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Max Headroom (TV series)

Max Headroom (1987 – 1988) was a short-lived but ground-breaking American science fiction television series which aired on ABC. The series was developed from a British television movie, 20 Minutes into the Future, that was developed to provide background for the Max Headroom character, originally developed for Channel 4's The Max Headroom Show in 1985-1986. The Original Max Talking Headroom Show was a Cinemax show that came out later in 1987.

Television series

In 1987, the story told in 20 Minutes into the Future, a made-for-television movie, formed the basis of a full-fledged drama television series. The film was re-shot as a pilot program for a new series broadcast by the U.S.-based ABC television network. The pilot featured plot changes and some minor visual touches, but retained the same basic storyline. The only original cast retained for the U.S. version series were Matt Frewer (Max Headroom, Edison Carter) and Amanda Pays (Theora Jones); original cast member W. Morgan Sheppard later joined the cast as "Blank Reg". Among the non-original cast, Jeffrey Tambor co-starred as "Murray,” Edison Carter's neurotic editor.

The U.S. series expanded on the cyberpunk themes in the British TV movie but otherwise had no connection to the British music video show. In an arrangement perhaps unique in the history of television, the U.S. spin-off series featuring Max Headroom was a fictional drama, while its main character was originally created for a non-fiction entertainment show in Britain.

The series began as a mid-season replacement in spring of 1987, and was sufficiently popular to be renewed for the fall television season, but the viewer ratings could not be sustained, due to direct competition with CBS's Top 20 hit Dallas and NBC's Top 30 hit Miami Vice, and Max Headroom was canceled part-way into its first broadcast season; leftover episodes aired in spring 1988. Plans for a cinema version titled Max Headroom for President were mentioned in the media, but the film was never produced.

Comico comics also had plans to publish a graphic novel based on the story, but never fulfilled them. A few posters were produced for comic shops, with a picture of Max Headroom saying comics will never be the same again.

Characters

Max Headroom

See Max Headroom (character)

Edison Carter

Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) was a hard-hitting reporter for Network 23, who sometimes came close to uncovering things that his superiors in the network would have preferred to keep private. Eventually, one of these instances required him to flee his workspace, upon which he was accidentally injured; Bryce Lynch downloaded a copy of his brain into a computer, giving birth to the character Max Headroom.

The series depicted very little of the past described by Edison, though he did meet a female priest that he once dated when his reporting put him at odds with the Vu Age Church that she now headed.

Edison cares about his co-workers, especially Theora Jones (who looks upon him as a friend and big brother) and Bryce Lynch (who regularly easily agrees to help Edison, despite all but ignoring everyone else's requests).

Theora Jones

Theora Jones was played by Amanda Pays and first appeared in the British-made television pilot film for the series. Along with Matt Frewer and W. Morgan Sheppard, Pays was one of only three cast members to also appear in the American-made series that followed.

Theora was Network 23's star controller and, working with the network's star reporter, Edison Carter, she often helped save the day for everyone. She was also the pseudo-love-interest of Edison Carter, but that subplot was not explored fully on the show before it was cancelled.

Network 23's personnel files list her father as unknown, her mother as deceased, and her brother as Shawn Jones.

The Ogg Theora open video codec is named after this character.

Bryce Lynch

Bryce Lynch (Chris Young), a child prodigy and computer hacker, is Network 23's one-man technology research department.

His birthdate is 7th October 1988. In the show Bryce appears to be 16 or 17 years old, so in the episodes that we see on screen Bryce is living in the time frame of 2004-2005.

In the stereotypical hacker ethos, Bryce has few principles and fewer loyalties. He seems to accept any task, even morally questionable ones, as long as he is allowed to have the freedom to play with technology however he sees fit. This in turn makes him a greater asset to the technological needs and demands of the network (and the whims of its executives and stars). However, he also generally does not hurt or infringe on others, making him an uncannily neutral character in the Max Headroom universe. The character seems to have been loosely based on Alan Turing.

