Live and Direct: The World of Max Headroom
At 10:00 p.m. ET on March 31, 1987, American viewers were exposed to something very different than what they had come to expect from network television. Last place ABC premiered the Max Headroom television series, riding off of the hugely popular character imported from the United Kingdom.
By the time the first episode, ‘Blipverts,’ aired, the character of Max Headroom was already a well-known figure on both sides of the Atlantic. Although the character became something of a marketing phenomenon pitching New Coke, Max was originally intended to be a ‘computer-generated’ on air personality introducing music videos for a show on Channel Four in the UK. The executives wanted to flesh the character out a bit and give him a back story, a history that described where he came from. Producer Peter Wagg, co-directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel and writer George Stone imagined a world in the not-too-distant future where television is the driving force in society. In this world, an intrepid crusading telejournalist named Edison Carter discovers a major conspiracy involving his network, the network’s major corporate sponsor and a deadly form of advertising. In attempting to get the truth on the air and expose the perpetrators, he is forced into a serious motorcycle accident. The network chairman wants to discover how much Edison knows, so he has the reporter’s consciousness copied into a computer file, creating a ‘virtual person.’ The resulting creation, dubbed Max Headroom, displays a wild streak of independent thought and escapes into the system, becoming impossible to delete. Meanwhile, Edison is left for dead but escapes and with the help of his team at the network, pieces enough of the story together to expose the conspirators.
This is essentially the same plot as the US pilot (titled ‘Blipverts’). The UK telefilm differs from the pilot in a few key areas. Firstly, in the UK Telefilm (titled ’20 Minutes into the Future’), Max escapes from the Network (‘Network 23’ in both versions) and finds sanctuary in a pirate television station (Big Time TV) housed in a large pink RV operating outside the boundaries of the civilized world. The implication in this is that the ‘rogue’ station is in actuality the UK’s Channel Four and this is how Max ended up hosting a music video program. The teenaged research and development genius for Network 23 and the Chairman of the network are both exposed for their parts in the attempted murder of Edison Carter. Overall, the US version is not as dark as the UK’s version, even though much of the plot was reshot using almost identical sets, camera angles and dialogue. But make no mistake; the US pilot is dark, especially for other mainstream primetime programs of the time.
The tone can be attributed to the subgenre of science fiction that Max Headroom represents. Wikipedia acknowledges that Max Headroom was ‘the first cyberpunk television series.’ Which now leads to this question: ‘What is cyberpunk?’
According to the diverse sites I checked online, cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction that is characterized by a dystopic future where computer networks are thoroughly integrated into society. Outlaw hackers infiltrate these networks for personal or societal gain. In this society, large multinational mega-corporations exert an almost total control over every segment of the social order, including government. This creates a distinct divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’ Rather than being the salvation of humanity, technology is shown to be a curse, and quite often, human beings are ‘augmented’ by the use of computerized devices to the extent that the line between man and machine is practically non-existent. Visually, cyberpunk society is best represented by the film Blade Runner, with its gritty, dark city skylines shrouded in nearly perpetual night and rain competing with garish neon signs and video billboards.
The Max Headroom series borrows many, if not all of these elements. In addition to omnipresent computer and security networks, television media is also a central concept of the series. There are literally hundreds of television networks competing for ratings supremacy. The multinational corporations sponsor the networks, which in turn endorse a particular candidate running for office. In the world of Max Headroom, if a network wins a ratings battle, its candidate is elected. Legally, no television can be manufactured with an off switch. There is also an acutely sharp class divide. Many of the wealthy live in an apartment complex named ‘Sybaris,’ which is taken from an excessively wealthy city from ancient Greece. The poor and those individuals called ‘Blanks’ who are hackers determined to live off the grid and removed themselves from the computer networks live in an area known as the Fringes. The Fringes are characterized by urban blight, city ruins and makeshift dwellings. Even in the Fringes televisions are everywhere, almost as an opiate for the masses. Like Blade Runner, the exterior establishing shots for Max Headroom are almost entirely shot in a deep darkness, either under massive cloud cover or night. The Network 23 building towers among all others, indicating its stature as the number one network. Next to it is the skyscraper office complex of the Zik Zak Corporation, Network 23’s largest corporate sponsor. Zik Zak’s building in these shots is local; the main headquarters are in New Tokyo, revealing that the sponsor is a multinational conglomerate.
Max Headroom was notable in its day as a series that was willing to challenge the establishment even within the network television world. Television critics were quick to point out the surprise that the series would be such an indictment on the consumerist media culture of the mid-to-late 1980’s. I plan to explore some of the tropes, ideas and tropes displayed in this series as it celebrates its 25th anniversary. In addition, I will look at them through a lens of faith as I believe that the series, using the cover of science fiction, has much to teach us even today.
 Harry F. Waters, Janet Huck and Vern E. Smith. “Mad About Max:the Making of a Video Cult.” Newsweek April 20, 1987 http://weirdscifi.ratiosemper.com/maxheadroom/newsweek/newsweek.html