Harsh Realm box art

Series Overview
  1. Pilot
  2. Leviathan
  3. inga Fosse
  4. Kein Ausgang
  5. Reunion
  6. Three Percenters
  7. Manus Domini
  8. Cincinnati
  9. Camera Obscura

Tom Hobbes -
Scott Bairstow

Mike Pinocchio -
DB Sweeney

Florence -
Rachel Hayward

Omar Santiago -
Terry O'Quinn

Mel Waters -
Max Martini

Sophie -
Samantha Mathis



Series Overview

In order to train its soldiers to fight against terrorists within its own borders, the United States military created Harsh Realm, an artificial reality environment that used census data, government records and internet information to duplicate the country as it is. Then something went wrong. Omar Santiago, the Army's brightest star, hacked the system and turned the place into a living hell. Now Tom Hobbes, decorated war veteran, has entered the realm with the mission of killing Santiago and ending the game.

Welcome to HARSH REALM, the latest creation from Chris Carter, the man responsible for THE X-FILES and MILLENNIUM, though 'creation' is a bit strong since it is based on a series of comic books and also borrows heavily from two sources, one cinematic and one literary..

HARSH REALM owes a great debt to THE MATRIX. There aren't any machines out to destroy humanity, but there is a single hero who is destined to enter into a virtual reality world and save everyone inside it. He might as well be called Neo as Hobbes and is even referred to at several points as being 'The One'. The VR world of HARSH REALM has echoes of that inside THE MATRIX and contains such things as 'glitches' which allows escape from dangerous situations (think the phones from THE MATRIX) and points where the raw data can be observed. Scott Bairstow even manages to be as bland as Keanu Reeves was in the lead role.

Every Neo needs his Morpheus to guide him and Hobbes gets the unlikely monikered Mike Pinocchio, DB Sweeney's reluctant sidekick who is certainly more lively than his new leader and who knows his way around system, including the glitches. There is a mute third leg to the tripod in the shape of Rachel Hayward's mute healer Florence, but she disappears and reappears as and when the plot needs her. Samantha Mathis stays in the real world and gets very little screen time.

The Harsh REalm system itself is a an interesting concept, but flawed. The idea of being able to combine satellite photography, census data, internet information, DVLA records, tax records etc into a virtual copy of the country is very, very smart, but of what use is it really? Who develops a war simulation in which if you die you become a braindead vegetable? You might as well have soldiers dying in real combat than simulated. The problem is also that Santiago has totally hacked the system. How is this possible since the military is in complete control of the hardware? Surely the military that had the resources to create the system has the ability to un-hack it. Where are the software patches that Microsoft is so fond of? And if Santiago being in charge is such a problem why don't they just shut down the system? They've already declared the men locked inside it as killed in action so letting them die by switching the damn thing off has to be a better idea than keep sending new ones in.

Which brings up the second major 'source' for the show - Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness (or, more accurately, the film version APOCALYPSE NOW). A heroic soldier with a penchant for gravelly-voiced narration is sent into enemy territory to kill a high ranking officer gone native. It's not so much a source as a direct steal. LOST's Terry O'Quinn may be nearly as bald as Marlon Brando in the role of Colonel Kurtz, sorry Santiago, but he doesn't have the same gravity, though some of his dialogue is almost as bonkers.

Despite Carter's predigree in creating one of the most successful genre shows of all time, HARSH REALM lasted only 9 episodes.



Tom Hobbes is a hero, a veteran decorated for action in a peacekeeping mission gone wrong. Weeks from leaving the army and getting married, he is summoned to participate in a secret operation codenamed Harsh Realm, a virtual reality wargaming system devised to train soldiers. Once inside, however, Hobbes discovers that he has been lied to. The system has been hacked by a man called Santiago, the army's most decorated soldier, and the only way back to reality is to kill Santiago.

This opening episode is a smart introduction to the series. It starts with a brutal and shocking (though not quite believable) action sequence in Sarajevo that sets up Hobbes as a hero and then intrigues with the introduction of the Harsh Realm system. Something isn't quite right from the start. You don't invite soldiers to take part in something like this, you order them, so it is clear that something is up. Once inside the system, though, things fall down rather quickly. The HARSH REALM was supposed to be a copy of America, but is a wasteland of scavengers who look like something out of MAD MAX.

It doesn't help that Scott Bairstow doesn't convince as a decorated war veteran and DB Sweeney talks the talk as a cynical fellow inmate, but really doesn't convey the the tired mercenary nature of the character. Still, there is time.



Hobbes is captured by a bouny hunter whilst trying to rescue Pinocchio. Whilst the man negotiates with Santiago for aprice to hand them over, Hobbes tries to persuade the man's female partner that there is a better way.

Considering that both Hobbes and Pinocchio are supposed to be supersoldiers, the speed and ease with which the bounty hunter captures them is rather unbelievable, as is the final burst of action that marks the final escape from the hunter's compound.

In the real world, Hobbes' fiancee Sophie receives a visit from a woman who tells her not to give up hope when all official sources list Tom as dead in action.


Inga Fosse

Inga Fossa is one of Santiago's right hand people and she is able to pass between the real world and Harsh Realm through a portal. Hobbes and Pinocchio try to gain access to that portal, but in doing so learns of Santiago's plans for the real world.

