The Creepily Accurate Dystopian Forecast of Max Headroom

by Jim Geraghty

Today’s Jolt featured some lighter thoughts, suitable for the Friday before Labor Day weekend…

And now for something completely different (again) . . .

This concludes the last week of August, traditionally America’s vacation season, and with the cavalcade of bad news, we could all use a mental vacation . . .

Last November, I interrupted the usual Jolt offerings and marked my anniversary trip to the Pacific Northwest with a long-percolating essay on Twin Peaks, the short-lived, much-debated ABC television series.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my favorite abruptly-canceled cult hits. There’s a special place in our minds for those creative works that we loved, and seemingly no one else did. Sure, modern television history offers some long-running works of indisputable quality and widespread appeal — The Cosby ShowFamily TiesCheers24. But there’s something about discovering, and relishing, that show that you love and that most of the people around you don’t enjoy or understand. It’s as if the creators are speaking in a code that only you can translate. When you meet a fan of one of those shows, it’s like finding another member of a secret society.

Looking through my favorites in this style — Twin PeaksMax HeadroomThe Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and Firefly — there are a few common elements: an impassioned, detailed vision of a world quite different from the one outside our window, oftentimes with a sense that there’s a lot going on off-camera we’re not seeing. They’re complicated, and not every development is explained or it takes a while to get explained. They all had a mix of tones and styles and a wide range of emotional beats — some intensely funny moments, some chillingly dark ones. They featured particularly heroic protagonists in particularly strange, dangerous worlds.

Perhaps these television shows stand out because while books and film have always had enough room for really unusual visions, the traditional format and culture of television favored the vanilla. Particularly before today’s 500-channel world, prime-time network television seemed designed to sand off the rough edges, to water down the spice, to expand a show’s mass appeal by making it more like everything that came before. It’s almost as if we weren’t supposed to see these off-the-wall visions, and that they were accidentally transmitted to us.

So, if you’ll let this newsletter be even more self-indulgent than usual, a look back at the late-80s phenomenon Max Headroom, and why it rose and fell . . .

A few years ago, the complete Max Headroom series  a pilot produced as a stand-alone movie in the United Kingdom, then reinvented as a series for ABC was finally released on DVD.

The gist, for those who never watched, don’t remember, or were too young:

In the unspecified not-too-distant future — “Twenty Minutes into the Future” — the world is dominated by corporate television networks who fight relentless ratings battles. Off switches are banned and televisions are given away for free to the needy.

The world’s top channel, Network 23, strides atop the globe, driven largely by the work of its crusading journalist Edison Carter. The star reporter begins investigating his own network’s experimental and unethical new technology, “Blipverts,” 30-second ads compressed into three seconds, “too fast for the viewer to change the channel.” We learn Blipverts cause spontaneous combustion in particularly sedentary viewers, but Grossberg, Network 23’s ruthless CEO, is reluctant to stop using an effective, if slightly murderous, form of advertising. Network security goons chase Carter and he ends up slamming his head into a parking-garage sign — “Max Headroom, 2.3 m” — leaving him seemingly comatose. Grossberg orders the network’s teenage tech genius Bryce Lynch to copy Edison’s mind into a computer in an effort to determine what he learned about the Blipverts. The process doesn’t work quite as expected, and accidentally creates an irreverent entity that exists only on television screens: Max Headroom, a stuttering, wise-cracking talking head.

Carter is saved by his new partner/producer Theora, and the pair, along with Lynch and Max, expose the dirty secret of the Blipverts. Grossberg is fired and the rest of the series follows Carter’s adventures uncovering corruption and crimes in a bizarre future world.

Many others have written about the astounding prescience for a mid-to-late 1980s science fiction show. One point I haven’t seen discussed was that within a decade, someone had effectively invented the “Blipverts”: The flashing lights in a 1997 episode of the Japanese animated series Pokemon caused seizures in 685 viewers.

It’s easy — and in fact, probably intended — to see the series as a cautionary tale or a warning of what the future could be. But it’s one of the rare cautionary tales that refuses to specify what, precisely, made this future world so dysfunctional, other than too many people watching too much television. It’s a funny, self-mocking theme for a television show, but maybe that’s one reason it was destined for early cancellation.

