It’s a familiar tale: A production company gets the green light to produce a new science fiction television series and pours their hearts into it. They get picked up by a major network, hire some real talent, and tackle issues of the day and the future. Then the network destroys it. They air inappropriate ads, gripe about the pilot, delay a while after the premiere, and show the episodes out of order. They finally cancel the show just when it’s starting to work, leaving an episode or two unaired.
I’m not talking about Joss Whedon’s masterful Firefly; I’m talking about the 1987 series, Max Headroom. If you’re not familiar with the series, you may be recoiling slightly in post-traumatic 1980’s stress at the thought of Coca Cola’s overexposed pitchman being associated with anything positive. But you really ought to give it a chance. The show is simply amazing.
20 Minutes Into The Future…
Although the show’s tagline indicates a near-future setting, its dystopian internal history suggests otherwise. Regardless of intent, the universe of Max is awful yet eerily familiar. Corporations have risen to exert ultimate control over a population where the rich have everything and the poor eat rats and live in the streets. Yet everyone is united in a cult of media, itself serving a few mighty advertisers.
Watching the 1987 production today is truly revealing. Some elements are laughably dated (the computer graphics, bulky electronics, and wardrobe especially) but the issues raised are remarkably prescient. A recurring theme of the series is the meaning and value of identity and the intriguing possibility of discarding it to become a “blank.” Other pertinent topics tackled include biomedical technology and bioethics, censorship, and the role of corporations. Throughout, the series challenges our assumptions of the role of individuals in a world of corporations.
Let’s make one thing clear: Although the show itself doesn’t need him, it would never have been made without the character of Max Headroom. The artificially-intelligent construct of reporter Edison Carter is at once obnoxious, poignant, childlike, and challenging. Although 1980’s technology did not allow him to actually be computer-generated, his character is much better used here than the countless commercials, music videos, and merchandising of the era would suggest.
If individuality and identity is the central plot line of the series, the dual character of meatspace Edison Carter and cyberspace Max Headroom is its driver. Max is not Pinocchio – he wants to be himself, not a real boy. And Edison is a surprisingly complex character, a self-interested boor who genuinely cares about the people around him. Max/Edison is supported by a memorable cast: Theora Jones, brilliant, beautiful, and caring; Murray, the producer who sits between Edison and the Network as represented by Cheviot and Grossberg; the viscious Breugel and Mahler; amoral boy genius Bryce Lynch; and the Blanks, Reg, Dominique and the rest. Lurking behind is the disappointingly stereotypical money-driven Ped Xing and his Zik-Zak corporation.
Although an obviously-limited production budget makes it feel somewhat tinny and empty today, it holds up remarkably well. The cast of Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays, Jeffrey Tambot, and the rest are solid if not as consistently-brilliant as W. Morgan Sheppard as Blank Reg. The pre-CGI models used for establishing shots are charmingly trashy, and the use of actual CGI was groundbreaking at a time when the Amiga ruled the world. The cyberpunk props seem ripped from the pages of mid-1990’s issues of Wired, but of course the inspiration runs in the opposite direction. Despite some retro feel, Max Headroom delivers solid entertainment and real intellectual meat.
Max and Me
The Max Headroom series came about just at the right time for me. I was solidly in my teens at the time, devouring the work of Harlan Ellison and J. D. Salinger, and beginning to question the reality of my middle-class American world. Max was cool in 1987, but the show surprised me with its dark center. It bridged pop culture to Philip K. Dick just as it bridges Blade Runner to The Matrix.
Having just purchased a VCR, I had the forethought to record the series as it aired, not knowing it would be 23 years before an official release. As the series wore on and was eventually cancelled, I came to see these tapes as the prized possessions they would soon become. As the years passed, I pressed friends to give Max a try, and college showings brought serious discussion among the WPI gweeps.
Max was not totally forgotten, of course. It re-aired on Bravo, the Sci-Fi channel, and TechTV as late as 2001. Prodded by friends, I even produced my own DVD set of the complete series, sending these to friends at cost. I found myself at the center of the Max faithful, all of us wishing for a real DVD release. But it seemed that time had moved on and forgotten the series.
Astonishingly, 2010 brought news of an official release, and Amazon delivered my copy yesterday. Max Headroom: The Complete Series is a 5-DVD set, featuring all 14 episodes along with a special-features disc. The slim set features a lenticular cover and brief booklet with an essay by Javier Grillo-Marxuach, of LOST and The Middleman.
The video quality is probably as good as the (videotaped) source material would allow, and the vintage synth soundtrack is crystal clear. The episodes appear to be presented full-length (TechTV mercilessly chopped them) and the full opening and closing credits are intact. Even Max’s post episode monologue is presented.
ABC split the series in three parts, airing six episodes in the Spring of 1987, five more in the Fall, two more the following Spring, and leaving one unaired. The DVD presents the episodes in this original air order, but I suggest following the production schedule instead. It resolves some odd questions (when would Theora have had time to tell Bryce about her brother?) and results in a more-satisfying arc.
Sadly absent from this DVD release is the original British Channel 4 TV movie, Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future. It presented an even-darker view of the first episode before the series was produced, replacing much of the cast. Shout! Factory, producers of this DVD set, claim that the original film elements have been lost and a DVD produced from the standard-definition tapes remaining would not have satisfied fans. I will continue to treasure my own DVD copy!
Max Headroom is astonishingly solid, holding up well after 23 years. It’s well worth the watch for anyone interested in science and technology issues, provided they can stomach Max himself. I highly recommend purchasing Max Headroom: The Complete Series!
I will be reviewing and commenting on the episodes over the coming months. I suggest subscribing to me “All Posts” or “Personal” feeds so you can follow along! I’ll be using my preferred episode order:
|1×01||Blipverts||May 31, 1987||1||1|
|1×02||Body Banks||April 7, 1987||1||3|
|1×03||Rakers||April 14, 1987||1||2|
|1×04||War||April 21, 1987||2||1|
|1×05||The Blanks||April 28, 1987||2||2|
|1×06||Security Systems||May 5, 1987||1||4|
|2×01||Grossberg’s Return||Sept. 18, 1987||3||2|
|2×02||Deities||Sept. 24, 1987||3||1|
|2×03||Academy||Oct. 2, 1987||2||3|
|2×04||Dream Thieves||Oct. 9, 1987||3||3|
|2×05||Whackets||Oct. 16, 1987||3||4|
|2×06||Neurostim||Apr. 28, 1988||4||1|
|2×07||Lessons||May 5, 1988||4||2|
Chris M Evans says
So as far as I remember the guy who portrayed Max Headroom had to spend hours in makeup having his head altered with prosthetics. Still it worked and appeared to be computer generated but I don’t think there was that much in there. Mostly the actual actor.
This is true. Matt Frewer acted out the Max parts, and they were green-screened and mucked with but were not computer generated.
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