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Harsh Realm (1999)
Created by Chris Carter

review by Christopher Geary

Harsh Realm was supposed to be the crucial evidence that Chris Carter's ability to develop hit genre TV series wasn't restricted to The X-Files. It lasted only nine episodes before they pulled the plug. Five years later, it's (grudgingly?) available on DVD at last, in the same month that Carter's infinitely darker, and undeniably superior drama, Millennium, gets a more welcome and deserving DVD release. Basically, Harsh Realm is The Matrix crossed with Apocalypse Now, effectively the story of a parallel world where 'America' is being slowly but steadily conquered, its population enslaved one state at a time, by a renegade Army officer and his abundance of ready acolytes and eager followers.

With its crusading but (agonisingly?) na�ve hero and patiently supportive leading lady, Harsh Realm struggles rather un-manfully to grab the attention of discerning TV viewers while remaining trapped in the far-reaching shadows of The X-Files' formula of moral courage and optimism versus paranoia and executive deceit in an ongoing battle against apparently insurmountable odds. Weak, tiresome and overly familiar maxims, and the usual logjam of genre TV clichés, abound. There are mysterious happenings, amusing yet incidental SF ideas (inspired by both The Outer Limits and cyberpunk themes), and occasionally clever visual effects set pieces, but no genuine mysteries to solve. Events move along predictable, if quirky, lines that lead to dull or foregone conclusions when they really ought to carry solid dramatic weight. Honestly, I could identify no passion, or purpose (except for dismal programming quota/timeslot fulfilment), in this unsatisfactory sci-fi.

Nice guy Lieutenant Tom Hobbes (Scott Bairstow), a more simply-implausible central character than an intriguing one, gets suckered into a hi-tech training experiment by unscrupulous figures in Military Intelligence (that renowned oxymoron), when he's chosen for a special assignment inside their virtual reality, simulating the entire world as one humongous war zone of disputed territories and ravaged landscapes and POW camps. His mission is to 'execute' revolutionary General Omar Santiago (Terry O'Quinn, The Stepfather), a sadistic warmonger with delusions of grandeur and much pretentiously corny dialogue.

Santiago is not confined to the 'Harsh Realm' like everyone else is. He's able to enter and leave the hellish place at will. His top henchman Lieutenant Mel Waters (Max Martini, excruciatingly bland) was known to Hobbes outside in the real world, and this sets up the possibility of some interesting character dynamics, particularly as Waters' personal ambitions mean that he's never 100 percent loyal to his boss. Hobbes' stoic fianc�e Sophie Green (Samantha Mathis, capable of better acting than this) fails to elicit much sympathy, although she's cruelly lied to, routinely tricked by the US Army authorities (including staging a bogus funeral with unidentifiable corpse), and kept tragically unaware, at first, that her absent betrothed is mind-linked to a computer system, secretly detained in body and virtually MIA in Harsh Realm, instead of 'officially' KIA.

Also stuck in the virtuality of Harsh Realm is US Army deserter and reactionary Mike Pinocchio (D.B. Sweeney, by far the best actor in this show), offering living proof that misfortune dogs the brave. Pinocchio has already teamed up with mute healer Florence (Rachel Hayward), a soldier girl in exile from her sisterhood of 'magical' medics, before Hobbes arrives on the scene. This platonic threesome are travelling companions without a clear destination, following cold trails and picking up offbeat clues on a long and winding road less taken, while maintaining cyclical arguments on how best to cope in their moral or physical adversity, and combat Santiago's insidious master plan, or at least undermine his dominance.

"It's just a game." Perhaps the most fascinating element of duality in Harsh Realm is the claim that everyone alive today has a digital doppelganger (the often used term 'VC', echoes Vietnam, but here means 'virtual character') in the virtual reality. In the episode Reunion, wandering Hobbes and Pinocchio find themselves conscripted into slave labour at a logging camp, where ill or injured workers are left in bunks to die. One of these inmates turns out to be Hobbes' mother, so a teary farewell is on the cards, but the storyline hints at a psychic connection between the fast-fading VC mom and the real world's cancer victim. Another intriguing aspect of the show's mirror-worldview milieu is that glitches and program errors in Harsh Realm mean weird events may flout any, or all, physical laws and even defy logical explanation. In fifth episode Three Percenters, a nostalgically inclined pacifist movement absorbs refugee families and army deserters alike, but their continued existence calls for predatory, almost vampiric, recruiting measures. This sort of plotline will amuse anyone familiar with the paranoiac, zombification variant of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. On a more prosaic note, the scriptwriters endeavour to keep the romantic connection between Hobbes and his darling Sophie alive by showing both characters writing love letters to each other, and the show's makers even concoct a way for the messages to get delivered after Sophie is approached by femme fatale Inga (Sarah-Jane Redmond), and told not to accept what Army's official story about Hobbes' death.

Frequently pompous and unintentionally absurd, Harsh Realm doesn't fulfil the real potential of its SF scenario. Whereas The Matrix movie bundled together genre notions and philosophical tenets into a fairly coherent and dazzling whole - that proved more than the sum of its parts, the ingredients of Harsh Realm add up to something less saviour-y, despite the makers' hopeful, best intentions. It's indisputably a critical failure on numerous levels as drama, and as a genre show, but one that's not totally insignificant. Worth a look, then, but prepare to be disappointed.

20th Century Fox's Region 2 DVD boxset (retail release 26 July 2004) features all nine episodes, with an overall running time of 387 minutes. It maintains the show's original 1.78:1 screen ratio (enhanced for 16:9 TV), with a Dolby digital 2.0 soundtrack and subtitles in English and French. Disc extras: commentaries on the pilot episode by Chris Carter and director Dan Sackheim, plus (on disc three) Inside Harsh Realm a 28-minute featurette exploring the concepts and background of this short-lived series. There's an item (which feels overlong even at a mere eight minutes) about how they created the logo and title sequence, and five TV spot adverts to complete the package.
Harsh Realm DVD boxset

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HARSH REALM
episode listing:

Pilot
Leviathan
Inga Fossa
Kein Ausgang
Reunion
Three Percenters
Mannus Domini
Cincinnati
Camera Obscura

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