(Once again, I mean to meander meaninglessly through my ancient television memories. You have been warned)
As with last week, I don’t really have much to say about this topic. That’s one of the disadvantages when it’s 2014 and you’ve decided to talk about something nostalgic that isn’t as ridiculously obscure as Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. You know how I complained about the fight scenes in the first six episodes of Captain Power, how they felt like they were only there out of contractual obligation (Which, after all, they were. Got to sell those toys after all)? That’s kinda how I feel about this.
But I’ve spent years now writing about science fiction television in 1987. Omitting this one would be like talking about the greatest train wrecks of history and neglecting the 2004 Sri Lanka tsunami rail disaster. Or like trying to talk about the worst cars ever made and forgetting the Pinto. Or like talking about the greatest train wrecks of history and neglecting Katherine Heigl’s career. It’d be borderline incompetent to talk about television in the Fall 1987-Spring 1988 Nexus of all Realities without mentioning Max Headroom.
The history of the character is almost over-documented; I can find a lot of material, but it’s contradictory. All sources agree, for example, that Max’s debut was in the 1986 British telefilm Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future. Or perhaps it’s called Max Headroom: The Original Story. Or maybe just Max Headroom. In any case, it aired on April 4, 1985, and based on its success — everyone agrees on this — it was spun off into The Max Headroom Show, which first aired two weeks earlier, on March 22, 1985, at least according to Wikipedia. This was a music video show, with linking bits featuring Max as a parody of a late night talk show host, The talk show host bits were expanded for the follow-up, The Max Talking Headroom Show, which was made for either Channel 4 in the UK or Cinemax in the US, or maybe that didn’t happen until 1988; sources are conflicted. A Christmas special, Max Headroom’s Giant Christmas Turkey was part of that series. Or maybe part of the previous series. Or maybe a stand-alone special between the two or after both of them, and it aired on either Christmas or Boxing Day in 1986 or 1987 or 1988 or all three. In 1986, Cinemax aired an extended version of the TV movie, padded out with an extra half-hour, mostly of Max riffing. By 1987, the US market had fully appreciated the commercial power of Matt Frewer in a latex mask, and remade the British film as the pilot episode of Max Headroom. Or possibly this was the one called Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future. Or maybe that was just a tagline. And maybe The Max Talking Headroom Show was a follow-up to that. Confused? Good.
To put things very, very simply, Max Headroom is quite possibly the single most ’80s thing in the whole of the ’80s. I mean, sure, there are things more iconic of the ’80s, and there are things that more accurately capture the look and feel of the ’80s. But if you took the whole of the ’80s, and pureed it, and rendered it down over low heat like some good leaf lard, the slurry you produced would congeal into the plastic Kryten-face of M-m-m-m-max Headroom. It’s a hyperbolic caricature of everything that made the ’80s what they were: that particular brand of cynicism that knew the end was coming any day now is reflected in the dystopian setting; ’80s counterculture’s angst about the increasing power of corporations is the overarching theme of all the series’s episode plots. And Max himself is the epitome of the ’80s obsession with artifice and performativity: a character who is himself pure performance: a character without an actor, very deliberately played as all the most “fake” attributes of a TV talk show host. Max also reflects the last remnants of the 80s belief in The Future: the idea that it was just “twenty minutes into the future” before we’d be able to upload a person’s mind into a computer and more-or-less recreate him as a latex-coated head or grow fetuses into babies in labs using the same technology we had, in 1987, only recently perfected as a means of growing raw meat and vegetables into a delicious pot roast.
Max Headroom comes from a dystopian near-future (Probably around 2006) ruled by vast, impersonal megacorporations run by the Japanese, where governments have become mere puppets of the major media conglomerates, where the poor are forced to dress like 1970s punk rockers and popular entertainment has degenerated into perverse bloodsports. See what I meant about it being the most ’80s thing in the ’80s? Also, you can smoke literally everywhere. Max’s backstory is that he’s a flawed AI reconstruction of ace reporter Edison Carter, made by his corporate masters in anticipation of having to off him because he Knew Too Much — specifically, that the network’s new high-speed commercials (the origin of our now-somehow-cromulent word “blipvert”) occasionally caused some viewers to explode. Max took his name from the overhead clearance sign Carter had seen immediately before a near-fatal motorcycle crash.
