Like Joss Whedon’s “Firefly”, Chris Carter’s “Harsh Realm” is an absolutely excellent sci-fi series which was cancelled before it could really get going properly. Whereas Joss Whedon made fourteen episodes before Fox dropped the axe on “Firefly”, Carter only got to make nine episodes before Fox cancelled his series whilst it was still being made.
Fox made a mistake with cancelling both series – however, I’m guessing that you’ve probably only ever heard of “Firefly”.
Maybe “Harsh Realm” is what would be called a ‘cult classic’? But it just really isn’t as widely acclaimed or even known as it should be.
This is partly due to the fact that although it was made either at the same time as or slightly before “The Matrix”, it wasn’t originally shown on TV in America until after “The Matrix” had been released in cinemas. Because of some very vague similarities between these two things, people apparently thought that “Harsh Realm” was copying “The Matrix”.
It’s nothing like “The Matrix”.
Yes, it’s from the 1990s. It’s by Chris Carter. It isn’t “Millenium” . I’m a massive fan of it.
Describing the plot of “Harsh Realm” is kind of difficult without making it sound much more contrived than it actually feels when you watch it.
But, basically, the show focuses on Lieutenant Thomas Hobbes – an American soldier who has served in the Balkans and is one month away from leaving the army in order to marry and settle down with his fiancee. However, the army has one last mission for him.
They have developed a classified virtual reality training simulator called “Harsh Realm” and it has been taken over by a special forces or ex-special forces soldier called Santiago. Since the military can’t locate him in the real world, they decide to send Hobbes into the program with orders to kill Santiago.
The simulator itself creates a fully immersive and interactive replica of the entire world and, like in most of these sci-fi shows, if you die in the game then you die in real life. So, following orders, Hobbes enters the dystopic totalitarian world of “Harsh Realm”….
And that’s just half of the first episode. Although this series is very short (by American standards), it certainly packs a lot of storyline into just nine episodes. Thankfully, most of the nine episodes are stand-alone episodes, but you can definately see the beginnings of what would have become much larger story arcs if the series had been allowed to continue. Although it thankfully doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, there are still a lot of things which are left unresolved when the series was cancelled so abruptly. Even so, you should still watch it.
One of the many things I love about this show is the fact that it’s slightly more complex than the average dystopic sci-fi story/series/movie/comic. Yes, there’s a totalitarian dictatorship but this is only a small part of the “world” of the show and most of it takes place in the lawless post-apocalyptic areas which aren’t controlled by Santiago.
This sets up a really interesting contrast throughout the whole show, since the areas which are controlled by Santiago generally look fairly prosperous and normal – apart from the propaganda, soldiers, summary executions etc… whereas the free areas are a lot rougher and poorer (eg: bullets are used as a form of currency) although their inhabitants are their own people.
It’s the classic “anarchy vs. fascism” theme (kind of like in Alan Moore’s “V For Vendetta” graphic novel) and whilst it’s not explored in a huge level of detail, it kind of hangs in the background throughout the whole show. In fact, a lot of it is shown through background details and the vast differences between the two parts of the world.
The characters in this show are absolutely brilliant – from the cold and calculating General Santiago to the two characters who Hobbes teams up soon after he arrives in Harsh Realm. Namely a rather cynical and battle-hardened ex-soldier called Mike Pinnochio who, like Hobbes, was sent into Harsh Realm with orders to kill Santiago and a healer called Florence who is a Virtual Character in the game.
Florence is an especially interesting character since she is completely mute (for reasons which are never really quite explained – apparently all healers are mute) and yet you still get a fairly good sense of her character as the series progresses – now that’s good acting!
One other interesting thing is how much the storylines and genre of each episode vary – like “The X Files”, some episodes are more character-based, some episodes are more horror-based (like the creepy “Three Percenters”), some episodes are more action/thriller-based and some are just good old fashioned sci-fi (like the wonderfully dramatic and creepy “Kein Ausgang”).
One of the really interesting things about “Harsh Realm” is that, because it’s set in a virtual world, reality isn’t quite as solid as it is in most TV shows. There are glitches in the world and programming errors too – all of which are either exploited by the characters in the world or which affect the characters in some way or other. This is fairly understated in most of the series, but it certainly adds an interesting dimension to the show and it never really comes across as being particularly contrived either.
Another interesting thing with this is that when the Virtual Characters who populate Harsh Realm die, they kind of flicker out of existence like a “blue screen of death” – this allows the show to be a lot more violent (in a couple of parts) than it could probably be if they’d portrayed death in a realistic way.
I’m not sure if this was just a stylistic thing or whether it was a way of getting things past the censors (since it apparently was shown at 8pm when it originally aired on American TV in the late 1990s), but it never really comes across as being too contrived – and you’ll still find yourself caring about the Virtual Characters in the show.
All in all, I could probably write a much longer review of this show. But I’ve already written a short essay. Seriously, if you like sci-fi in any way, then you really should watch this show – it’s dramatic, it’s thrilling, it’s fun, it’s atmospheric and it’s interesting.
You can get it fairly cheaply (either new or second-hand) on DVD (at least in the UK) and it’s definately worth getting – even if it is unfinished.
If I had to give this series a score out of five, then it’d probably get five and a half.