X-Files creator Chris Carter talks in vague terms about Harsh Realm and still finding time to finish X-File-ing the show’s seventh and rumored final season
As if TV and movies aren’t far enough removed from reality, this year’s release of The Matrix, the Spanish feature Open Your Eyes and now Chris Carter’s television series Harsh Realm are celebrating the potential of virtual reality, a world that exists only in our mind’s eye and in some computer drive somewhere.
It’s a topic that TV has tackled before (anybody remember VR5?), but until now virtual reality has been a place where the average television viewer hasn’t been interested enough to go to. But when the creator of Fox Television’s most popular program heads to virtual-land, you better believe somebody’s going to be interested.
Carter got interested in the idea after X-Files producer/director Dan Sackheim presented him with a comic book on the subject. “There were elements in it that I really liked a lot and I thought it was a great vehicle for telling a series of stories,” Carter recalls. “No one had ever tackled virtual reality in a satisfactory way on network television. I think parallel worlds are great ways to tell stories. This is really what I was shooting for, a way to tell stories about the human condition, using war as a backdrop.”
Harsh Realm follows D. B. Sweeney, Scott Bairstow, Samantha Mathis and Rachel Hayward as people involved in a military experiment to create an artificial reality for military training, with far-reaching consequences that the program’s original creators never counted on. Or did they? More than The Matrix, Carter found himself affected by the harsh realities of war depicted in films like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. “It was an opportunity to take some of the things I liked best about those movies — which I think have struck some kind of contemporary chord in everyone — and use some of the elements of virtual reality to create a really good science fiction show.”
While the idea sounds suspiciously like a high-tech video game, Carter insists that’s not the case. “It’s a simulated war game created by the military, so it’s not a game per se,” he notes. “And when it says ‘it’s just a game’ at the end of the opening credits, that’s ironic, because it has big consequences. What I wanted to do was to do a TV show that had elements of some of my favorite movies: Paths of Glory, Platoon, Blade Runner, a lot of really good early war movies. And this was my way of doing that, using a contemporary element, which was the virtual reality element. This I think has a tremendous romantic story and has a great mythology potential as well. There’s a conspiracy at work here. There is another world, a parallel world that people can go back and forth between. I think it’s a great chance to tell allegorical stories, which is I think one of the storytelling conventions that provides the best of series television.”
Of course the advantage of an artificial reality is the fact that there are no rules, but as Carter points out, that in itself can be a limiting factor on a series.
“You have to know what the rules are and then you can break those rules, but you must establish the rules very early on,” he says. “But I think the thing that I look forward to most in this show is using our imaginations to take the world and cut it loose from physical properties. To take a godless world where there is no morality, where there is no standard or code of behavior and see what the world would be like if it were like that. That’s what Harsh Realm is and it really gives us a chance, I think, to comment on society and certainly on a lot of contemporary issues. So I think that that’s what’s going to make this a lot richer.”
Placing Harsh Realm within a strictly military context has its share of dangers, one of which is the level of gun-toting violence to be depicted on the series. But despite the recent events at Columbine and the increased public concern about violence in the media, Carter insists he plans to take the same approach to violence that he took on The X-Files and Millennium.
“I’m not interested in blood, guts, gore, and/or gratuitous gunfire,” the producer says. “My approach is to suggest a lot, to see the effects of violence, not the violence itself, to not see blood when you don’t have to see blood, to tell good human stories using war as a backdrop. And it’s not a glorification of war; it is the opposite. It is talking about the horror of war, and I think that we can all appreciate that, certainly with what we read in the paper every day about Kosovo, et cetera. This pilot was shot before Columbine, but my approach is still the same. I’m going to treat every episode and every scene, every element, as I’ve always treated it, which is responsibly. I’ve always been sensitive. [Columbine] heightened the sensitivity to violence on television. But I think the issues are as they’ve always been. What storytellers do importantly, if you’re doing it well, is you actually can shed really interesting light on the issues, through your storytelling. So, to write about war, to write about violence, it is an element of what you do and that’s what I’m dealing with here too: how much to show in order to get a point across, to learn something, to change something. And I think storytellers are vitally important to change. So, I think people are sensitive. Certainly the networks and the censors are sensitive to what’s going on TV right now, but I would hate to see it be a backlash that affects the really good, responsible storytellers in trying to write relevant, big, important stories.”
