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Harsh Realm – Inga Fossa (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.

Inga Fossa is a noteworthy episode of Harsh Realm for a number of reasons.

In production terms, it closes out the loose three-episode introduction to the series. The Pilot, Leviathan and Inga Fossa were all written by Chris Carter and served as an introduction to the world and rules of Harsh Realm. Perhaps owing to the relative complexity of the show’s premise, Carter takes a bit of time to lay out and establish the core ideas of the show. It isn’t until the end of Inga Fossa that characters like Thomas Hobbes and Sophie have reached the status quo that will carry them through the rest of the first season.

Game on...

Game on…

However, all of this is ultimately irrelevant. Inga Fossa will always be notable for being the final episode of Harsh Realm to air on Fox. Chris Carter’s new show was infamously cancelled after only three episodes were broadcast. The six episodes that had been produced before cancellation were quietly shuffled off Fox’s 1999 schedule; they eventually aired on FX in mid-2000, to little fanfare. The cancellation was a shocking development. The ratings were spectacularly terrible, but Harsh Realm had been intended to establish Carter as the network’s idea-generating machine.

Something was very wrong.

"You can't $@!# in here, this is the war room!"

“You can’t $@!# in here, this is the war room!”

As with everything surrounding Harsh Realm, context is everything. A lot changed between the initial sign-off on Harsh Realm and the final broadcast of the show. The release of The Matrix was one such thing, requiring a shift in emphasis for the show and inviting all manner of unfortunate comparisons. However, there were more fundamental changes taking place behind the scenes. Chris Carter was only one player in this behind-the-scenes drama. At the same time that Carter was developing Harsh Realm, Fox hired Doug Herzog as Chief of Programming.

By all accounts, Herzog was a strange fit at Fox. The network was growing and growing, eagerly hoping to muscle its way to the top of the network television hierarchy. However, Herzog was hired from outside that hierarchy. Herzog had made his name at MTV and Comedy Central, where he had been one of the forces behind the launch of South Park and had hired Jon Stewart for The Daily Show. Herzog was very much a cable television producer, one with little real experience of the demands of an increasingly major mainstream network.

Fight to the finish...

Fight to the finish…

“I tell people I used to run a boutique and now I run Bloomingdale’s,” Herzog quipped of his new position. Herzog certainly brought a cable sensibility to Fox during his brief tenure as Chief of Programming. He launched the single-camera comedy Action, a Hollywood satire starring Jay Mohr as Peter Dragon. The comedy was considered a little too outrageous for network television. It ended after thirteen episodes. Similar fates awaited shows like Get Real and Manchester Prep, which were derided by conservative television critics as examples of “the Fox morality.” 

Perhaps the most charitable interpretation of Herzog’s tenure as Chief of Programming at Fox would be to suggest that he was years ahead of his time. He correctly anticipated that cable-style programming was the way of the future, even if the actual implementation of that vision was haphazard at best and the infra-structure did not exist to support it. An American network making an effort to embrace cable television sensibilities in 1999 was always going to face an uphill battle, and there is a sense that Herzog arrived a little too early to the party.

Shattered mirror...

Shattered mirror…

Certainly, media coverage of his tenure suggested that mainstream tastes were not entirely ready for what he had to offer. More than that, the viewing figures speak for themselves. Herzog’s brief tenure overseeing the network was described as Fox’s “worst season ever”, with viewing figures falling 16% on the previous year. That said, Herzog did manage one lasting success. Appropriately enough, Herzog’s lasting legacy at Fox would be Malcolm in the Middle, one of the quieter success stories of Fox’ twenty-first century scheduling.

Harsh Realm was arguably a victim of Herzog’s confused tenure. Harsh Realm drew pretty abysmal ratings, failing to match those for the third season of Millennium. The broadcast of Inga Fossa drew the lowest ever Friday night ratings for Fox. However, these ratings do not exist in a vacuum; there are a variety of factors that contributed to the muted reception that Harsh Realm received. Quite simply, Harsh Realm was not a priority for Herzog’s vision of what Fox should be.