Omar Santiago is clearly a total nutter and no sane person would follow his plans for the real world, which undermines the believability of the show. Still, there is some action to follow and Inga Fossa is actually one of the most interesting characters in the show since she is playing both sides against the middle.


Kein Ausgang

Looking for a top military assassin who once almost got to Santiago, Hobbes and Pinocchio stumble through a glitch into a simulation of a World War II skirmish centred around a small bridge that neither side could gain control of. The simulation is in constant loop and Hobbes decides that the only way to get out is to destroy the bridge, crashing the simulation.

This episode starts off intriguingly with a WWII GI doing the second by second prediction routine from GROUNDHOG DAY, but soon after it settles down into a simple alternate reality story with very little plot and no surprises at all. Since the stand-off seems to have been between six Germans and about half that number of American GIs you have to wonder why the simulation was created at all.

It is nicely shot in a sepia tint and the period is well-evoked, so it is a shame that it wasn't in service of something better.



Hobbes goes to the Harsh Realm counterpart of his mother's house only for him and Pinocchio to be captured and put to work in a forced labour camp. To ensure that they don't attempt to escape, mechanical bugs are placed in their heads that will eat their brains if activated. Hobbes finds his mother in a hidden room, dying of cancer and being cared for by a kindly doctor, a situation that is a reflection of events in the real world.

The brain-eating driller bugs are anohte recho of THE MATRIX and the prison camp story is an old, tired one. Once you get past the sheer coincidence of Hobbes finding his mother just in time to share her last dying moments that is. It must be a very fast-acting cancer since Hobbes seemingly knew nothing of it when he went into the artificial reality system and she is in the final stages here.

The final moments of the episode suggest that there is some sort of linked awareness between people in the real world and their Harsh Realm counterparts, though no mechanism as to why or how this could be so is put forward. The death scene is handled with dignity, but the rest of the plot is tired and the relationship between the warden and his woman echoes that of the bounty hunter in Leviathan.


Three Percenters

A unit of Santiago's men has gone missing in the woods and Hobbes, Pinocchio and Florence want to get to their supplies before the search and rescue party arrives. Instead, they find a lake capable of making perfect copies of people.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS comes to HARSH REALM, but does so in a manner that is as bloodless and emotionless as the clones that the lakes make. It takes the characters so long to realise that something is amiss despite the weirdness of everyone's behaviour that interest wanders off in search of something more interesting and believable. The flurry of action towards the end and the 'shock' of the food 'revelation' are not sufficient to drag it back again.

It's slightly interesting that this is another occasion when the trio's salvation lies in the hands of someone else. Is this some sort of theme since it undermines the main characters somewhat?


Manus Domini

Florence goes to the aid of a group of her people, women who lack speech but possess the power to heal. In trying to follow her, Hobbes and Pinocchio end up in a minefield where Pinocchio loses a leg, something that will leave him worse than useless in the Realm.

Huge questions about the meaning of faith, God and reality inside the digital construct are raised by this story, which combines the tension of the minefield with the peace of the women and the questions as to why these powers exist at all. Unfortunately, it then deluges them all under a ponderous voiceover that has to explain everythign for the benefit of the hard of understanding that completely derails the whole thing.

DB Sweeney's performance, which includes some revelations about the real world background of the character, is strong enough to carry the episode's themes without the need to resort to join-the-dots explanations that reduce something that could have been affecting and meaningful to the level of a tedious lecture.



Santiago's rule in Harsh Realm is threatened by a group of Indians warriors who take over the city of Cincinnati and claim an independent state. Santiago must not simply defeat the enemy, but destroy their belief and this means that he must kill the leader of his opposition personally, something that leaves him more vulnerable than at any time since Hobbes entered the game. Every great soldier, however, plays every advantage that he has to hand.

This is a twisty-turny tale of cross and double cross, bluff and double bluff, all centered around the fact that in a digital world faces can be erased and replaced. This nicely uses the consequences of being inside a virtual reality system, but it also makes things a bit too easy for the villain fo the piece, giving him a huge advantage. If he is able to be whoever he wants to be then how can he ever be caught?

Still, the episode just gets on with telling the story and the warrior symbolism seems apt even if it is a little overused. For once, as well, the voiceover is merely annoying rather than ruinous.


Camera Obscura

The lure of gold takes Hobbes and Pinocchio to New York City, ground zero for the nuclear attacks that created Harsh Realm. They walk right into a feud between two families, each with a key to accessing a vault full of gold, but who can't work together. Hobbes and Pinocchio end up on opposite sides of the conflict, but Hobbes notices that a local priest seems to have access to the future and is using it to fuel the feud.

Take ROMEO AND JULIET and add a dash of TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE and you will be close tot he rather unimaginative, not to mention unbelievable, plot of this last ever episode of HARSH REALM. The central love story is tedious, the feuding families only marginally less so. The only source of any interest is the priest and his access to some sort of glitch in the system that gives him information about not only what is going on, but might come to pass. This is not explained and Hobbes and Pinocchio walk away from it without making any attempt to use it for their own ends.

This episode does, though, finally explain how what was supposed to be a virtual copy of modern America descending into MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME in a bravura opening sequence that for once uses the voiceover to good effect.







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