Carter is also sensitive to charges that Harsh Realm might be influenced by the success of The Matrix. “I didn’t know about The Matrix until our show was shot,” he admits. “I saw it and there were elements that I think you’re going to find in any kind of parallel world idea. So I think there were some similarities. I was impressed by a lot of what they did in that movie. I was super impressed by the special effects in that movie. I think that Harsh Realm, even though it is a virtual reality idea, is much different than The Matrix. And I think that what we’ve done, too, is we’ve set the stage for many episodes of this show, where a show like The Matrix I think might have to change its concept a little bit in order to do the same thing.” For Carter, Harsh Realm also presents an open-ended concept subject to potentially infinite permutations.
“You’ll see different worlds within the world but they will all be based around the world that you saw, which is a world where there is no government besides the government that Santiago is creating, and there is no morality or no God,” he explains. “These people don’t know of the real world. They may be hearing about it but they were created — they are concepts in this world who see themselves disappear. When someone dies, they evaporate, so there is no reverence for the dead, if you will.”
Exactly how the Harsh Realm virtual world will interact with our own reality is something viewers will have to tune in to discover. “That will be explained in the second and third episodes,” Carter promises. “We actually put it in the pilot but it was too much information. But you’ll understand what the consequences are to the real world and what Santiago has up his sleeve, which makes it, I think a giant concept when you realize in fact how this virtual, imaginary world will affect reality if he’s successful.”
Carter also notes that his ideas for the interaction of flesh-and-blood characters with virtual counterparts and contacts echoes something out of Jason and the Argonauts.
“One of the things that interests me is a kind of Greek approach to this storytelling that you’ve got the Gods above in the real world, if you will, manipulating the characters down below,” the producer explains. “I think you can plant visions in our hero’s head through computer programming, phantoms, dreams, all these things present opportunities and devices to tell stories with them together. But I think the distance is what creates part of the power of the series.”
There’s no doubt that Carter has contributed more than his share to the recent embrace of science fiction, the paranormal, and the overall mystical sense of angst that seems to be multiplying as we approach the end of the millennium. And despite the recent cancellation of the aptly-named Millennium, The X-Files has been an important millennial marker and Harsh Realm should feed in to the ambivalent feelings about technology that have marked the last decade.
“I think that the millennium — I read about the previous century, so the end of 100 years – the end of a century — is a time of great reflection and fear, and I think Y2K has really helped to drive that up,” he says. “But I think that The X-Files was a show that was right for its time. I think, if just for cell phones alone, it was important! I think that Harsh Realm in the same way, can tell stories that are — may not have been interesting to people, you know, as five years ago. So, I think that Harsh Realm is a show that feels of its time.”
And despite the winding down of The X-Files, which may see its final season this year, Carter says his work on both The X-Files and Harsh Realm will be all-consuming.
“I’d say this is going to be one of the hardest years of my life,” he explains. “I’m prepared to do whatever I can to make this show work, and to make The X-Files as good as it’s always been. I’m going to work night and day, though, to make sure that I service these actors. I give them material that keeps them excited, which is all-important to making a good show. You must feed that process with good material, and that’s really one of the simple facts about producing a good TV show, keeping everyone excited about the work that they do because it’s very hard. I’ll do a lion’s share of writing on both shows, I’d say.”
And for all his status as one of the primary masterminds behind the gigantic influx of televised science fiction in the past decade, Carter insists that he’s more interested in the human side of the story.
“As far back as Twilight Zone, you have these allegorical sort of shows,” he explains. “I think that there is an appetite for them, in that people can understand them if they’re told right. The idea of a digital universe — a digital world — is still a difficult concept to grasp, and that one of the tricks in making this show good and popular is in making it understandable — how one world and another world co-exist. I was not a science fiction fan as a kid or as a younger man. So, I didn’t really like some of the elements of science fiction because they were not relevant, or I could not relate to them as a reader. So I come to science fiction from, ‘How does it affect my life? How is it pertinent to my experience?’ So, that’s really the way I always approach it. But the science fiction elements, of course, now, especially with special effects–these are the bonus to storytelling. If you don’t tell that good, human story, the effects will never carry you through.