By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 7, 2010)
Video killed the radio star
And then committed suicide
–Doug Powell, “Empty Vee”
The original maven of the matrix has returned. The belated release of ABC-TV’s late 80s one-season wonder, Max Headroom on DVD has given sci-fi geeks a nice little lift from the midsummer doldrums (hey-why is everybody looking at me like I’m some kind of a nerd?).
In case you spent the 80s in a coma, or you’re too young to remember, “Max Headroom” was a fictional, computer-generated TV personality who was created via a blend of live-action camera, prosthetics and old-school animation techniques. First appearing in 1985 on Channel 4 in the U.K. as the host for a weekly, MTV-style music video/variety show, the hip, irreverent and oh-so-sardonic Max was indelibly brought to “life” by the comic improvisations of square-jawed Canadian actor Matt Frewer, backed by a bevy of hip writers (it’s like Robin Williams mind-melded with HAL 9000).
The original one-hour pilot that kicked off the British variety series in 1985 provided a back story for the character, and was quite an impressive production. An imaginative mash-up of Brazil, Network and The Parallax View, it is set in a dystopian metropolis some “20 minutes into the future” and concerns an investigative journalist (Frewer) who works for a media conglomerate called Network 23.
He is hot on the trail of his own employers, who have developed a secretive video technology that can deliver a huge cache of subliminal advertising to unwitting TV viewers in a matter of seconds; such a huge amount of information, in fact, that some people have an adverse physical reaction (OK, they explode-don’t worry, not a spoiler). A shadowy conspiracy thriller ensues. While fleeing would-be assassins, he runs smack into a parking gate arm (emblazoned with the warning “Max Headroom”). Soon thereafter, his memory and persona is “saved” and downloaded into a hard drive, which then transmogrifies into the “Max” we all know and love.
I remember first seeing the British pilot here in the states on Cinemax, which kicked off the domestic version of the variety series (only a handful of installments, which aired back in 1986). Unfortunately (most likely due to legal snafus) that original pilot is not included in the DVD set; if you scrounge around secondhand stores and yard sales you may spot the odd VHS copy (I found mine for $3 at a Hollywood Video a couple years ago when they were liquidating VHS inventory). I recommend catching it, if you haven’t.
What is included is the 14 episode season that aired on ABC in 1987, a coveted cult item. The reworked U.S. pilot follows the same basic story line (although not quite as gritty and technically accomplished as the original) and sets up the character dynamics for the series. Frewer reprises his dual role as investigative TV journalist Edison Carter and his alter-ego, Max. Also retained from the original pilot are the lovely Amanda Pays (as Edison’s controller) and the delightful William Morgan Sheppard as “Blank Reg”, a Mohawk-sporting pirate cable channel entrepreneur. The always dependable Jeffrey Tambor was recruited for the U.S. series to play Carter’s producer.
Something else retained for the U.S. series (and much to its benefit) was a good portion of the original British production and writing team. As I’ve been working my way through the episodes over the past week, it amazes me how subversive the show was for U.S. network TV; especially with its unapologetic leftist, anti-corporate, anti-consumer culture message. With hindsight being 20/20, it’s not surprising that it was yanked after one season. Sad as it is for me to say, you would never see a show like this on American television now that dared to challenge the status quo (the X-Files had its moments, but cloaked them in horror-show silliness, more often than not).
Some of the story lines are quite prescient, dealing with themes like the advent of social networking, cyber-crime, and the merging of the technocracy with the idiocracy (which any casual perusal of YouTube will confirm). Perhaps what resonates most significantly in hindsight is the show’s depiction of news as infotainment and an insidiously corporate-controlled media (dismissed by many as far-fetched paranoid fantasy 23 years ago). Worth ch-ch-ch-checking out.