The Max Headroom television series almost invariably begins with the tagline “20 minutes into the future.” This is usually seen in a caption at the bottom of the screen superimposed over the establishing shot for the episode. It is also, not coincidentally, the title of the UK telefilm that served (with a handful of adjustments) as the pilot for the series.
But I see it as more than just a clever indicator of the setting. In one way, it reveals a sense of immediacy. That is, it informs us that the society we are witnessing on the screen is right around the corner. We are not that far off from the passage of laws banning off switches on televisions, the limitation of education for only those who can afford to pay for it, and from television network ratings determining elections. This future is upon us and we must deal with it, the tagline subtly warns us.
The largest corporate sponsor of Network 23 is the Zik Zak Corporation. While it maintains offices that are only slightly smaller than the Network 23 building, its main headquarters is in “New Tokyo.”
Zik Zak has taken diversification to heart. It produces fast food ‘burger paks,’ ‘soy muffin mixes,’ and many other items (in fact, one slogan says “We make everything you need, and You need everything we make.”). One item in particular Zik Zak made was a bracelet that stimulated the pleasure centers of the brain, creating a euphoric vision that also dampened the internal controls on impulse behavior, thus causing the wearer to seek out more Zik Zak products for purchase.
Its corporate brand is “Know Future.” This is a promise that Zik Zak will deliver the future. But what future will arrive courtesy of Zik Zak? Its burger paks promise convenience at the expense of taste and nutrition. The Max Headroom character famously noted that the burgers doubled their nutritional value simply by being packaged in its plastic wrapper.
In addition, the future that Zik Zak is inviting us to ‘know’ the one that is only ‘twenty minutes’ away, is a future in which art and politics are heavily influenced by business interests. The quest for financial gain determines the courses of government and culture. In the episode entitled ‘Neurostim’ (from which the Zik Zak bracelet mentioned above appeared), one bit player lamented the fact that “no one makes anything new anymore,” which reveals that in the world of Max Headroom, creativity and originality has taken a back seat to rushing to make a profit. And in the political arena, it was noted that at the corporate executive levels that ‘everyone knows’ that the tele-elections (elections determined by network ratings) are rigged. Each network takes turns supplying its endorsed candidate for the leadership of the government. Keep in mind that the politicians are beholden to the networks for their candidacy, and the networks are not beholden to the viewers, the common citizens, but to the corporate sponsors, like Zik Zak.
Once elected, the Network 23-endorsed candidate begins a program of harassing those individuals who have chosen to live ‘off the grid,’ i.e., outside of the prevailing digital culture. These people, known as ‘Blanks,’ have managed to surreptitiously have their records expunged from the computerized databases. The politician, Simon Peller, believes in order, and the Blanks represent a threat to this order, and so he is willing for the Blanks to completely destroy the public’s access to its television programming rather than release innocent Blanks who he has ordered imprisoned. The stated result of corporate control over government is that very often, justice is about ‘cash flow,’ and Blanks and those forced to live in the Fringes (outlying poverty-strangled areas of the city) are obviously bereft of cash.
Is this the future we are invited to ‘know?’
One of the recurring character, Blank Reg (played by the marvelous William Morgan Sheppard), notes “Remember when we said there was ‘no future?’ Well, this is it.” This is the character’s assessment of the world he lives in. Blank Reg and his companion Dominique, operate a pirate television network called ‘Big Time TV.’ In the original UK telefilm, Big Time is the mirror for Channel 4, the British television network featuring the Max Headroom character as the host of its music video program in the 1980’s. In the US series, Blank Reg, Dom and Big Time TV are allies of intrepid tele-journalist Edison Carter and his comrades at Network 23. They live in the Fringes, and the network is housed in a large, pink RV, and thus mobile, setting up shop wherever the mood strikes them. Blank Reg is illiterate, but still cherishes education. In one famous exchange, he is approached by a denizen of the Fringe who has stolen Edison’s video camera. She wants to trade it for something of value. Blank Reg produces a book. She says “What is it?” He responds, “It’s a book. A non-volatile storage medium. It’s very rare. You should have one.” To which she tells Blank Reg to “Shove it!”
If we look at the warning that this future is only ‘twenty minutes’ away, the corporate suits’ invitation to ‘know’ it and the assessment of someone who lives in that future and decides that it is empty, we wonder if we really want to live there ourselves. It is a bleak vision of the future, one that seems to offer no hope for a happy ending.
But for the Believer, we look forward to a happy ending. We have faith in the promise of one and that there are no trials, tribulations or difficulties that can in anyway compared to the joys to come. This does not negate the reality of the hardships of this world, but rather encourages us to endure them. Stripping away much of the eschatological prophecy seeking in the Book of Revelation we read one common theme: that the end of the story, filled with light and rest and joy is promised to those who have endured the hellish persecution presented in the first nineteen (or so) chapters. Elsewhere, the Bible contains promises for the believer, where God promises to give those who trust in Him a ‘hope and a future’ Other passages also indicate the promise of a future full of good to those who believe. Once again, the Book of Revelation teaches us that no matter how bad things get, human history is progressing toward a definite end, and it is an end full of promise. That is the future I want to know.