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Harsh Realm – Leviathan (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.

The first three episodes of Harsh Realm are an interesting combination, and not just because they were the only three episodes of the show to air before cancellation.

All three episodes are written by Chris Carter. The first two are directed by Daniel Sackheim. Taken together, they form a loose triptych. They are effectively three separate stories that come together to form a three-part pilot for the show. It is only by the end of Inga Fossa that Thomas Hobbes (and the audience) fully accept the virtual world into which they have been placed, embracing the hero’s journey that lies ahead. It isn’t until Kein Ausgang that the show really offers the audience a sense of how it might work on a weekly basis.

Fading out...

Fading out…

This is not to suggest that the events of The Pilot flow elegantly into Leviathan, nor that the events of Leviathan bleed over into Inga Fossa. All three episodes of television are discreet and individual; foreshadowing the format that the show would take in its relatively brief life. Interestingly, Carter does not take advantage of the show’s video game structure to enforce more rigid serialisation. If anything, most the nine episodes (particularly the back six) are rigidly episodic.

Leviathan is particularly relaxed in its structure. The Pilot offered all the spectacle and exposition necessary to establish Harsh Realm. In contrast, Leviathan is a bit more focused on mood and atmosphere. There is an impressive action sequence to close out the episode, but there is a larger sense that Leviathan is about establishing what day-to-day existence must be like in this virtual world.

General problems...

General problems…

Second episodes are always interesting, as a rule. Pilot episodes have a very clear role, in that they exist to introduce characters and concepts while setting up the potential of the show. Second episodes arguably have a much tougher mandate; they have to demonstrate how those elements are going to work on a week-to-week basis on a lower budget and tighter schedule. Pilots are typically afforded a higher budget and more relaxed shooting schedule; second episodes have to make the show work under much tougher constraints.

The transition from pilot to series was hardly smooth for Harsh Realm. Most obviously, the show was somewhat overshadowed by the release of The Matrix, which would become an inevitable point of comparison for any virtual reality film or television show irregardless of the fact that virtual reality was a well-established science-fiction concept. However, there was also a high-profile lawsuit filed against Carter and Fox by James D. Hudnall and Andrew Paquette over credit for the show.

"I'm afraid Lance Henriksen is not available right now. Although, Millennium was just cancelled..."

“I’m afraid Lance Henriksen is not available right now. Although, Millennium was just cancelled…”

James D. Hudnall and Andrew Paquette had created the comic book Harsh Realm in 1994 for Harris Comics. Harris Comics was a relatively small comic book publisher that is perhaps most notable for publishing Vampirella from 1991 to 2007. Harsh Realm ran for six issues between January 1994 and July 1994, before fading into relative obscurity before the launch of the television show. Indeed, it remains relatively hard to come by; barring a trade paperback reprint to capitalise on the show in 1999, it has not enjoyed a high-profile re-release.

As part of their lawsuit, Hudnall and Paquette argued that they had been treated unfairly. Their contributions to the show had not been fairly recognised; early episodes only credited Chris Carter as the creator of Harsh Realm and included a card in the end credits thanking Harris Publications for the source material. This was a source of understandable frustration to the comic book creators. “I really, really want to throw my television out the window every time I see the show on the air and it says, ‘created by Chris Carter’,” remarked Andrew Paquette.

And your little dog, too...

And your little dog, too…

The lawsuit would continue after the cancellation of Harsh Realm, with the court affirming that Hudnall and Paquette deserved more credit than they had been given. U.S. District Judge John Martin dictated the credit that appears at the start of every episode on the DVDs and in reruns. However, Carter has constantly and repeatedly downplayed the role of the comic in his creative process. “It’s based on a comic book called Harsh Realm, but it really owes the title to the comic book, and not a whole lot more,” he explained in press leading up to the release of the show.

“I remember reading the comic book and recognising that there was a good idea,” he noted in the documentary Inside Harsh Realm, produced for the DVD set in 2004. “But it’s not something that I wanted to do, per se. I did not literally want to bring the comic book to life. There were certain aspects of the comic book that were interesting to me.” This qualification is quite strange, given how quick Carter generally is to acknowledge his inspirations in terms of film and television sources.

Seeing Redmond...

Seeing Redmond…

To be fair, there are some differences between the comic book and the show. The virtual reality game in the comic is medieval in nature, whereas the virtual reality world in the show is a mirror of contemporary society. Both stories feature a protagonist sent into the game to track down a missing person; the nature of the person (and the mission) is different in each case. It would be too much to describe the show as a “faithful” adaptation of the comic. Nevertheless, “faithfulness” is not the measure to be applied here.