In the pilot episode of the series, Bryce is enlisted by network CEO Ned Grossberg to investigate the mental patterns of unconscious reporter Edison Carter, to determine whether or not Carter has discovered the secrets of the "Blipverts" scandal. Bryce downloads the contents of Carter's memory into the Network 23 computer system, and manages to boot them as a computer program. The resulting personality, an unhinged and unrepressed version of Carter's personality, is dubbed "Max Headroom" after its first words (the last words seen by Carter before being knocked unconscious by a parking-garage security gate). Ironically, it was Bryce, following orders from Grossberg, who fought a hacking battle of sorts (a la the opening scene to Hackers) with Theora Jones that led to Edison hitting his head on a traffic barrier and falling unconscious.

After the first episode, Bryce is generally recruited by Carter and his controller Theora Jones to provide technical aid to their investigative reporting efforts.

Bryce is only seen outside of his lab in two episodes:

  • In "Academy", Bryce returns to his former college to track down a student who is committing denial of service attacks ('zipping') on Network 23's transmissions. Bryce's core morals, as shared with other students of the college, are discussed further in this episode. Initially Bryce resists helping track down the attacker, seeing it as harmless experimentation, even though an innocent man is framed for the crime (which is punishable by death).
  • In "Security Systems", he is reluctantly forced into a temporary exile with the fugitive Edison Carter when his off-hand comment that "SS even does security for Network 23" makes them realise too late the mistake they've made in trying to hack A7 from Bryce's lab. At first annoyed at being displaced from the safety of his hidden lab, Bryce is soon happily looking forward to slipping under Security Systems 'radar' using "a pink bus with a 5 watt UHF transmitter".

Blank Reg

Blank Reg was played by W. Morgan Sheppard, one of only three cast members to also appear in the American-made series that followed.

Reg is a "blank", a person not indexed in anyone's database. He broadcasts the underground Big Time Television Network from his bus. He is a good friend of Edison Carter, and saves him on more than one occasion.

He dresses in cyberpunk style and has a Mohawk hairstyle.

Ned Grossberg

Ned Grossberg is a recurring villain on the series, played by Charles Rocket.

In the UK telefilm Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future upon which the American series was based, the character was called Grosman and was played by Nickolas Grace. Rocket portrayed Grossberg as an American yuppie with a characteristic facial (and neck-stretching) twitch.

In the pilot episode, Grossberg is the chairman of Network 23, a major city television station with the highest rated investigative news show in town, hosted by Edison Carter. In the Max Headroom world, real-time ratings equal advertising dollars, and advertisements have replaced stocks as the measure of corporate worth.

Grossberg, with his secret prodigy Bryce Lynch, develop a rapid-speed advertising delivery medium known as Blipverts, which condenses a full advertisement into a few seconds. When Carter discovers that Blipverts are killing people, Grossberg orders Lynch to prevent Carter from getting out of the building. Knocked unconscious, Carter's memories are extracted into a computer by Lynch in order to determine whether Carter uncovered Grossberg's knowledge of the danger of Blipverts. The resulting computer file of the memory-extraction process becomes Max Headroom, making Grossberg directly responsible for the creation of the character.

In the end, Grossberg is publicly exposed as responsible for the Blipverts scandal, and is removed as chairman of Network 23.

A few episodes later, in Grossberg's Return Grossberg reappears as a board member of Network 66. Again, he invents a dubious advertising medium and convinces the chairman of the network to adopt it. When the advertising method is shown to be a complete fraud, the resulting public reaction against the network leads to the chairman being removed, and Grossberg manages to resume the chairmanship.

