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November 17th, 2008

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03:18 pm - two minds, but with one single memory
One of the series I've been watching in earnest recently has been Max Headroom.

Oh hell yes.

Bleak mid-80s future dystopia on ABC prime time? Yes, please. Did it last long? Not a chance. I love the world of Network 23, the Fringe, the Blanks, news reporters with controllers guiding them through the urban wastelands, and the ghost in the network machine, Max Headroom himself. It's sad that the character is remembered now as mostly a wacky shill for Coke ("C-C-Catch the wave! Don't say the P-Word!") because as originally conceived, Max is a very interesting fellow.

He's the brainchild, quite literally, of Network 23's star reporter Edison Carter. For those not familiar with the story but who want to keep up: Carter's brain was info-dumped into a computer simulation after the flesh-and-blood reporter was involved in a motorcycle accident. The simulated Edison was dubbed Max Headroom. Why? It was the first thing the simulation could say. (It also just happens to be the last words Edison sees when he flies off his motorcycle into a parking garage bar.)

So here we have a simulated man, living inside the Network 23 computer system (which of course is linked to every component of the network, from the television feed to security cameras to employee databases) with the memories and some of the personality traits of his human counterpart. He's more mischievious, but just as inquisitive. Since Max was born unto television, he thinks television is life. He repeatedly interrupts a Rambo-like action show to ask why the hero hadn't been arrested yet. "Just look at him! He's shooting everything up!" ("It's okay, Max," he's told. "It's a children's show.") He has no qualms about bad-mouthing the sponsors and when it comes to the network feed, he comes and goes as he pleases. It's great to think of this AI as a child, learning all sorts of things. "He was born at the age of 27," Edison mentions. "There's a lot of memories of mine he's got questions about." Including what "drinking" is and why it causes fuzzy holes in one's memory. ("That memory is from a graduation party," Edison says. "You graduated a lot," Max replies.)

Even as creative as the premise is, there are of course some typical techy quibbles. I think I'm going to give the "we can track you and whoever else we need to find via satellite, and see wireframe computer schematics of everything around" a pass, because it's the news controllers who get to do that, and guide the reporters around (and it does make for some fun.) Even if that omnipresent technology wouldn't be in the hands of snoopy reporters in the first place. We also won't get into how Max can communicate with anybody through a regular TV set, no matter how a "two-way link" is justified.

The storylines, however, are pretty much the same:

VICTIM OF THE WEEK: Help! There's some Really Bad Stuff going down!
NETWORK 23 EXECUTIVE: We have a vested interest in this Really Bad Stuff. We must not let Edison Carter uncover the secret!
THEORA JONES: Here's the directions to the bad guys, Edison!
BAD GUYS: Ha ha! We're doing Really Bad Stuff.
EDISON CARTER: I've found the secret! It's shocking and terrible!
NETWORK 23 EXECUTIVE: Pull the story!
JEFFREY TAMBOR'S CHARACTER: Edison, we have to pull the story. It's an order from high up!
THEORA JONES: They turned your camera off, Edison!
MAX HEADROOM: Max to the res-res-res-res-rescue! Here-HERE-here, let me show the foot-foot-foot-(footage?) footage.
THEORA JONES: Max, you did it!
EDISON CARTER: This is Edison Carter reporting live and direct with some Really Shocking News about Really Bad Stuff going on in this city.
JEFFREY TAMBOR: Great story, Edison! The ratings are through the roof!
NETWORK 23 EXECUTIVES: This is the point where we should sack the entire news team, but we never do. Besides, it's not like we'll get arrested for this illegal stuff, and we've got the bestest ratings ever. Now let's hatch another insidious plot for Edison to uncover next week.

After three episodes, Edison Carter has uncovered and exposed two dirty plans hatched by Network 23 itself, and one dirty plan supported by a Network 23 exec. And he's done all of his tattling directly on his show. Carried by Network 23. Yeah. And I know some of the stories that are coming up. He's bitten the hand that feeds him enough that it's only got a few fingers left.

The original British Channel 4 tele-film ("20 Minutes Into The Future") was even bleaker than this, actually, and ended itself pointing in an entirely different direction than the US series did. I'm not sure if Channel 4 meant to pick it up as a series, or if the US got in on this as an afterthought. In the original film, Max ends up at Blank Reg's pirate network Big Time, and turns himself loose upon the airwaves. For the series, Max stays in Network 23, becomes the most popular presenter on the network, and mucks about therein. It would've been interesting to see Max get out and about, but keeping him close to home gives him more Secret Stuff to get into. Besides, we still get enough of Blank Reg to keep me happy. I honestly think he's my favorite character, and I'm glad he was translated directly from the original tele-film.

And I still like the series. I still think Amanda Pays is awesome hot. I still like the setting and the concept and Max's persona. There's a lot of dystopian satire that shines through, just as it would do in Robocop a year or two later. And it's got some science-fiction themes which still resonate very well with us today. I think I'll keep both seasons.

(37 comments | Leave a comment)


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[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2008 08:47 pm (UTC)
Is this series on DVD now? (Wikipedia, not always the most reliable source, says it isn't.)

