I’d forgotten about the show for bit, but a week ago I watched the original…er…well, it’s categorized as a “TV movie.” It feels more like pilot episode. I think its proper name is Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future. I’m talking specifically and exclusively about THAT for this post. I think what happened was the BBC didn’t pick it up for a series, but the American network ABC did, and as a result, that first episode was remade. But I’m talking about the first version. There were just a few little things that struck me that I wanted to get out without getting into just how good the show actually is, and how good all the supporting characters really are.
But a quick recap: In the not so distant distopian future (as the show always puts it “20 minutes into the future”), a smartass reporter, Edison Carter, works for a TV news station. TV stations essentially control everything, and Carter’s show is pretty popular because he wants to dig up the truth and is willing to go to extreme lengths to get it.
Going after one particular story, he’s chased by two goons. Trying to escape through a parking garage, he hits his head on a traffic barrier arm that reads “MAX HEADROOM,” the last words he sees before he’s knocked out, and his consciousness is uploaded into a computer Still with me?).
Carter recovers, but now there’s a rogue A.I. avatar that thinks like Carter, has even less of a filter, and no danger of bodily harm. So it just spouts the truth. It ends up in the hands of a pirate TV station and audiences can’t get enough. It could topple the entire system.
And the avatar assumes its name is Max Headroom, because they’re the first words it saw.
Okay. So all that at least sounds fun, right? But what about a show from the mid 80’s stood out to me in 2017? The themes and the tech.
Really a lot of things about the show sound a little familiar. I don’t mean that as a diss. Considering when it was made, it beat out lot of other media playing with the same ideas.
First of all, there’s “20 minutes into the future.” The creators clearly thought the ideas they were dealing with, while somewhat fantastical and certainly science fictional, suggested these things were coming up fast.
And we have to talk about Max, of course. The idea of TV taking over government, considering certain recent elections in this hellscape we’re calling reality, suddenly doesn’t seem so farfetched. And we seem to be fast approaching a world that looks like any given exterior shot from the show. A sort of post-apocolyptic wasteland decor. You wanted Zombieland? You got it.
But with the creation of Max it suddenly seems like maybe you can take down TV system with Mr. TV. I mean, Max seems pretty obsessed with uncovering and then telling the truth. Its personality is, after all, a copy of a reporter. And Max isn’t really even the hero of the story, its reporter alter ego, Edison Carter, is.
There’s something cultural that I thought was interesting about the TV vs. Max and Carter dynamic.
Remember, this was originally a British production, and all the fatcat bureaucrats that ran the TV station were British (but so is most everyone else). The rebellious reporter protagonist and his A.I. mouthpiece were American. This seems to suggests two conflicting lines of thought. Either the creator saw Americans as the noisy semi-crass over-the-top presenter personalities that Max represented, who may present substantive material, but literally don’t exist outside of a monitor, or as the hard working reporters that Edison Carter represented, who gets into a lot of trouble, but usually for the right reasons. Or both. Maybe they don’t have to conflict.
In any event, I don’t think we need to wait 20 minutes to reach the future, because the future is now. I’d be curious to see this show with an updated look.
Who owns the rights to this now? ABC? Cause it’s ripe for a reboot. What would be better theme music: Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles or Big Time by Peter Gabriel? Come On! Let’s make this happen. Or, God, throw it back to the BBC. They’re great at reboots (Doctor Who).
Again. 1985. This is crazy! No, the computers don’t look like they do now, but think about how they’re used.
They have typewriter style keyboards (at one point the boy genius, Bryce, is typing, and he’s using just his pointer fingers), but what they use the computers for is pretty impressive. This is really where the other lead, Theora, comes into play. She’s brought on to help Edison remotely (though this doesn’t last long, and she quickly gets caught up in the action as well).
They’re able to communicate with each other from miles away, her at the TV station, him wherever the story is. She can get him in and out of buildings by giving him codes, allows him to travel to different floors on elevators, and can raise traffic barrier arms in parking garages. Or could, if Bryce hadn’t been counter hacking her work. Oh, yeah, cause there’s a bunch of hacking going down throughout the whole thing.
Then there’s blipverts, ads condensed and fed into a viewers brain at an accelerated speed. These ads have a nasty habit of causing spontaneous combustion in certain viewers. They remind me of those YouTube ads that you can skip after 5 seconds, or banner ads on any website. It’s just chillin’ next to that article you’re trying to read (maybe even this one).
And the technology of giving a digital creation a full on personality and artificial intelligence is still out of out reach. But has gotten a hell of a lot closer since 1985. Max seems to be able to think, learn, joke, philosophize, and most certainly speak. Siri can do 3 of those 5.
Avatars weren’t a thing yet either. And Max Headroom wasn’t created digitally. They had to put prosthetic and latex on the actor (Matt Frewer), plus a fiberglass suit and contacts, and then just film him. Because they didn’t have the computer technology to do it any other way. But they didn’t want anyone to know that was the actor, and they did a damn good job. The production team may as well have time traveled to make an avatar so similar to ones we’ve all seen.
Then again, for all this modern tech, Edison is still running around with a bulky 80’s camera that’s half as tall as him and twice as heavy.