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Harsh Realm – Camera Obscura (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.

And so, with Camera Obscura, it seems that Harsh Realm comes to an end

The show had been developed as a television series for the new millennium; all involved had great plans for it. Fox had made no secret of the fact that they planned for Harsh Realm to take pride of place in their schedule going forward. The assumption was that it would replace The X-Files after that juggernaut was retired. There was a lot of hype around the development, a lot of excitement about the new show from producer Chris Carter. Harsh Realm was to be the first of many new shows developed by the producer as part of a highly lucrative contract with Fox.

Burning down the House (of God)...

Burning down the House (of God)…

Sadly, it did not work out that way. Harsh Realm had premiered to low ratings. Fox shuffled it off the schedule after only three episodes, which seemed a knee-jerk response given the talent involved in the show’s production. The six remaining episodes were locked away from the light of day, relegated to premiering on FX at the tail end of that season of television. For all that everybody involved had hoped that Harsh Realm would be a breakout hit, it ended up little more than a footnote.

Here, it dies. After nine episodes aired across two channels over seven months, the curtain comes down on Harsh Realm. It ends not with a bang, but a whimper.

Time for reflection...

Time for reflection…

Camera Obscura is not a bad episode of television by any measure. In fact, it is one of the stronger of the nine episodes of Harsh Realm to be produced. It is the second episode written by Steven Maeda, who was also responsible for Kein Ausgang. It seems like Maeda has an understanding of what a standalone episode of Harsh Realm should look like; or, at the very least, an understanding of what a standalone episode of Harsh Realm should look like at this point in the show’s run.

After all, Harsh Realm never really established a clear formula for its episodic adventures. The nature of the show meant that the writing team could hardly rely on a “case of the week” structure to tell their stories. Instead, Hobbes and Pinochio wandered across a post-apocalyptic version of the United States like a cross between Mad Max and The A-Team. There was a sense that Harsh Realm was really just a collection of science-fiction allegories, dealing with issues like perpetual war (Kein Ausgang), excessive capitalism (Reunion) or faith (Manus Domini).

He hasn't a prayer...

He hasn’t a prayer…

Maeda’s scripts for Kein Ausgang and Camera Obscura are perhaps the most allegorical of the stories that Harsh Realm produced during its admittedly short run. Kein Ausgang featured Hobbes and Pinochio trapped inside a battle that was constantly repeating itself; a none-too-subtle commentary on cycles of violence and the madness of war. Camera Obscura plays upon similar themes, with Hobbes and Pinochio wandering into the midst of a bitter feud between two families in the ruins of New York.

In interviews and press, Chris Carter tended to compare Harsh Realm to poetic works of Homer; Frank Spotnitz suggested it was a modern-day version of The Twilight Zone. It is a very odd structure for a show that has a very clear central objective: the elimination of General Omar Santiago. Cincinnati was the only episode among the final six episodes of the truncated season to even hint in that direction, with other episodes adopting a loose format where Hobbes and Pinochio would go somewhere and encounter something before continuing on their merry way.

All that glitters...

All that glitters…

Sometimes the show would suggest that there was a purpose to their wandering. Kein Ausgang used the justification that Pinochio was looking for a particular person who had never been mentioned before and who would never be mentioned after. Reunion suggested that Hobbes was looking for the virtual copy of his mother, although there was no real sense of why it was important at that exact moment; that said, the episode suggested that perhaps the characters are guided by almost spiritual forces.

Camera Obscura uses the idea of Hobbes and Pinochio recruiting an army of mercenaries to take down Santiago as a springboard to its episodic adventure. While this is a premise that explains why Hobbes and Pinochio are willing to become guns for hire drawn into the episode’s central plot, it does seem a little surreal. There has never been any indication that Hobbes was hoping to raise an armed resistance against Santiago; instead, the show seemed to suggest that trust was scarce in Harsh Realm and that the characters could only really depend on one another.

Buried treasure...

Buried treasure…

Cincinnati demonstrated that Hobbes and Pinochio could take on Santiago with only Florence and Escalante assisting. Recruiting an army (or even just a large team) would change the dynamic of the show in a way that the production team seemed reluctant to allow. Given that Pinochio could not remain separated from his leg in Manus Domini, it seems unlikely that the show would opt to to elevate Hobbes from wandering humanist to leader or men in so short a time. Certainly, it would force the show to become less episodic.