Indeed, one of the recurring themes of Chris Carter’s reimagining of the comic book is the idea that mankind is stuck in a state of perpetual warfare; that the only thing that has changed between medieval times and the present day is the technology employed in that state of perpetual war. Leviathan suggests that the virtual world is at once the Old West and the post-apocalyptic future; Kein Ausgang will reveal it can also be World War II playing on infinite loop. The trappings and details are inessential; the core remains the same.

Zap!

Zap!

More than that, Carter’s dismissal of the source material exists in a very particular pop culture context. Those involved in the production of film and television have generally been well protected through the formation of organisations like the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America and the Producers Guild of America. Such organisations have gone from strength to strength since the fifties and sixties, helping to protect their members from exploitative working practices.

The fight for organised labour and collective bargaining in Hollywood was hard fought, but it eventually paid off. Such organisations hold tremendous power over the day-to-day running of the entertainment industry. The Directors Guild has very specific rules and regulations in place about its members’ participation in projects. The Writers Guild has gone on strike on a number of occasions that ground film and television production in Hollywood to a halt. Indeed, during the lawsuit, Carter argued that his credit was protected by Writers Guild terms and conditions.

It's all there...

It’s all there…

In contrast, the comic book industry has never really had the same protection afforded to creators working in other media. Many of the writers and artists responsible for iconic comic book characters and properties did work under “work for hire” agreements, meaning they retained no ownership of their creations. This often meant that creators who generated millions of dollars in revenue for their employers received nothing beyond nominal credit for the work that they did; most even went on unrecognised.

(Batman is perhaps a great example of this. Bob Kane is generally credited as the creator of the character, because he had the foresight (and the influence) to organise a favourable contract ensuring that his name would be tethered to the superhero. It doesn’t matter that Bob Kane’s original conception of the Caped Crusader differs dramatically from what people associate with the hero. Much of what fans know and love about Batman came from Bill Finger and a host of uncredited writers and artists who lacked the same protection Kane assured himself.)

Flame on...

Flame on…

The issue of creators’ rights in comics was just coming to the fore in the mid-nineties. In 1992, a number of high-profile and successful artists working at DC and Marvel defected away from the two brand leaders to set up their own comic book company. Image was established as a company intended to respect the rights of the creators working in comic books. Although the actual success of the experiment is debatable, it did suggest that the comic book industry was becoming increasingly aware of the questionable treatment of its creative forces.

As the new millennium approached, comic book creators (and their heirs) became increasingly comfortable about asserting their rights over their creations. The lawsuit by Hudnall and Paquette over the ownership of Harsh Realm is one such example, but there have been lots of others. Recent years have seen the heirs of Jack Kirby suing Marvel for ownership, a failed legal bid by the estates of the creators of Superman, and even cases around more recent creations like Ghost Rider. Regardless of the variable outcomes, there is a sense of a changing mood.

"Come with me if you want to live..."

“Come with me if you want to live…”

It is interesting to wonder why comic book creators had to fight so hard for the rights enjoyed by their counterparts in other media. There is still a sense of snobbishness around comic books as a medium, a sense that they aren’t really “art” in the same way that film or television might be. Indeed, it seems quite likely that Carter’s repeated attempts to steer discussion away from the comic book were not so much about belittling Hudnall and Paquette’s contributions; they may have been about avoiding the stigma of being labelled a “comic book show.”

In discussing The X-Files, Chris Carter and his writers were always careful to avoid labels like “science-fiction.” Indeed, the show’s (relative) mainstream success as compared to shows like the Star Trek franchise could likely be credited to deft management of the conversation by Carter and Spotnitz. The X-Files was not locked out of prestigious conversations and awards nominations like other “genre” shows had been; this may have been because the producers worked very hard to sell it as a high-caliber drama that only occasionally had elements of science-fiction.

Keep on truckin'...

Keep on truckin’…

In fact, a lot of Carter’s press clippings and quotes about Harsh Realm tended to downplay the science-fiction elements of the storytelling and play up the more prestigious or literary inspirations. “I’m really not a science-fiction aficionado, so this is really just an opportunity to tell stories in a parallel world which presents a perfect and natural allegorical opportunity,” Carter explained. He was quick to make comparisons between Harsh Realm and The Iliad or Saving Private Ryan, but downplayed the science-fiction and comic book elements.

