Harsh Realm

Starring: Scott Bairstow and D.B. Sweeney
20th Century Fox
RRP £34.99
Certificate: 15
Available 26 July 2004

Lt. Thomas Hobbes is preparing to settle down with his fiancée. However, the military has one last assignment for him, which takes him into Harsh Realm, a virtual-reality war game created for combat training. His mission is to kill the dictator Omar Santiago, who has taken over the simulated realm and is now becoming a threat to the real world...

This box set contains all nine episodes of the short-lived series, which has never been seen before in the UK.

This show is to Chris Carter what Firefly is to Joss Whedon. Having created a runaway hit in the form of The X-Files and enjoyed more modest success with Millennium, the reaction to this VR venture seemed to be, "Hang on Chris, what's this? Where's the spooky paranormal stuff?" Whether you blame the viewing public for this attitude, or the network for not supporting the show, is a matter of opinion. Joss Whedon would similarly discover that, following the phenomenal success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the only slightly less successful Angel, the reaction to his Firefly was more or less, "Hang about Joss, where are the vampires and demons?"

Harsh Realm was also the victim of some very bad timing. Produced prior to the release of The Matrix but transmitted shortly after the film's opening, the show could be mistaken (and was) for a cheaper imitation of that groundbreaking movie. Beyond the obvious similarity of the virtual-reality world, which The Matrix cannot claim prior ownership of, Hobbes is viewed by some of the realm's denizens as a prophesied saviour. Like Neo, he is referred to as "the one". The use of the Prodigy track "Climbatize" as incidental music during the pilot episode also mirrors The Matrix's memorable deployment of "Spybreak" by Propellerheads.

It's a great shame that the show never caught on, because it has a lot of things going for it, not least of which are the compelling performances by Scott Bairstow as the honourable Hobbes and D.B. Sweeney as his less scrupulous chum Mike Pinocchio. Such "nice and nasty" partnerships have worked well before in telefantasy, most notably in Blake's 7 (with Blake and Avon) and V (Donovan and Tyler), and it works here too. The irony behind Pinocchio's name is that, unlike the wooden toy who longed to be a boy, D.B. Sweeney's character has no desire to return to reality, preferring instead to remain within the virtual world.

As with The X-Files, there appear to be two broad types of Harsh Realm episode. The first three instalments, Pilot, Leviathan and Inga Fossa, as well as the eighth, Cincinnati are the series' equivalents of "mythology" shows. They establish and develop major plot arcs concerning the ruthless dictatorship of Omar Santiago (Ten Thirteen stalwart Terry O'Quinn), and a conspiracy of silence among the military of the real world with regard to the existence of the Harsh Realm simulation. Yes, there's a conspiracy - Chris Carter can't resist 'em!

Instead of "monster of the week" episodes, we have "phenomena of the week" and "enemies of the week". The show proves to be extremely versatile during its short run, giving us a sepia-toned pseudo-World War II scenario in Kein Ausgang, spiritual communication in Reunion, a technological Invasion of the Bodysnatchers in Three Percenters, and future predictions in the final episode Camera Obscura.

Extras in this DVD set include a 25-minute documentary, Inside Harsh Realm, and a fascinating 9-minute featurette on the creation of the series' distinctive logo and title sequence. The pilot episode is accompanied by a choice of commentaries by Chris Carter and director Dan Sackheim.

Despite its truncated run, it's well worth entering Harsh Realm.

Richard McGinlay

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