In a twist that they might perhaps have appreciated in better times, the three most conceptual writers who defined telefantasy in the 1990s have all fallen on hard times lately. The fact that neither J Michael Strazynski, Chris Carter nor Joss Whedon currently has a television show running at time of writing is remarkable when you consider the impact and influence Babylon 5, The X Files and Buffy had. In that sense, a golden age is over. Interestingly each fell foul of the enormous success of their keynote series and as soon as they tried to diversify things seemed to go wrong. Carter, like Whedon did have some opportunity to develop a similar but subtly different show and both Millennium and Angel trod darker paths rewarding loyal albeit smaller audiences for their patience. However when Whedon unveiled the demon free and vampire-less, Western inspired Firefly the public did not want to know. Perhaps he should have seen the portents because Carter had already run into the same problem a few years previously…
The X Files was once a major show with many more viewers than either Buffy or Babylon 5 and to some Chris Carter and his production company Ten Thirteen had usurped Star Trek`s dominance of the genre market. However, Millennium had been a commercial struggle and was curtailed after three seasons so the chance that he would have any more leeway with another series was slim. What he couldn’t really have foreseen was that a film was already in production that would well and truly overshadow his new series and cause such a stir that it would look as if he had attempted a cheap rip off.
Prior to launch Harsh Realm was an eagerly anticipated show; US magazine `Entertainment Weekly` singled it out as one of the few new series to look forward to in what they saw as a poor autumn schedule in 1999. The series was inspired by a Dark Horse comic strip that director Daniel Sackheim brought to Chris Carter’s attention. Created by James Hudnell in 1993, it concerned a private detective called Dexter Green who specialized in finding missing persons in the future where pocket universes could be created by computers providing real worlds for people to experience. After a teenager goes missing in one of these worlds, called Harsh Realm, Green is hired by his parents to find him and enters a world of magic and monsters. “Dex’s journey into this world teaches him a lot about the human race” said Hudnell. Incidentally, Hudnell would later name Carter among several defendants, including 20th Century-Fox Television, in a lawsuit claiming he wasn't given proper credit for Harsh Realm's creation.
Carter was intrigued enough to tinker with the concept and ended up with something that retained only the name and the virtual reality idea. Instead, he created the idea that Harsh Realm was a military simulator created in 1995 to test possible scenarios and train soldiers how to deal with them. Initially identical to our world in every way, it includes replicas of everyone from 1995 mapped into the virtual world and its simulation scenario is a time after a nuclear device has gone off in New York (one of the episodes shows this in a chilling scene). Something has gone wrong with the programme and a real solider called Omar Santiago has taken control of the virtual environment; main character Thomas Hobbes’ mission is therefore to defeat Santiago and end the game. Hobbes, fresh out of Sarejevo is selected due to his bravery in extreme combat conditions but as he’s about to marry girlfriend Sophie he is initially reluctant to agree. Once inside the Realm he meets up with Mike Pinnochio, another real soldier lost there, who becomes a reluctant and ultimately loyal ally.
Carter described the series as having the biggest story telling potential out of all his shows and he ensured that there were broader spiritual and religious themes, as there had been in The X Files. Compared Harsh Realm to his best known series he pointed out that while The X Files was essentially a two handed show with supernatural elements, the new series was more of an ensemble piece with science fiction to the fore. Hobbes would soon come to understand that the simulated people he encounters have emotions and that there is more to the Realm than at first appears. To complete his mission he must stay even if the opportunity to escape presents itself.