Carter’s sensibilities very much bleed through into Harsh Realm. The first three episodes present a fascinating aesthetic mishmash of elements drawn from a wealth of sources and remixed into an intriguing cocktail. Even the teaser at the start of the episode feels at once like a great depression tale set to gospel music in the American heartland, an western bounty thriller about a father returned from war and a science-fiction thriller about an unstoppable killing machine. All of which is set to the sound of Moby’s Run On.

A boy and his dog...

A boy and his dog…

The soundscape of Harsh Realm is heavily influenced by the work of Moby. According to composer Mark Snow, the entire sound design of the series was based around the nineties breakthrough dance artist:

Every once in a while, when Chris would pick out a pop song or whatever, he would always make really great choices and I thought that was a good one.

He was a big fan of Moby at the time and actually my theme for Harsh Realm was inspired by Moby where I used some snippets of Mussolini giving a speech. I used it in sort of a musical-sample way over the dark music. There was sort of a hip-hop type rhythm section I used with this Mussolini thing. It think it had a pretty cool effect actually.

As such, it makes perfect sense to include an actual Moby song in the teaser of the first regular episode of Harsh Realm. The track in question, Run On, was taken from Play, which had been released in May 1999 and was in the process of becoming a pop culture monster.

Fields of gold...

Fields of gold…

Richard Melville Hall emerged as one of the most influential figures in dance music in the early nineties. Taking the stage name Moby, the artist became renowned for his ability to sample and remaster old standards into modern dance hits. His breakout came with the release of the single Go in 1991; it was built around a string line from Laura Palmer’s Theme from Twin Peaks. The track was a massive success, even earning Moby the opportunity to play on Top of the Pops.

Throughout the nineties, Moby became quite familiar to film and television viewers. Michael Mann was one of the earliest filmmakers to adapt Moby’s soundtrack into his work, incorporating two tracks into Heat in 1995. Mann was a director who was always fascinated with the intersection of sound and visuals as thematic indicators ahead of plot and dialogue, as evidenced by his work on projects like Manhunter and Miami Vice; it is no surprise that Moby cites the inclusion of God Moving Over the Face of the Waters at the climax of Heat as his favourite sampling of his work.

Quick draw...

Quick draw…

In the late nineties, Moby would make a pretty impressive stamp on popular culture. His music would become almost ubiquitous. The release of his album Play is a fascinating success story, if only because it was considered something of a failure on initial release in May 1999. However, it became a commercial smash in 2000. Part of that was due to the fact that Play was everywhere. Every track on the album was licensed out; to commercials, to television shows, to films. Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday features no less than five Moby songs.

In many respects, Moby heralded the arrival of the twenty-first century music industry. The success of Play had nothing to do with traditional marketing tools like radio airplay or MTV broadcasts; it had to do with seamless integration of the album across all forms of media. Moby managed to turn his album into a brand by ensuring as wide an audience as possible through unconventional channels. Harsh Realm included Run On from the album, but Chris Carter and Gillian Anderson would integrate some other tracks into the seventh season of The X-Files.

Funeral for a friend...

Funeral for a friend…

In some ways, Moby was the perfect choice for Harsh Realm. One of the defining features of Play was the use of samples. Moby had laid a variety of gospel and soul recordings over his dance beats to create a unique and uncanny fusion. For example, Run On heavily samples a 1949 recording of Run On for a Long Time by Bill Landford & The Landfordairs. There is a beautiful dissonance at work, the contrast between old and new. It is at once something completely hip and modern, but also something much more traditional and classic.

Harsh Realm attempts something similar. Although the show operates using standard science-fiction tropes, it is very consciously steeped in imagery and iconography far older. The bounty hunter played by Marc Rolston might be introduced in a manner evoking the Terminator, but he is a classic western archetype. John Calbot may be a veteran of the Gulf War and of failed rebellions against Santiago, but he could just as easily be a soldier returning home from the Civil War. Biggie dresses like he is wandering through the Great Depression.

War plans...

War plans…

Even within Leviathan itself, it is clear that General Omar Santiago is planning his own version of Manifest Destiny, a bold imperialist push westward that will lead to one “United States of Santiago.” Despite its high-tech trappings, Harsh Realm is just an interested in old stories and ideas. Kein Ausgang sends Hobbes and Pinochio back to the Second World War; Three Percenters is a siren story; Cincinnati is about a Native American rebellion; Camera Obscura is “Romeo and Juliet meets The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

The show is populated with these delightful anachronistic touches.There is a sense that all of history might be happening at once; that Harsh Realm might just be the ultimate expression of mankind’s state of perpetual warfare. The title of the episode is another allusion to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who suggested that man’s natural state is lawlessness and that some external authority is required to impose order upon the world. The central conflict between Hobbes and Santiago is the nature of that order within Harsh Realm.

