By CHRISTOPHER ALLAN SMITH
HARSH REALM is Chris Carter's latest TV sci-fi baby. Photo courtesy of FOX. Frank Spotnitz was the prince of the day.
As an audience of museum members and connected private citizens filed into the viewing auditorium at the Beverly Hills branch of the Museum of Television and Radio for a presentation of King Chris Carter's new series HARSH REALM, two weeks before its October 8 premiere on Fox, everyone in the 150 plus capacity room wanted Spotnitz's ear.
One of the most valued and analyzed writer/producers on THE X-FILES and now a executive producer/writer on REALM, Spotnitz was there in place of Carter, who was originally scheduled for the presentation but was held up at the show's Vancouver set. In the line outside the museum, and at the pre-showing mixer, every wall bounced echoes of FILES fans and the REALM interested. Speculation on the future of FILES, if there would be another movie in light of David Duchovny's lawsuit against Fox, and if HARSH REALM, a show about virtual reality, had had its potential gutted by what many are already calling the best genre film of the 1990s, THE MATRIX.
But before the question and answer section of the evening, TV became movies as 150 odd people watched the first hour of REALM on a theater size screen. As billed over the summer by the Fox network PR info, REALM follows the adventures of Army Lt. Thomas Hobbes (Scott Bairstow) as he is tapped by his superiors, on the eve of his wedding to Sophie (Samantha Mathis) to enter a virtual reality training simulation in order to hunt down Omar Santiago (Terry O'Quinn), a Vietnam era vet who has become the reigning champ of the virtual world. Hobbes' mission, his last as he's planning to leave the army after his nuptials, is to kill Santiago. A simple, straightforward goal given his profession. What Hobbes doesn't know is once in the game, he cannot be extracted until he's finished (if then), and that Santiago isn't just the best player, he's conquered the virtual world, code named Harsh Realm, and set himself up as dictator of the entire simulation. He's hijacked the Army's system.
The bitter final discovery inside Realm, is that there were probably hundreds of other soldiers sent in before him to accomplish his mission. Many have died, while most have given up and are marooned inside Realm, living out their lives in virtual terror, trying to keep away from Santiago's controlling army while dreaming of returning to the real world. This is where Hobbes finds Mike Pinocchio (D.B. Sweeny) a burned out recruit who's tried to carve out a life inside the electric fiction. Then there's the virtual version of his fiancee Sophie Hobbes discovers, but that twist will be left for the viewer's imagination until the premiere.
At the museum, after the presentation of the premiere episode, came the questions from the eager audience, a mixture of X-philes, TV industry types and TV minded curiosity seekers. Our EON reporter files this report from the trenches:
What was the genesis of HARSH REALM?
SPOTNITZ: About two years ago, the comic book HARSH REALM was dropped by our offices. I don't know how many people have seen it. It's pretty obscure, actually. Chris [Carter, HARSH REALM creator] liked the idea of a virtual reality world, and he loved the title. It sat there, and last fall the studio bought another pilot [from Carter's Ten-Thirteen productions], so we sat down and thought about what the TV series might be. As good as the comic book was, we didn't see it lending itself to 100 or 150 episodes, which is what you hope when you come up with a series concept. We really kept very little of the comic book. In fact we really only kept the name, and the name of one of the characters. The hero of the comic book is a guy named Dexter, a private eye who goes into Harsh Realm, which is not a military project in the book. So the dog in the show is named Dexter.
So we developed the story. There are a lot of influences, as I'm sure [audiences] will see. I think what was most exciting about it is… well, one of the great things about THE X-FILES has been it is a very visual show. Every week there is a new paranormal phenomenon, and there's something you can do with pictures. That's the type of stories Chris loves and all of us love doing on the show. With HARSH REALM, it was an opportunity we saw to do visual storytelling. It was a digital universe. Anything can happen. You can violate any law of physics you want. Monsters and strange visual phenomena. So as different as this is from THE X-FILES, it offers the same kinds of visual possibilities.