Edited at 2008-11-17 08:47 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2008 08:57 pm (UTC)
I don't think so. I watched it with a group of friends a couple of years ago, and we were busy tracking down sketchy copies on file-sharing networks.
[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2008 08:48 pm (UTC)
I loved the hell out of this show--to this day, whenever I see William Morgan Shepherd, it's always "HEY IT IS BLANK REG! BIG TIME TV!"

When people have no idea who/what I am talking about, it makes me sad.

Amanda Pays also brightened up The Flash, which I remember liking a lot but am not sure how well it's aged.
[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2008 09:05 pm (UTC)
My wife's pointed out that Amanda Pays' characters in THE FLASH and MAX HEADROOM are essentially the same character. . . .

I'm fine with that, since I like that character, and like both shows.
(Deleted comment)
Date:November 17th, 2008 08:56 pm (UTC)
I had the chance to re-watch several episodes on some now-forgotten cable channel (sleuth?) three or four years ago. I still really enjoyed it, too. I found some of their cynicism about the omnipresent influence of "ratings" and its equivalent on corporate america to be remarkably prescient.
[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2008 10:47 pm (UTC)
"We haven't had a ratings war in 5 minutes."

Brilliant stuff. And I'm thinking, though I'll have to watch more episodes to confirm it, but all those wasteland TVs can't be turned off so they gotta be tuned to something.
[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2008 09:07 pm (UTC)
Hey, and Amanda Pays is also awesome hot on The Flash.
[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2008 10:39 pm (UTC)
Amanda Pays was pretty much the reason why I watched The Flash.

Yes, indeed.
[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2008 09:09 pm (UTC)
The storylines, however, are pretty much the same:

*snarf* It's been ages since I've seen MH, but I you got it pretty pinned right there.

Amanda Pays is awesome hot.

[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2008 09:14 pm (UTC)
"Amanda Pays is awesome hot"

Yes please.

I don't think I've watched the show since it was first on.
[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2008 09:18 pm (UTC)
Max was also a popular recording artist, as I recall.
[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2008 10:35 pm (UTC)

Relax. You are quite safe here.

On trumpet: Peter O'Toole! (Just taking a rest between bars...)

Paranoimia (both the single and the 10" mix) are awesome.
[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2008 09:22 pm (UTC)
omg i didnt know the origin of his name =)) that's awesome. max headroom used to scare me.
[User Picture]
Date:November 18th, 2008 12:49 am (UTC)
Yup. There's even a small callback to it later, when we meet the head of the Chinese network counterpart -- who's only seen on screen, and whose name is Ped Xing.
[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2008 09:23 pm (UTC)
I have a huge Headroom pin. I used to watch that show all the time.
[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2008 09:48 pm (UTC)
Man oh man...Max Headroom was too far ahead of it's time. There wouldn't be a show that got a worse shake than it until Firefly.
[User Picture]
Date:November 18th, 2008 02:44 pm (UTC)
I think Freaks & Geeks came in between the two, but I agree with you there. They have joined the Pantheon Of Intelligent Shows The Networks Killed, and we're all the poorer for it.

However, even though the series runs were short, they do make for dandy viewing when watched back-to-back or on a regular daily basis. Like a miniseries of sorts. You just sometimes don't get any story arc closure (unless you pull a movie deal to close off loose ends and kill a few darlings.)
[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2008 11:14 pm (UTC)
REG: Dom, I do believe I love you.
DOM: Like a sister, I hope.
REG: Well, I always did have a thing for nuns.
[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2008 11:45 pm (UTC)
Also, it inspired the Max Headroom pirate signal.
[User Picture]
Date:November 18th, 2008 12:48 am (UTC)
That sounds pretty awesome. Never caught the show when it was on; little kids only have control of the TV when the cartoons are on. (And this was back in the 80's, when the cartoons only had early mornings and afternoons.)

I used to have the Flash DVD set, so I knew Amanda Pays sounded familiar. Yeah, she was a looker. (And while the Flash doesn't hold up all that well now, it's still fun to watch. The Trickster episodes are fantastic, as is the episode "Ghost in the Machine.")

[User Picture]
Date:November 18th, 2008 05:31 am (UTC)
Aw, man, I should dig this up and watch some. It's been awhile.
Your recap reminded me of my beloved Phantom 2040 (which also cannot much be found outside of VHS), which I now also want to go back and watch.
[User Picture]
Date:November 18th, 2008 06:16 am (UTC)
I think of this show as one of the very few times that a visual medium was actually building on contemporary print science fiction at a comparable level of sophistication. That almost never happens.

A lot of the Bryce- and Max-related stuff in Max Headroom was basically a knowing parody of William Gibson's Neuromancer and related stories; they borrowed some phrases and concepts directly (at one point Max is referred to as an "autonomous ROM construct", which doesn't make a lot of sense in the TV context, but does make sense as a description of Gibson's character Dixie Flatline, who had a similar origin).

In the early to mid-1990s, about a decade after Gibson and his friends were shaking up print SF, suddenly cyberpunk broke into mainstream media for a few years and all these people were attempting to make cyberpunk shows and movies about virtual reality and cyberspace cowboys hacking the Net. I remember thinking that Max Headroom's time had finally arrived, but he was gone by then. Then again, they did cast Frewer in that stupid sequel to "Lawnmower Man"...

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