Max Headroom and Matters of Faith


There are three episodes of the Max Headroom series which deal either directly or indirectly with religion and matters of faith. The first season episode ‘finale,’ “Blanks,”[1] dealt with individuals who have elected to remove themselves from the computer databases of the world.  There is no official record of their existence and they are referred to as the “Blanks” of the episode title.  The plot of the story is one where the political chief executive officer,[2] Simon Peller, has decided to wage a campaign against the Blanks. Because they have no records, they don’t officially exist, and therefore have no rights.  In a later episode where another Blank is arrested,[3] we see that Blanks are matched up by a computer with unsolved crimes regardless of whether or not they actually committed them.  It’s almost as if racial profiling has gone berserk.  In “Blanks,” Simon Peller arrests and imprisons the Blanks because he finds them “untidy” and a threat to his vision of “order.” The Blanks, led by computer genius Bruno, decide to fight back, targeting the main computer on which the city depends for everything from running a coffee maker to powering the television networks.

Should the networks go down, the television-obsessed public will react violently. The Blanks interrupt the broadcasts in order to provide warnings of what will happen should the campaign not cease and desist.  During these interruptions, members of the Network 23’s board observe the reactions noting that people are going to the black market and purchasing video players and old recordings of programs in order to continue to feed their habit. Network 23, Simon Peller’s network sponsor in the tele-election that placed him in power,[4] attempts to pressure him into relenting. Peller refuses to budge.  Meanwhile series protagonist Edison Carter and his team try to convince Bruno and the blanks to relent.  Max Headroom himself visits Bruno via his computer terminals.  In their ensuing dialogue, Bruno accuses the world of being devotees of a cult: “Your network, and the authorities, are mesmerizing millions into worshipping the new priesthood of the computer. Like cavemen worshipping fire! It’s a false faith, Max.” 

Worship is simply attributing supreme worth to someone or something.  In other words, its deciding that someone or something is worthy of all you have to offer, and acting accordingly.  Bruno’s accusation stings, because in that world, it’s too close to the truth.  It is awfully close in our world as well. Network executives are always at war to keep people in front of the television screen.  Too often, as I noted in an earlier post, people are more aware and literate of television programs than they are of history, politics, and even religion.
The second episode that deals with religious themes is the second season episode “Deities.”[5]  In this episode, Edison Carter’s producer, Murray, wants him to do a story on the skyrocketing success of the ‘Vu-Age Church,” led by Vanna Smith. Unknown to the rest of the team, Edison dated Vanna when they were both in college.

Vanna is the face of the church’s weekly broadcasts on Network 23.  Each week the church promises a ‘resurrection process’ whereby the grieving family can preserve their deceased loved ones’ brains in digital format, so that they will always be around.  Currently, they can go to the church’s studios and visit the terminals where they can ‘converse’ with their deceased loved ones. It is revealed that the preservation techniques are faulty and the best they can do is a recording of the loved ones, but there is no consciousness present.  As for Vanna, she began well, as an idealistic young missionary but later got seduced by the glitz, glamour and wealth of preaching to millions on TV.

But again, the religion promulgated by the Vu-Age Church is nebulous at best. The Vu-Age church promises a ‘salvation’ that is poorly defined.  Salvation from what? To what? Why is salvation needed?  It is never explored any further than that. The church’s broadcast is modeled on that of many Christian televangelists, but many of the core Christian doctrines are never mentioned.  In the end, when the ‘resurrection process’ is exposed as a fraud, the church’s teachings are also revealed to be empty promises. When Edison Carter is interviewing one of Vanna’s subordinates, he asks “Are you a clergyman? Or just a PR man?” The reply is telling: “When you come right down to it, Mr. Carter, is there a difference?”

While there are many discussions of religion on television, tax emption status of religious entities, and when ‘holy men’ are found to have feet of clay[6], the central conflict seems to be simply between selling hope (a blind one as it turns out) versus offering the truth.

The third episode that touches on religious themes present in the series is “Lessons.”[7] In this episode, Edison and Murray enter an old church building located in the Fringes, or the desolate part of town populated primarily by the Have-Nots.  At the front, on the platform, is a television set, and the people in the pews are watching Network 23.  As the pair moves through the church, Edison asks Murray “Whatever happened to the old religions?” Murray responds, “Television killed it. We have better miracles.”

These episodes address the role of religion in the world of Max Headroom (one specifically, and two tangentially).  And I see this as a warning to the Church that this future is, again, only 20 minutes away.

Specifically, the Church may be on the verge of making itself irrelevant to the life of the world around it.  For the purposes of this discussion, my definition of the Church is the body of Christian believers around the world. The Church was established by God the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to be a witness to the world of the Resurrection of Jesus and to proclaim the salvation from sin that He accomplished by that miraculous event.  Religion refers to the outward expression of that body; it is the life that we as believers in Jesus are called to live.  “Religion that is pure and genuine in the sight of God the Father will show itself by such things as visiting orphans and widows in their distress and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.”[8]  This was written by the Apostle James, who many believe may have been the half-brother of Jesus.  It is in keeping with the long tradition of Old Testament prophets who decried religious ceremonies and rites, but rather called for God’s people to live out their faith in service to others.  However, we need to be reminded that salvation from sin and to a complete reunion with our Heavenly Father is not predicated on doing the right things. Rather, our works should be a reflection of a life transformed by the Resurrection of Christ.  The Apostle Paul makes this clear when he writes “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”[9] Vanna Smith’s Vu-Age Church is about buying one’s way to salvation (however it was defined), but there were no following good works. These good works flow from a saved life, they do not earn it.  I believe that living this transformed life, with Christ as our center, will result in the miraculous. In Max Headroom’s world, believers were co-opted by the world (see James 1:27 again) and made irrelevant. The Church is at its most relevant when it is counter-cultural and speaking the truth (the whole truth) in love to power.


[1] Episode 105, originally aired on May 5, 1987. I refer to it as the first season finale, but its not in the sense that we understand it today.  It simply was the last episode of the first season.
[2] The series never gives the position a title. Is he the Mayor? The President? The Majordomo? The Big Kahuna? We never find out.
[3] Episode 201, “Academy,” aired September 18, 1987
[4] Elections in the world of Max Headroom are held via network ratings during the election period. Whichever network “wins” the ratings period, the candidate that it sponsors wins the election. It is also noted that the results are often negotiated in advance which makes even this kind of election a sham.
[5] Episode 202, originally aired on September 9, 1987.
[6]Betrayal comes to us in many forms: the husband whose credit account shows visit to unlicensed sex therapists; the child who won’t watch his TV; the TV hero who turns out to be quite un-heroic. This is a story about an even greater betrayal: when those who claim to speak for God turn out to be liars.” – Edison Carter.
[7] Episode 207, which was the last episode aired on ABC, on May 5, 1988.
[8]  James 1:27, Phillips NT
[9] Ephesians 2:8-10, New International Version

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