The world of “Max Headroom” is visually fascinating and yet indisputably grim. The cityscape consists of giant skyscrapers, crumbling industrial sections, and impoverished slums — back when shows built models of cities instead of relying on computer graphics.

Network 23’s newsroom looks like a dramatically-lit computer junkyard, while the network executives meet in a darkened boardroom fit for a James Bond villain. The streets are filled with trash and many seem homeless (yet still enjoying functioning televisions); a recurring ally of our heroes are the rebels of “Big Time Television,” a small pirate station broadcasting from a giant bright pink bus.

It’s worth noting that while each episode is introduced with the tagline “Twenty Minutes into the Future,” the show never specified when and where everything was taking place. Sharp-eyed viewers noticed that a teenage character’s birth date is listed in a background graphic as 1988, suggesting the series is set in 2004 or so.

The technology of this world is a strange mix of the advanced video phones, hacking, and a primitive Internet system of inter-connected computers — remember, this is airing in 1987! The outdated computer keyboards look like typewriters and most of the cars are from the 1950s. In one episode, a car salesman says, “We used to make cars. Then we became like your [television] industry, we just kept re-using the ones we already made.”

Certain institutions survived to this future date; an episode dealing with the rise of television-based religions mentions that the Catholic Church and the 700 Club are the two largest faiths, and Islam, Judaism, Scientology and “IBM” are still around.

Other institutions no longer exist, such as movie theaters. The U.K. pilot offered a brief glimpse of news headlines suggesting global chaos beyond the city we’re watching:

  • Whites should be permitted the same access to South African public areas as the majority population.
  • Top secret prototype missile stolen from AKG by terrorists.
  • Nuclear waste disposal space shuttle DMP.5 in difficulty over failed computer link; controller was watching the Polly Show at the time.
  • Bolivian freedom fighters killed a 20-person medic team trying to reach starving peasants.
  • Colonial USSR government in New Delhi ordered military suppression of food riots.

But the ABC series avoided referring to events outside the city almost entirely.

The governing of this future world was strangely only half-explained. There are “tele-elections” — people vote by tuning in to the channel affiliated with the candidate but we never get a sense of whether these elections are local, state, national or global. The elected official does get authority over the city’s armor-clad “Metrocops,” who, over the course of the series, exhibit a wide range of ethics and methods. There’s an indication that the elections are rigged:

Network Executive Ben Cheviot: This signal disruption could be your rival trying to disrupt your victory.

Tele-Politician Simon Peller: Nonsense, my rival and I negotiated the election results weeks ago.

But in a subsequent episode, Peller is defeated and very much surprised by his defeat, suggesting that election results aren’t so predictable.

Illiteracy is so widespread that a young character doesn’t recognize what a book is.

A short bit of dialogue suggests that there’s been a society-wide airbrushing of history so thorough that even our hero, Edison Carter, remains oblivious to certain not-so-long-ago events:

Max: ”And interrupting your breakfast… -fast -fast… breakfast… for those cold mornings, why not try . . . Chernobyl Pops! Pops-Pops! Give you that warm glow all over. Just-Just-Just the stuff to feed your kids!”

Carter: ”What is he talking about?”

If the “when” of the series is tough to determine, the “where” is purposely vague as well. In the original pilot made for U.K.’s Channel Four, there are a couple clues that it’s taking place in London. In subsequent episodes of the series aired on ABC, a few quickly-glimpsed maps suggest the city is somewhere in the middle of the United States. (Most of the actors in the ABC series were American.) Other episodes referred to Neo-Tokyo and Novo Zurich . . . new names for existing cities or new cities? And if they’re new . . . what happened to the old Tokyo and Zurich?

I suspect this dystopian world without clear explanation is why most viewers found it too strange to be engrossing; it’s a vivid warning about our potential future that refuses to say much about how this world arrived at that future. There is a brief reference to a helicopter pilot serving in “the war” — with no specifics of who was fighting who — and at one point the anarchist pirate broadcaster Blank Reg tells his audience, “Remember how we said there was no future? Well, this is it.”