The idea of raising an army only exists so that Hobbes and Pinochio have an excuse to at that meeting point in New Jersey, and so they have an economic imperative to accept the offer of gold from Prince Stewart. It provides an excuse for taking Hobbes and Pinochio away from the central objective of the series, and forcing them into a smaller and more intimate story about feuding families fighting the ruins of New York. That said, the segue is somewhat inelegant. The awkward transition marks Harsh Realm as a show that is firmly episodic.

Riding shotgun on this find...

Riding shotgun on this find…

However, it is efficient. Once the background stuff is out of the way, Camera Obscura slides gracefully into the “genre hybrid allegory” that seems to be the show’s default form. If Steven Maeda wrote Kein Ausgang as “video war game” taken to its logical conclusion, complete with restarts and “game over” scenarios, then Camera Obscura is Romeo & Juliet by way of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The unique Harsh Realm flavour is added by some elaboration on the show’s back story and the revelation of a glitch.

In many respects, Camera Obscura is a prime example of “Harsh Realm as parable.” In the opening nine episodes of the season, neither Hobbes nor Pinochio are particularly well-defined characters. Hobbes and Pinochio often seem like broadly-drawn archetypes that exist to fill positions in a given story. In Three Precenters, Hobbes is a niave fool taken in by a predatory village, while Pinochio is shrewd and canny; in Manus Domini, Hobbes is a true believer and Pinochio is a cynic who comes to embrace faith.

The doomsday clock...

The doomsday clock…

Hobbes and Pinochio lack the sparkle that made Mulder and Scully such an iconic pairing. In a way, they resemble Chris Carter’s initial depiction of Frank Black, wandering heroes trying to make sense of a chaotic world. That said, neither Scott Bairstow nor D.B. Sweeney have the same screen presence that helped Lance Henriksen to ground Frank Black during the first season of Millennium. As with any other criticism of Harsh Realm, it comes with the qualifier that neither the actors nor the writers had a proper chance to find the characters.

Still, the plot of Camera Obscura demonstrates how flexible the two central characters can be; how they exist as malleable forms that can be slotted into a given story with a minimum amount of fuss. Harsh Realm has tried to position Pinochio as a rogue or a bad guy, but the series is never entire sure how roguish Pinochio should be. In the eight episodes leading up to Camera Obscura, it seems like Pinochio has no rough edges and no true mercenary streak. He is as loyal and trustworthy as anybody, despite his (and the show’s) protestations to the contrary.

Cleaning up his act...

Cleaning up his act…

There are even elements of that here, particularly when Pinochio is asked about his own experiences of war. For a roguish rebel, he offers a pretty earnest commentary on the horrors of war. “You ever kill anyone with it?” Aethan mcKinley asks, playing with Pinochio’s gun. “What’s it like?” Pinochio responds, “Believe me, kid, you don’t want to know.” When Aethan tells Pinochio that his father taught him that “the only way you can tell the measure of a man is across the barrel of a gun”, Pinochio answers, “Your old man’s wrong.”

As with a lot of the early first season episodes, there is a sense that the writing staff are having a great deal of trouble pitching Pinochio just right. The character is meant to be charming and charismatic, irreverent and mercenary. Instead, Pinochio often seems as earnest as Hobbes. There are only faint traces of playfulness left in the character, drowned out when the show needs more angst. Asked why he does what he does if he feels so opposed to violence, Pinochio confesses to Aethan, “I do what I have to do.” Heavy.

Tunnel vision...

Tunnel vision…

However, all of this gets brushed aside when Camera Obscura needs to build to a climax based on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. In order for the plot to work, the characters need to come to odds over the treasure. While the Stewart and McKinley families are already at odds, the drama becomes more exciting if Hobbes and Pinochio turn on one another. So the climax of Camera Obscura has Pinochio demonstrating a sudden ruthless streak and deciding to claim the recovered gold for himself.

