Max Headroom: S1E1 Blipverts

Hi there, televisionists!

I vaguely remembered Max doing some adverts for Radio Rentals (the appliance hire firm) in the eighties, and was delighted to find that this is how he greets the viewers on one of them.  Despite my avoiding his advertising in my previous post, it is strangely suitable that I at least touch on it in this post on Blipverts.

Blipverts is of course the first episode of the 1987 to 1988 ABC US series simply called Max Headroom. It's coming at this point because I've previously written a post just about Twenty Minutes into the Future, which originally created a back story for Max, and this episode rather covers the same ground so is by way of another introduction to his back story. The titular blipverts are a system of very short adverts that get into people's subconscious discovered and run by Channel 23. 

I actually think this episode is in some ways a better introduction to Max's history than Twenty Minutes into the Future, at least in narrative terms. Edison Carter is a reporter for Network 23 who gets pulled from a fantastic story about an unexplained 'incident' related to Blipverts, which it turns out have the unfortunate side effect of making the viewer explode. We see the metro police doing something to him and then he ends up back at the channel, so quite apart from being purely commercial the Max Headroom franchise always did comment on social matters. The narrative is cleaner here in my opinion, and tells the story in a straightforward line without any playing about.

I am really struck by how futuristic this episode looks for 1988. We now think nothing of, say, reading this blog by bouncing it off a satellite, but in 1988 for ordinary people, this technology was barely dreamt of. Observe Bryce's pride at having created a virtual parrot which looks incredibly boxy but nonetheless squawks. Brice has also recorded the incident through the TV the blipverts were being shown on, so there's an element of fear of surveillance as well as the white heat of technology. It also draws on the 1980s trend for all things 1950s when you see the cars in the station car park. You all know I'm going to say it sooner or later, so I'm going to hurry up and say that of course this is exactly the same approach to technology we see over and over again in sixties TV so that places Max Headroom in a very classic tradition of modern TV in its relationship to technology.

The point is of course the ultimate futuristic vision of the show, where a person's mind is turned into a computer created entity. It is commented that there is a part for his childhood memories and sexuality: as always writing about shows makes me see them differently and I had never reflected before that having your whole mind downloaded like that could be quite embarrassing and if you were watching this with a fear of the future you could get really frightened of somebody seeing inside your mind. After twenty five years of psychiatric nursing, I can honestly tell you that that is a common fear and everyone gets embarrassed saying their innermost thoughts: that's why electronic therapy is so effective, people tend to portray their real selves online in a way they don't in person.

I have two criticisms. The major one is that Amanda Pays's accent is irritating. At first I thought she was an American trying to be English and overdoing it so I looked her up and found she is actually English but speaks differently in interviews so I think her accent was massaged for the production. Honestly nobody has vowels that are quite as far back as those and people who even vaguely approach it typically hit the Ts like a sledgehammer and don't soften them as they are here. Grrrr. The other one is that this show doesn't give the extreme dystopian impression (in my opinion, it's still obviously intended to be fairly horrible) that Twenty Minutes into the Future gives, there isn't the wreckage and filth to the same extent, so it rather misses out on the point, which is that twenty minutes into the future, the world will be a mess and we will all be controlled by television. As an example we don't see Bryce in his filty bathroom controlling the traffic controls so that Carter crashed - comparing the two I think doing that in the bath may be a particular point. Of course they didn't know that thirty five years into the future people would be choosing disinformation over facts, driven by their own insecurity/stupidity, but that's the problem with predicting the future.

But these criticisms are mere niggles, really, and I honestly can't recommend pretty much anything featuring Max Headroom highly enough.

My absolutely favourite bit is where Max is introduced to the executive board of Network 23 for the first time and asks them if they are the people who execute audiences, because it gives some indication of his ability to talk about the emperor's new clothes, and subsequently to escape the channel's network. Has nobody with any involvement in artificial 'intelligence' watched this show and taken the hint?

Oh alright, I know you want to see Max advertising Radio Rentals.

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