MAX HEADROOM

U.S. Science Fiction

Max Headroom was one of the most innovative science fiction series ever produced for American television, an ambitious attempt to build upon the cyberpunk movement in science fiction literature. The character of Max Headroom, the series's unlikely cybernetic protagonist, was originally introduced in a 1984 British television movie, produced by Peter Wagg, and starring Canadian actor Matt Frewer. ABC brought the series to American television in March 1987, refilming the original movie as a pilot but recasting most of the secondary roles. The ABC series attracted critical acclaim and a cult following, but only lasted for fourteen episodes. The anarchic and irreverent Max went on to become an advertising spokesman for Coca-Cola and to host his own talk show on the Cinemax cable network.

The original British telefilm appeared just one year after the publication of William Gibson's Neuromancer, the novel which brought public attention to the cyberpunk movement and introduced the term, "cyberspace" into the English language. Influenced by films, such as The Road Warrior and Bladerunner, the cyberpunks adopted a taunt, intense, and pulpy writing style, based on brisk yet detailed representations of a near future populated by multi-national corporations, colorful youth gangs, and computer hacker protagonists. Their most important theme was the total fusion of human and machine intelligences. Writers like Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, and Pat Cadigan, developed a shared set of themes and images, which were freely adopted by Max Headroom.

Set "twenty minutes in the future," Max Headroom depicted a society of harsh class inequalities where predators roam the street looking for unsuspecting citizens who can be sold for parts to black-market "body banks." Max inhabits a world ruled by Zic-Zac and other powerful corporations locked in a ruthless competition for consumer dollars and television rating points. In the opening episode, Network 22 dominates the airwaves through its use of blipverts, which compress thirty seconds of commercial information into three seconds. Blipverts can cause neural overstimulation and (more rarely) spontaneous combustion in more sedate viewers. Other episodes centered around the high crime of zipping (interrupting a network signal) and neurostim (a cheap burger pak give-away which hypnotizes people into irrational acts of consumption). We encounter blanks, a subversive underground of have-nots, who have somehow dodged incorporation into the massive databanks kept on individual citizens.

At the core of this dizzying and colorful world was Edison Carter, an idealistic Network 24 reporter who takes his portable minicam into the streets and the boardrooms to expose corruption and consumer-exploitation which, in most episodes, led him back to the front offices of his own network. Edison's path is guided by Theora Jones, his computer operator, whose hacker skills allow him to stay one step ahead of the security systems--at least most of the time--and Bryce Lynch, the amoral boy wonder and computer wizard. He is aided in his adventures by Blank Reg, the punked-out head of a pirate television operation, BigTime Television. Edison's alter-ego, Max Headroom, is a cybernetic imprint of the reporter's memories and personality who comes to "live" within computers, television programs and other electronic environments. There he becomes noted for his sputtering speech style, his disrespect for authority, and his penchant for profound nonsequiters.

Critics admired the series' self-reflexivity, its willingness to pose questions about television networks and their often unethical and cynical exploitation of the ratings game, and its parody of game shows, political advertising, tele-evangelism, news coverage, and commercials. Influenced by MTV, the series's quick-paced editing and intense visual style were also viewed as innovative, creating a televisual equivalent of the vivid and intense cyberpunk writing style. This series's self-conscious parody of television conventions and its conception of a "society of spectacle" was considered emblematic of the "postmodern condition," making it a favorite of academic writers as well. Their interest was only intensified by Max's move from science fiction to advertising and to talk television, where this non-human celebrity (commodity) traded barbed comments with other talk-show-made celebrities, such as Doctor Ruth, Robin Leach, Don King, and Paul Schaffer. Subsequent series, such as Oliver Stone's Wild Palms or VR, have sought to bring aspects of cyberpunk to television, but none have done it with Max Headroom's verve, imagination, and faithfulness to core cyberpunk themes.

- Henry Jenkins

 


Max Headroom

CAST

Edison Carter/Max Headroom....................... Matt Frewer Theora Jones ..........................................Amanda Pays Ben Cheviot................................................ George Coe Bryce Lynch............................................... Chris Young Murray.................................................... Jeffrey Tambor Blank Reg.............................. William Morgan Sheppard Dominique............................................ Concetta Tomei Ashwell .....................................................Hank Garrett Edwards ......................................................Lee Wilkof Lauren .......................................................Sharon Barr Ms. Formby ..............................................Virginia Kiser

PRODUCERS Phillip DeGuere, Peter Wagg, Brian Frankish

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

ABC
March 1987-May 1987                     Tuesday 10:00-11:00 August 1987-October 1987                   Friday 9:00-10:00

FURTHER READING

Berko, Lili. "Simulation and High Concept Imagery: The Case of Max Headroom." Wide Angle: A Film Quarterly Of Theory, Criticism, And Practice (Athens, Ohio), 1988.

Kerman, Judith B. "Virtual Space and Its Boundaries in Science Fiction Film and Television: Tron, 'Max Headroom' And Wargames." In Morse, Donald E., Marshall Tymn, and Bertha Csilla, editors. The Celebration of the Fantastic: Selected Papers From the Tenth Anniversary International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1992.

Lentz, Harris M. Science Fiction, Horror & Fantasy Film and Television Credits, Supplement 2, Through 1993. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1994.

Loder, Kurt. "Max Mania: A 'Computer Generated' Talk-show Host, Max Headroom Has Become TV's Latest Overnight Sensation." Rolling Stone (New York), 28 August 1986.

Long, Marion. "Paradise Tossed." Omni (New York), April 1988.

Roberts, Steve. Max Headroom: The Picture Book of The Film. New York: Random House, 1986.

Staiger, Janet. "Future Noir: Contemporary Representations of Visionary Cities." East-West Film Journal (Honolulu, Hawaii), December 1988.

Waters, Harry F. "Mad About M-M-Max." Newsweek (New York), 20 April 1987.

 

See also Science Fiction Programs