Flashback Fridays: Harsh Realm

Some films and TV shows are so ahead of their time that audiences reject them upon first being released. This isn't because they were bad, it is simply the rejection of something that isn't tapping into the current zeitgeist, but it might tap into a future one. A classic case in point is Chris Carter's aborted series for Fox TV "Harsh Realm." Conceived as a techno-action-drama, the show imagined a tale where a young soldier is sent into a top secret, virtual reality military program to hunt down a renegade general. Only its first two episodes were aired in October 1999 before Fox pulled the plug due to low ratings. The other 7 episodes remained unseen until Fox released the entire series on DVD in 2004.

In the 1990s Carter had become a major player in the world of TV producing thanks to his success with the cult class "The X-Files." A defining show of its time, "The X-Files" tapped into the public's obsession with UFOs, the paranormal and government conspiracies. Its lead actors, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, became cultural icons along with catch phrases like "the truth is out there" and "trust no one."

The show's massive success allowed Carter, a writer/producer obsessed with dark and paranoid themes, to pitch new programs to Fox. His first post-X-Files venture, "Millennium," an apocalyptic precursor to "CSI" and other serial killer-chasing series, was a modest success. For his third show Carter leaped ahead into the world of dystopian sci-fi with a vision of the future relevant for its time, but even more at home today.

The show starred Scott Bairstow as Lt. Tom Hobbes, a soldier about to get married who is called in by his superiors to enter "harsh realm," a virtual reality training program which recreates the entire world, including its inhabitants. Hobbes is sent to track down a rebel general named Santiago (Terry O'Quinn) who has taken over the virtual world of the program and made himself dictator. Once inside Hobbes cannot exactly escape because Santiago has blocked off any route out of the program except for himself.

After a premiere which attracted 7.5 million viewers, "Harsh Realm" did not generate the kind of interest or hype Fox hoped for and the show was yanked. Never able to recapture the magic of "The X-Files" in terms of popularity, it joined "Millennium" in being a Carter production with high quality standards, yet unable to build mass appeal, especially when competing against the then infant rise of cable programming.

Yet like few dramas, "Harsh Realm"'s few episodes have aged without a blemish. I recently purchased the box set of the collected episodes at an FYE store for $10.00 and was taken aback by how strong the material was. Carter has always been a meticulous producer obsessed with making TV featuring movie-quality stories. "Harsh Realm" plays now like the kind of cinematic, stylish productions you see on cable like "Vikings" or "Homeland," but with a cyberpunk sheen.

Like "The Matrix" (which ironically premiered a few months before the series), Carter brilliantly creates an alternate world where everything seems real yet isn't. Imagine Christopher Nolan's "Inception" turned into an Orwellian political thriller and this is what you get. The show's scripts play with the ideas of government experiments, cover-ups, utopian dictatorship and mass surveillance.

In the world of "Harsh Realm" the dictator Santiago seeks to build a perfect, alternate society in a digital world, which could hopefully provide the groundwork for a takeover of the real world. He surrounds his utopia with a fence that keeps out the ragged undesirables, who live in gritty dives reminiscent of "Mad Max." The action scenes in the series are as good and convincing as anything in a Hollywood production. And because Carter is a sharp, eloquent writer, they have intelligence as well. For example in the pilot episode, there is a hotel chase and shoot out that never feels sensational, but pulse-pounding and stylish like a Luc Besson film like "La Femme Nikita." The music by Mark Snow, a Carter regular, is evocative and yet moves along with a driving electronic current years before Hans Zimmer's "Inception" or "Interstellar" behemoths.

And yet "Harsh Realm" works so well today because the world has shifted and changed to a vision so much closer to what it imagined all those years ago. In the post-9/11 world we live in, issues like the distortion of reality through electronics, cyberterrorism, totalitarian fanaticism and experimental war have become urgent, constant realities. Social media has become a barometer of what is popular and cool, we are slaves to our machines. Bombs are dropped less and less by pilots and more and more by drones.

15 years later and "Harsh Realm" calls to be rediscovered by viewers. The times are ready for it, maybe they always were, and only now with everything that is happening, we are ready for Chris Carter's vision of world where nothing is real, and what we see is tethered by cyberspace.