Other characters

Episode listing

Season 1: 1987

Title Original air-date #
Blipverts March 31, 1987 1
Investigative TV news reporter Edison Carter uncovers the disturbing secret of a new TV technology called "Blipverts,” high-intensity commercials with the ability to overload people's neural network causing them to explode.
Rakers April 7, 1987 2
Theora's brother ends up tangled in the web of a mafia-organized sport called "raking,” a deadly mutation of motorized skateboarding.
Body Banks April 14, 1987 3
A man forces a meeting with Carter after two thugs kidnap his girlfriend as an involuntary donor for a transplant operation. Meanwhile, Max demands to know some details about some fuzzy parts of his (and hence Edison's) memory.
Security Systems April 21, 1987 4
An unknown buyer is planning to acquire Security Systems, the biggest security center in the world; the CEO of the company, however, while expressing her fear about the takeover, refuses to reveal more detail.
War April 28, 1987 5
A terrorist group claims responsibility for a series of explosions - live and on air, with the aid of Network 23's competitive network, Breakthru TV.
The Blanks May 5, 1987 6
The city's computer system is plagued by failures due to the Blanks, a group of anarchists who removed themselves from the central databanks.

Season 2: 1987-1988

Title Original air-date #
"Academy" September 18, 1987 7
Someone is "zipping" Network 23 — hijacking its satellites. While Blank Reg fights for his life on a Courtroom TV gameshow, Theora believes Bryce may be hiding something.
"Deities" September 25, 1987 8
A New-age church wants Max so it can make good on its claims to preserve its members' personalities forever rather than merely fleecing them with claims of doing so. And the leader of this group knows just how to use Edison to get to Max.
"Grossberg's Return" October 2, 1987 9
After his fall from the CEO chair at Network 23, Grossberg takes the helm of Network 66, and he's got an axe to grind.
"Dream Thieves" October 9, 1987 10
The Networks are running out of creative material for new programming, so they turn to the audience's dreams. The process has some nasty side-effects, though.
"Whacketts"
(alt. "The Addiction Game")
October 16, 1987 11
When a building collapses, the survivors climb into the wreckage to rescue… television sets? Why is everyone watching Whacketts?
"NeuroStim" April 28, 1988 12
Zik Zak's new promotional giveaway, the Neurostim bracelet, implants memories directly into your mind. Their bold new plan could spell curtains for Network 23… and Edison Carter!
"Lessons" May 5, 1988 13
Edison discovers that the automated censor system is sending metro cops to arrest 'blanks' who are pirating pay per view educational programs: the only source of education for ghetto children.
"Baby Growbags" Originally unaired in the U.S. 14

Notes

  • Each episode opened with the "20 Minutes Into the Future" legend, indicating when the action occurs. It was the series' tagline.
  • At least one unproduced script, "Theora's Tale," has surfaced, as have the titles of two other stories ("The Trial" and "Xmas"). Currently, little is known of "The Trial" aside from its title; George R. R. Martin wrote "Xmas,” in pre-production at cancellation time; "Theora's Tale" would have featured the "Video Freedom Alliance" kidnapping Theora, and war in Antarctica, between rival advertisers Zik Zak and Zlin.
  • Although it has been rumored that William Gibson, an aficionado of the program, was to write a screenplay for the show until learning it had been cancelled, former members of the show's production staff who are acquainted with the author have denied this claim.
  • The character of teenage hacker Bryce Lynch is shown in both the British film and America pilot to be born in 1988.

Since Bryce appears to be 16 or 17 years old, this places the show in the real-world time frame of 2004-2005 (or 20 years after the Channel 4 film was made - "20 Years Into the Future").

Impact of show on society

Max Headroom was the first cyberpunk series to run in the United States on one of the main broadcast networks in prime time. Like other science fiction, the series introduced the general public to new ideas in the form of cyberpunk themes and social issues. The series portrayed the Blanks, a counter-culture group of people who lived without any official numbers or documentation for the sake of privacy. Various episodes delved into issues like literacy and the lack thereof in a TV-dominated culture (Blank Reg: "It's a book. It's a non-volatile storage medium. It's very rare. You should 'ave one.")

