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Max Headroom M-m-mondays #4: Security Systems

September 27th, 2010 No comments

Continuing my weekly look back at 1987’s Max Headroom series.

“Security Systems”

Written by Michael Cassutt

“Credit fraud… my God, that’s worse than murder!”  –Cheviot

The Story: Edison’s investigation into the buyout of Security Systems, Inc. gets him in dutch with A-7, the information-gathering company’s artificial intelligence. Framed for credit fraud, Carter and his colleagues are soon on the run from the ever-present Securicams. The only way to clear Edison’s name is to break into Security Systems’ HQ…but Max Headroom has a little trouble pulling out.

Behind the Screens: Admittedly, this one is more than a bit silly, especially once Max meets A-7 and love blooms. In addition, it must be said that, for an all-powerful surveillance firm, the Security Systems complex is oh-so-easy to penetrate. I suppose there’s a point here about the arrogance that comes with omniscience, but you’d think the corporate culture at SSI would be considerably more paranoid.

Part of the fun of this episode is that it gets most of the regular cast out of the Network 23 offices and brings them face-to-face with Dom and Blank Reg. Theora still spends a good portion of the episode fretting at monitors, but at least they’re different monitors. There’s even a low-tech Ocean’s 11 sequence in which our Rat Pack uses BigTime Television’s low-watt transmitter to hack into SSI’s mainframe.

Theora spends much of the first half of the episode being pissed at Edison and Murray over not letting her in on a plan to “crash” Network 23’s news chopper onto a restricted helipad. (They wanted a realistic reaction from her during the ginned-up crisis.) In return, she damned near smacks off Murray’s head during a fake lovers’ spat intended to distract an SSI gate guard.

When “The Edison Carter Show” is preempted, it’s replaced with an encore of “Lumpy’s Proletariat.”

The Ratings Report:

Theora’s Level of Concern

How Minutes Into the Future Is This Now?

This time the show was right on the money. Data gathering, online privacy and identity theft (or, in Edison’s case, identity manipulation) have all become major concerns for us. Edison’s plight–false evidence planted and credit ratings zeroed out–came eight years before Sandra Bullock starred in The Net.

On the other hand, the computer bank which houses A-7 is more hilariously outdated than usual. It doesn’t have reel-to-reel tapes, but it might as well have. The Commodore 64 had already been out for five years by the time this originally aired, so it seems strange that the producers were still thinking in terms of big, honking stacks of circuits topped with half-a-dozen redundant monitors. I suppose it could be an intentional part of the show’s retro-future aesthetic, but I kinda doubt it. And the less said about Max and A-7’s virtual kissy-face, the better.

identity theft story ripped from yesterday’s headlines  -12 minutes
computer bank borrowed from the set of Westworld  -7 minutes
young AIs in love  +3 minutes

= 4 Minutes Into the Future

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Max Headroom M-m-mondays #3: Body Banks

September 20th, 2010 No comments

Continuing my weekly look back at 1987’s Max Headroom series.

“Body Banks”

Written by Steve Roberts

“Welcome to Big Time Television. All day and every day, making tomorrow seem like yesterday. Now, remember when we said there was no future? Well, this is it. Right! Next up: more of the same.”  -Blank Reg

The Story: Breughel and Mahler–the Burke and Hare of the Fringes–abduct a woman whose tissue is a match for the dying mother of wealthy client Plantagenet. Meanwhile, Max Headroom is in demand. The Zik-Zak corporation wants him as a pitchman. Network 23’s Miss Formby needs him to satisfy Plantagenet’s blackmail demands. But Max refuses to cooperate with anyone until Edison fills in his memory gaps.

Behind the Screens: This is a step up from the previous episode, “Rakers.” Anything would be.

This is the episode that introduces BigTime Television–a pirate music video station operated out of a pink bus–to the U.S. series. Not only does Roberts reuse some of the dialogue from the British telefilm, but W. Morgan Sheppard reprises his role as Blank Reg. The nature of the relationship between the punkish Reg and his business-attired partner Dominique seems intentionally vague, and is probably better left unimagined.

It’s a little unclear just what’s up with Plantagenet’s mom. We’re told that she needs a healthy pituitary gland to remain alive, but it turns out that transplants are no longer enough and what she really needs is “the Max Headroom process” to preserve her mind. Why are they still messing with this illegal surgery rather than concentrating their efforts on Bryce’s mind-scanning software?

Nightingale’s Body Banks are brought down at episode’s end for their role in procuring live bodies for Momma Plantagenet. Which is funny, since the premiere episode suggests it’s no secret that they are less than choosy about receiving corpses that are “a bit alive.” There’s a line of dialogue about “corrupt body banks” that hints Nightingale’s is shadier than the norm, but still, one look at the place and its location in the Fringes oughta tell anyone how they’re getting their spare parts.