If I had to guess, I’d say that Max Headroom is the origin of pretty much everything in the public consciousness about Cyberpunk that didn’t come from Blade Runner. Emphasis on the “punk”. Max’s world is one of tremendous disparity: there’s a neat, clean, whiz-bang neat-o high-tech future full of 80s hair and shoulder pads and neon for the rich, while everyone else is left scrounging in the world’s many scrap heaps, unable to afford education (now only available via pay-per-view) or sleeves for their leather shirts, or even hair on the right or left sides of their head. They’re represented on the show primarily via “Blank Reg”, played by W. Morgan Sheppard, one of only three actors retained from the original telefilm (The other two are Matt Frewer as Edison/Max and Amanda Pays as Theora Jones, his “controller”, basically a combination of researcher, technical director and line producer). Reg runs the pirate station “Big Time Television”. One of the major differences between the original film and the series is that in the film, Max gets dumped in the trash almost immediately and spends the rest of the movie with Reg — Big Time being designed as an analogue to Channel 4, framing it as a plucky underdog compared to the Big Powerful Corporate Networks. Max and Edison never meet in this version — Max is essentially a side-show to the actual plot, making occasionally-relevant riffs, but not interacting with other characters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the version made for one of the US’s three major networks, Max and Edison become partners, with the network holding their nose and accepting Max’s anti-establishment antics because he brings in the viewers, and besides, the network itself isn’t really bad — they’d totally choose to not-be-evil if it weren’t for their responsibility to the shareholders and the advertisers.
Max Headroom became a cultural phenomenon, appearing in parodies, commercials, music videos. But for my money, the character from Max Headroom that had the most lasting influence wasn’t Max, but the series antagonist Ned Grossberg. Grossberg is basically the archetype for corrupt corporate villains in a science fiction setting. It would be easy enough to say that Ned Grossberg is just a Made-for-TV Gordon Gekko, but as Wall Street didn’t premier until December, 1987, it’s actually the other way around: Gordon Gekko is a Silver-Screen upgrade of Ned Grossberg, down to the slicked-back hair. He’s very much a 1980s-style Bond Villain: I’d even say that the Grossberg/Gekko archetype pretty much is Ernst Stavro Blofield reimagined with ’80s trappings. He’s the sort of guy who’d be mildly offended if you suggested that murdering someone should perhaps not be your first choice for how to deal with, say, being outbid on eBay. We meet him in the first episode pushing this excitingly lethal new advertising method and ordering the murder of his star reporter. He’s ousted from his position as president of Network 23 when this comes to light (In the film version, Edison simply threatens him with violence until he confesses on camera; in the series, Max is able to replay the incriminating evidence from Edison’s memory live on network TV), but returns later in the series to interfere with an election. The election doesn’t go his way, but it’s not clear whether this was his plan all along: he scuttles his own candidate in order to create a power vacuum that lets him take control of Network 66. He turns up again in the last episode to air, “Baby GroBags”, masterminding a plot to, ahem, kidnap newborns with a genetic predisposition toward intelligence to star in a “Baby Geniuses” series. Because Grossberg can just do stuff like that.
Pretty much everyone other than Carter and Theora are flat-out evil in the British version — their Grossberg is more of a thug than a corporate power-player. Bryce, the technical genius who creates Max, proposes the idea because he wants to kill Edison, and thinks the AI could be used to cover his disappearance (Hence Max’s fate for the rest of the movie: when it becomes clear this plan won’t work, they simply ditch him), and he’s sociopathically callous about the lethal side-effects of Blipverts. The American Bryce creates Max in the hopes of saving Carter: he’s trying to read the injured Carter’s memories, as Grossberg would spare the high-rated reporter if it turns out that he hadn’t seen anything too incriminating. Rather than being the brains of the operation, as in the TV movie, he’s more Grossberg’s misguided pawn, who, despite being a bit of an asshole, tends to do the right thing when he’s forced to think about the impact of his actions. The British version is very much “Evil Adric”, the American version, “Douchier Wesley Crusher”. Part of this, I’m sure, is the difference between American and British culture when it comes to humor, satire, and unlikeable characters, but on the other hand, they were shooting for a weekly series. There wasn’t really any way forward for Bryce and Max as recurring villain and comic relief, but there was as Edison’s sidekicks. Correspondingly, you can’t really imagine Edison continuing to work as a hard-hitting reporter for Ned Grossberg, so at the end of Blipverts, he’s voted out of power in favor of Ben Cheviot in a scene which is basically the same as the end of Robocop, only with less defenestration (I’m serious. The end of Robocop is “Robocop exposes the chairman of the board for his supervillany, and the board votes him out in favor of the Old Guy with Old Timey Business Values about doing the right thing instead of murdering the poor for profit, thus releasing Robocop from his contractual obligation to Never Enforce The Law Against a Board Member. So he tosses him out the window”). The “Old Man” represents a kindlier more old-fashioned sort of Robber Baron. He’s still beholden to ratings and advertisers, but you get the feeling that he’s got those Old Timey Values, and that he wants to win by producing a better product, contrasted with Grossberg, who would really prefer to produce no product at all and just obtain ratings from, let’s say, sacrificing orphans to Mammon.