Bountiful...

Bountiful…

Santiago very clearly aspires to impose a military dictatorship within the realm of the game, to conquer the world and rebuild it in his own image, to bring order to the lawless masses. Harsh Realm doesn’t just borrow imagery and iconography from across the history the United States, it also extends across borders. The opening theme samples quotes from Mussolini. Santiago’s private army is named for Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. Even Santiago’s distinctive emblem resembles the Arch of Victory in Baghdad.

Inga Fossa suggests that Santiago believes that he is “the one”, part of a vaguely defined prophecy to “win” the game. The angle is dropped quite quickly, perhaps reflecting similar themes within The Matrix. Nevertheless, the opening three scripts of the season suggest that Hobbes is actually “the one” and the central conflict of the series is to be over who gets to guide and shape the video game world. Will Santiago win with his military might and cynicism? Or does Hobbes speak to some other idealistic force at work in the world.

Gotta have faith...

Gotta have faith…

With Leviathan, it becomes impossible to ignore the religious subtext of Harsh Realm. When discussing the show, Carter frequently characterises the virtual realm as “godless.” The implication is that the world of Harsh Realm is even less spiritually fulfilled than nineties America. That is the central allegory:

But I think the thing that I look forward to most in this show is using our imaginations to take the world and cut it loose from physical properties. To take a godless world where there is no morality, where there is no standard or code of behavior and see what the world would be like if it were like that. That’s what Harsh Realm is and it really gives us a chance, I think, to comment on society and certainly on a lot of contemporary issues. So I think that that’s what’s going to make this a lot richer.

Faith is a recurring motif in Chris Carter’s work. Mulder’s “I Want to Believe” poster has been around since the first episode of The X-Files. There is a recurring sense that Carter is looking for some higher purpose or guiding light in a chaotic world; it makes sense that this would be incorporated into Harsh Realm.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

Indeed, Harsh Realm comes at a point where Chris Carter’s work is getting more overtly spiritual. Seven and One, Carter’s final script for Millennium, was essentially the story about how Frank Black needed to reconnect with his faith in order to continue his good work in the world. Closure will over an explicitly spiritual resolution to Mulder’s search for Samantha. The eighth season plays out the nativity as the season finalé. Improbable will feature God as a major character. The Truth will close The X-Files on an explicitly religious theme.

The script for Leviathan explicitly ties the lawless and mercenary nature of the virtual world to its complete lack of spirituality. “These people got no reason to help you, no moral compunction,” Pinochio explains. “They programmed the game, they forgot one thing: you die here, you disappear. These people know no Christian virtues. They know no God. Judgement day in Harsh Realm is when somebody points a gun at you. Ask Johnny, he’ll tell you. Get erased here, it’s over. These people got no notion of an afterlife; it’s not even a concept.”

Flickering image...

Flickering image…

This is a rather cynical viewpoint. Ignoring questions that the premise raises about the inclusion of a priest as a major character in Camera Obscura, the argument is predicated on the idea that the only reason people are nice to one another is because they are afraid of divine reckoning. That is a view of human nature that is just as bleak as any proposed by Omar Santiago. At least Santiago is candid about ruling through fear. Leviathan doesn’t deconstruct or interrogate Pinochio’s assumption, it embraces it.

It turns out that the inhabitants of the virtual realm only need to be convinced about the existence of a more optimistic and utopian world beyond their own; the real world is pitched as something approaching heaven for the inhabitants of this simulation, an idea that carries over to Inga Fossa. Hobbes becomes a sort of spiritual ambassador cast into a lower world so that he might redeem it by preaching humanism and understanding. In other words, Harsh Realm presents Hobbes as messiah figure.

Waters under the bridge...

Waters under the bridge…

In fact, Leviathan even presents Santiago as a more vengeful alternate. Santiago is a man who can come and go from this realm at will, and who thus holds considerable influence over the realm. When the bounty hunter asks Santiago to send him home, Santiago responds as a vengeful deity. “If I do, sir, you might make every effort to win my favour; to repair this patronage,” Santiago responds. “For I then have the power to destroy you not only in one world…but in two.”

