It's How You Play The Game
Harsh Realm Pilot Episode
Airdate Oct. 8, 1999
Thomas Hobbes: Scott Bairstow
Mike Pinocchio: D.B. Sweeney
Sophie: Samantha Mathis
Omar Santiago: Terry O'Quinn
Mel Waters: Max Martini
In Sarajevo a few years ago, soldiers take positions inside a demolished structure where enemy forces have pinned them down. When Lts. Thomas Hobbes and Mel Waters wonder what they're doing there, the reply is "Peace-keeping!" Using a mirror to try to locate the enemy behind them, the two soldiers instead see a group of children wandering towards a nearby building. Most of them hide inside, but one little girl remains in the line of fire. Hobbes covers Waters as he charges into the open to save her, but once inside the building, a boy steps forward, shouts at Waters in a language he doesn't understand, and opens fire. Hobbes hears the shots but is ordered to remain where he is because the building is about to be targeted from the air. Disobeying orders, he races to a dying Waters, saving him by hiding them both under a mattress as the strike commences.
In the present at Ft. Dix, Hobbes drives home to find his fiancee Sophie trying on her wedding dress. When he complains that it's tradition for the groom not to see the dress until the wedding day, she purrs, "Maybe you shouldn't see this either," dropping the dress to stand before him naked. Hobbes agrees to overlook that tradition and the two make love, talking later in bed about his desire to move to California and get away from the military. A knock at the door interrupts them as Hobbes is informed that he's wanted at headquarters. The escort takes him to a large, sparsely furnished building, where he meets a colonel and several other officers who have heard of his bravery in Sarajevo. They have a final assignment for him, in return for which they offer to help him get settled in California - though Hobbes is confused how the colonel could know about plans he just made in bed with his fiancee.
Hobbes is asked whether he has heard of Harsh Realm, a top secret military strategy program developed by the Pentagon. He has not heard of the virtual reality training program. The colonel tells him that they want him to beat the score of Omar Santiago. The way to do that is to "knock off Santiago" - to take him out of the game by eliminating the virtual character of Santiago within the game. The colonel informs him that the game video will explain everything else he needs to know, and seats him in a private room where the scenario begins to play.
As military-themed music plays over footage of soldiers fighting, the narrator (Gillian Anderson) explains that a nuclear bomb the size of a suitcase could kill tens of millions of people if a terrorist detonated it in New York City. Using the 1990 census as a template, Harsh Realm recreates our world in a computer-generated format with every single citizen accounted for, so that the Department Of Defense could play out such scenarios and work out strategies to prevent or survive such disasters. But the tape cuts off abruptly, so Hobbes leaves the room to find assistance.
Instead, the lieutenant finds an empty building and a militia-type group approaching from outside. Hiding in the rafters, he watches as they loot the facility, but he jumps down too soon. Hobbes is held up at gunpoint by a dark-haired man who takes his weapons and the engagement ring he bought for Sophie. Successfully wresting one gun away from the looter doesn't help, since the looter has another, so their fight is stalemated as helicopters fly over the building. "Now we're both going to die," snaps the dark-haired man as the two race outside, diving from a missile which blows up the facility. Helicopters fire at the fleeing looters. Hobbes tries to help one wounded victim and is shocked when the dying man disappears, flickering like a computer program before vanishing entirely.
Hiding in the woods, Hobbes sees his friend Waters giving orders to soldiers in Jeeps, and waves. But he is shot in the chest and falls, dragged unconscious away from the army. Waking, he finds a woman with a punk haircut treating his wounds. She answers none of his questions, but heals his wound with only a light touch, sealing the punctured skin. As soon as he can walk, Hobbes rushes to the ruins of his home in Ft. Dix, finding his dog Dexter hiding under the ruined bed, but no sign of Sophie. Speaking to his absent girlfriend, he reflects that he has to find a way out of the horrifying scenario and back to her, which means that he has to finish the game.
Inside a nearby wretched hive of scum and villainy, Hobbes finds the dark-haired looter who took the ring, but he breaks the bar's only rule when he pulls a gun. All of the bar's patrons then pull weapons, prompting the looter to welcome him to Harsh Realm and joke that maybe Hobbes will get lucky and find Santiago, at which everyone in the place laughs uproariously. Though the looter says he wants to eat Dexter, Hobbes says he'll give the dog to the man if the man can take him to Santiago, whose location is well-known; it's just that none of the hundreds of people sent after him have been able to get rid of the high-scoring player. The two men and the dog drive to a development surrounded by a huge electrified fence that stretches for miles.
