the future soon

early mobile phoneThis is what things were like back in 1985.  There was no internet, at least not one that anyone but a few DARPA nerds had ever heard of.   The Web did not exist anywhere but in its developers’ heads (bless them!).  The Apple Macintosh was one year old and Microsoft had just released the first version of Windows.   Geeky people played around on Fidonet BBSs and MMORPGs were called MUDs (or MUSHes if you wanted to be fancy); these were mostly text-based and any art was ASCII art.  No one had cell phones, although a few people toted around rather large mobile phones and were either laughed at or greatly admired.   Most people still bought their music on vinyl and listened to it on a radio.  If they carried it around it was on a Sony Walkman cassette player.   Television came in via antenna or cable.  Even if you got cable, you only had about 20 channels to choose from.  Satellite TV was limited to people living out in the back of nowhere since satellite dishes were as big as a car.  Fox TV did not exist.  Movies came on chunky black plastic VHS cassettes and you usually rented them because they were too expensive to buy.  No one had GPS in their car, built in or portable.    Most people still played video games at the mall or the local pizza place, although more and more people were buying the new game consoles (Nintendo debuted the NES in 1983 and Super Mario Brothers in 1985).   Computer animation was in its infancy; Tron was state-of-the-art and Toy Story was still ten years away.

Max Headroom began life (so to speak) in 1985 as the host of a British music video show called, not surprisingly, “The Max Headroom Show.” It ran for a couple of years on Channel 4 and was fairly well known for its snarky topical humor.   Max was an early version of faux CGI (he wasn’t really digital) and his jumpy, stuttering video and vocal styles are due to both the rough state of the art and the artiness of his developers.   As far as I know, the show was never routinely broadcast in the U.S., but I do remember seeing a few of these back in the day,  probably on PBS.   It was a pretty good show.  Max talked about pop culture in short-attention-span-friendly bursts, interrupted videos of British bands I’d never heard of whenever he felt like it, and interviewed his guests with stunning indifference to anything but himself.

Although busy with his TV show, Max found time in 1985 to make a “telefilm” (what our cousins call a made-for-TV movie) called “Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future.” Set, well, 20 minutes into the future, it is about Max’s birth as the alter-ego of Channel 23’s star reporter, Edison Carter.  In this dystopian future, the world is basically run by and for the major television networks who are locked in constant ratings battles with each other.   Network 23 is clearly the leader in these wars but their hegemony is threatened with every burp in the ratings.  Carter is an old-school investigative journalist who frequently exposes his own network’s bad behavior (or worse, that of it’s main sponsor); he is tolerated and even protected by network management because his show is very highly rated.  In the British pilot he discovers that their major advertiser is inadvertently killing viewers with a new style of advertising.  The CEO of Network 23 tries to squelch the story and when Carter finds the proof he needs to go live with it, he sends a couple of thugs to persuade him otherwise.  During the chase Carter is knocked off his motorcycle and hits his head on an exit gate.    The thugs bring an unconscious Carter back to the network where the CEO has the “brilliant” idea of having the network’s hacker genius Bryce Lynch create a computer graphic version of him so that no one will notice that he’s gone.  Bryce is successful in uploading Carter’s consciousness and memories to the computer, but the ensuing AI turns out to be a stuttering, uninhibited, spasmodic version of Carter.  In short, Max Headroom (the last words Carter saw before going unconscious).  The CEO decides to get rid of both Carter and the AI.  The  hired goons drop Carter at a “body bank” (essentially a chop shop for the human parts market) and sell Max to Blank Reg, the operator of independent and very low-end Big Time TV.  Carter eventually escapes the body bank and Reg boots up Max and lets him loose on Big Time TV.  As Max’s ratings rise, Carter confronts the CEO on live television and effectively ousts him from the Board,  paving the way for a new, presumably more conscientious chair, and the day is saved.

Cinemax ran an extended version of this in the US in 1986 that included a lot more Max, mostly in clips from the TV music video show.   If you have it on VHS, like I do, this is probably the version you have.  Shortly thereafter ABC picked it up and developed it into a television series.  They reshot the pilot, using only Matt Frewer and Amanda Pays from the original movie (the Blank Reg character rejoined the series a few episodes in and was played by the same actor) and changed the plot and some of the characters somewhat.  Frewer plays both Edison Carter and Max Headroom.  Pays plays Theora Jones, Carter’s “controller”.   She sits back at the station, linking into satellites, hacking security cameras, reading body heat images,  relaying transmissions to and from Carter, and generally getting him out of most of the hot spots he finds himself in.   Although he apparently came to a very bad end at the end of the original telefilm, the Bryce Lynch character returns as Network 23’s resident genius, serving as Max’s handler and Edison and Theora’s personal hacker.  The show started as a midseason replacement and got good enough ratings to come back for another season.  Unfortunately it was going up against some very big cities (Dallas and Miami Vice) and was canceled midway through the 1988 season.   Only 13 episodes were ever aired, although an additional episode was completed and at least five others were in various stages of development.  I have always suspected that ABC killed it  because it was getting a little too close to the truth.

[more to come…]

~ by gun street girl on September 16, 2010.

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