Fenced in...

Fenced in…

Carter was quite candid in his analysis of the failure of Harsh Realm. The cancellation was understandable a massive news story, given how much Fox had invested in Carter as a creative force at the network. Addressing the show’s “dead-on-arrival” status, Carter blamed scheduling and promotion:

It didn’t get much of a launch to be honest — it premiered against baseball, which is always a tough competition, and they didn’t do a whole lot of promotion for it. I think they had some statistics and forecasts, and they thought it was going to get bigger ratings then it did, going in, and they thought they didn’t have to spend the money to get people to come see it, and to be aware of it. So, I think it suffered from a couple different things.

Carter placed the blame at the foot of the network. He suggested, “I think in the end it looks rather misguided to have premiered the show without any promotional base, certainly when the reviews of it were good. I have a feeling we’re a victim of a much bigger problem at Fox.”

Virtua fighter...

Virtua fighter…

In the run up to The Pilot, the network acknowledged to Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz that they had not done enough to promote the show, suggesting that steps might be taken to remedy the problem:

Both Carter and Spotnitz were stunned when their “Harsh Realm” was dumped after just three airings. In an interview, Spotnitz says that “it seemed like a panicked, irrational decision. They came to us before the show debuted and said, ‘we blew it by not promoting the show. It’s just terrible and we’re going to try and make it up …’ And then, suddenly, it was canceled without any warning whatsoever. There was no discussion, we were not even privy to their line of thinking. So we were shocked.”

It seems that it was not the cancellation itself that was a shock to Carter and Spotnitz, so much as how the cancellation was handled by the network.

General concerns and Major problems...

General concerns and Major problems…

There is some indication that Herzog did not attempt to cultivate a relationship with Carter, and that his attitude towards Harsh Realm was somewhat discourteous. As Carter recalls in the documentary Inside Harsh Realm:

I thought I was doing good work, and all of a sudden I get a call from Doug Herzog – who came in to run that network for a very brief period of time – that they were cancelling the show. I’d never worked with Doug Herzog, really, before that time. So it was strange to me, getting a call from someone I didn’t know telling me that the show was cancelled for no good reason. It had never found an audience, it had debuted with very low numbers. They had never promoted the show. So there were, I think, reasons why no one came to the party. But they saw it as the audience rejecting the show. There wasn’t much of an audience there to reject it. It was, I think, underwatched from the beginning.

Carter had worked hard to cultivate a meaningful relationship with Fox. When he signed his $30m development deal, he boasted, “I feel terrific. It’s nice to have a home.” It seems like that home was feeling quite unwelcome.

"Let's get ready to rumble!"

“Let’s get ready to rumble!”

Interviewed about the cancellation, Frank Spotnitz suggested that even the timing of the announcement to the production team demonstrated a lack of professional respect on the part of the network:

The announcement came not only as a surprise to Carter’s fans but to Carter himself. The network had signed a 13-episode commitment with Ten Thirteen Productions, which the cancellation violated. “Aside from how poor the decision was, the way it was handled was equally poor,” Spotnitz says. “We found out the same day everybody else found out. I even heard from TV critics who had not given the pilot a good review that they certainly didn’t think it was going to get cancelled after three weeks and they were willing to stick with it and see where it went. It’s nice to hear words of support from all quarters but frustrating that what we felt very strongly was a great show didn’t get a chance to find itself.”

It certainly seems ridiculous, even coming from a network that was developing a reputation for strangling young shows in the crib. The whole affair seemed terribly botched.

This is her design...