The next two episodes [after the premiere] explain more about Harsh Realm and the other characters. It's a large cast of recurring characters. You'll see more of Santiago City, more of the players in Santiago City, and learn more about Mike Pinocchio [D.B.Sweeny]. After the third episode, we go into kind of stand alones, just like THE X-FILES, freestanding adventures of things they run into in Harsh Realm. I think one of the things that makes THE X-FILES exciting, and still does, is you don't know what kind of stories you're going to see. We mix genres. This is clearly much more of an action/adventure mold than THE X-FILES is, but still it's very flexible.
Is this the final season of THE X-FILES?
SPOTNITZ: I don't know. I assume it's the final season, and once before I've assumed it's the final season, with the fifth season. We were told that would be the final season, but then everyone signed up for two more years. As I'm told, from reading the papers, this is David Duchovny's last year under contract, and Chris Carter's last season under contract. Whether they'll be induced to come back, or the show will continue on in some other configuration, I don't know. I'm involved in all the episodes, but I'm especially tied to the mythology shows. I'm planning for it to be the last year. If it isn't, then I wish someone would tell me.
Will there be another X-FILES movie?
SPOTNITZ: We've been asked to do another movie and so much depends on whether this is the last year. If it is, we'll probably get to the movie right away after the show ends.
Does HARSH REALM glorify violence, and then say that since it's a game, there are no consequences?
SPOTNITZ: I've been asked this question a lot because you're not the first person to have that reaction. I respect your interpretation of it, but I don't see it that way. A critic in The New York Times described it as violent as anything he'd ever seen on TV, which shocked all of us, frankly, because I don't see this as a violent show, honestly. In fact, when I look back at some episodes of COMBAT where 15 Germans get machine gunned in the first two minutes, and that's just the beginning of this show. You can look at any number of TV series over the years and see a much higher body count. I think the problem with the discussion of violence on television now is that it's not very well defined. I think if you define violence as bullets being fired, then sure, you can look at this as a violent show. But if you look at it as reckless, irresponsible shooting of anyone who comes in your way, I don't think this show is guilty of that.
If you look at the premiere of this show, two people die. They're virtual characters, but I don't use that as an excuse because actually our show, as it goes on, will posit the idea that these characters have souls as well. They have lives that are worth defending. The phrase 'it's just a game' is meant to be ironic, it's not meant to be dismissive. That will become increasingly clear as you go on, if you choose to watch the show. I think the violence that people should be concerned about is the violence that is reckless, that is needlessly explicitly, that does not show the emotional consequences, the social consequences. I think that's irresponsible. I think if you show people in conflict, and violence is a part of that, and it's not needlessly graphic, then you're actually doing people a service. Violence is a part of storytelling. It always has been, and I'm sorry to say it always will be. That is when people define their differences. It goes back to THE BIBLE. I know it's a cliché to make that argument, but it does. It's a simple fact. I hope, with all the tragedies that have been occurring in America, people will begin to look at the issue of violence in the media in a more sophisticated fashion. Because then I think we can get to the truth of what is wrong, and to the extent for which the media is responsible.
Will future episodes be as violent as the first episode?
SPOTNITZ: If you consider that violent, then yes. You're not going to like the show.
In THE X-FILES and in MILLENNIUM, you set up a point of stability. Here, there's no point of normalcy. Don't you think the audience needs some reality as a hook?
SPOTNITZ: That's a really perceptive comment. That's where this is a big departure for Chris especially. As an avowed non-fan of science fiction… he never watched it growing up with the exception of THE TWILIGHT ZONE and NIGHT STALKER, which isn't really science fiction. This was a big leap into science fiction territory for us. I think what grounds the story, in reality, is the starting point [and Sophie, Hobbe's real world fiancée]. We'll be returning to the real world, and Sophie periodically throughout the year. But also, I think we're trying to make the characters that lead you through this fantastic world believable and real and dimensional, and the people they encounter believable and real and dimensional. Even though the phenomena are fantastic, hopefully the eyes through which you view them will be make it feel real.