The looter knows where the fence has a weak spot, a glitch in the software, so Hobbes walks through...with his dog, since he doesn't intend to keep his part of the bargain with the man who stole his engagement ring. The looter tries to shoot him in the back, but his gun is empty, and Hobbes has stolen his car keys. "You'll die in there anyway!" the man shouts at his receding back. Hobbes walks away, reaching the outskirts of a city where he steals a gun and forces a guard to take him to Waters. In his former friend's house, Hobbes learns that Waters was given the same mission as himself, but sold out to work for Santiago when he learned that the promise of freedom from the game was a lie - they are stuck in Harsh Realm. Waters has orders to kill Hobbes, but since he owes the lieutenant his life, he'll let him escape if he leaves before Waters' wife comes home.
But he's too late. Waters' wife comes through the door. It's Sophie...or a virtual reality double of Sophie, who does not recognize Hobbes. Nevertheless, he abducts her, trying to convince her that he knows her as he drags her through Santiago City. "One People, One Nation, One Santiago," reads the banner on the side of a bus driving through the clean, well-lit streets of the virtual dictatorship. Back at the fence, the looter warns Hobbes that he can't take Sophie through, but Hobbes disregards the advice and shoves her past the weak spot. This action sets off a series of alarms, which the looter blames on a tracking device implanted in the chest of Sophie and all the other virtual characters in Harsh Realm.
While the looter sneaks them into hiding and removes Sophie's tracker, Hobbes digs through the other man's belongings, finding dog tags which identify him as Mike Pinocchio. Pinocchio scowls that most people think he's dead and he wants to keep it that way. He confirms Waters' statements that no one can escape from Harsh Realm, since to die within the game is to suffer brain death in the real world. The military really needs players to hunt down Santiago because in the real world, they can't figure out where the real man is hiding, nor how he enters the simulation which he now controls.
Pinocchio intends to use Sophie's ring to book passage on a ship to South America, but Hobbes insists that that ring paid for her ticket to safety rather than his. Troops capture Hobbes as he watches her sail away, but in his jail cell, as Waters is introducing him to Santiago, he sees her brought in as a prisoner. Santiago tries to recruit Hobbes, saying that he provides for his people and the military resents what he has created. "Men can have it all here." To prove it, Hobbes is taken to a government house where the food and furnishings impress him. Down the hall, however, Waters beats Sophie, demanding to know the name of the man who helped Hobbes escape. Santiago demands at first that she be treated well so Hobbes doesn't think she's been abused, but when Sophie says she now believes the stories of a savior coming from another world, the dictator beats her as well.
The female looter with the punk haircut writes "It's him" on the top of the bar. Pinocchio agrees: "I knew it the minute I saw him." The two pass through another software glitch, appearing inside the government building right near Hobbes' room. They free him, but he won't leave without Sophie, who agrees to come with them after asking Hobbes, "It's you, isn't it?" Waters catches them, recognizes Mike Pinocchio, and shoots Sophie as the group flees. She fades and crackles with static, then disappears from Harsh Realm. The female looter and Pinocchio save Hobbes from the pursuing army.
Waters tells Santiago that Pinocchio is alive, and confesses that he shot Sophie. "You made a terrible mistake. Hobbes will never stop now," grumbles the dictator. Hiding in the woods with his rescuers, Hobbes reflects that he feels a sense of kinship with these people and will fight beside them, though he has no idea why he has been sent to Harsh Realm, nor whether it means that he is being tested. He tells Sophie that he will fight for her, and he will get home. But the real Thomas Hobbes is strapped to a gurney in a vast room with hundreds of others, all hooked into the VR machinery which generates Harsh Realm.
This pilot certainly was compelling, though unnecessarily bloody and rather derivative - not just of The Matrix, which is an obvious point of comparison with its artificial world and its prophesied hero, but also of the Denzel Washington film Virtuosity which featured a policeman in a simulated military training program, and the multi-layered mind-warp series VR5. Many seeming contradictions were left unexplained at the end of the episode, so one can only hope Carter and Co. have a game plan and a long-term arc. We don't need another piecemeal mythology like The X-Files, and I certainly hope this doesn't degenerate into a Prisoner-type situation where it turns out that no one knows what's going on. That's fine for a handful of episodes, but not for a long-running show.
Scott Bairstow and D.B. Sweeney are charismatic and interact very well, though both are a little too pretty for the dirty world of Harsh Realm. The silent punk saint and ditzy victim Sophie really got on my nerves; let's hope this series has stronger female characters than the passive followers of this pilot episode. I'm feeling very hairy about the Messianic scenario, which seems both heavy-handed and illogical; let's hope the others learn early on that Hobbes is no Neo, Ripley, or Hercules, so they can interact like real people trapped in a terrible situation, rather than literary cliches.
Visually, this episode was stunning, with striking tracking shots and unusual use of lighting. But the weird slowed-down musical effects were annoying rather than eerie, while the "glitches" looked like every powerful being on Star Trek who ever walked through a force field or holodeck graph, with some of The Abyss sea aliens thrown in. It's certainly worth tuning into this show for another week, but is it another X-Files? Even with Gillian Anderson and Lance Henriksen doing cameos, it doesn't look like it so far.