This is her design…

Then again, this arguably demonstrates just how much had changed since The X-Files had first appeared on Fox six years earlier. The network was no longer young and hungry; it no longer had the time or the patience to allow younger shows to find an audience and grow with the network. It needed big hits, and it needed shows that started strong out of the gate. Frank Spotnitz conceded as much:

“It goes without saying, I think it was a terrible decision made by people who were panicked,” Spotnitz says. “I think if these people had been in charge when The X-Files launched, X-Files would have been cancelled. It came out of left field for us because all we’d been hearing from the network for the first three weeks was mea culpas — that they had botched the launch of the show and that they were aware that no one knew the show was on the air. We’re deeply disappointed. Our best episodes were about to be broadcast. We feel bad for us, and we feel bad for our crew and all the wonderful actors we’d assembled. It’s a shame.”

It is impossible to know how Harsh Realm would have developed. Is it possible to judge a network television show on three episodes alone? Could the first three episodes of The X-Files or Millennium have pointed to the delights that lay ahead? There are no truly classic episodes of television in the first nine episodes of Harsh Realm, but how many shows do produce a bona fides classic in their first nine episodes?

The world according to Santiago...

The world according to Santiago…

The cancellation of Harsh Realm had a pretty massive impact on how things would develop in the years ahead for most of the major parties. It remains one of the few decisions that genuinely got under Chris Carter’s skin, leaving him feeling quite frustrated with the network. “I really don’t know how the Harsh Realm situation will affect The X-Files, but it hasn’t created any greater desire for me to work harder to create a TV series for a network that is unwilling to promote it and unwilling to take a chance,” Carter reflected shortly after the news broke.

Talking about the possibility of developing further shows as part of his massive producing deal with Fox, Carter conceded, “I certainly want to do it at a place where they’re going to support it. They’re going to nurture it and they’re going to make sure that they’ve done everything they can to get it to its audience. And I believe that was just not the case with Harsh Realm.” His feelings are completely understandable, given how hard he had worked on the show and the brand loyalty that he had shown to Fox over the previous half-decade.

Woman in black...

Woman in black…

Ultimately, Carter’s relationship with Fox would recover in the years ahead. Doug Herzog’s resignation in March 2000 probably helped matters, although Carter has admitted that a little of his disappointment lingers:

I’m still a little bitter about it but it’s water under the bridge now. The truth is that the guy who I hold responsible for the quick demise of that show has been cancelled himself so that relieves some of the feeling. But every time I see a billboard for Dark Angel, I think ‘That’s one more billboard than Harsh Realm had.’ No one knew about the show so it was no surprise that it didn’t get the ratings that they had hoped for.

It is impossible to know how things might have developed had Fox handled the show a little differently, but the handling (and cancellation) of Harsh Realm was a fiasco.

Leading the way...

Leading the way…

It also had a significant impact on the future of The X-Files. Given a variety of behind the scenes factors, it had been repeatedly suggested that the seventh season of The X-Files would be the last season of the show. Costs were high, and various members of the cast and crew had expressed a desire to move on. Seven years is a long time in television, and Carter had begun to make moves to tidy away the show’s plot. Early chatter suggested that Fox had hoped Harsh Realm might have been a suitable replacement for their hit drama.

However, the failure of every single new prime time drama in the 1999-2000 Fox schedule (which was described as “officially a trainwreck”) meant that there were no viable successors for the money-spinning breakout hit. The cancellation of Harsh Realm effectively assured the existence of an eighth season of The X-Files, with Carter openly drawing on a number of ideas from Harsh Realm to help keep the show going. For a series that is often dismissed as a footnote, Harsh Realm made quite an impression.

Dogged pursuit...

Dogged pursuit…

The decision to cancel Harsh Realm after three episodes is frustrating, particularly because Inga Fossa is the episode that finally clarifies what Thomas Hobbes’ journey will be. At the climax of Harsh Realm, the character is afforded the chance to return to the real world, but declines. He decides to stay in the virtual world so that he might overthrow General Omar Santiago. In doing so, Hobbes will save both the virtual world and the real world. It is a decision that sets up the arc of the series.

It also solidifies the connections that exist between the virtual world and the real world. One of the more intriguing implications of Harsh Realm is the idea that the virtual world and the real world are somehow co-dependent and interlinked. Events in one world are mirrored in the other, as explored in Reunion. The video game is more than just an alternate world running inside a computer; it is suggested that the two realms are somehow recursive and interconnected. Their two fates are somehow linked; even Hobbes notes that“their fate is inextricably bound with ours.”

