropping manner.

You've got a bit of time to get it all locked down...

You’ve got a bit of time to get it all locked down…

There are other problems. The casting feels a little odd. Thomas Hobbes is a very bland protagonist, and Scott Bairstow is a very bland leading man. Frank Black spent much of the first season of Millennium looking for a personality beyond “tortured hero”, but that was anchored in a tremendous central performance from Lance Henriksen. There was no lead actor on network television like Lance Henriksen in 1996; there was something incredibly compelling about Henriksen’s work on the show. Bairstow has none of that presence.

D.B. Sweeney does a slightly better job with Mike Pinochio, the resident hard-ass and comic relief. Sweeney is a veteran television performer, but Pinochio doesn’t hop off the screen. A lot of that is down to the writing; Pinochio is very much an archetypal “jerk with a heart of gold” character, but Harsh Realm never really plays up the “jerk” part of the equation. By the end of The Pilot, Pinochio is simply a snarky member of the team who will complain about doing the right thing, but who always comes through for his friends.

Running on empty...

Running on empty…

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best performances in Harsh Realm come from the established Ten Thirteen troupe. It is great to see Terry O’Quinn cast as a series regular, even if he is absent for extended stretches of the first season. O’Quinn plays zealots and true believers to the hilt, so casting him as a digital Colonel Kurtz is an inspired casting decision. It is only a shame that the show has to wait until Cincinnati to give the actor something truly spectacular. (Although it is still more than Peter Watts did for the first season of Millennium.)

Sarah Jane Redmond makes a cameo in The Pilot before becoming a recurring fixture across the show’s first season. It is quite clear that Chris Carter wrote the part of Inga Fossa drawing on the archetypes of the “informer” characters from The X-Files and the Lucy Butler character in Millennium. Redmond plays the character perfectly. It feels like Carter really has a feel for these actors, recognising that they could be better utilised on Harsh Realm than they had been on the third season of Millennium.

General issues...

General issues…

Although it is only a cameo in The Pilot, Lance Henriksen is superb as General Dunham. Naturally, Henriksen could only commit to a small role while Millennium was on the air; according to Carter’s commentary, Henriksen took a day off from Millennium to film his appearance. However, given the cancellation of Millenium, it is fun to imagine that the character might have recurred had the show gone on; that Harsh Realm would build to Henriksen and O’Quinn grappling for the fate of the world. That is worth a ticket.

The problem is that these are all supporting characters. There are extended stretches of the season where these players are completely disengaged from the drama or the action. The nature of the show means that Hobbes can’t confront Santiago every episode, and so he is shuffled to the background until he is needed again. Neither Hobbes nor Pinochio are bad characters; they just don’t have the actors or the writing to pop off the screen and make Harsh Realm essential viewing.

Food for the soul...

Food for the soul…

Similarly, Carter’s writing is a little awkward in places. In terms of structure, Carter’s work on the first three episodes of the season is very solid; the first three episodes of Harsh Realm form a loose three-part pilot that does an excellent job of establishing the basics of the show and the world. However, Carter’s decision to cast Hobbes as an unironic romantic lead means that a lot of time in these nine episodes is given over to Hobbes monologuing philosophical insights about the nature of existence in letters addressed to his “dear Sophie” or his “girl.”

Sometimes these letters are effective ways of setting up and underscoring the themes of the episode – think a purple prose version of Rod Sterling. However, they are frequently indulgent and repetitive. The majority of the episodes open with Hobbes’ narration providing an abridged summary of the basic premise of the show. This isn’t a bad idea on paper, but these opening narrations inevitably follow an opening credits sequence that has a much more direct and effective voice-over monologue designed to bring the viewer up to speed.

Urban warfare...

Urban warfare…

Still, these aren’t the worst problems in the world. They certainly aren’t fatal flaws that merit immediate cancellation. No matter how cynical one might be about the long-term viability of Harsh Realm as a successor to The X-Files, the show’s fate had nothing to do with quality. There is no reason to believe that these issues could not have been resolved in the medium- or long-term. After all, the entire point of a first season is to figure out what works and what doesn’t. The problems with Harsh Realm are all fixable with a little time.

Imagine if The X-Files had been cancelled after three episodes were broadcast and nine had been produced. The show would have been dead by the time anybody actually saw Ice, perhaps the strongest episode in the run; it would never get to reach the heights of Beyond the Sea, E.B.E., Darkness Falls, The Erlenmeyer Flask, Little Green Men, One Breath, Irresistible, Humbug, Anasazi. Similarly, Millennium would have The Pilot and a host of inferior imitations; no Force Majeure, no The Thin White Line, no Lamentation, no Covenant, no Paper Dove.

The sleep of reason...

The sleep of reason…

All that The Pilot really has to do is establish the potential of the show in question. It does that in spades.

You might be interested in our reviews of Harsh Realm:

5 Responses

  1. I really loved the first three episodes of Harsh Realm, as you say they consist in an extended pilot! The first independent “glitch-of-the-week” doesn’t come until later. You could say that since the pilot all alone doesn’t make you understand what the series was going to be about didn’t play in HR’s favour, but that argument is weak. The material is very promising, the themes topical, the Ten Thirteen production values very high, the actors excellent, the characters perhaps lack some depth but their development would come later anyway. Really, if a culprit has to be found for HR’s failure, I cannot think of anything else than Carter and Fox’s relation, and the way Fox treated the series: little promotion, little patience to find an audience.

    The world the series develops is really rich. I particularly “like” the way the war started, the suitcase nuclear bomb in New York – like something out of Terminator 2 or foreshadowing 9/11. Also, the way that supernatural events inside Harsh Realm could occur since this is a virtual world, but their interpretation and source could be seen as spiritual or divine. You could tell that the series would play a lot with that ambiguity and the real-world consequences – reminiscent of the Matrix sequels.

    The only thing that might have bothered me is the name Thomas Hobbes, too much in your face, and a precursor to what “Lost” would do (Locke, Bentham, Faraday…). Also, you can tell from the very opening titles that Hobbes is being set up as a saviour of Harsh Realm – in the material sense but also in a spiritual sense, Jesus-like (or Mulder/William-like, see Amor Fati and Provenance/Providence in The X-Files). I would like to have seen how this would have developed, but the way the series dealt with that aspect of the hero saviour was too unsubtle.

    • The cancellation of Harsh Realm is crazy, not least because it was only three episodes in and was shamefully under-promoted. Not to mention the fact that Fox was hoping to replace The X-Files with it.

      It’s a fascinating show. I don’t think it has any truly spectacular episodes, but it was cancelled after only nine shows were produced. What show could hope to find its voice in nine episodes, working under network television conditions in the late nineties?

      I was looking forward to the exploration of the connection between the real and virtual worlds, much like yourself. The appearance of Santiago’s logo in Sarajevo, the idea that Santiago was plotting to destroy the real world. There’s a lot of interesting stuff there, all barely set up. It could certainly have gone to interesting places.

      • It’s like Fox completely forgot that the X-Files wasn’t a breakout hit and took time to build momentum. Imagine how pop culture would’ve changed if Harsh Realm had been the first show and the X-Files was the one cut off at the knees?

      • Yep. I think I make the point on The Lone Gunman reviews that The X-Files would never have survived on Fox at that point. It’s very much a show that happened to be in the right place at the right time to end up where it did.

  2. It’s like Fox completely forgot that the X-Files wasn’t a breakout hit and took time to build momentum. Imagine how pop culture would’ve changed if Harsh Realm had been the first show and the X-Files was the one cut off at the knees?

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