If you remember the sadly short-lived Max Headroom from 1987, it’s worth revisiting that 14-episode TV series on DVD. If you never saw it, you should.
Set “20 minutes into the future”, Max Headroom takes place in a dystopian environment where TV networks comprise the de facto government and off switches are illegal.
Edison Carter (Matt Frewer), hard-hitting reporter for Network 23, is injured in a motorcycle crash while investigating a story that could prove embarrassing to his bosses. The last thing he sees, as a gate to a parking garage comes down, are the words on the gate: “Max Headroom.”
Carter is too dangerous to let go free, but too high-profile to simply “disappear”; so Network 23’s CEO agrees to have his memory downloaded to a computer. The idea is that a computer-generated avatar will continue to give his reports and no one will know the difference.
It doesn’t go as planned. The computer generated version, whose first words— and subsequently his name— are “Max Headroom”, does not look quite like Carter. Max also develops something of a satirical bent and believes TV is real. In one episode, he continually asks why no one’s doing something about the “bloodthirsty” main character in an action show.
With some help, Carter gets out of the jam he’s in and continues to do his job (with some degree of interference from his own bosses) throughout the run of the series. He’s aided by Theora Jones (Amanda Pays) a controller at Network 23. Another ally (mostly) is wunderkind computer hacker Bryce Lynch (Chris Young), who actually caused Carter’s accident while engaged in a hacking battle with Theora. He’s also the one who created Max.
The iconoclastic Blank Reg (W. Morgan Sheppard), who operates an underground TV network, also helps Carter on occasion.
As for Max, who is running loose in Network 23’s system, he proves to be both a ratings darling for the network and a bane. He’s known to insult the sponsor (as well as the network executive) on the air, for example. And it’s not always fun for Carter to have a sometimes tactless part of himself loose on the airwaves, either.
There is a lot of satire in Max Headroom, which is probably why it didn’t last very long. Much of it centers around the television industry. Not only are TV networks in charge (and not only are off switches illegal), but throughout the series, people’s lives are shown as revolving around their televisions.
Max Headroom is something of a dichotomy. It’s both of its time and timeless. On the one had, the show has dated, given the 3.5 inch floppy disks used as storage media; no hint of the Internet as we know it and television being depicted as the home entertainment medium. On the other hand, despite the series being set “20 minutes into the future”, the set design looked backwards as well as forward. The “keyboards” of at least three character’s computers are manual typewriters. There’s also a stand-alone manual typewriter on the desk behind Theora’s work station.
When you consider that the series aired in 1987— by which time personal computers had come along and every office probably used either those or electric typewriters— it’s interesting to see both a stand-alone manual typewriter and one used as a computer keyboard. So the producers weren’t simply extrapolating what the future would look like based on then-present trends; they were presenting us with various levels of technology linked together. That helps keep the show from becoming too obviously dated.
For the record, since computer-generated effects were very primitive compared to today, the character of Max Headroom was created by putting Frewer in heavy latex make-up.
If you like good TV programs— ones that are willing to challenge the medium itself— Max Headroom is worth a look.
Copyright 2016 Patrick Keating: