Advertisements
  • Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

Harsh Realm – Three Percenters (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.

Three Percenters is written by Frank Spotnitz.

Spotnitz is the longest serving staff writer on The X-Files, with the exception of Chris Carter. He worked with Carter in shaping and defining the mythology, sharing credit on some of the biggest episodes of the series. He is credited as a screenwriter on both The X-Files: Fight the Future and The X-Files: I Want to Believe. He is the only writer apart from Carter to work on all Millennium, Harsh Realm and The Lone Gunmen. As such, Spotnitz is an essential part of the Ten Thirteen family.

Talk about finger food...

Talk about finger food…

Spotnitz has a very clear of structure. Working on The X-Files, he was renowned for his ability to “break” a story, to split it down to its constituent elements and to make it make sense. His first credit on The X-Files was the script for End Game, which was a hugely important part of shaping and defining the mythology of the show. His two scripts for the first season of Millennium (Weeds and Sacrament) capture the spirit of the show in that moment in time, for better and for worse. It makes perfect sense for Spotnitz to script a first season episode of Harsh Realm.

However, Spotnitz’s script for Three Percenters perhaps demonstrates one of the problems with these initial nine episodes. Spotnitz is very good at understanding story structure and logic, but Harsh Realm doesn’t really have a set formula or template that he might be able to apply. Five episodes into its run, the show hasn’t settled into a grove in the same way that Millennium or The X-Files had. This perhaps explains why Three Percenters feels so odd and uneven; it occasionally seems like Spotnitz just pasted over a template from The X-Files itself.

Walking on water...

Walking on water…

In the documentary Inside Harsh Realm, Spotnitz identifies the lack of a clearly discernable episode structure as one of the potential issues with the fledging young show:

One thing we discovered very quickly was that, unlike some of the other Ten Thirteen shows, Harsh Realm did not have a “franchise” – which is a TV word for a clear-cut format for each episode. In an X-Files episide, something impossible happens, then Mulder and Scully are given the case. In a Millennium episode, some terrible crime is committed and then Frank Black is called in to solve it. Harsh Realm was a wide-open canvas. Anything could happen from week to week. And it frequently did. … And that freedom was a little bit bewildering at first, but I think it gave us an opportunity to tell some really interesting stories that probably owed more to The Twilight Zone than anything else Ten Thirteen did. Anything could happen because it was a virtual world – it was a computer simulation we were living in. So it had that sort of Twilight Zone element of “why is this happening?”

Certainly, there is nothing in the first five episodes that really suggests that Harsh Realm would be interested or able to tell a story like Three Percenters. Even the glitch featured in Kein Ausgang was of a markedly different character.

Nothing makes you feel quite as welcome...

Nothing makes you feel quite as welcome…

In some respects, it feels like Spotnitz is porting over a format and structure that worked really well on The X-Files and trying to make it work as part of Harsh Realm. To be fair, Spotnitz is keenly aware of all the elements that he is expected to juggle as part of a Harsh Realm script; not only does Three Percenters give Hobbes and Pinochio character beats, but it also finds room for development of Florence and Waters as well. Carter has spoken about how he drew from Greek mythology in creating Harsh Realm, so Three Percenters draws from the legend of the sirens.

However, the basic premise of Three Percenters feels like it belongs in a “weird Americana” episode of The X-Files. There is a teaser in which a travelling family are attacked by a weird creepy menace on the edge of a lake. Then our heroes stumble upon a small secluded community untouched by civilisation that harbours a dark secret that it hopes to keep from the outsiders. In terms of actual structure and rough plot outline, it is very similar to an X-Files episode, albeit with the weird phenomenon rooted in a programming error rather than anything paranormal.

Village of the damned...

Village of the damned…

To be fair, Spotnitz himself acknowledges the similarities between Three Percenters and work he had done on The X-Files. In particular, the basic premise of the episode (not to mention the reveal of what makes local cooking so fresh) harks back to his work on Our Town. Discussing his contribution to Harsh Realm, he reflected:

Another instance of my morbid fascination with cannibalism. First, I invented the chicken-processing community of cannibals for Our Town in season two of The X-Files. Then came this effort, in which an error in the Harsh Realm game code created a group of cannibals who replace their victims with digital copies. Both episodes play on another favorite fear of mine – the paranoia of entering a strange community with a secret. (It should come as no surprise that one of my favorite movies is Bad Day at Black Rock.)

It is a comparison that is perfectly reasonable. The use of water in the episode and the imprisoning of those who discover the secret also harks towards Spotnitz’s script to Detour. This makes sense; Our Town and Detour are his two strongest standalone X-Files scripts.

Cagey on the subject...

Cagey on the subject…

It is important to stress that Spotnitz is writing for Harsh Realm. Hobbes is trusting and optimistic; Pinochio is cynical and suspicious; Florence is quiet and sensitive; Waters is prone to overreaction. Even the imagery is specific to the show. Reflections are a vital thematic element of Harsh Realm, so it feels appropriate that the glitches should be able to capture people through their reflections and effectively construct an identical (but flawed) double. This is simply what the United States military has done in creating the game; the glitches just do it on a smaller scale.