In the context of the meander through 1987 I’ve been taking, we’re somewhere in the month of December. And that means that it’s been a couple of weeks since Max Headroom was cancelled. The last episode to air was “Whackets”, which I remember very well, because it introduced me to the idea of subliminal mind control. The basic outline of the episode is that an execrable game show gains a disturbingly dedicated following, which is eventually traced to a subliminal embed. There’s a particular image that’s stuck in my mind for years, of Bill Maher (Yeah. He’s the guest star in this episode) brainwashing a police officer through a video-watch so he can off him. ABC pulled the series, halting production on several scripted episodes, including one by George RR Martin. The remaining episodes would be dumped the next spring.
If Max was the cultural phenomenon that we all seem to recall him being, what went wrong? I suppose it shouldn’t be that surprising. While Max was ostensibly a veejay on Channel 4, stateside he was more known for his New Coke commercials, and, even if the words “New Coke” don’t send you running for the hills, “Let’s adapt this commercial into a TV series,” is not an idea with an exactly sterling track record (cough The Mommies cough Cavemen). And on top of that, the British Max Headroom film came out in 1985. Two years is kind of a long time to milk what is, for all the Eightiesness of it, basically a viral internet meme trying to work out what the words “viral internet meme” mean, since it’s 1987.
But more than that: in what possible reality did anyone think that this show was the ideal vehicle for Max Headroom? Don’t get me wrong: this is an awesome show. Think about the two parenthetical examples in the last paragraph though: the Geico Cavemen got a sitcom. The Reynolds Wrap Mommies got a sitcom. Max Headroom got an action-thriller-drama. What? People still remember Max Headroom even today. They remember him as a comic character, with his mildly subversive witticisms and snarky commentary and characteristic verbal tics. They do not remember him from a hard-hitting thriller in a dystopian world. Heck, Max Headroom isn’t the star of Max Headroom: Edison is. In fact, if you forget the hype and the marketing and the surrounding cultural context, the capsule summary of Max Headroom should be, “In a corporate-dominated dystopian future, a hard-hitting investigative journalist tries to expose corporate corruption and protect the lower classes from exploitation.” (And the thought occurs to me, he’s probably one of the best journalists in all of speculative fiction. Your Lois Lanes and your Carl Kolchaks and your Sabrina Spellmans and your Sarah Jane Smiths tend to spend more time covering up big stories than actually reporting on them) The fact that he’s got a comedy AI twin brother isn’t what the show is about: it’s the twist — there’s only a handful of episodes where Max’s nature is relevant to the plot, and only, as far as I know, three where it’s specifically relevant that he’s an AI copy of Edison (Blipverts, Neurostim, and Dream Thieves). At the conceptual level, the fact that Edison’s sidekick is a computer based on his own subconscious is something on the level of “But they’re black” or “They fight crime!”
Max Headroom feels almost like a character out of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, but the world he inhabits is reminds me more of Judge Dredd. In fact, aside from the fact that crime is met by police apathy rather than disproportionate force, you could almost convince yourself that the unnamed city (It’s London in the British version, but even there, you’d only know that if you didn’t blink when a map flashes up on a monitor) was Megacity One, and that if Edison ever left its confines, he’d find himself in the Cursed Earth. It’s an awesome show, a mind-blowing show. What in the world is this doing being the backdrop to Max Headroom? It doesn’t make sense for this wisecracking, ’80s pop-culture referencing transhuman Coke mascott to be in this show, and it certainly doesn’t make sense for him to be headlining.