Eyes wide open...

Eyes wide open…

In fact, Hobbes’ opening narration confirms as much. Directly addressing the audience, Hobbes explains the premise of the show. Explaining that the virtual world is populated by duplicates scanned in 1995, Hobbes warns viewers, “You live in this world. And though you may not know it, I was sent to save you.” In a very literal sense this is true; Hobbes is trying to stop Santiago from destroying the real world. In a more abstract metaphorical sense, it suggests that Hobbes saving our duplicates is akin to saving ourselves.

It is no coincidence that mirrors and reflections recur throughout the first season of Harsh Realm. The opening shot of Camera Obscura is a reflection captured in the surface of communion wine; a mirror in transubstantiated blood. In Three Percenters, the cannibalistic village captures the image of a person by freezing their image in a lake. Here, a glitch allows Hobbes and Pinochio to literally venture through the looking glass, staring out at the virtual world through a two-way mirror.

Through the looking glass...

Through the looking glass…

In his commentary on The Pilot, Carter explains that he made a conscious effort to play up the connections that existed between the real world and the virtual world. He identified the theme as one that recurs in his own work:

We wanted to play that there was some connection between the real world and virtual world, and that Hobbes could look into the eyes of his real fiancée in this virtual world and make a connection to her, and that she could see that the connection was real – even though she had never met this man before. Strange that there’s a kind of moment in The X-Files pilot like this, when Scully is looking through a one-way mirror at Mulder. She can’t see him, but she sense his presence. And it’s the same thing… an almost psychic connection between two characters.

It is suggested that there is something that links people across time and space, between the real world and the virtual world. It is, perhaps, an expression of the spirituality that runs through Carter’s work.

Kiss and don't tell...

Kiss and don’t tell…

Inga Fossa solidifies the sense that Harsh Realm operates in a world grounded in a lot of the same assumptions as The X-Files. Although Carter had been reluctant to cross The X-Files over with Millennium, the idea of a crossover between The X-Files and Harsh Realm was repeatedly mooted during the latter’s short life-span. It is not too difficult to imagine that the secret labs operated by the conspirators might share a cafeteria with the room full of players featured at the end of The Pilot.

At the start of Leviathan, Sophie is shocked to discover the extent of the conspiracy and “that our own government is involved. That an official lie is being passed off about you. A lie only I seem to have knowledge of.” As with The X-Files, it seems Harsh Realm is uncomfortable with unquestioned authority. “The streets of Santiago City are clean and orderly,” Hobbe narrates. “Its office towers proud and tall. There is no suffering here, no privation. But this is a utopia for which a terrible price has been paid. The lives of all those who live outside the fence.”

I (still) love Lucy...

I (still) love Lucy…

There is a sense that this prosperity has been built upon a foundation of horrific atrocities. Leviathan confirms that General Omar Santiago is planning is own version of manifest destiny across the digital frontier. He aspires “to begin again, to wipe the slate clean. Wouldn’t Jefferson or Hamilton or Madison do the same if they could see their legacy now? What their beloved country has become.” Of course they would. The creation myth of the United States is romantic and heroic, the tale of brave men bending a new frontier to their will.

The reality is more complex. Jefferson might have suggested that “all men are created equal”, but his actions belied that. Alexander Hamilton has been praised for the work he did in abolishing slavery, but it has been argued that he was primarily motivated by pragmatic (rather than moral) concerns. Similarly, James Madison was reportedly quite conflicted on the matter of slavery: he believed in abolition, but did not believe that the two races could coexist; he believed in emancipation, but operated a slavery plantation.

Holding it together...