Although it was not a comedy series, low-key (and sometimes dark) humor was a noteworthy part of the entire effect. Some was more overt, such as Max's wisecracking lines, while others were less obvious. The president of Network 23's largest corporate sponsor from Asia, the Zik-Zak corporation, is named Ped Xing. It could be a Chinese name (unlikely as Spoken Chinese has no syllables ending in "d"), but it is also the common American traffic sign "PED XING," an abbreviation for "Pedestrian crossing."

In similar fashion to the twisted, yet bizarrely familiar future world of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, the juxtapositions of intentional technological anachronisms were a recurring feature in the series. As Theora types in computer commands for real-time control of satellites, a tight shot shows her typing on the keys of a manual typewriter; in a similar way, some videophone calling devices featured large telephone handsets. Cars appear to be modeled from the 1950s.

In the end, the series all-too-accurately predicted its own demise. With story lines about TV ratings monitored on a second-by-second basis, and the power of the corporate dollar to control what information is delivered to the people through the medium of television, the series was evidently a little too far ahead of its time. After 11 episodes, ABC canceled it. (Three more episodes had been fully produced at the time of cancellation, completing the 14. It is also at least rumored that at the time of cancellation an additional episode was in production, another was in pre-production, and scripts for three more had been written; one of these five scripts has come out on the Internet.) There was some talk about the character returning in a movie entitled Max Headroom for President, but nothing came of it.

As a fad, Max faded from the public eye in the 1990s. In the late 1990s, U.S. cable TV channels Bravo and the Sci-Fi Channel re-ran the series. Reruns also briefly appeared on TechTV in 2001. Some episodes can now be viewed online for free on In2TV and Joost. While the series has yet to see a formal release on DVD, the original British version of the movie was released to the Japanese DVD rental market on September 2, 2005. Low-quality rough and unauthorized copies of the original shows ripped to DVD are periodically available through various sources.

The Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion incident, involved someone dressed as Max Headroom interrupting the signals of Chicago television stations WGN and WTTW. The person or persons responsible were never identified.

Predictions

  • Max existed in a ubiquitous worldwide computer network with access to virtually every type of information via multimedia interfaces. The show aired several years before the invention of the worldwide web. The internet of today looks remarkably similar to what was represented in the show.
  • The Max Headroom series sparked a trend in video editing of showing a sequence of rapidly-changing images — a technique known as "rapid-fire" — in order to convey excitement or thrill. Rapid-fire imagery became common in the late 1980s and early 90s, seen in music videos and promo spots on MTV and later in mainstream TV commercials.
  • In 1997, life imitated art as predicted by Max Headroom. In the original story, reporter Edison Carter exposed the TV network's efforts to create "Blipverts," a new high-intensity subliminal television commercial which had the unfortunate side-effect of overloading the nervous system of certain viewers to such a degree that they exploded. In a bizarre parallel in 1997, Japan's popular Pocket Monsters (Pokémon) television series included a sequence of flashing imagery which unintentionally triggered seizures in hundreds of viewers susceptible to photosensitive epilepsy — though without fatalities.
  • In 2004 there were reports that some advertising companies were planning to experiment with commercial messages lasting only 2 or 3 seconds in length. In November 2004, the CBS Network issued a report that fast-forwarding through commercials (essentially creating the "blipvert" effect) actually increases recall of an advertiser's message.
  • A box office slump in the United States starting in 2004 due to the availability of "on demand media" was predicted in the episode "Dream Thieves,” in which it is revealed that there are no more movie theaters.
  • In 2006, Max Headroom's former "employer" Coca-Cola used advertising similar to a "blipvert" to promote its lemon-lime soft drink Sprite. The television commercials, collectively referred to as "sub-lymon-al advertising" (a play on "subliminal advertising" and the Sprite "lymon" flavor) feature surreal, dream-like situations, frequently interrupted by a barrage of rapid-fire images intended to make the viewer thirsty. At the end of the commercial, the word "Obey" flashes on the screen, and a man in a suit snaps his fingers, as if to wake the viewer from a state of hypnotic suggestion.
  • In 2006, GE started a series of commercials called "One Second Theater which compressed many frames of information into a single second of a 30-second commercial. This information can barely be made out at full speed and must be viewed frame-by-frame with a PVR in order to be fully comprehended. Except for the inability to be understood in real-time, these are very close in implementation to a blipvert.
  • The series is also credited with accurately predicting the rise of the so-called 500-channel universe, reality television, webcams and stealth marketing.
  • Max Headroom also predicted the proliferation of TV viewing (and video surveillance) into every walk of life. Evidence of this can be seen in some restaurants, bars, and even grocery stores and self-service gasoline stations where news reports, sports events, and cooking shows are broadcast to consumers in the hopes of drawing in more customers and/or improving sales.
  • The episode "The Blanks" demonstrated a use of a "computer bomb,” which "links all the programs through the main one simultaneously, (creating) a massive overload.” Today, this is known as a denial-of-service attack, coincidentally also a favorite attack of the similarly named internet hacker group Anonymous.
  • In the series, television networks receive continuous, real-time access to their ratings and those of rival networks. The price of commercials is also set continuously by a financial market. Thus, even a ratings dip of 30 seconds is enough to cause concern to network executives who may immediately pull a lagging program. While these innovations have not been adopted yet, most ratings are now measured by devices connected to selected viewers' television sets which allows more precise measurement of actual viewing habits than the viewer-completed diaries that were previously used.

