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'Harsh Realm': The Surreal World

‘The X-Files’ guru Chris Carter boots up a new virtual-reality-driven epic. Let the games begin!

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HARSH REALM
Fox, 9-10 PM Debuts Oct. 8

In the midst of a new fall season populated with freshly scrubbed 20-year-olds jabbering to each other and the camera about their amusingly mundane little lives, there’s another place to visit — a grungy, dangerous place filled with people who are either desperate to escape or eager to keep anyone from leaving. Thank heaven — or is that hell? — for Chris Carter.

Harsh Realm is the new Carter whatchamacallit. Like his X-Files, like his Millennium, it is an assiduously unclassifiable show: not exactly a sci-fi story, not merely a suspense series, not quite a futuristic saga. It’s a show about, in the words of its creator, ”a world that’s a duplicate of ours, set inside a computer game, in which real people are sent into the game to play, sometimes at the peril of their lives.”

Carter has taken little more than the title from an obscure early-’90s comic book and turned it into his latest foray into speculative fiction. ”Of the three shows I’ve done,” he says, ”this has the most potential as a varied storytelling vehicle.” Concurs star Scott Bairstow (last seen being abusive to Neve Campbell on Party of Five), ”What’s cool about the show is … it’s almost in the vein of a Star Trek, ’cause you can go anywhere and do anything within the parameters that Chris has set.” And as the show’s admirably blunt-spoken costar D.B. Sweeney says, ”Carter’s hungry again. He’s got a lot of money now, but I think he wants to prove that The X-Files was no fluke.”

Realm plops Bairstow’s decorated Army vet into Harsh Realm, a computer game that was designed by the Cold War-era military-industrial complex to play out possible combat scenarios. When the Cold War ended, Harsh Realm was intended to be dismantled, but by that time, the game had evolved to such a sophisticated degree that it took on a life of its own. ”Some of the guys who played the game entered the computer world completely and decided to stay,” explains Carter. Chief among them is Santiago (Millennium‘s Terry O’Quinn), a rebel soldier with visions of despotic grandeur who disobeys Army orders to leave Harsh Realm. Instead, he builds a kingdom of his own inside the game, where he acts as a benevolent but hyper-controlling dictator.

”I wanted to do something about totalitarian states — how they form, and who’s attracted to them,” says Carter, who’ll be writing most of the season’s stories and hopes to direct a few. The show is being shot in The X-Files‘ old stomping grounds, Vancouver, Canada, where, Sweeney says, ”they’ve built some government buildings that are really beautifully designed. It’s sort of a neoclassical-meets-fascist view of the world.” Sweeney plays Pinocchio, a fellow soldier who, with Bairstow’s Tom Hobbes, wants to first bring down Santiago and then get the heck out of the game and back into the real world. In the pilot, Hobbes and Pinocchio don’t really trust each other — they’re not sure who’s a good guy or a bad guy in Harsh Realm — but they’re also united in rescuing Hobbes’ one true love, played by Samantha Mathis. This makes for an unusual pair of TV heroes. ”It’s all coming from Chris, and he doesn’t really tell you everything,” says Sweeney. ”But I sense that what he has in mind for Hobbes and Pinocchio is an uneasy alliance of necessity. I don’t think you’d ever call it a friendship. But we’re definitely allies.”

Bairstow has a more mythic interpretation of the duo’s partnership: ”It’s like sort of a Luke Skywalker-Han Solo relationship. We’re buddies, we both believe in each other, but it’s a sort of a strange [alliance] as well, sort of an odd couple. D.B.’s character’s much more of a veteran; I’m a little naive. But he kind of shows me the bricks.”

Little-known fact: Bairstow has actually worked for Carter before. ”Scott was in X-Files‘ first year,” says Carter, ”[as a healer] in an episode called ‘Miracle Man,’ and we kept running into each other and saying ‘We should work together again.’ After he finished Party of Five last year, he had a development deal with ABC, but once I got Harsh Realm rolling, the network was gracious enough to let him leave that deal and come with us.”

And where will that journey ultimately lead? ”The world of Harsh Realm offers us the opportunity to tell a much wider range of stories than in either X-Files or Millennium,” asserts Carter. ”Some of these will even be comic; we can digress into different areas of the realm and zoom in on new, different characters from week to week.” In other words, sums up Carter, ”it’s going to be a good, bumpy ride.”

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