Or does it? If you’ve been paying attention, you probably already know the answer. As I said, Max Headroom is the single most ’80s thing in the entire 1980s. So maybe I should let you in on the subtext for a second: the ’80s were wrong. I love the ’80s, but they were wrong. They didn’t make any sense. We feared corporate power, but at the same time shouted how greed was good. We camped up everything we could get their hands on, but were so incredibly backward about gay rights that they consciously avoided doing anything to curb the spread of AIDS in the hopes it would, as epidemics (never ever) do, limit itself to killing “those people”. We made a left-coast Hollywood-type into the anthropomorphic representation of the abstract concept of conservatism. We were sure the world was going to end any day now and we were cool with that. I mean, come on: we made a post-apocalyptic science fiction series whose central conceit was based around a protracted rape metaphor, for kids. (And don’t even get me started on the fact that the ’80s gave us a post-apocalyptic series about library science). So to go back a few paragraphs, “In what possible reality did anyone think that this show was the ideal vehicle for Max Headroom?” Shrug. It was the ’80s. You could do things like that in the ’80s. Things were weird back then. So the real fate of Max Headroom is likely explained better like this: Life imitates art. Max Headroom, like Max Headroom, was put on the air by a massive corporation in spite of its strongly anti-corp leanings on the assumption that it was worth taking one on the nose in exchange for those sweet, delicious ratings. But unlike Max Headroom, Max Headroom may or may not have done well enough to remain afloat all else being equal, but it never provided the ratings it needed to make ABC overlook them talking smack about how evil and corrupt TV networks are.
You know, every once in a while, someone or other will speculate on whether or not it would be possible to reboot Max for the modern day — obviously the ’80s trappings wouldn’t work, but surely the commentary about corporate greed and the decline of television would be just as relevant today — perhaps moreso. But I don’t know. I think that if you changed Max enough that it addressed the concerns of a world that isn’t all wrapped up in its obsession with performativity and artifice, you’d have changed so much that it would no longer make sense to reuse anything identifiable from the original show. It’s absolutely key to the whole point of Max Headroom that Max himself is a creation of the very thing the show is on the whole suspicious of: a fake image for a fake and image-obsessed world. In that sense, Max is a bit of an ’80s Frankenstein (Adam Frankenstein, not Victor. He’s got every right to his dad’s surname, and denying it to him is tacitly allying yourself with the creator who rejected him): a homunculus who rises up to expose and condemn his creators’ moral failings. Max Headroom isn’t something that follows as a logical product of today’s television industry projected “twenty minutes into the future”, so he wouldn’t work on that level today. If you wanted to take that concept and modernize it, you’d probably have to do something about a social media darling who develops a social conscience. Wait. Crap. Did I just explain why Selfie is a 21st century adaptation of Max Headroom?
Besides, no network would pick it up. It’d be cheaper to just make a Reality Show instead.
A coincidental final note. On Max Headroom, Jeffrey Tambor played Murray, Edison’s producer. As I was writing this article Jeffrey Tambor guested on The Colbert Report to talk about his new show, Transparent, which I guess is kinda in my queue, but as I’m still on TV shows from 1987, don’t hold your breath. Tambor plays, going by his description, Wikipedia, and some ads, a woman who, late in life, decides to stop performing the gender she’d been presumptively assigned at birth, and create a new self to present to the world that matches her own perception of herself.
I can’t seem to go more than a few paragraphs talking about how, in the ’80s, we lived our lives as a performance. Pop your collar. Spike your hair. Get a mohawk. Get a mullet. Get yourself a pair of wayfarers. Pad your shoulders. Roll your cuffs. Choose from any of these five colorful Breakfast Club characters to be. And then the ’90s hit and, like a teenager who’d just read The Catcher in the Rye, we declared everyone a bunch of phonies and determined ourselves to get Real and Authentic and Sincere. In the here and now, some twenty-seven years after Jeffrey Tambor played a supporting role in a weird sci-fi drama based around a Coke mascott, I think maybe we’re just starting to get that who you are, the person you present to the world, is always a performance. You can play the role that society tells you to play, or you can play the role that fits. You can create the character you want to be in your story, or you can let the world create it for you. When someone tells you that the role — the identity — that you create for yourself is fake and the one society creates for you is real, be cautious. They’re probably trying to sell you something.