Chris Carter speaks in a virtual tongue. His language is an amalgam of almosts and maybes, what ifs and if…thens. His freshest foray into the televisionary, Harsh Realm, (premiering October 8 on FOX), is his most explicitly virtual creation — a world of games, thought experiments, and hypotheticals.
“Harsh Realm suggests a possible future scenario, but it is the worst-case scenario,” Carter explains from Los Angeles before leaving for Vancouver, British Columbia, to begin production on the new series. “It is about a man realizing that the world we live in can’t be made safe anymore.”
Adapted from James D. Hudnall’s six-issue 1991 comic book series, Harsh Realm opens with war hero Lt. Thomas Hobbes (Scott Bairstow) returning from Sarajevo. Just as he becomes reacquainted with his idyllic suburban home — resplendent with glimmering Chevy truck and comely fiancee — the military requests one final mission of him. A top secret virtual program, “Harsh Realm,” which was used to simulate various training scenarios, has been hijacked by the ominous Omar Santiago (Terry O’Quinn). Hobbes’ mission is to enter the dystopian program — a simulated pixel-world exactly like our own, yet not — and kill Santiago. “It’s just a game,” says a familiar disembodied voice (Gillian Anderson) as he enters the program.
Just a Game
Among the epithets that often aggregate around Chris Carter — producer, director, author, conspiracist, philosopher — one frequently gets overlooked: journalist. From 1979 to 1982, Carter was an editor at Surfing magazine. In addition to helping cultivate an appreciation of fringe culture, this position nurtured his trademark reading of media events. After six seasons of The X-Files and three of Millennium, Carter, who once called Watergate “the Big Bang of my moral universe,” has perfected his eye for capturing our national tragedies (in The X-Files, events like the Oklahoma City bombing and the Waco stand-off; in Harsh Realm, televised war). In lesser hands this could end up tabloidish and exploitative, but Carter grapples with the subject like a scientist fascinated in his area of study.
“Using a current event has sharp power because I think we have less faith in our media outlets to give us the real story,” he says in an elongated and calculated SoCal drawl. “It gives writers of fiction a greater opportunity to play with possible realities.”
Although he tends to eschew the title of “philosopher,” probably because it sounds too didactic, Carter obviously has one foot in the philosopher’s grave: the hero of Harsh Realm does, after all, bear the name of the great seventeenth-century master of the reality complex.
In an essay on Carter, William Gibson once wrote, “This is the Age of Deregulation, and in The X-Files, as in our daily lives, the very nature of reality is deregulated.” Reality-fixated Hobbes — a Spielbergian good ol’ boy trapped in a game — is the next step in deregulation. Whereas “The truth is out there” was the motto of The X-Files, “It’s just a game” becomes the mantra of Harsh Realm — “an ironic mantra, of course,” Carter is quick to add, “just as ‘The truth is out there’ is ironic.”
With the success of films like The Matrix and eXistenZ, virtual reality is currently a vogue device. Carter admits the comparisons make him squeamish, but says he didn’t see The Matrix until Harsh Realm was done. “I thought, ‘Wow, I hope people don’t compare our couple-million-dollar pilot to that $75 million movie.’ The virtual reality ideas command both, and I was a little worried about people making comparisons. But they certainly didn’t invent the messiah figure that is an element of so many stories.” In Harsh Realm, Hobbes becomes the potential savior for the people trapped in the virtual world. “The messiah embodies our hope for salvation,” suggests Carter. “It’s an archetypal story that works well in a virtual world because it has its own philosophy, or lack thereof. Harsh Realm is a godless world with no morality, codes, or standards. As humans, we have a need to hold onto something, and that’s what the character of the savior does for us.”
Heart of Darkness
Game is war is life is television — that’s the vigilante world of Harsh Realm. Although it is a virtual world, it is also quite “real”: an imposed pseudo-utopia with militarized gated communities and characters who rotely walk through life playing their parts. In Carter’s hands, virtual reality becomes a versatile tool that, depending on the context, is used to invoke various concepts: war, television, Hollywood, video games, film, art, life, or Canada.
Canada? “I feel a strong affinity to Canada because it feels like the world I grew up in,” he says, explaining his penchant for filming in Vancouver. “There’s a civility, a sensibility, and an interpersonal respect that I see missing in my world. Canada harkens back to another time. Canada is virtual in a sense, but in the best sense.”
As December 31, 1999, closes in, many people will be retreating to non-harsh realms. Where will the creator of Millennium be at the turning of the millennium?
“It is my wedding anniversary, so I know to some extent what I’ll be doing: I’ll be with my wife, probably in the safety of our own home. We won’t be in the air, and we won’t be in an urban area, so I feel safe and satisfied that we are not going to succumb or fall victim to what I know is going to be a completely unexpected January 1.”
With Chris Carter guiding us there, the millennium arrives a little easier.