Influences

The style of Max Headroom — in both the Channel 4 TV movie and the American series — is cyberpunk, a hyperreal dystopic future setting, though this future is decidedly less-distant (only 20 minutes ahead).

"Network 23"'s inspiration is the 23 enigma, with the specific, real and theoretical televisual reference derived from Genesis P-Orridge's use of the number 23, as the number of the Illuminati, in his groups Psychic TV & Thee Temple Ov Psychic Youth, itself derived from Robert Anton Wilson's seminal The Illuminatus! Trilogy. See also The Number 23.

References in pop culture

  • Garry Trudeau's daily comic strip Doonesbury featured a character, in the late 1980s, named Ron Headrest, the first computer-generated politician, a cross between Max Headroom and Ronald Reagan.
  • Back To The Future also contains a Reagan/Headroom fusion battling a similarly digitized Khomeni for menu suggestions.
  • An adult video parody named Max Bedroom was made in 1987.
  • Spiral Tribe set up a record label called Network 23 in 1994.
  • Commodore Amiga computers were used to do the overlay effects used when they showed "remote" shots and for other effects, in one of the first uses of home computers for television special effects.
  • There is an homage to Max Headroom in the 1997 film Batman & Robin when Barbara encounters her uncle Alfred in the batcave. He has programmed his brain algorithms into the batcomputer and created a virtual simulation. He appears and speaks (stutteringly) like Max Headroom.
  • Sum 41 wrote a song called "Second Chance for Max Headroom" on their album Half Hour of Power.
  • On May 10, 2007, Nickelodeon's made a "You're watching ME:TV" clip with Ryan Knowles impersonating Max Headroom on the webwall. In the clip, Ryan's hair was combed back like Max's, and he stutters occasionally and the background panned vertically with purple and blue neon stripes.
  • In Episode 7 of Farscape's Season 4, "John Quixote," John Crichton enters virtual reality where he encounters a Max Headroom-like version of himself.
  • Max was featured on the 1986 hit UK single "Paranoimia" by Art of Noise.
  • In an episode of Family Matters, a computer program Steve Urkel uses to aid in constructing and managing an atomic bomb features an interface of Steve's head and personality; the polygonic face and stuttering nature of the visage are a reference to Max Headroom.

References

External links

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