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A Head Of His Time

September 2nd, 2010

Last month, one of my few remaining “Holy Grail DVDs” was released: ABC’s cyberpunk series Max Headroom. With a mere fourteen episodes over two short seasons, Max was a curious footnote of ‘80s television. Yet I’d argue it’s one of a relatively few network shows to dabble in honest-to-Asimov, speculative science-fiction.

The character of Max Headroom was conceived as a video deejay and pitchman in his native U.K. He was the idealized TV host, one who existed solely from the shoulders up. While intended to appear as a computer-generated image, he was in fact actor Matt Frewer fitted with makeup prosthetics and subjected to jumpy editing that turned him into a chattering, jittery ghost in the machine.

A British TV movie, 20 Minutes into the Future, detailed Max’s origin story. It was set in a dystopian world ruled by broadcast networks; the gleaming tower of #1 channel Network 23 dominated a grimy cityscape of couch potatoes, punks and Blanks. (The latter were street people who had managed to remove themselves from the information network.) Here, televisions watched their viewers, collecting demographic data as well as second-by-second audience ratings. It was one of those timeless environments in which manual typewriters were used as computer keyboards and most of the well-to-do drove vintage cars.

Against this backdrop, heroic journalist Edison Carter (also played by Frewer) ran afoul of his own bosses and suffered a head injury in a motorcycle accident. While unconscious, his memory was duplicated and translated as data in the form of a glitchy artificial personality who named himself “Max Headroom.” (The last thing Carter saw before his near fatal wipeout was an automated gate bearing the words “Max Headroom 2.3M.”)

Carter’s back-up was a “controller” named Theora Jones. Her mad hacker skills served Edison well as she used the omnipresent “securicams” to monitor his whereabouts for guards, open locked doors and behave as a pair of rear-mounted eyes. Theora was played by English beauty Amanda Pays, one in my long line of BILFs.* Pays’ chief skills were her aptitude for worriedly looking at computer monitors and sexily biting her lip, both of which came in handy a few years later when she played scientist Tina McGee on The Flash.

By movie’s end, Edison’s alter ego Max found himself happily employed as the new host of a pirate television channel named BigTime. And that was pretty much the end of that story, as far as the Brits were concerned. The character continued on hosting videos, appearing in commercials and eventually landing a talk show.

However, ABC saw potential for a weekly adventure series and commissioned a six-episode run for the summer of 1987. They brought back both Matt Frewer and Amanda Pays–and later W. Morgan Sheppard, who reprised his role as BigTime’s “Blank Reg”–and remade the British movie as the first installment. Apparently it did well enough to earn a second-season pickup…where it was quickly crushed by the killer combo of Dallas and Miami Vice. The final episode, “Baby Grobags,” didn’t air in the U.S. until years later when Bravo ran Max under its “TV Too Good for TV” umbrella.

With the DVDs out, I think that now is a great time to take an in-depth look at the show that puzzled audiences and, frankly, looked and acted like nothing else on television of its time. Tune in next week for the first Max Headroom M-m-monday!

*You figure it out.

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