Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future

I never thought I would be writing about this TV movie made by Channel 4 in the eighties. Not because it is actually lost (although you will read it is lost on the internet) but because I couldn't remember its name! I never saw it the first time round but had the book of the film. The book was simply called Max Headroom so I didn't know the real name of the film and it's taken until now for me to think of just the right thing to Google to find it.

To steal a useful summary from a review of the book I had:

Max Headroom was, arguably, the first forced meme before the existence of the internet. The wisecracking, glitchy proto-computer-generated talking head was saturation bombed on the public from 1985 to 1988 in a way that would guarantee subsequent apathy, mockery and derision -- meant to be a symbol of rebellion and edginess while at the same time made a mascot for the ultimate in normie shilldom, as an ad man for Coca-Cola. His guilt-by-association tie to a failed product, New Coke, probably didn't help his legacy. The mixed messages, I think, resulted in a cognitive dissonance, and relegated him to the status of trivia question. The slicked-back, metallic-suited Aryan sharp edges of his look channeled the current style, the Grace Joneses and the Devos of the day, cementing him firmly in his time. Even so, as a pre-CGI conception of CGI, he was actually not too bad. 

To introduce Max to the public, the creative team made a fantastic pilot film in 1985 titled, Max Headroom, 20 Minutes Into the Future. It is everything that was good about Brit cyberpunk of the time. This pilot film and the subsequent American TV show that ran for a mere 12 (14 were made) episodes from 1987 to early 1988 effectively synthesized several artistic currents. The show was basically about a dystopian future where the divide between the privileged elites and street-dwelling have-nots, the punker types, was vividly clear. it was a grimy world of gleaming skyscrapers and dark board rooms with the world veiled in the smoke rising from the street fires of the poor. TV watching was mandatory, and the adverts, known as blipverts, were designed by scientists to tickle the viewers' very nerve endings and brain synapses into submission. It was against the law to turn off the TVs and TVs were everywhere, even in the streets. Max was a computer-generated version of a muckraking go-getter reporter, Edison Carter, whose forte was exposing the corruption of the very people he worked for (Max, while inside the computer/network TV electronic innards would assist his alter-ego human in solving the mysteries). To say this was prescient is an understatement, given the homogeneity of mainstream media control today, where any attempts to get at real truths were/are quashed, while presenting a charade of real journalism. Any time Edison got to TOO close, the suits would pull the plug. They had themselves a dilemma: Carter's news reports were empowering and exciting for the have-nots, which meant big viewership and ratings and sales, yet that very threat of exposing the power structure couldn't be tolerated. The capitalist system eating itself was the main theme of the show, as was the idea of "managing" the message and the public narrative to keep it interesting, but not TOO interesting. Source

So basically the show stands in the early days of the technology of today, reflects back basically the whole of the 1980s and predicts what's coming next. However what I love best is that this film is the back story to a Video Jockey who was supposed to be virtual but was actually an actor dressed up. Nowadays we would know that he was not a real person and the explanation for his existence was some geek on a laptop but it is so good that he had to have a creation story. I especially like that Channel 4 leapt in and did this.

In many ways 20 Minutes into the Future plugs into many current fears: watching TV is mandatory and the world is a nightmare of haves and have nots. Even in the eighties with the yuppie culture this was already a significant fear. The fear of control was also very alive because, of course, the actual 1984 had just been passed.

The film also picks up on the fear of technology which appears so frequently in the TV of twenty years before. The adverts (blipverts) depicted in this show are a development of subliminal advertising and are actually inescapable. The mere fact of Max Headroom being a recording of a real person's mind sounds very much like the kind of conspiracy theories you get nowadays! Of course the whole point of Max Headroom is that he is terminally flawed and keeps stuttering Max Headroom! That is totally not to detract from the morality tale aspect of this show: it gives a clear warning that the future will be run by a few multinational TV stations and we will be in their thrall unless we do something about it.

Of course things have rather changed from the eighties and somehow humanity is still lumbering on. Certainly the fear of surveillance and technology has changed. I'm going to be very frank here and say that anyone who has ever wrestled with a computer should really be a bit cynical about technology's ability to rule our lives. Even if you take artificial intelligence into account, well, let's face it it's still in its infancy. Take for example the technology used to detect porn on Tumblr - people post pictures of the desert deliberately to make it get picked up as porn. Combine technology with human ineptitude (for example Tumblr banning the hashtag #me - I'm not making this up) and frankly I'm cynical. Of course the past couple of years have also shown us that humans will believe any old rubbish - such as a global pandemic being fake and the vaccine containing surveillance chips and (not being funny) frankly some people could benefit from some artificial intelligence. Seen this cynical way the 1984 or 20 Minutes into the Future scenario is probably preferable.

Max has certainly left his mark on the culture - you can even get Zoom backgrounds based on him. I think you should definitely watch the film which is available in a couple of places on YouTube. I think there was also a DVD release and definitely a VHS release if you want it. The subsequent UK and US TV series (which don't have nearly enough Max) have also been available as currently discontinued DVDs - but I just know anyone reading this is well used to being creative with finding TV shows.

Oh alright, since you are all clamouring so much let's end with Yuppie Rap, which is also archetypally 1980s!

Please note: as always readers are very welcome to comment but I will not enable comments suggesting conspiracy, that the virus isn't real, there is a great reset or discouraging uptake pf the vaccine. This is my blog and I will not encourage those things.