The pilot, directed by Daniel Sackheim, was shot over 16 days in Vancouver on the soundstage recently vacated by Millennium and utilizing many of the production staff from that show. Including a cameo from Lance Henrikson as the general who sends Hobbes on his mission and a voice over from Gillian Anderson, the debut introduced a strong cast. Scott Bairstow played Hobbes and, like several of the cast, had a previous X Files credit. Born in Canada, he made his debut in White Fang 2 and other credits include the series Party Of Five and tv movie Killing Mr Griffith; on both occasions playing a nasty type of character. It was partly this edge that Carter hoped would show through and he spoke highly of the actor saying; “Scott has all the things you need in a hero. The material takes on a greater measure because he is occupying the role.” Bairstow himself seemed enamored with the part, especially as he chose it over a development deal with the ABC network. DB Sweeney who came to the show after two previous flops, C16 and the actually rather good Strange Luck, plays Pinnochio. He had also appeared in films such as Memphis Belle, Eight Men Out and Fire In The Sky. Pleased to be playing a character that combines physicality with a large dose of cynicism he enthused: “Chris Carter is one of the few really strong producers…. You get a chance to build viewers and survive or fail on your own merits rather than instead of whether people watched it in the first few weeks. I might have the chance to be on a show for a while”. He probably rued those words later.
Terry O’Quinn was selected to play Santiago, excellent casting as anyone who has seen this familiar character actor will realize. Another Millennium alumnus the actor admitted that he had trouble getting to grips with the sci-fi on the series but enjoyed his character’s attitude; “he wants order and he believes he’s right” he said. Sarah Jane Redmond plays the mysterious Inga Fossa who seems to have the ability to pass in and out of the game; after initially appearing to help Sophie, this character becomes more enigmatic and you’re never quite sure which side she’s on. The rest of the cast includes three recurring actors; Samantha Mathis paying Sophie, Max Martini as Lt Waters, Santiago’s right hand man and also the soldier whose life Hobbes saves in Sarejevo. Florence, played by Rachel Hayward is a mute with unusual healing powers.
The show was unveiled at a Pasadena press conference in July 1999. Whilst the media seemed most concerned about the level of violence in the show in the wake of 1998’s spate of gun related violence, there were already questions about similarities with The Matrix. Carter defended the series saying he was “not interested in graphic violence and/or horror (I prefer to) suggest a lot, to see the effects of violence itself….to tell good human stories using violence as a backdrop”. He also spoke about the fact that there would be some humour in the show and the juxtaposition of the real and virtual worlds.
The pilot episode was broadcast on October 8 1999, in a Friday evening slot previously occupied by Millennium but it immediately became clear something was wrong when it only registered ratings of 7.6 million viewers placing it fourth in its time slot behind Now and Again, with 11.2 million viewers, Sabrina: The Teenage Witch (11 million) and the National League baseball playoffs (nine million). In its second week, the figures audience fell to fewer than five million viewers, a calamitous fall that placed it ahead of only Ryan Caulfield and Wasteland among all prime-time shows from the so-called Big Four U.S. networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox). In fact it was a disastrous season all round for Fox with virtually every new series either cancelled or on hiatus. By contrast, The X-Files had debuted on Sept. 10, 1993, to 7.4 million viewers, but dropped only to 6.9 million viewers in its second week yet was averaging about seven million viewers when it was renewed for a second season. All the signs seemed to be that this would not happen to Harsh Realm.
The hot media cache surrounding the series quickly cooled as critics pointed out comparisons with The Matrix` particularly the way that the people in the Realm see Hobbes as “the one” who will save them. Some found it difficult to ascertain which world the narrative was in at any one time (which is actually deliberate in the pilot) though there was a lot of praise for the overall oppressive atmosphere generated and the fact that you never quite knew what would happen next. Hints of conspiracy went down well and everyone was agreed that the final reveal, in which the camera pulls pack from the comatose Hobbes to reveal hundreds of other people all hooked up to the Harsh Realm program, was stunning. Watching it in 2004 it is very difficult to understand why it performed so poorly; packed with incident and full of intriguing pointers it is a fantastic example of a pilot that really does make you want to see more. It scores heavily over The Matrix in all departments except perhaps crucially in special effects, an area in which it clearly can’t match. Hindsight though has revealed that the FX sequences were really the only thing The Matrix has to offer. However the series’ fate was sealed when the next two episodes had even lower ratings hovering around 5 million whereupon the plug was pulled, during production of episode 9.