Holding it together…

Appropriately enough, Santiago’s attempts to establish a “United States of Santiago” will see him brush up against Native American resistance in Cincinnati. Nevertheless, he is quick to couch his expansion westward in familiar romantic rhetoric that evokes American popular history. Flicking through the channels in Santiago City, Hobbes discovers that the networks are all broadcasting Santiago’s propaganda. “As Santiago City expands its borders into the new frontier making way for a growing population, made strong by its love of freedom.”

At its core, Harsh Realm is a show about warfare. The Pilot made that explicit by opening in the midst of the Siege of Sarajevo. Leviathan focused on soldiers trying to find something resembling a life after the war. Inga Fossa is particularly interested in ideas of war and masculinity – the sense that society is structured in such a way that masculine identity is expressed through violence and brutality. After all, the virtual world is a world literally made by men, it reflects their sensibilities and attitudes.

Another one rides the bus...

Another one rides the bus…

“Strike quickly and brutally,” Santiago advises Waters. “The mighty sword of justice knows no scabbard, major. Great empires are built on the wisdom of sages and the blood of heroes.” It is telling that the eponymous character is the only woman to sit on Santiago’s war council. While looking for a way out, Pinochio and Hobbes visit an underground fighting ring that celebrates grotesque parodies of masculinity. Pinnochio explains that zip files are “two hundred and fifty pounds of digitally compressed testosterone.”

Unsurprisingly, then, Inga Fossa makes a firm connection between that aggressive masculinity and sex. Sexual conquest is just another expression of the primal struggle running through Harsh Realm. Pinochio makes passing reference to Waters’ “shortcomings” when he catches the soldier at a urinal. Major Optican exploits his power by carrying his sexual conquest around on a lead. Major Waters does not seem to mourn the death of virtual!Sophie in The Pilot, engaging in a surprisingly physical sex scene for a Chris Carter script with the eponymous spy.

Sexual topography...

Sexual topography…

Inga Fossa suggests that sex is just another weapon that can be harnessed and exploited. Carter very shrewdly casts Sarah Jane Redmond in the title role; Redmond had infused the character of Lucy Butler with an incredibly potent sexuality during her stint on Millennium. It is quite clear that Fossa is playing the game just as much as Santiago and Waters, and that she has decidedly that her sexuality is a potent weapon. It is used to manipulate Waters for her own ends, with Cincinnati suggesting she might be doing something similar with Santiago.

That said, the link between sex and violence is a problematic aspect of Inga Fossa, particularly in the characterisation of Major Optican and Freddie the Forger. With his leather outfit and chain lead, it is quite clear that Major Optican is engaged in a non-consensual sexual relationship with Freddie. In a way, this is an example of the show’s post-apocalyptic trappings; both Mad Max and Mad Max: The Road Warrior emphasise the sexual deviance of their punk bad guys, suggesting that the breakdown of social order will lead to leather-bound man-on-man action.

Toilet humour...

Toilet humour…

There was something quite unsettling about this cliché when it was employed during the seventies and eighties, feeling like an example of knee-jerk gay panic. It feels horribly outdated on the cusp of the new millennium, particularly when Carter’s script for Inga Fossa decides to treat it as something of a joke. “Wonder what Santiago would do to an officer dealing in Harsh Realm,” Hobbes remarks at one point. Pinnochio shoots back, “Probably what this officer’s been doing to Freddie.” Ah, sodomy humour.

There is nothing inherently wrong with exploring the comoditisation of sex and the use of sex as a tool of power. The problem is how Carter’s script decides to make those comments. Major Optican and Freddie the Forger are the most explicitly homosexual characters to appear in a Ten Thirteen production to date. To be fair, X-Cops will offer a much more affectionate (and consensual) gay couple towards the end of this production season; that said, the portrayal of the gay couple in X-Cops has its own issues.

Still Waters...

Still Waters…

There are larger questions issues around the presentation of sex and sexuality in Ten Thirteen productions. The relationship between Thomas and Sophie is very much in keeping with Carter’s aesthetic, a spiritual connection that is practically chaste. Like Frank and Catherine Black or Mulder and Scully, it seems like Harsh Realm treats the love between its protagonists as purer for the fact that it is not explicitly sexual. Here, Thomas and Sophie are literally worlds apart, maintaining their romance through letters written across the void.

