Max Headroom: Thirty-Year Celebration Reblog - In Consequence



As a follow up to the previous post on Truth and Justice in the Max Headroom world, I wanted to reflect on the consequences for crimes and misdeeds as portrayed in the series.  One of the tropes in cyberpunk (of which Max Headroom is an example[1]), is the subversion of justice in favor of the wealthy.  I’ve already explored briefly the fact that justice is outside of the means of the have-nots dwelling in the Fringes and beyond[2].

But on the other side of the equation, it appears that the Haves in the world of Max Headroom don’t have a problem securing sufficient cash to avoid much of the consequences of their actions.  In the pilot episode, “Blipverts,” Ned Grossberg is the chairman of the number one television network, Network 23.  Edison Carter is the largest ratings producer though his investigative journalism program[3]. Edison stumbles upon a conspiracy to roll out a revolutionary advertising system that has the unfortunate side effect of causing sedentary viewers to spontaneously combust. In order to prevent Edison from airing his expose’, Grossbergs hires thugs to stop him, which results in Edison’s near-death.  In order to discover how much Edison knows, his memories and consciousness are downloaded to the Network 23 computer, which results in the creation of the virtual character, Max Headroom.  Determining that Edison is now expendable, Grossberg orders him to be done away with, and taken to a body bank.  However, Edison is ‘not quite dead’ and returns to expose the nefarious plot.  At the end of the episode, Grossberg is disgraced and loses his place as the chairman of Network 23.  There is no sign that the police are called or that Grossberg has been arrested for his part in the plot.  In the second season, in the episode titled, tellingly enough, “Grossberg’s Return,” Grossberg has joined up with a rival network, and manipulates his way to the chair of that network[4].

Harriett Garth, the political candidate sponsored by Network 66[5], is herself exposed for her part in a tele-election fraud.  When confronted by her wrongdoing, she remains philosophical: “A couple of weeks is a long time in video politics.  This week, ruined; next week, revered.  One good show with the right ratings I’ll be back in days.”  Garth indicates that she is not concerned with the consequences of her actions, as it will soon be forgotten by the public and she will return to be a force to be reckoned with.

In the episode “Body Banks[6],” one of the Network 23 board members, Julia Formby is blackmailed into kidnapping teen genius Bryce Lynch to have him replicate the ‘Max Headroom process’ for a wealthy man to preserve his dying mother in digital form.  She is clearly exposed as having played a part in not only the kidnapping of Bryce, but also in the kidnapping and attempted murder of a young woman from beyond the Fringes.  However, the end of the episode shows her being reconciled with the chairman of Network 23.
Season two episodes featured this theme in almost every episode.  “Dream Thieves,” a story about a company harvesting dreams from people of the Fringes in order to provide a new entertainment option, actually shows no police presence or justice outside of a few fists flying.[7] The process of collecting the dreams is shown to be in fact killing people. However, no one is ever arrested on camera in the episode which leaves one wondering, who will pay for the crimes?

“Whacketts[8]” is a story about a couple of program packagers who sell a terrible game show laced with a digital signature that causes viewers to become addicted and watch no matter what is occurring around them, even when an entire apartment building collapses in ruins.  The perpetrators are eventually arrested, but mostly because they were responsible for the death of a MetroCop Lieutenant, and not for any other crime.

The very next week, the episode “Neurostim[9]” introduces a bracelet (provided by Network 23 sponsor Zik Zak Corporation) that causes wearers to become obsessed with purchasing Zik Zak products.  When Edison Carter is about to expose the plot, they give him an even more powerful bracelet to keep him away from breaking the story.  At the end of the episode, again, no one is brought to justice.  In fact, Murray tells Edison “You can fight Zik Zak, but you’re not going to beat them.”[10]

And so it goes.  This is a common theme throughout the series. The Have-Nots are denied the opportunity for justice because they do not have the resources to pay for a fair hearing, while the Haves are very rarely mad to pay for their misdeeds.

The media circus surrounding the events of the trial of former football player O. J. Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife and a friend captivated America.  Every day there was a new development and we saw it all on television. Many believed that he was acquitted due to his wealth and notoriety, and not because there was insufficient evidence for a conviction.

Many years later, the infamous “Tot-Mom,” Casey Anthony was on trial for the death of her daughter, Caylee. The trial was covered in great detail through many media outlets, including a program by ex-prosecutor Nancy Grace, who declared that the Devil danced when an innocent verdict was proclaimed. And in recent years, there have been numerous stories of people who have been acquitted, in many cases years, after advances in forensics have shown their innocence. It is almost no wonder that many people are often suspicious of the justice system.

The Book of Psalms contains many passages where the writer laments that the powerful wicked seem to prosper, while the innocent suffer.[11] The Believer is called upon to speak on behalf of those who have no voice and to oppose any system that would allow the privilege the Haves over the Have-Nots based solely on a bank account, and not on the merits of their individual cases[12]. Ultimately, justice will be pronounced by God Almighty[13]. And that is the hope that we have not usually found in cyberpunk fiction.


[2] Episode 103, “Body Banks.” Mel (played by Scott Kraft) tells Edison Carter that he cannot “afford to buy law.” And Blank Reg later reminds Edison that “Justice is cash flow.”
[3] Alternatively titled “What I Want To Know” and “The Edison Carter Show”
[4] Episode 203
[5] This is the rival network that Grossberg assumes the leadership of in the episode “Grossberg’s Return
[6] Episode 103, above
[7] Episode 204 (10/9/87)
[8] Episode 205 (10/16/87)
[9] Episode 206 (10/23/87)
[10] Emphasis mine
[11] Psalm 73:16, for example.
[12] Exodus 23:6, Proverbs 17:15
[13] Lamentations 3:35

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