The central allegory is quite clear. Greed is bad. As Hobbes explains to Pinochio at the climax, the gold is quite literally tainted. “The vault’s contaminated,” Hobbes warns. “It’s all radioactive. The gold will kill whoever tries to take it.” That was the metaphorical point of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, rendered literal by Camera Obscura. In fact, the episode suggests that the greed clouding Pinochio’s mind is literally radiation poisoning. “You’re getting sick,” Hobbes insists. “We both are. It’s radiation poisoning.”

The gospel according to Hobbes...

The gospel according to Hobbes…

Of course, radiation doesn’t quite work like that. Brain cells don’t reproduce, and so are only affected by incredibly high doses of radiation. If the radiation is strong enough to affect Pinochio’s behaviour above the vault, it seems rather convenient that actually visiting the vault doesn’t kill him. Then again, all of this can be excused with the mantra repeated at the end of the opening title sequence. The virtual world of Harsh Realm is “just a game”, and so a lot of inconsistencies can be written off or dismissed.

(After all, the fact that the dead bodies all digitise and disappear makes for a cool visual, but seems to undermine the core purpose of the simulation. After all, the United States military in order to offer a speculative version of a world rocked by a nuclear terrorist attack. Managing the bodies is an essential part of any disaster response scenario, and so handily removing all of the dead bodies would seem to remove a lot of the verisimilitude of that particular scenario. Still, it makes for a pretty cool visual and a nice indicator that Hobbes is not in Kansas.)

His heart is black...

His heart is black…

Pinochio acts the way that he does because the plot needs him to act in such a way as to get the theme of the episode across. “Greed is bad” is one of the oldest tropes in literature, and so it makes sense that Harsh Realm would offer a parable about a mountain of shining gold that is literally toxic to anybody who comes in contact with it. It recalls various fantasy stories (most notably The Hobbit) about huge piles of treasure guarded by monsters; in this case, the monster happens to be radioactive fallout.

The recurring themes of Harsh Realm bubble through Camera Obscura, particularly the sense that mankind is in a constant state of war with itself and that civilisation is only a fragile illusion. With its focus on abandoned gold and broke-down power stations, Camera Obscura is perhaps the most explicitly post-apocalyptic episode since The Pilot. There have been post-apocalyptic trappings seeded throughout the show’s nine-episode run, but Cincinnati and Camera Obscura both focus on the collapse of civilisation within the urban sprawl.

Faith of our father...

Faith of our father…

This allegorical story also provides some nice back story to the virtual world of Harsh Realm. The voice over narration from The Pilot had made it clear that the virtual world diverged from the real world at some point in its history; given the virtual world’s status as a war game, it makes sense that the point of divergence would be terrorist attack. (Encapsulating a whole host of nineties fears, it is a stateless nuclear attack upon a major metropolitan area.) The teaser to Camera Obscura reveals that this horrific post-apocalyptic landscape was the result of a terrorist attack on New York.

The twenty-first century looms large over Chris Carter’s work. In many ways, The X-Files encapsulated a lot of the mood and tone of the long nineties; the show captured a lot of the spiritual and existential ennui that took root in the long quiet pause between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the World Trade Centre. Only Friends or The Simpsons can make a comparable claim to embody the nineties zietgeist on weekly scripted television. The X-Files frequently feels like a time capsule, a snapshot of a moment that held for almost a decade.

Underground movement...

Underground movement…

At the same time, the nineties are almost over. The new millennium beckons. Perhaps Carter was aware of this on some level, accepting that his show was grounded in a particular time and place that might begin to fade from history. Millennium was really just a clock ticking down towards the changing of the decade, as if acknowledging that the nineties could not last forever; sooner or later, times would change. The “unipolar moment” could vanish in an instant, rendering The X-Files a historical artefact rather than an insightful mirror.

Interestingly, Carter’s work outside The X-Files seems to foreshadow the end of what might be termed “the long nineties.” In some respects, Harsh Realm is a very nineties television show. The show’s structure is heavily episodic, marking it as a product of nineties cable television. The series’ fixation on faith and spirituality as an unquestioned good is rooted in the cultural context of a generation desperately searching for something to believe, rather than a culture harrowed by atrocities committed in the name of such devoted and unchallenged belief.

Stand-off...

