I was going to review the series Harsh Realm, but it looks as if Lt. Thomas Hobbes has an important message, so I’ll give him access to my keyboard for a couple of seconds. Lt. Hobbes?
A world exists exactly like ours. You live in this world, your family and friends. And though you may not know it, I was sent to save you.
[Here the lieutenant pauses for a moment.]
It’s just a game.
Thank you, Lt. Hobbes.
Harsh Realm is a television series, though this might have slipped your mind. In fact, the only reason you may have known about it was that the creator was Chris Carter (you know, from The X-Files). The most acceptable reason you never heard of it: it only aired for three weeks and then was shelved for five years before someone decided to release what was out there on DVD. Which meant all three episodes as shown on tv, plus the six episodes that were already canned when Fox took the series off the air.
What follows now is a DVD review in two parts: the first will focus on the series outline and the three episodes that made it to the air (albeit that I only saw them 9 years later on DVD), the second will focus on the DVD exclusives (which include episodes 4 to 9).
If history will remember Chris Carter (and it will), this will mainly be for one thing: The X-Files, the hugely successful sci-fi series Carter and c° launched in the early 90s. The series was so popular (after a while – as even the first season ended with the closing of the FBI’s least liked department because Fox wanted to take the show off air) Fox asked Carter to come up with other shows.
Millennium never got the attention it should’ve deserved: although some episodes were in fact quite weak and it took a couple of episodes to get into the series’ arc (a cult inside the FBI that got bleaker every episode), it was generally quite watchable. Sadly, Carter and friends never seemed to decide whether the show was sci-fi or not, which did make the show bounce everywhere and occasionally look like the semi-retarded nephew of Mulder and Scully.
In 1999 (after three seasons) Millennium ended and Carter wanted to dive into new territory. Virtual territory, that is. Like Millennium reminded you of Profiler (NBC’s stab in the dark to copy the success of The X-Files), Harsh Realm reminded me of VR, another short-lived series you may have picked up late at night on BBC2. I guess, what I’m saying is: don’t write a series about virtual reality, there’s a fair chance it’ll be pulled.
Harsh Realm introduces you to Lt. Thomas Hobbes as portayed by Scott Bairstow. Bairstow worked for Carter before, in an X-Files episode (Miracle Man). If I draw this parallel, there’s a reason: Carter’s shows tended to refer to each other. The first episode includes Millennium’s Lance Henriksen as a guest star, Gillian Anderson is the voice of the introduction video Hobbes gets to see and Terry O’Quinn is even more evil in Harsh Realm than he was in Millennium.
Lt. Hobbes, happily sharing some time with his pregnant fiancee, is given a new task and has to leave for base immediately. It is there he learns there’s a virtual game (Harsh Realm) that was hacked by one of the first people to be sent there, a man called Santiago (O’Quinn). He is now a dictator in Harsh Realm and uses it as a test for the real world. Thus he must be stopped and Hobbes is the man to do it. Hobbes is hooked to a machine and off to virtual reality he is.
Soon Hobbes finds out that Harsh Realm is a copy of the real world (well, a copy that’s gone off a bit – quite a bit). Which means that there is a Sophie in Harsh Realm, but she only looks like the Sophie Hobbes is engaged to in the real world. Virtual characters (this means the people who aren’t sent to Harsh Realm by the enemy) can die like a tv set being switched off, but it’s best not to die if you’re an army officer playing the game. And as the first episode (bearing the wonderful title “Pilot”) ends, we discover Hobbes was lied to: we see his body in the real world, attached to wires to live in Harsh Realm, but the camera zooms out and we see Hobbes is part of hundreds of people taking part in this virtual game.
I guess you’ve discovered one of the biigest problems with Harsh Realm: it’s an immense stretch to believe all this information (even now, nine years later). Something which heavily annoys me (but Carter liked, according to his commentary) is the voice-over by either Hobbes or Sophie, writing letters to each other (most of those undelivered as he’s stuck in the virtual world and she’s stuck in the real world, having been told her partner died on duty). To me they sound quite contrived and I feel the constant urge to fast forward them, as they only tell their lover they’d like to be reunited again. Anyway yes, Sophie is told Hobbes died on his secret mission, but a mysterious woman tells her this is a lie and gives her a couple of clues Sophie may want to investigate. It turns out that this mysterious woman (named Inga Fossa – oh Carter, you and your silly names) has the ability to switch between the real world and the virtual world.
Hobbes wants to locate Santiago and gets help from two people, Pinnochio and Florence. Florence is a mute woman with a gift: she can heal people. Oh, and she’s a real fighting machine. Pinnochio is like Hobbes, but he doesn’t seem keen to leave Harsh Realm. His secret is explained in episode three: in real life he has a disfigured face.
This was good for the series: a complaint often heard is that it was hard to relate to the main characters. This gave at least Pinnochio a bit of background to make him look less like a one-dimensional virtual character.
As for Hobbes, it is a bit irritating that he’s so ‘good’ he seems to get into trouble almost every episode. The Jesus references aside, it’s a bit unlikely this sort of character could last long in Harsh Realm. Which is why Pinnochio and Florence stay with him, to get him out of the trouble he manage to get himself into time and again.
If you watch Harsh Realm, it becomes clear that the series is clever enough to have an intrigue you’ll only discover after a couple of episodes. Sadly the viewers didn’t show this patience and the series was pulled after three weeks. A shame really, as one of the better episodes was up next. But more on that later, in part two of this review.
What’s there to conclude after three episodes? That Hobbes is annoyingly good, that part of the build-up was excellent (the idea of the Harsh Realm world, Sophie being told Hobbes is dead, the mystery of certain characters…) and some of it annoying (the letters, the voice-over). But mainly the notion that there was so much more discover, stuff you couldn’t find out in three episodes. So let’s look forward then to part two of this review: the stuff viewers never got to see…