To be fair, Thomas and Sophie do have sex in The Pilot. However, as with the sex between Mulder and Scully during the seventh season of The X-Files, it seems that this only occurs so that Sophie can reveal that she is pregnant after the two are separated and she embarks on her quest to reunite with her lost love. The Pilot has Thomas encounter virtual!Sophie, only to send her away on a boat and then kill her off to ensure that there is no chance of a long-running romance on the show.

Hero shot...

Hero shot…

In fact, The Pilot establishes Thomas as quite old-fashioned in matters of romance. He is reluctant to look at Sophie while she is wearing her wedding dress. The structuring of the episode makes it seem like his exile to the virtual world is some sort of divine punishment for having sex with his fiancée in the presence of the audience; quite similar to the way that the script for Paper Dove treats the sex between Frank and Catherine Black right before her own abduction at the hands of the polaroid stalker.

Hobbes’ conservative attitude towards sexuality is contrasted with the lust-filled antics of his opponents. Waters is portrayed as slightly creepy for hooking up with virtual!Sophie in The Pilot, and doesn’t seem too upset about her death to sleep with the eponymous spy in Inga Fossa. In The Pilot, Santiago suggests that virtual!Sophie will obtain the requisite information from Hobbes, stressing the importance of her physical appearance in that mission. Inga Fossa cements herself as a morally ambiguous actor by harnessing her sexuality.

Corridors of power...

Corridors of power…

(It should be noted that it is impossible to tell how Inga Fossa’s arc might have played out. Maybe she really is a good guy; maybe she is simply playing the game for her own ends. However, the character’s willingness to use sex to accomplish her ends is treated as a marker of her ambiguity. Pinochio even ties Fasso’s ambiguity into her sexuality, recalling how he “let the devil put her tongue in [his] ear.” In the world of Harsh Realm, good guys don’t have spontaneous sex in the war room (irony!) and probably don’t wear sexy black lingerie under their office clothes.)

This combines with the heavy Christian undertones of episodes like Leviathan and Manus Domini to create a sense that Harsh Realm is a surprisingly conservative show. There is a sense of the same moral panic that underscored the more uncomfortable moments in Millennium, as the show seems to suggest contemporary America is only a small step away from from becoming a faithless post-apocalyptic wasteland where – to unironically quote Frankie Goes to Hollywood – “sex and horror are the new gods.”

"You bet I'm a demon in the sack..."

“You bet I’m a demon in the sack…”

Then again, this is only the third episode of a show that was cancelled after nine episodes. This is the last episode to be broadcast on Fox. It is probably far too early to be seriously talking about the themes and ideas of the show; it seems like the writers are still discovering those for themselves. Firmly establishing the status quo and handing the show over to writers other than Chris Carter, Inga Fossa represents something of a beginning for Harsh Realm. Unfortunately, it is also the end.

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2 Responses

  1. Ah, sex and Carter! A weird love affair. As much as at times the non-sexual intellectual attraction of the lead couples of his shows have added to their success, thanks to that idealistic quality of absolute love elevating these couples above others, at times it feels so conservative. As for the gays, between X-Cops, IWTB and this episode (3 occurrences in hundreds of hours of production!!!), it’s not a particularly flattering track record…

    Still, sex! guns! ‘xplosions! And Fox decides to cancel it.

    • Actually – and only I remember this because I watched it recently – all things does feature a lesbian couple. It’s certainly a lot more balanced than Inga Fossa or X-Cops, even if it does get drowned out by the rest of the episode’s new ageisms. (Although there’s nothing too offensive in the portrayal of the characters’ sexuality, they still feel like a very nineties stereotype – it’s only possible to embrace your sexuality if you reject science and accept the hidden truths of the universe. This is an episode that essentially espouses a lack of spirituality will give you cancer.)

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