This is the second time that Edison Carter has been brought to this body banks by Breughel and Mahler. Here he’s only posing as a corpse. I wonder if he would’ve been quite so willing to place himself in their care if he’d been aware of their involvement in his first visit to Nightingale’s? It’s also interesting that the terrible twosome somehow avoid being implicated in the bodysnatching conspiracy, despite being the ones actually snatching the bodies.

It’s worth noting that the series’ counterpart of the Star Wars cantina is a dive named “Caligula’s.” It features belly dancers as entertainment and its mascot is a surprisingly large pig.

Ben Cheviot, who took over Network 23 after the ouster of Ned Grossberg, is a relatively benign presence. Still, he’s not afraid to throw his weight around when Edison refuses to convince Max to cooperate with Zik-Zak. Carter is reminded in no uncertain terms that he needs the network’s resources to rescue the missing girl. (And honestly, Edison was kinda being a douche.)

We also learn that Ben has been getting a little somethin’ somethin’ on the side. It’s his (extramarital?) relationship with Miss Formby that places her in Platagenet’s clutches.

The Ratings Report:

Theora’s Level of Concern

How Minutes Into the Future Is This Now?

This episode doesn’t strike me as significantly less futuristic than it was back in 1987. After all, “20 Minutes into the Future” was always meant to imply that this was just around the corner, and all of this organ harvesting and personality downloading still seems uncomfortably close to becoming reality.

We learn that the unnamed city in which the series is set was built atop a huge, underground toxic waste dump.

Breughel and Mahler have themselves a nasty little device to determine tissue compatibility. It has a built-in buzzsaw.

When a fringer trades Edison’s stolen video camera to Blank Reg, he offers her a book, which he describes as a “non-volatile storage medium.” He adds, “It’s very rare; you should have one.”

Everything has a price, apparently. The boyfriend of the kidnapped fringer complains that he “can’t afford to buy law.” Reg confirms the mercenary nature of the Metrocops when he says, “Justice is cash flow, son.”

A background news report tells of a “rogue cannon” responsible for shooting down two network TV satellites because “it just got bored.”

I’m going to skip the pluses and minuses this week. The gag about books having been supplanted by electronic gizmos seems so 2006, but there are enough other futuristic touches to make this episode…

= at least 20 Minutes Into the Future

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Max Headroom M-m-mondays #2: Rakers

September 13th, 2010 No comments

Continuing my weekly look back at 1987’s Max Headroom series.

“Rakers”

Written by James Crocker and Steve Roberts

“Raking! What’s it all about?”  –Max

“Raking? It’s about survival, and that’s all I know.”  –Fringer

“You know enough. Thanks, old friend.”  –Max

The Story: Theora learns that her brother Shawn has taken up the deadly sport of “Raking,” a gladiatorial contest involving motorized skateboards and razor-equipped gloves. The competition’s promoters hope to interest the powerful Zik-Zak corporation in sponsoring televised broadcasts. It could be even bigger than Scumball!

Behind the Screens: I’m going to say it right up front, I did not like this episode. I don’t recall what I thought of it back in the day, but in the far-flung future of 2010 it seems dumb as a razor-lined post.

What strikes me most about the Raking scenes are how dull they are. The souped-up rakeboards don’t seem any faster than they would be under human power, and the game–such as it is–is pretty much just a one-on-one skate duel that ends the moment someone gets stabbed. Bigger than Scumball? I do not think so.

A popular Network 23 kids’ show is called “Missile Mike,” and it seems to be on the air 24/7 during this episode. Like Raking, there’s very little to it: a few snippets of live-action in which the title character fires an endless stream of bullets while the voice-over shouts “Missile Mike!” (I’d love to know the source of this footage; it has the look of an exploitation film.) Max, living as he does inside the TV, believes Mike to be a maniac gunman on the loose.

This episode marks the first appearances of three recurring characters. Rik is a fringer and pedicab driver with helpful connections. (And if his last name doesn’t turn out to be “Shaw,” I will eat a Zik-Zak Burger Pak.) Simon Peller is Network 23’s pet politician, and he’ll become more significant in the second-season opener. Peller is rather shady, yet even he draws the line at blood sports. Finally, there’s Zik-Zak’s corporate chairman, the amusingly-named Ped Xing.*

The Two-Way Sampler does double-duty in the finale, substituting for Edison’s broken TV camera during his expose of the illegal raking track.

The Ratings Report:

Theora’s Level of Concern

How Minutes Into the Future Is This Now?

Really, the only thing that seems remotely futuristic about Raking is the low-rent Road Warrior costuming of its participants. According to Wikipedia, the motorized skateboards were actually being sold at the time.