The cancellation was especially strange because Carter had recently signed a multi-year deal with 20th Century-Fox Television making him one of the highest-paid producers joining an elite group that included David E. Kelley, Steven Bocho and John Wells.
This abrupt decision angered Carter who blamed the preceding show Ryan Caulfield which had even worse ratings and was also axed and he also internal politics at Fox Entertainment based on the fact that the company’s president Doug Herzog had allegedly never liked The X Files and had a secret agenda against him. “I think in the end it looks rather misguided to have premiered the show without a strong promotional basis. I’ve a feeling we’re a victim of a much bigger problem at Fox.” He claimed the cancellation had been driven by “political, creative and financial reasons …I will still say to anybody who will listen that it was a good show. It was well acted, well written, well directed --well done in general," he said. "The pilot tested extremely well. But over the summer they didn't spend any money promoting the show. People didn't come to the show because they didn't even know it was on." This is of course not entirely true as the recently released dvd includes tv spots and you can see the giant billboard pictured on this very page which was part of a rather striking ad campaign in the run up to the series’ debut.
Carter added that, poor ratings aside, he found the network's decision bizarre. "These are very nervous times in network television, more so even than a year ago" he said, alluding to the way The X Files had been given the chance to grow an audience.
Talking about the nature of the show he said; "You always have big plans for how stories might work and characters might evolve, but it's not until you get into those things that you really see what works and what doesn't and you learn how the storytelling rhythms [develop]," he says. "You've got to get some of the mythology out the way [early so] you can get into the stand-alone episodes, which are always refreshing because you know the characters, what their predicament is, what their history is. So you're trying to accomplish many things at once in the beginning, and it's nice when you finally get onto flat ground [with the stand-alones] and you're able to really build up speed." Though he was going to get some help from Frank Spotnitz, Vince Gilligan and John Shiban, Carter expected to write "the lion's share" of Harsh Realm's first season: He was slated to script or co-script 10 to 12 HR episodes and also an equal number of X-Files episodes.
Looking at the series’ nine completed episodes, it is true that there are some issues with the format; having no regular female lead is certainly something that needed rectifying and some mundane issues are skirted around such as how Hobbes and Pinnochio eat and so on. These little things build up to a more convincing whole in any long running series. Arguably there are also too many enigmatic characters with secrets hanging about diffusing the impact each time we’re introduced to another one. While this would work long term, there are too many of them in a relatively small number of stories.
Yet in other ways, `Harsh Realm` is brilliant, reveling in a strong individual style and direction with each of the nine episodes offering a glimpse of the considerable scope the series had. The episode openers are a strong point and powerful directorial styles are deployed throughout with some great soundtracks to back up the action. The FX may not be able to match `The Matrix` but are perfectly adequate and occasionally extremely impressive whilst the title sequence is excellent too, setting a unique tone. The cast acquit themselves very well with surprisingly minimal dialogue and there are enough hints of future developments to make the cancellation even more frustrating. The series’ was set out as a classic quest story as Hobbes seeks to defeat Santiago and get back to Sophie and it was launched at a time when the increasing reliance on new technology was a much talked about issue and there were certainly opportunities to explore such a topic in this series. At least 13 episodes had been plotted but unfortunately we may never know what would have happened; you’ll search the Internet in vain for any hints as to what might have happened down the line.
On a wider level, the fate of `Harsh Realm` shows just how difficult is to break through the innate conservatism of American audiences who are happier with shows in which not much changes and the reset dial is pressed at the end of each episode. It keeps the channels happy too, as they can then show the programme in any order. Chris Carter is right to feel aggrieved about what happened to the series but he wasn’t the first nor the last to watch an imaginative and different show fall so quickly because the US networks are not in the business of nurturing such programmes. Meanwhile, last week `Andromeda` celebrated its 100th episode. Enough said.