Stand-off…

At the same, it feels entirely appropriate that Camera Obscura was the last episode of Harsh Realm produced and broadcast. As with the pilot of The Lone Gunmen, it seems like Camera Obscura prefigures the arrival of the twenty-first century. A devastating attack takes New York by surprise, leaving the rest of the country to refer to the affected area as “Ground Zero.” It seems that this horrific atrocity that ushered in years of militarism and the erosion of civil liberties, turning America into a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

It is perhaps too much to compare the explicit fascism of Santiago’s reign with the attitudes adopted by the Bush administration during the War on Terror. Nonetheless, the tone of the American wasteland featured in Harsh Realm is similar to the pop cultural landscape in the wake of 9/11. Santiago’s hold over the virtual world is justified as an attempt to impose order upon a chaotic realm in the wake of an earth-shattering catastrophe. Under Santiago, the population is controlled through a potent cocktail of fear and patriotism.

Confessions of a dangerous mind...

Confessions of a dangerous mind…

As John Kenneth Muir noted in his retrospective evaluation of the shortlived show, some of the parallels are striking – right down to the choice of words employed:

Harsh Realm also hints rather dramatically at the shape of things to come in the early 21st century and particularly the War on Terror Age. One episode, Leviathan, laments Santiago’s “culture of fear,” something we can all relate to after those color-coded DHS Terrorist Attack Warnings. Another episode, Cincinnati seizes on the phrase “failure of imagination” as the reason for a battlefield defeat; the self-same phrase employed explicitly by the 9/11 Commission tasked with studying the reasons why the September 11th attacks were successful.

In a very specific way, Harsh Realm was ahead of its time. Had the show been produced only a few years later, it could have seemed a timely allegorical commentary on life during the War on Terror.

Fickle alleys...

Fickle alleys…

Millennium suggested that the erosion of modern civic values was the work of entropy; decay affects those things we leave untended. Harsh Realm suggests a more direct cause for the damage done to the virtual America; the terrorist attack itself was only justification for the violence that followed. Harsh Realm is not too concerned with who planted the bomb or why; it was just something coded into the game. The bomber has his own existential doubts, but Harsh Realm was never about the terror attack as much as the response to that attack.

The events of 9/11 would contribute to the X-Files‘ growing sense of cultural irrelevance. If The X-Files had been a show that defined the nineties, then 9/11 demonstrated that the nineties were well and truly over. Suddenly, conspiracies and skepticism were no longer in fashion. The show seemed ill-suited to the transition between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, which is part of the reason why the show’s final three seasons feel so odd. In some respects, Camera Obscura hints at Harsh Realm as a viable replacement for The X-Files.

Window of opportunity...

Window of opportunity…

With Camera ObscuraHarsh Realm becomes a show that anticipates the twenty-first century. Even the Priest suggests a more skeptical attitude towards faith than many of the surrounding episodes. As with the “seer” in Manus Domini, the Priest is marked as a monster through facial disfigurement. However, unlike the seer in Manus Domini, the Priest is allowed to keep his trappings of office. He wears the vestments and operates a church; he is not portrayed as pagan or mystical in the same way that the seer was, instead communicating through a confessional.

Over the course of Camera Obscura, the Priest uses his power to manipulate the Stewart and McKinley families into a perpetual feud. It plays as a metaphor for how religion can serve as fuel to these sorts of long-term struggles, trapping entire generations within cycles of violence and hate. “Why would he do that?” Stewart demands. “Because he’s seen the future,” Hobbes explains. “And in that future, he’s left here all alone. You’re all he’s got.” The Priest keeps the conflict alive to ensure his own relevance.

More power!

More power!

Camera Obscura seems more skeptical of religion (or, at least, organised religion) than most of the rest of the first season of Harsh Realm. Even Manus Domini offered the Sisters as a benign example of religion and spirituality, in contrast to the horror of the seer or Santiago. There is no contrasting element present in Camera Obscura. Instead, the Priest seems to serve as a commentary on the way that faith can turn to bitterness and rage under the right circumstances; how religious authority can be harnessed to enable and perpetuate a cycle of violence and aggression.

Perhaps Camera Obscura is the perfect play to leave Harsh Realm, a show caught on a razor’s blade between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It was, perhaps, a show for the transition into the new millennium, capturing a very strange and very short moment in its own quirky way.

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