When Theora abandons her controller post after receiving an urgent call from her sister-in-law, Edison has to go through a fair amount of trouble to find her. Videophones are ubiquitous 20 minutes into the future, but cellular phones don’t even seem to exist.

A throwaway line of dialogue reveals an important facet of Max’ world: the TVs have no off switch.

extreme sport that seemed dated in 1987, much less now  -10 minutes
no cell phones  -5 minutes
TVs that cannot be turned off  +1 minute

= 6 Minutes Into the Future

*Imagine it on a yellow traffic sign, and you’ll get the joke.

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Max Headroom M-m-mondays #1: Blipverts

September 6th, 2010 No comments

This is the first weekly installment of my look back at 1987’s Max Headroom series.

“Blipverts”

Written by Joe Gannon and Steve Roberts, based on the British teleplay

“How’s your head?”  –Theora, upon meeting Edison Carter and noting his fresh wound

“Fine. How’s yours?”  –Edison, beginning his new work relationship with a soupçon of sexual harassment

The Story: TV viewers are mysteriously exploding, and Metrocops are covering up the evidence at the behest of Network 23’s skeevy CEO, Ned Grossberg. Crusading TV journalist Edison Carter and his new controller Theora Jones learn that their network’s “blipverts”–highly-compressed commercials that take up only a few seconds of airtime–cause fatal sensory overload in especially sedentary viewers. Edison is injured in a motorcycle accident, and Network 23’s resident whizkid Bryce Jones attempts to download the unconscious reporter’s memories. In the process, he accidentally creates Max Headroom, an artificial personality who lives inside the TV.

Behind the Screens: As I mentioned in my introductory post, the first episode of the American Max Headroom series was a remake of Channel 4’s TV movie, 20 Minutes into the Future. Yet there were a number of changes, both cosmetic and substantive.

The main difference is that the secondary plot involving the pirate television station BigTime was dropped. (Some of that material reemerged later in the series.) In the British telefilm, Edison Carter never met his digital doppelganger. Instead, Bryce’s hired goons Breughel and Mahler took the computer containing Headroom to BigTime for safe keeping. The movie ended with Max happily chattering away as the pirate channel’s new deejay. “Blipverts” has him taking up residence in Network 23’s systems, flitting from screen to screen and even interrupting programming at will.

Another change can be seen in the city itself. Originally, Network 23’s headquarters appeared to be the single skyscraper dominating its squalid surroundings. For the American version, there’s a much more elaborate cityscape.

Then there’s boy genius Bryce Lynch. The character was conceived as an amoral creep who had body snatchers on speed dial. He was softened in the remake, the better to make him a series regular.

Ned Grossberg, the evil network CEO, is played by Charles Rocket, best known for dropping a live F-bomb during the 1981 season of Saturday Night Live. He and his twitchy neck will show up again in season two when he becomes the head of a rival network.

Watching this episode again after so many years, I found myself most intrigued by the scenes set at Nightingale’s Body Banks. This is a world in which bodies are openly harvested for parts, and the nurse on duty (Florence, get it?) doesn’t seem especially bothered to learn that the freshly-delivered Edison Carter is still “a bit alive.”

The telefilm had Carter waking  just as he was about to be cut open and making a violent escape from Nightingale’s. Those scenes are dropped in the remake, presumably for time. Instead, Theora simply calls around and buys him back. Weirdly, it’s implied that it’s not all that unusual for someone to purchase a body for personal use. (“Do you want him alive or dead?”)

Arguably, the most important piece of future tech introduced in this episode is the “two-way sampler” through which the networks (and, presumably, anyone with the right access) directly watch their viewers. The sampler delivers real-time ratings and demographic information; note the “does not vote” in the screen capture. This allows the networks to modify their programming in instant reaction to audience trends.

Most important for the purposes of this show, it’s what allows Max Headroom to interact with the rest of the cast.

The Ratings Report:

Theora’s Level of Concern

How Minutes Into the Future Is This Now?

Preventing viewers from “channel surfing” continues to be an obsession of network executives. Ten second commercials aren’t uncommon. There have even been tongue-in-cheek attempts at “subliminal advertising,” some of which have resembled “blipverts.” To my knowledge, no couch potatoes have exploded.

We don’t yet have the ability to watch you through your TV screen*, but ratings companies have developed “personal people meters” that allow them to determine which members of their sample audience are currently in the room.

Computer technology has made great leaps since 1987. The Commodore boxes seen at Network 23 have long since entered our ground water. We might not be able to download a person’s memories, but if we could, we would certainly have enough buffer space to give our digital duplicates bodies beneath their shoulders.

outdated computers  -5 minutes
real-life surveillance technology  -2 minutes
common use of credit tubes instead of paper money  +1 minute
Theora parking her car in her bedroom  +2 minutes

= 16 Minutes Into the Future

*Or do we?

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