Wr: Chris Carter
Dir: Daniel Sacheim
Little time is wasted in establishing the series’ house style as being brash with bursts of occasional violence and frugal dialogue. At an advantage over most pilots as it only lasts 40 minutes, not a second is wasted and if the viewr is a tad confused at times as to where they are that is delibrate. There are some terrific action set pieces, notably the gritty Sarejevo opening, the attack on the barn shortly after Hobbes lands and the dramatic slow motion escoe from Santiago’s hase. A fantastic score, partucularly in the dockside sequence adds to the atmosphere. Yet despite the pace, there s still room for a few softer moments and each of the cast gets the chance to shine; Terry O’Quinn is marvellous as the evil, but old fashioned Santiago while Scott Bairstow aquits himself well in a difficult role that requires him to combine the character’s fears with his military training. DB Sweeney is a laugh, especially with his constant threats to eat the dog! Hobbes’ voiceover is used sparingly and mostly to good affect, though he does write rather eloquently for a soldier. The final reveal – of hundreds of other soldiers in the same predicament as Hobbes is a stunning shot and its difficult to understand why people didn’t tune in the following week.
Info: Hobbes’ dog is called Dexter after Dexter Green, the character in the original `Harsh Realm` comic strip.
Key Continuity: Both Pinnochio and Florence seem to know Hobbes is “the one”. Santiago’s right hand man Lt Waters was the soldier whose life Hobbes saved in Sarejevo but who has married the virtual Sophie. He is forced to kille her to try an stop Hobbes escaping setting up a bitter enmity between the two that will underscore several episodes.
Wr: Chris Carter
Dir: Daniel Sackheim
A surreal opeing sequence complete with Moby soundtrack opens this episode which underlines the characters, notably Hobbes’ compassion and Pinnochio’s sardonic approach. We also see Sophie challenging the army’s official story after she is spoken to by a mysterious woman at Tom’s supposed funeral. The conspiracy thread is very `X Files` but works well thanks to Smantha Mathis underplaying it. The episode’s action highlight is a rip roaring narrow escape in an oil tanker climxing with one huge explosion.
Info: Chris Carter was a huge fan of Moby when the series was made and the title theme is inspired by his music. The voice featured is none other than Mussolini!
Key Continuity: The bounty hunter ho captures Hobbes and Pinnochio appears to know about a portal which Santiago uses to travel back to the real world. Pinnochio also refers to Santiago’s “final solution”. Sophie is pregnant.
Wr: Chris Carter
Dir: Bryan Spicer
That mysterious woman from last week – Inga Fossa – is at the centre of this episode in which Hobbes gets to Santiago’s portal but is persuaded not to leave. There is a lot of exposition, which is broken up by some tense scenes while an epic sense of scale prevails. Other little scenes are well realised, especially one set in a digital void. Sarah Jane Redmond is a good choice to play Inga whose ture motives are unknown.
Key Continuity: Santiago’s ultimate plan is to destroy the real world leaving only his domain. Pinnochio used to work for Santiago but something he did meant he had to flee. We also see the real Pinnochio unconscious in the lab; the right side of his face is badly burned. Inga tells Hobbes about Sophie’s pregnancy but she later tells Sophie she didn’t speak to Tom.
Wr: Steven Maeda
Dir: Cliff Bole
A world war two scenaio with a diffeence, this episode finds Hobbes and Pinnohio stuck in a virtual combat simulation left by accident in the Realm. Here the same 34 days are repeated as US and German troops battle over a bridge. While there are familiar elements to this, Bole’s direction aptly captures the repetitive existence and the force of the skirmishes very well. There’s also another great episode openings; fast becoming a trademark of the series. The climax is particualry strong and the shot of Hobbes leaping off an exploding bridge is a visual triumph.