In fact, Three Percenters is very much in tune with what Carter wants to do with Harsh Realm. The first season is full of religious and spiritual imagery, which will arguably build to a peak in Manus Domini. Since The Pilot, the show has suggested that Hobbes is something of a religious figure in the world of the game; Leviathan implied that he would save the digital world by preaching a message of hope and understanding. Three Percenters pushes the Christ imagery as far as it can, featuring a version of Hobbes who actually walks on water.

Sneaking with intent...

Sneaking with intent…

The problem is that none of this is particularly exciting or compelling on its own terms. As much as the inhabitants of the village might be copying the image files of their captives, it feels like Three Percenters scanned and copied a structural template from The X-Files. The finer details might be different, but the basic story logic is ultimately the same. It seems like a waste of a premise as unique and versatile as Harsh Realm to then strain so hard to offer an imitation of a radically different television show.

Even the broad themes of Three Percenters stand out in contrast to the themes of the shows around it. The secluded glitch feels like one of those weird places in America that populates stories like Gender Bender or Humbug, those eccentric spaces that are being eroded by the forces of globalisation. In fact, Waters shows up here to completely destroy the community, wiping it off the map of the “United States of Santiago.” It is a much more brutal resolution than The X-Files typically allowed.

The lady in the lake...

The lady in the lake…

The only real difference between Three Percenters and a story like Detour is the fact that Three Percenters doesn’t feel too heartbroken about the destruction of this eccentric enclave. The episode plays up the grotesque nature of the glitches, to the point that Waters’ mass murder seems like a perfectly reasonable response. It is a rare case where it seems like Santiago and his men might actually be making the virtual world a safer place for its inhabitants. There is no tragedy or sympathy for the cannibalistic community.

There are ways that the plot of Three Percenters might have integrated more successfully with the show around it. Harsh Realm is very much a show that is dedicated to exploring certain aspects of American culture and history through allegory and metaphor. Cannibalism has generally worked well as a metaphor for excessive capitalism and consumerism; Spotnitz tied the cannibalism in Our Town into the massive industry of factory farming as a way of reinforcing that connection.

Goign digital...

Goign digital…

Reunion played as an effective (and completely non-subtle) commentary on excessive and exaggerated capitalism, so maybe Three Percenters would work better within the larger context of the series if it had embraced the thematic link between cannibalism and capitalism. More than that, there are a number of potent metaphors suggested by vampiric copies of human beings; Three Percenters might work better as a story about conformity or exploitation, about the conflict that exists between identity and integration.

Sadly, Three Percenters never finds a suitable hook on which it might hang its story. As a result, the episode plays as a script adapted from an idea that would have worked better on The X-Files. Spotnitz is too solid a writer for Three Percenters to be actively bad; the parts work well enough, and everything fits together. There is just no sense of momentum or movement to sustain any real interest in the narrative. Three Percenters is probably the blandest of the nine Harsh Realm episodes to make it into production.

Night moves...

Night moves…

As with Reunion, there is a slight sense that the production team is struggling with the science-fiction elements of the show. It is not something with which any of the established writers feel particularly comfortable; Steven Maeda came closest in his application of video game logic to warfare in Kein Ausgang. Much like Reunion, the script for Three Percenters feels the need to impose arbitrary restrictions on what Florence can do so as to prevent her presence from undermining the drama.

In Reunion, it was suggested that Florence’s magical healing powers could not heal problems that existed in the code. If a person had cancer when they were scanned into the virtual world, then Florence could not heal that cancer. (Although it does seem arbitrary that she could not “reset” it back to where it was when the person was scanned.) Here, Pinochio suggests that the process of copying also affects Florence’s powers. Explaining what is happening to Hobbes, Pinochio states, “That’s what happened to the girl. Why Florence couldn’t heal her.”

God moving over the face of the Waters...

God moving over the face of the Waters…

Still, there are some interesting elements to Three Percenters. it is nice to have Waters fulfil a role in the narrative that is not simply “weasally bad guy.” More than that, it is interesting to have Waters and his troops operate in a plot where they do not default to the role of “primary antagonist.” One of the issues with General Omar Santiago in the first nine episodes is that his perspective is only touched upon. Cincinnati does a lot to flesh out his character, but it is interesting to see a story that suggests that Santiago’s reign of terror might have some small benifit.

It is also good to see Harsh Realm paying attention to the character of Florence. Mute characters are always interesting, because they provide a rare challenge to writers and actors in a medium that can frequently be quite talky and dialogue-driven. The script needs to be able to communicate a great deal about Florence without ever allowing the character to speak, or without conveniently off-loading all the relevant information to exposition dumps from supporting players.

Flor(ence) it...

Flor(ence) it…

Spotnitz’s script is very good at structuring the scenes with Florence so that her motivations and character are always quite clear. Rachel Hayward does a good job at communicating her character’s intentions through a mute performance, without resorting to pantomime. It is a very tough balance to get right, and the result is that Florence is one of the more intriguing characters on the show. Given that the three credited regulars on the show are male, it is nice to have a female character who recurs more frequently than Inga Fossa or Sophie Green.

Still, these interesting elements are not quite enough to redeem Three Percenters. The first season of any show is going to produce disappointing episodes that lack a strong sense of the show’s identity; Three Percenters just happens to be such a misfire.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: