The Max Headroom TV Series Blasted the Future’s Present From The Past

Smother technology and it will rebel, in about twenty minutes from now. We look at the history of Max Headroom.

Max Headroom

Max Headroom, wasn’t just the highest point Wayfarers reached in cyberpunk culture, it was a prescient look into the immediate gratification of the internet age. Shot in the ’80s, it was set in the not-so-distant future. Really not so distant, twenty minutes or so, and by setting its sights so short the series nailed the future closer than many more lauded attempts at artistic precognition.

I didn’t catch the series when it first ran and only knew The Max Headroom Show, where the talking head veejayed music videos. Headroom freaked me out. There was something about him that screamed autoerotic asphyxiation and wide ties.

There were rumors running around that Max Headroom was some kind of brainwashing delivery device but what was he selling? The new Coke? The old Pepsi? I never d-d-ddrank soda, so I didn’t give it much thought at the time. I figured if there was something going on, we’d hear about it on TV. No problems were reported on the news so, what, me worry? Now it looks like a story was buried before the digital age cleared its cache, a cover-up that went straight to the top. Do you have any idea how successful censorship is on TV? Of course you don’t! That’s how successful it is.

“The world’s first computer-simulated megastar.”

Max Headroom, maximum headroom, would have stood head and shoulders over me had he extended into a lower torso. He was a computer-generated microcosm of the television age, incorporating a fusion of visual and verbal originality to represent the inherent diversity of the all-round TV personality.

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And he played pop videos.

The character was created by George Stone, Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton in the mid-1980s to be “the world’s first computer-generated TV host.” The idea came from Peter Wagg of Chrysalis Records. 

Chrysalis Visual Programming let Wagg, Morton and Jankel develop Max Headroom for the then-newly-formed Lakeside Productions. Britain’s Channel Four commissioned The Max Headroom Show music video commentary episodes in 1984. Max broke in when he wanted, riffed, deflected dissent with disarming disarray and did the odd celebrity interview.

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Because it was the mid-to-late ’80s, Max Headroom wasn’t really computer-generated. Peter Litten and John Humphreys of England’s Coast to Coast Productions made a fiberglass suit out of latex and foam prosthetic makeup. That was superimposed over a moving hand-drawn geometric cel animation produced by Rod Lord, who also made “computer-generated” images for the TV series Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The backgrounds for American version were generated by a Commodore Amiga computer. 

Max Headroom - 20 Minutes into the Future

“There are no experimental failures. There’s only more data!”

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When Channel Four asked for a Max Headroom origin story, the producers didn’t think it could be contained within the episodes, so the commission was changed to a feature-length TV movie that was written by Steve Roberts and directed by Morton and Jankel, and Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future was the result.

Lorimar acquired the rights to the Max Headroom character in 1987 and produced an American series based on the British TV movie with some of the same actors. The series worked with directors like Tommy Lee Wallace and screenwriters like Steve Roberts and William Morgan. The score was composed by Cory Lerios. The Max Headroom TV series came to American shores as a mid-season replacement in the spring of 1987, and was renewed for the fall season. It ran on ABC from March 1987 to May 1988. Newsweek called Max Headroom “the world’s first computer-simulated megastar” in April 1987.

The series incorporated elements of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein, William Gibson’s 1984 novel, Neuromancer (which coined the term “cyberspace”), post-apocalyptic films like The Road Warrior and Blade Runner, and the then-ascending MTV. It was part British science fiction caper and part Videodrome. There are tube television sets strewn everywhere, predicting what happened after flat screens appeared.

In the series, Max Headroom is a computer-generated recreation of the memories of Network 23 news reporter Edison Carter. Carter runs around with a mini-cam doing daring live broadcasts in a kind of real-time investigative show. Carter gets exclusive coverage for his What I Want To Know Show from a direct feed from his controller who hacks into the security systems of the reporter’s targets. 

Edison Carter and Max Headroom are played by Canadian actor Matt Frewer. Frewer channels his inner Ted Baxter (played by comic master Ted Knight on The Mary Tyler Moore Show) in his characterizations of both the roving AI being and the reporter. The characters are aware of their charm and of the menace they also seem to project. 

In the pilot, Carter smashes his head on a “maximum headroom” warning sign while escaping some camera-shy subjects. His memory is downloaded by the requisite ’80s nerd in too-big glasses and is then accidentally uploaded onto the network’s computers. Carter’s AI alter-ego was created by Bryce Lynch, a Libra according to his personnel files, played by Chris Young. Lynch was a protogeek. A genius underachiever who got snatched away from his parents when he was ten and inserted into an elite computer school. He only ventures outside his laboratory in six episodes. I could see him playing World of Warcraft with Stan and Kyle on South Park.

Once inside the wires, Max is free to run amok, and other programs, untethered by systemic blocks. Max Headroom is the first viral computer virus and he was messing with what Ned Beatty in Network called the primal forces of nature: The international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet, the atomic and sub-atomic and galactic structure of things. 

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The pilot episode follows the darkest path of subliminal advertising. The network is after something in Carter’s brain. The teen hacker is enlisted by Network 23 CEO Ned Grossberg to probe Carter’s mental patterns out to see if the unconscious reporter discovered media secrets. Most people would agree that censors are a silly breed. It’s surprising they manage to breed at all. 

Network 23 is covertly testing blipverts, which dump 30 seconds worth of advertizing images directly into a TV viewer’s eyes in 3 seconds, but have been known to cause neural over-stimulation and sometimes death by spontaneous explosion. Dead people can’t consume, so the network drops it. Grossberg (Charles Rocket) gets busted for the Blipverts scandal and dumped as chairman. He comes back in the episode “Grossberg’s Return” as a board member of Network 66 to introduce another insidious ad tool, neurostim, freebie gifts that hypnotize people into irrational acts of consumption by implanting memories directly into the brain.

The voice inside Edison Carter’s head is mouthed by his handler Theora Jones. According to Network 23’s personnel files, Jones’ mother is deceased, her father is listed as unknown and she has a brother named Shawn, who shows up as one of the lethal skateboarding Rakers. Jones was Network 23’s star controller. She was poached from the rival World One Network by the station manager, Murray. Jones was played by Amanda Pays, who did a guest spot as Phoebe Green in the 1993 human combustion X-Files episode “Fire.” Throughout Max Headroom, Carter and Jones generate a similar sexual tension to that of Mulder and Scully.

Max Headroom - Tambor

How can you tell a network executive is lying? His lips move. Most of the time, Carter doesn’t have to travel that far from the newsroom. Everything Carter covers has some impact in back room dealings at Network 23, a network with a great future behind it. Who knew TV could be so powerful? Max did.

The conglomerate was in a position to rule the world but they were still willing to gamble one interest off another in the chase for ratings. No matter what Edison was covering, Network 23 had a vested interest in covering it up. Network 23’s studio manager runs interference with the networks for Carter. Sometimes he urges the reporter on, sometimes he tries to rein him in. Roger Sloman played Murray in the original British TV movie, but when the series hit the U.S., Murray was played by Jeffrey Tambor (Transparent). 

“Cowards. Isn’t that what the military call people who prefer not to kill each other?… So; It’s about time all you cowards come out of the closet and got to know one another. You can all help. If you see a fight starting; get the names and addresses of those people with their hands in their pockets, whistling, or walking away.”

In one episode, wealthy people harvest organs from unwilling and usually impoverished donors and the morgues are smorgasbords for missing pieces. In another episode, the anarchy activist group the Blanks, demand their members be released from prison or else they will destroy the central computer systems. Blanks are people who wouldn’t let themselves be indexed into the government’s database.

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Nascent and prescient programming execs saw the cost-effective possibilities of unscripted, or barely-scripted, TV in the episode “Academy,” where the lives of citizens are broadcast and viewers vote on what happens to them. The series predicted the forgiveness of short-attention-span news cycles. Viewers also get addicted to the TV game show Whacketts much like people would get hooked on Minecraft or Tetris.

What happened to the old religions? Television killed it with better miracles. Dayle Haddon guest starred as telegenic televangelist Vanna Smith on the episode “Deities.” Smith runs a TV ministry that promises to resurrect people after they die by restoring their personalities from copied profiles stored in a computer.

In the episode the cathode guru’s too-blue eyes and honey voice, with the mystical New Age music playing in the background, is enough to make people sign up for the resurrection. Even Carter, hardened investigator that he is, has to be forced to go after her, by Murray. Sure, Carter and Smith have a history that goes back to their crazy school days, but the reverend is kinda pulling a life insurance scam on the dead, or a death benefit scheme on the living. Twenty minutes from now, you won’t care.

Through it all, Frewer’s dual performances give even the most dramatic moments a sense of tongue-in-cheek and Max Headroom incessantly veers toward satire. Sometimes high satire. The show takes on weighty subjects with a light touch, especially in dark episodes about mass exploitation like “Body Bags,” and the final episode, “Baby Grobags,” which wasn’t shown during the original run, though I’m sure Molly the Razor Girl has a copy on VHS. This was because of the suspicious lifestyle behind the emerging cyberpunk genre, a mix of film noir and science fiction that captured the encroaching dehumanization of America’s youth. 

Cyberpunk

The Cyberpunks were nihilists, much like Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, with dreams of cybernetic enhancement like robots dream of electric sheep. They saw a post-apocalyptic future where corporations make citizens’ most personal decisions, control the bulk of wealth and power and live pampered lives of privilege while the vast majority living in the urban decay would sell their very DNA for loose change. “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed,” cyberpunk author William Gibson explained.

Cyberpunks were paranoid. Max Headroom’s collaboration with Art of Noise, the song “Paranoimia,” could have been their dialtone. In cyberpunk society, brutality is the norm and you’d better get used to it. Or, as Bart Simpson put it, “If you don’t watch the violence, you’ll never get desensitized to it.” Max is an artificial intelligence being, the bridge between replicants like Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty and Peter Weller’s corporate crusader in Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop.

Like Max HeadroomRobocop is satire. Cyberpunks subverted science fiction and the machine was not only more human than those he protected and served, he made more sense. When Robocop advised kids to “stay out of trouble,” on the Six-O’clock News, he was issuing a sublime lethal threat, not appealing to their conscience. In keeping with the post-modern mythology of cyberpunk, Frewer played the genetic engineer Doctor Leekie on the paranoia-infused BBC series Orphan Black.

Max Headroom - Conspiracy Theories

The Conspiracies

ABC pulled Max Headroom before its final two episodes ran, which, now that I’m watching the show, reeks of the kind of conspiracy theories that followed the cult series during its original broadcast. Max Headroom made fun of TV in a way that made TV nervous. TV was made to sell soap and Max Headroom was squeaky clean. A ghost in the machine. A theory waiting for a conspiracy.

The conspiracies that Max Headroom alluded to are real. They may not have been real when they were first aired, but they have become real. The names are different, but the evil forces running the scenes behind the scenes, the men behind the curtain are there. The conspiratorial cabals may not be the ones that theorists and fans call by name, but the essence of all evil starts with the money.

The Zic-Zac Corporation owns Network 23, which is another tie to conspiracy theories. The 23 Enigma is the belief that anything associated with number 23 is related to some kind of centuries-old plan devised by the New World Order. It was first made famous in the science fiction satire novel The Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson. An excellent book, by the way, it takes forever to get started but once it gets going, it is an incredible ride. Wilson said he learned about it from William S. Burroughs, the author of Naked Lunch, who wrote a short story in 1967 titled “23 Skidoo.”

The 23 Enigma, which also inspired a movie that starred Jim Carrey (which was, of course, released on February 23, 2007), includes such interlocking aspects and fun facts like humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes; Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times; the first message sent by telegraph was a quotation from the Book of Numbers, chapter 23, verse 23, and rumors that John Dillinger had a 23-inch penis.

You get the idea. 23 is everywhere. Like the fnords, you just have to look.

Max lived on…

Now, I’m no librarian, in fact, I don’t know what star sign I am. But, as a famous person once said, “You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” And as Max – another more famous person – once said, “If you don’t teach them to read, you can fool them whenever you like.” We’ve learned a lot from Max, not just because Headroom taught the alphabet on Sesame Street in 1987, but he made his presence known on all kinds of media.

Larry “Bud” Melman (Calvert DeForest)  became “Larry ‘Bud’ Headroom” on Late Night with David Letterman, where Headroom himself did a two-part interview on July 17, 1986. Max Headroom was referenced in such films as Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs from 1987, where Vinnie was a talking head henchmen of Pizza the Hutt and 1989’s Back to the Future Part II, where a disembodied Ayatollah Khomeini sold Pepsi. Garry Trudeau’s comic strip Doonesbury had a character named Ron Headrest who would run the country while President Ronald Reagan was taking his naps.

The talking head of eighties music videos has also kept a constant presence in the art MTV spawned, even if he was never mentioned in a Talking Heads song or video. Neil Young name-checked Max Headroom on the song “Pressure” from his 1986 album Landing on Water. Usher’s video for the song “OMG” opens with a Max Headroom reference. Selena Gomez gets Headroomed in the music video for the song, “Love You like a Love Song.” 50 Cent played a Max Headroom character in the music video for Tony Yayo’s “Pass the Patron.” Even Eminem got his slim and shady frame Headroomed in the music video for the song “Rap God.”

The paranoia that surrounded the show wasn’t limited to what was on the air and what might have been broadcast between the beams, like the blipvert advertising that the show exposed in the pilot. Max Headroom inspired one of the first well-known hackings. On November 22, 1987, a man in a Max Headroom mask blocked the broadcast signals of two Chicago TV stations. First, he interrupted the 9 O’Clock news on WGN-TV Channel 9 for 20 seconds. Two hours later he broke into a broadcast of the Doctor Who episode “Horror of Fang Rock” on PBS affiliate WTTW Channel 11 for about a minute and a half.

The airwave hijacker delivered one of the first hacking rants, including mocking WGN pundit Chuck Swirsky and WGN’s call letters, which was an acronym for World’s Greatest Newspaper, with the phrase “The Greatest World Newspaper nerds.” He made fun of New Coke’s advertising slogan “Catch the Wave,” which Max Headroom shilled for, while holding a Pepsi. He sang a few bars of “Your love is fading” and hummed the theme song to the early sixties TV series Clutch Cargo, complained about his piles and yelled “They’re coming to get me! Come get me, bitch!” The still-unknown and at-large interloper did it in front of a makeshift Max Headroom background and ended the broadcast by mooning the camera while being spanked with a flyswatter by someone wearing a French maid outfit.

Engineers couldn’t stop the intrusion. WTTW, which maintained the transmitter that was set on top of the Sears Tower, was able to find copies of the hijacker’s telecast with the help of Doctor Who fans who had been taping the show. After the incident, WMAQ-TV stuck clips of the hack into a newscast during a sports highlights show. HBO had suffered a similar broadcast signal intrusion 19 months earlier from someone calling himself “Captain Video.”

Max Headroom Cast

Max is Now

While it was only a cult favorite and a satiric piece science fiction, Max Headroom predicted much of the world we see today. They didn’t get everything right, and they certainly couldn’t have seen how the images millennials prefer are smaller and how televisions were replaced by other mobile devices. We don’t see parks littered with TVs that can’t be turned off because we carry that around in our pockets now, or wear them on our wrists, like Dick Tracy predicted, or on our eyes. This is Max Headroom’s future, we are only spectators and our channel selections have been hacked and all our information has been sold to advertisers.

I love the society where Max Headroom is set. Apparently, credit fraud is a worse crime than murder. I also wonder how long it will be before we have AI beings that are as advanced as Max Headroom. He’s not quite capable of independent momentum or thought, but he can use the information to propel himself forward into uncharted territory as far as his own memories.

Corporate domination on Max Headroom comes through television. Satellites monitor all activity. At every street corner “securi-cams” monitor the population. “Electro-democracy” has arrived, but it is controlled by the networks which rig “instant tele-elections.” The world has 4,000 TV channels, and it is against the law to turn off the set. As a matter of fact it’s a crime to even have a TV with an off-button.

Today’s incessant media recycling has made the networks into more than the kingmakers they were when the sweat poured out of Tricky Dick Nixon’s pancake makeup in the first televised debate. We see this today in the media coverage of the primary elections. Donald Trump is a frontrunner because news shows know they’ll get ratings by showing him. Max Headroom may not have invented the tail that wags the dog, but it showed how hungry society could be in a media starved world.

So the future that Max Headroom predicted is imminent. Less than an hour from now. You can see it on the evening news, which has now become a 24 hour cycle with nothing but talking heads stuttering at each other. But the evidence is all there on the old tapes. And you can’t fake a tape. Pictures don’t lie. At least not until you’ve assembled them creatively.

We get closer to our future with every click, the blipverts are already here and probably popped up when you first clicked on this page. Or they will soon in your future, in about twenty minutes from now.

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