Or perhaps the satire cut too close to the bone for all involved — the depictions of a ruthless television network and amoral executives, obsessively rapacious advertisers selling crap, draconian standards-and-practices censors, and ignorant, couch-potato viewers. As many others have noted, in some ways it is amazing that it ever aired, never mind 13 of the 14 episodes produced.

The irony is that the world we live in is eerily similar to that of Max Headroom, once you adjust for the creation of the Internet. This 1987-era show envisioned computer data manipulation and identity theft, a populace amusing itself to numbness with visual entertainment and largely oblivious to major scandals and corruption, terrorists ensuring their attacks occur on live television, television networks closely tied to terrorist groups (COUGHaljazeeraCOUGH), television networks acting as affiliates of political campaigns, organ-harvesting, cyber-warfare, anonymous anarchist groups, hand-held video entertainment devices, international corporations that are so powerful they’re indistinguishable from governments, and designer children and genetic engineering. Whew! Imagine if they had been able to make more than 14 episodes.

Re-watching the series recently, I was struck by how the dystopian setting and atmosphere and generally cynical view of society clashed with the heroism, humor, and warmth of the protagonists. If it’s a miserable future, our main characters seem to be doing okay. Edison Carter is a virtual superhero journalist, guaranteeing justice will be done once he puts his camera in the face of the villain and confronts him with wrongdoing. Theora is clearly a male fantasy — beautiful, super-competent, quick-witted, devoted to her duties and yet occasionally flirtatious.

Macintosh HD:Users:jimgeraghty:Pictures:maxheadroom04.jpg

Indulge us.

Edison’s editor, Murray, is amusingly irritable but always backs up his reporter up when push comes to shove. For a show that’s supposed to be about malevolent corporations, Network 23 chairman Ben Cheviot appears consistently conscientious and grandfatherly (other executives are outright cackling evil-CEO stereotypes or dim-witted oafs). Big Time Television’s Blank Reg may be a burned-out, menacing-looking punk rocker/biker, but his heart is in the right place.

In the U.K. pilot, Network 23’s in-house teenage genius Bryce Lynch was a creepy menace; in the U.S. series, he was reinvented as a painfully naïve savant, always coming up with some innovative solution but blissfully ignorant of how the rest of the world works. Sometimes he reminds me of my six-year-old son:

Grossberg: Unfortunately, Edison Carter nearly stumbled onto the incident, and if people knew about this…

Bryce: Then don’t tell them.

Later, over the unconscious Edison:

Grossberg: Just how much did Carter uncover, Bryce?

Bryce: Why not just ask him when he wakes up?

And then there’s the title character Max, who plays a surprisingly limited supporting role in most episodes. This likely stemmed from the difficulty of having actor Matt Frewer play both roles (and the inability to talk to himself in real time), the time and financial costs of putting Frewer in the heavy latex Max makeup, and the challenge of writing an action role for a character that can only pop up on video screens and talk to other characters.

But think about how science fiction usually treats the creation of an artificial intelligence. Most often audiences get The Terminator’s SkyNet, Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons, Prometheus’ David, or some other creation that turns upon mankind for creating it. Yet in Max Headroom’s world, one that offers a pretty dark and cynical view of the path society was on, the creators of this show suggested that mankind’s first non-biological offspring might reflect some of our better attributes: irreverence, joy, a playful disregard for authority — and perhaps a wee bit of egomania. Max’s jokes ranged from the silly (“Do Eskimos ever get tired of their weather forecasts?”) to wry (“Have you any idea how successful censorship is on TV? Don’t know the answer? Hmm. Successful, isn’t it?”) He was fascinated by his human creators, and poked fun at them, but never wanted much more than attention.

On the DVD commentary, some of Max’s British creators say they set out to mock what they saw as the 80s era of rampant consumerism, soulless corporations, a populace sedated by television, and “Reagan” and “Thatcher.” At no point do these aging leftists — who I would still say had at least one moment of indisputable creative genius — even attempt to rectify the fact that their anti-corporate, anti-consumerism, anti-television icon became featured in television commercials for New Coke.