Concluding my weekly look back at 1987’s Max Headroom series.
Written by Chris Ruppenthal and Adrian Hein
“I love babies. They’re so sweet. Especially with pickles.” –Breughel
The Story: Ovu-Vat offers would-be parents an entirely new option: babies gestated and brought to term inside a bag. But the child belonging to Helen–an old friend of Theora–is stolen, and the trail leads to Network 66’s and its new hit show about brilliant babies, “Prodigies.” Meanwhile, Bryce entertains a job offer from his former employer, Ned Grossberg.
Behind the Screens: The final episode of Max Headroom (which, as I mentioned last week, did not air in the U.S. until years after the series was cancelled by ABC) is a disappointing capper to a generally remarkable series. Admittedly, I’m not too interested in “somebody stole my baby!!!” stories, but even discounting that prejudice this script doesn’t make much sense.
The plot hinges on an agreement between Ovu-Vat and Network 66 in which the baby factory supplies the broadcaster with super-smart kids for the “Prodigies” show. Yet even Grossberg (who, I’ll remind you, tried to have his own star reporter whacked back in the pilot) is horrified to learn that Ovu-Vat is creating “in vitro clones” without the knowledge of the donor parents. Which begs the question, what did he think was happening? Were parents who went to all the trouble of commissioning a baby in a bag supposedly just handing over their freshly-minted kids to a network exec?
Furthermore, the reason that Helen’s child (who, we are told, will be a frickin’ genius) is missing is that the head of Ovu-Vat, Cornelia Firth, has stolen it. Never mind that it’s already come to term and is about to be picked up by its mother. How on earth did Firth think she was going to get away with the theft? And even if she escaped justice, a security breach so egregious would be deadly to a company in such an emotionally-charged business as childbirth.
Meanwhile, there’s Bryce’s storyline, which sees him interviewing for a position at Network 66. I kept waiting for him to reveal that it was part of a long con, yet by episode’s end he had all but signed on the dotted line. Although Bryce’s amorality was well established, over the course of the series he seemed to have developed enough of a sense of right and wrong that I expected him to be wary of working with Grossberg again. (Also, I’d be more than a little suspicious of a network head who made me change into trunks to conduct the job interview in a swimming pool.)
To his credit, Grossberg’s intentions for Bryce are pretty forward-thinking. He wants the boy whiz to lead a team composed of the kids from “Prodigies” that would “develop a cutting edge in television thinking…new technology, new shows, advanced technique.” And really, nothing happens that would derail this plan. Network 66 might not receive more genius babies, but presumably they already have a clutch of them. The only thing that keeps Bryce from taking the job at 66 is that Edison literally grabs him by the scruff and drags him out.
No Blank Reg or Dominique in this one, but Breughel and his new “Mahler” put in a brief appearance serving as unlikely couriers returning the stolen kid to Edison Carter. Because, who else would you trust with a valuable Baby Einstein?
Network 23 has a show called “The Cocktail Club,” which apparently takes downtrodden viewers inside parties of the well-to-do. Apparently, it’s supposed to be a ratings-grabber that the latest episode is taking place within Edison’s apartment. It isn’t. Viewers switch over to “Prodigies” in droves.
We see Theora’s apartment for the first time since the pilot, though it appears that she no longer parks her car in the bedroom.
Speaking of names, Murray makes it all the way to the end of the series without acquiring a surname. Or did he? When Theora and Murray go undercover as prospective Ovu-Vat customers, Theora is referred to as “Mrs. Murray.” Was Murray really his last name all along? Or is he just Murray, like Cher or Xuxa?
While this was the final episode produced, several more were in various stages of production when the cancellation blade fell. The description of Theora’s Tale” is especially intriguing: during a shooting war between Zik-Zak and its corporate rival Zlin, Theora is kidnapped and we learn the secret of her parentage. It’s especially disappointing this was never made because Theora is such an underdeveloped character.
The Ratings Report:
Theora’s Level of Concern
How Minutes Into the Future Is This Now?
Aside from the baby bags themselves, most of what Ovu-Vat does has either already passed or doesn’t seem far off. Its clients can choose their child’s sex and even select many of its attributes, but is that far-fetched in the days of widespread genetic manipulation?
The show conflates the term “in vitro” with the practice of cloning, and everyone seems pretty shocked about the whole thing. Never mind that everything Ovu-Vat does is technically in vitro.
frightening advances in genetic engineering -10 minutes
misunderstanding the definition of in vitro -2 minutes
Murray’s laughably large secret earphone -3 minutes
aquatic job interviews +1 minute
= 6 Minutes Into the Future
And now, some final thoughts.
This is a series I’d been looking forward to owning on DVD from pretty much the first day I bought a player, even though I still have off-air VHS recordings from the original ABC run. I need to go back and look at those tapes again; when the series was cancelled after facing stiff competition from Dallas and Miami Vice in a tough Friday night slot, Max made a final speech that doesn’t appear on the DVD set:
“And if the ratings books last for a thousand years, men will still say this was Max Headroom’s finest hour.”
To be sure, Max Headroom was a show well ahead of its time. It looked like nothing else on TV, and its cyberpunk storylines likely confused the hell out of viewers.
A remake would be interesting. Certainly, its depiction of a media-obsessed world in a constant 24-hour news cycle would make a lot more sense to a modern audience. And I think that a 21st Century Max Headroom would benefit from the long-form storytelling and focus on characterization typical of modern dramatic series.
Really, the weakest aspect of Max Headroom is Max himself. He’s funny, but as a character who exists solely within the TV screen, he’s of limited use. By the series’ end, he was largely relegated to the role of a chattering Greek chorus mocking his real-life commercial sponsors and even (as in the tag of “Baby Grobags”) his own show.
And that’s it for Max Headroom M-m-mondays. As I’ve found all too often when I get into these recurring series of blog posts, this one rapidly got out of control. It’s a lot easier to queue up thirty or forty Tron images. Still, I hope that you found it interesting.
Back in the day I made a half-hearted attempt at writing a Max Headroom fanzine. It took another 23 years, but I finally gave this show its due.