Wr: Greg Walker
Dir: Kim Manners
A poignant episode, which juxtaposes Hobbes’ real and virtual mother dying in very different scenarios. It could have been overplayed but ends up packed with symbolism and motifs (especially the snow). Few fictional labour camps have looked as gruelling as the one depicted here and whilst some of the actions of the characters seem unlikely there is a very `X Files` ish feel to proceedings. Full credit to Bairstow too for handling the sensitive scenes so well. When you get to the scene where he’s looking through his mother’s eyes and sees Sophie (and she sees him) you’ll feel that lump in the throat.
Key Continuity: Florence can only heal wounds obtained by people in the Realm, not illnesses that were copied in with them. The medic in the labour camp who helps Hobbes is also seen talking briefly to Sophie in the real world at the end suggesting he would have been a recurring character.
Wr: Frank Spotnitz
Dir: Daniel Sackheim
A weird lake that copies people leaving the originals in a squalid cell to die is the antagonist here. They never explain quite why but this is one of those episodes that always works well in sci-fi shows as one by one characters take on a beatific air in the face of clear danger. The solution though is well thought through and there’s some humour too, mostly courtesy of Pinnochio who quips his way along. A few eerie images complete the package, notably reflections in the lake that remain after the person has moved away.
Wr: John Shiban
Dir: Tony To
The title translates as Hand of God, appropriate for an episode about faith in different scenarios. Despite being rushed by the 40 minute limit, Siban’s script addresses its topic by playing on the supposed lack of religion in the Realm and the way that the Healers threaten Santiago’s authority. By placing the emphasis on just one soldier – Escalente – we see the devotion of the rank and file. Several key scenes make an impact, especially when Hobbes and Escalante have to work together to stop being blown up and also the way that Pinnochio deals with a terrible injury. “There’s no God here” he claims but by episode’s end he has reason to doibt that. In true Ten Thirteen style there are plenty of pointers but no answers but I’m willing to bet that this would have been a pivotal episode in he long term. Plus it has some beautiful direction and an opening sequence that’ll make you jump out of your chair!
Key Continuity: Florence is an outcast from a large group of `healers`. Theier powers are limited however; when one of them `grows` Pinnochio’s leg back it kills here. Pinnochio’s reasons for not wanting to go back to the real world would seem to be because of terrible injuries he suffered in a real conflict; he volunteered for Harsh Realm so he could be able bodied again. A hooded stranger with a mutilated face who tells Hobbes that while Florence thinks he’s the One, “she’s wrong”.
Wr: Chris Carter
Dir: Larry Shaw
An audacious plan to kidnap Santiago is the centrepiece of this assured episode in which we glimpse the General’s respect and admiration of his enemies and his determination to defeat them. Terry O’Quinn is in his element here and whilst a handy digital device proves rather too much of a plot device, there is plenty of tension and a well executed set piece ambush in a night-time forest; once again the locations and staging is impeccable. A little more could have been made of the Indian rebels plans and also the clash of philosophies but the way Carter writes it, Santiago is both sticking to his military training while teetering close to grand madness.
Key Continuity: There is a device that allows people to copy faces and heal wounds. The soldier Escalante re-appears only to be killed by Santiago.
Wr: Steven Maeda
Dir: Jeffrey Levy
The final episode made, during which it was learned by the cast and crew that the show was cancelled. How much was added is hard to tell but there is an air of melancholy and a hint that perhaps there is more here than would normally have been shown by the ninth episode. Centred on an old power station deep in the heart of New York where two families are feuding over a stash of gold in the Federal Reserve next door, the rather threadbare scenario is given life by a much more fascinating scarred priest who is influencing events. In a simple but very chilling opening sequence we see a man with a suitcase talk briefly to the priest before going to a park and letting off the nuclear bomb setting up the Harsh Realm training scenario. In actuality the priest is simply lonely and wants to keep the families fighting. The episode is also notable for showing the true extent to which Hobbes and Pinnochio feel loyalty to each other.
Key Continuity: The Priest has a portal which purports to tell the future and shows Hobbes a vision of Pinnochio shooting him.