How much will Sophie be in the show?
SPOTNITZ: Sophie, her VC, has been killed in Harsh Realm, so she can't go into Harsh Realm. But we'll be revisiting her a number of times in the real world in the first year. I think we already have plans for six of the 22 episodes to feature her character. They're storylines that allow us to tell parallel storylines between Realm and the real world.
There was a story recently that the military was contacting people in Hollywood about developing virtual reality war games. Was this before or after you developed the show, and have they come to you for any help?
SPOTNITZ: Not yet. Actually, that press release came out three weeks ago, and I got ten phone calls that day. Everybody was amazed saying, "Look, it's HARSH REALM. It's HARSH REALM!" The Defense Department is spending $50 million in cooperation with USC to develop a virtual reality simulation. I think they're starting with Los Angeles. It was eerie, because their press release has word for word some of the things Gillian Anderson says on that video tape [her voice narrates a tape Hobbes sees in the show explaining Harsh Realm]. So, life imitates art.
Is there any concern about losing the dramatic tension because Hobbes has a form of immortality in this virtual world? As we saw, there was a woman who seemingly miraculously healed a bullet wound in Hobbes.
SPOTNITZ: As this goes on, you will see there are limits to what she can do. You will see the price she pays for healing people. The fifth episode really deals with what she is, how she got the way she is. There are more women like her in Harsh Realm. This has been kind of fun for us actually, because we're up to episode 123 on THE X-FILES, and every week we have to work harder and harder not to bump into stories we've done before. Now we've got this brand new world to play with.
How many are on your writing staff?
SPOTNITZ: Not enough. We're notorious on THE X-FILES as being a very tough place to write because Chris Carter is a very mean man [laughs]. He's very, very demanding. It's a hard place to work, honestly, because he's very exacting. That's what makes the shows as good as they are, because he's very specific about what he wants. Traditionally, we've had a very high turnover. Currently we have four writers, including Chris, who are working on both THE X-FILES and HARSH REALM and then there are two writers each that are dedicated to each show.
Are you worried that an audience will get emotionally involved with this character [Hobbes] and want him to get home and then get frustrated that because of this storyline, they're not going to be able to get to see that?
SPOTNITZ: That's very true. I think there's precedent for this kind of thing. If you look at THE FUGITIVE, a very popular TV show, every week he was running. The answer is investing people in the world of Harsh Realm, and you start to care for all these people you're not supposed to care about. Again, that goes back to the irony of this being "just a game." These people are supposed to be just digital copies of people in the real world. But clearly there's more to them than that. They have consciousness. Then you have to ask if they have a soul. Eventually, a religious theme, which is subtle in the premiere, but becomes more and more obvious as the show goes on, about saving this world that was created and has souls in it. It probably has as much of a right to exist as anything else God or man has created. There is a mythology that will come in future episodes, about a savior who will come and save all the virtual reality characters. We will see Hobbes is indeed that person.
How much did or did not THE MATRIX influence what you did?
SPOTNITZ: We came up with this last fall, and we'd never heard of THE MATRIX. They must have been filming on this, but honestly I'd never heard of it. We'd shot the pilot and I remember Dan Sackheim [an executive producer on REALM] went to see it on a weekend, and came in Monday and just moaned, "Oh, God. You've got to see this movie." He was just worried they'd had $70 million and we had a small fraction of that. [THE MATRIX ended with a cost of $120 million, but who's counting?] There are some similarities, but ours is actually the opposite of their idea. Theirs is actually that our real world is virtual reality, and the real world is a place where people are used as fuel cells. I thought there were a lot of really creative ideas in it, but it's really just the starting points that are similar. After only a few episodes, HARSH REALM goes off in a different direction. Actually, I think THE MATRIX will help us because it gets people used to the idea of parallel worlds, and it's a little confusing if you don't start to buy into that mode.