Leviathan introduces the idea that Santiago has a larger objective outside this virtual world. He has a “final solution”, with Cabot suggesting that the details of the plan were enough to drive Pinochio to despair. “Better stay alive in Harsh Realm, Lieutenant,” Cabot advises Hobbes at one point. “This may very well be all that’s left.” The suggestion is that Santiago plans to detonate bombs in the real world, forcing a reckoning not unlike that visited upon New York in the virtual world. Santiago would declare himself supreme ruler.

A great depression...

A great depression…

To be fair, this is hardly an uncommon trope; The Matrix also positioned Neo as “the One.” At the same time, the imagery and themes of Harsh Realm are very specifically coded in Christian iconography. There is the repeated suggestion that the horror and brutality of the simulation are somehow linked to the “godlessness” of its inhabitants. On the one hand, this is a critique of a literally man-made world, in keeping with Carter’s recurring fascination with Frankenstein. On the other hand, it does mean that Harsh Realm can seem almost evangelical at times.

(On that note, The Pilot did open with Hobbes fighting in the ruins of a Sarajevo church. The opening sequence suggests that our own world might not be too far from the horrors of the virtual realm, and the ruined church is perhaps as much a visual cue as Santiago’s graffiti. The ruined church becomes something of an ironic bookend to the season. Destroyed churches feature prominently in the teasers to both The Pilot and Camera Obscura, cementing the essential role that faith plays even in these nine episodes.)

The rifleman...

The rifleman…

Leviathan cements the sense that Harsh Realm is a war story. It is emphasised that most of the human inhabitants of the game are former soldiers. “These were fighting men, U.S. soldiers trained to be the best, but they are broken now, living a fugitive existence,” we are told. Pinochio served in the Gulf. Hobbes and Waters served in Sarajevo together. The show repeatedly identifies Santiago as the “most decorated combat veteran to serve in Southeast Asia.” He is a living embodiment of Vietnam returning to haunt the present; a great Chris Carter trope.

In some respects, Harsh Realm can be seen to point towards the future of The X-Files. The spectacular failure of the drama series is part of the reason that Fox decided to pursue the possibility of an eighth series of the drama; there was quite literally nothing with which they might replace it. However, there are other important links. Harsh Realm is the first time that Carter incorporates Moby into one of his shows; it also brings to the fore a lot of the religious themes that will define Carter’s later writing.

Trouble in the tank...

Trouble in the tank…

There are a few indicators that hark towards the eighth season of The X-Files. Robert Patrick was reportedly one of the actors considered for the role of Mike Pinochio, suggesting that the production team had their eye on him. More than that, Leviathan works hard to give Sophie something to do. Perhaps aware of the problems presented by Catherine Black on Millennium, Chris Carter is careful to provide Sophie with an important function in the overall mythology of Harsh Realm. She is searching for Hobbes.

The parallels are obvious. Sophie’s search for Hobbes prefigures Scully’s search for Mulder, right down to the exhumation of the dead body buried in the grave. More than that, Leviathan reveals that Sophie is pregnant with Hobbes’ child. “Our love is greater now than ever,” she narrates. “I’m pregnant. I’m pregnant with our child. Please come home. Find a way.” It foreshadows the twist that comes at the end of Requiem, even if Carter would wait quite a while before revealing that Scully was pregnant with Mulder’s child.

Body of proof...

Body of proof…

Leviathan is a solid second episode, even if it comes with a host of its own problems. While it is nice that Carter has drafted an arc for Sophie, her investigations feel like they exist so that Samantha Mathis can do something other than (or even simply while) looking sad. The idea of a secret military conspiracy plotting to conceal a threat to every person on the planet feels like a fairly banal iteration of a thread that The X-Files has explored quite thoroughly in its first six seasons. This is well-trodden ground.

Carter’s monologues are similarly heavy-handed, with Hobbes continually reiterating the premise of the show, just in case the viewers at home are having trouble keeping up. Carter’s purple prose also creeps in, with Hobbes drafting extended expositional letters to Sophie from inside the video game world. To be fair, Carter seems to acknowledge his tendency, with Pinochio interrupting such an internal monologue. “Shut up, Hobbes.” Hobbes is confused, “I didn’t say anything.” Pinochio responds, “Yeah, well, I feel you thinking.”

On the hunt...

On the hunt…

Leviathan exists to flesh out the world of Harsh Realm. It does not advance the central story too far, but it is very much a linking piece between The Pilot and Inga Fossa that establishes a lot of the rules and themes of the series going forward. It is, like a lot of Harsh Realm, more respectable than exceptional. However, there is a lot of potential on display.

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