Warping in on an unusual day of the week, the Obscure Sci-Fi Primer returns with a fan-requested show: the extremely short-lived 1999 series Harsh Realm. Clocking in at a meager 9 episodes, this is by far the shortest show to appear in the Primer to date. Harsh Realm deals with virtual reality, much like another show we’ve covered already. But while VR.5‘s virtual worlds were highly personal ones, Harsh Realm is far less so, having started as a high-tech training simulation for dealing with potential nuclear apocalypse. It’s also an (incredibly loose) adaptation of a comic book, and had a number of X-Files writers working on it, like Chris Carter and Vince Gilligan (although the latter wasn’t a writer here).
The basic premise is that the aforementioned training simulation has been hijacked by one of the people the military sent into it, one Omar Santiago, who has since fashioned himself into a third world-style dictator over the entirety of Harsh Realm. But the military doesn’t know where he is, and the only way to regain control of the simulation is to send someone in and kill Santiago in-game. With the present state of the world, however, there’s no coming back out until the mission is accomplished, and if you die in the game, you die in real life (insert dramatic musical sting here). So we end up with the military sending in men after men, who get stuck and either die, or stay in the game, such that there’s a huge amount of people tied up in this thing now, some of whom end up defecting to Santiago’s side once they’re in there. No one has even come close to completing the mission, and until that happens, they’re just going to keep sending people in. Supposedly, Santiago wants to destroy the real world so that only the Harsh Realm, under his complete control, remains.
Our main character is Tom Hobbes, who’s snatched up by the military right before his wedding and stuffed into the game. Why it needed to be him specifically is a mystery, as is why it’s so damn important to regain control of this virtual world. He meets a few other people along the way, like one of the earliest men sent in, Mike Pinocchio (yes, that’s his real name…), and a mute girl named Florence, a virtual character, who can heal pretty much any wound suffered in game. He also frequently runs into virtual counterparts of people he knew in real life, like his fiance and his mother. Meanwhile in the real world, his fiance Sophie is trying to unravel the conspiracy surrounding his sudden disappearance and the Harsh Realm project as a whole.
- Uh… it’s not a totally stupid concept, I guess. I’m a big fan of .Hack//, which is an anime/video game series about players getting trapped in an online game that presents real danger to their physical bodies. And Sword Art Online is another anime series that
ripped off–sorry, drew from that same well and is fairly popular. So it can be very interesting if done right.
- Instead of just setting up the whole fiance angle as a reason for Hobbes to survive, like, say, Space: Above and Beyond did, they actually put her to use to investigate the real world conspiracies about Harsh Realm, which was a good way to keep up with what’s going on in reality. Too bad this part of the plot dries up quickly…
- The show aired 3 episodes before it was pulled from the schedule, and it’s not hard to see why. There’s nothing particularly compelling about the way it’s told; the characters aren’t interesting in any way. The writing falls flat at just about every point, especially the voiceovers at the beginning and end of most episodes that take the form of wartime letters to loved ones between Hobbes and Sophie. I get the idea behind it, but it’s not working.
- No ending! I mentioned that it’s based on a comic book, but the comic is radically different, sharing no characters and with only the loose premise of real people entering a virtual world in search of someone in common. So we can’t even look to the comic to get an idea of how it might end.
- Preachy faith-based messages show up from time to time, which is generally something that doesn’t gel well with the sci-fi crowd. It certainly irritated me, especially given the show’s virtual setting.
- The plot just… it makes no fucking sense at all. Why can’t the government pull the plug on Harsh Realm? How does Santiago plan to destroy reality and leave only the virtual world? People who enter Harsh Realm still have physical bodies that need to be cared for in the real world, so even if his plan succeeded, everyone would slowly starve to death in a few weeks. Not to mention the computers running the simulation need electricity and maintenance to continue functioning. And the show keeps introducing these “virtual characters” that parallel real people, like his mother, and expecting us to care about them. There is no indication that the VCs can think or feel or possess any level of sentience, the way vagrant AI in .Hack// do. There’s no real AI; the characters seem to be little more capable than NPCs in most modern games. And this isn’t just an interpretation; it’s clearly stated several times. Why should Hobbes be praised for being willing to risk his own, real life for an NPC based on his mom, to whom “life” or death is utterly irrelevant? That doesn’t make him a hero. That makes him an idiot. It’s like someone dying in a house fire because they went back in to rescue their tamagotchi. (There’s a 90’s reference for a 90’s show.)
- And on top of all that, it’s really more of a war show than a sci-fi show; Chris Carter is said to have wanted a technology updated version of movies like Platoon, but it feels like it was aiming more for Apocalypse Now when you watch it. The fact that it’s set in another world isn’t as relevant as it should be, with the exception of occasionally running into glitches that can be used to their advantage. One of the things the comic did better was have the VR world radically different from ours; if it’s almost the same, why bother with VR at all?
A lot of these problems may have been addressed as the show went on, but it’s hard to say. It would’ve required some radical changes to what is known about the Harsh Realm to explain some of it. And let’s be real here–this is a show by Chris Carter, who is the namesake for the “I don’t have a fucking clue where this story is going” trope on TVTropes. He had 9 seasons and 2 movies to wrap up The X-Files, and that never happened. Millennium never concluded properly. There’s no reason to think Harsh Realm would’ve been any different.
All in all, this show is the perfect example of a decently good premise that’s botched by its execution. Fox definitely has its fair share of promising shows that it treated unfairly, like VR.5 or Space: Above and Beyond, but this isn’t really one of them. It’s a wonder it even got the three episodes, honestly. Often times in these articles I mourn what’s left unfinished, but in this case, it’s the squandered potential that’s the real shame. All of the missteps were creative ones, and the writing was on the wall before it even premiered.
A quick reminder of my rating system: a 5 represents must-see–a “hidden gem,” as it were. A 4 is good, solid television. A 3 is “cult classic” stage, where the show’s appeal is likely limited to a specific group. A 2 is flawed, but fun, or even “so bad it’s good,” depending on the series and its release timeframe. A 1, of course, is avoid at all costs. And this marks our first 1 star review; I just didn’t find anything in these 9 episodes to justify even that paltry time investment. Like many of the shows in the Primer, Harsh Realm is hard to find online, but I streamed it from this youtube channel in glorious 240p. You take what you can get. If you need better quality, it does exist on DVD.
Have any suggestions? Or are there any little known shows you’re a fan of that you’d like me to cover? Leave them in the comments, or send a tweet to @RetroPhaseShift. To be notified of the next entry in the Subjectively Obscure Sci-Fi Primer, you can subscribe to the RSS feed by clicking here.