Chapter 6: 20 Minutes Into the Future

Max Headroom was undoubtedly the first (and, depending on whether or not you count Dark Angel, the only) Cyberpunk series on television, managing to survive only a single season before ratings issues took it off the air and turned it into yet another fly-by-night cult sensation. Those who saw the show when it was picked up after a long hiatus in the mid '90s are few and far between. Those who saw it when it first hit American television as a mid-season replacement in 1987 are fewer still. And I think all those who saw the original back in 1985 were all murdered by the corporates to keep them silent.

Max was originally a virtual host for a music video show on Channel Four in Britain, a show which in turn spawned another TV show, the Max Talking Headroom Show. Success resulted in Max soon being fleshed out with a detailed backstory, which became a TV movie entitled Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future. Upon becoming a critical hit in the UK, America's Lorimar decided to acquire the rights to Max, and produced fourteen episodes of a one-hour TV show which first hit the air in the spring of 1987 (the main differences between the UK and US versions is that the UK version is darker, and they have naughty words in it). And, aside from its recent rebroadcast on Bravo and the Sci-Fi channel in the mid '90s, that's all there is to say.

Well, maybe not.

For some reason, Max Headroom continues to strike a chord with people all around the world. Maybe it's because the show stood out among the trite sitcoms of '87, shows like The Cosby Show, The Golden Girls and ALF. Maybe it's because it was on at 10pm after Moonlighting and before the ABC News. Or maybe it's because of the show's seemingly prescient ability to predict the future of television is precisely what damned it to the Friday 9pm time slot opposite Dallas and Miami Vice.

Most likely, it has more to do with Max's influence on popular culture, 90 percent of which comes via the infamous "New Coke" promotion of 1986 and 1987 (C...C...Catch the Wave). Conspiracy theorists love to go on and on about the fact that New Coke and the Max Headroom TV show rose in popularity and died at about the same time, and that it was all just a big advertising gimmick so that Coca-Cola could change the formula for Classic Coke (from using real sugar to using corn syrup) without anyone noticing. None of which can be proven, of course, but all of which is something that sounds like it's straight out of a Max Headroom episode.

Which brings us to the American TV pilot of Max Headroom, the one clearly most often associated with Max, entitled Blipverts.

Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) is the star reporter of Network 23, one of many television stations that monopolize the entertainment industry in the near future (2004, if you believe the novelization). Books are illegal, since they keep you from watching TV. Televisions are given to the poor to keep them occupied and docile. In fact, "Off Switches" are illegal, since they allow you to turn your television off, and that simply can't happen. At first part of the problem, Edison becomes sucked in further than he thought possible when his "What I Want To Know Show" is canceled without reason by the corporates.

Soon Edison learns about something called "Blipverts," masterminded by Channel 23's Bryce Lynch. These compressed television commercials are meant to be played so fast that viewers can't change the channel before seeing the entire thing. It's an advertising dream... until viewers start blowing up after seeing them. While exploring the evidence himself, in the guise of the "Rebus Tape," Edison is hunted down by corporate security and chased to the parking garage, where he crashes into a maximum clearance sign that happens to be labeled "Max. Headroom."

The Network 23 executives want to know exactly what Edison found out, but he's not in any condition to talk, so Bryce is ordered to reproduce Edison as an artificial intelligence. They only get as far as the head and shoulders before the AI seems to find a life of its own, stuttering aloud the last thing that ran through Carter's mind before he hit the sign--"M...M...Max Headroom." Having succeed in replicating his mind, Carter's body is no longer needed, and it's carted off to the body bank (luckily to be bought back by Carter's partner, Theora.

Network 23 (and rivals Bigtime TV) soon realize the potential of having a computer-generated host on their TV stations, and they begin to plot to use Max for their own devices, not realizing that the AI knows all about the Blipverts, and has a mind of his own. As Network 23 scrambles to hush up the wise-cracking Max Headroom as he starts spouting jokes about Blipverts (To the Network 23 executive board: "Ah, you mean you're the people who execute audiences?"), a memorial service for the (presumed) late Edison Carter is planned. It's Carter who puts the pieces together in the end, revealing Max's knowledge and his own "resurrection" during the service. The truth is known, and Edison (and alter-ego Max) save the day.

More important than the plot itself is the setting, the way in which Max Headroom and his world were presented. In an age of films like Blade Runner and Brazil, it was perhaps inevitable that a TV series like this would come along. But who would have thought it would be this dark, and this smart, at the same time? Years before America Online would purchase Time-Warner, before the average American household would have 3 TV sets, before OJ Simpson's trial and Judge Wapner's People's Court would both receive equal time on Network television, here was a show telling it not like it was, but like it would be.

Through the glass eye of Edison Carter's video camera we see the world as it could very well become. Glass towers, fields of television sets in the Fringes, body banks where people are cut up and sold for parts, people erasing computer records to vanish from the all-seeing eye of Corporate America. But in the face of this truly bleak future came perhaps the penultimate Cyberpunk anti-hero, a man who was not a man, a split personality, completely artificial and hi-tech and yet all-too-human in his quick-witted cynicism.

Max Headroom is not difficult at all to fit into any Cyberpunk campaign. The setting is full-on CP, even if it is set in 2004 instead of 2020, and the main characters are all archetypes:

Edison Carter: The bold, impetuous, popular media-type, wandering around in the face of danger because he wants to get the best stories, to bring the most true truths to the public. But he doesn't do it for them. He does it for himself, because he's got an ego the size of Wisconsin whether he chooses to admit it to himself or not.

Max Headroom: Edison's alter-ego, able to go places and say things Edison himself could never get away with. In a way he's Edison's super-ego, half unconscious conscience and half ego-ideal, Edison's idealized view of himself as a creature of the media, by the media, for the media. Max represents information as a raw entity, what entertainment and media would be if they collided and had a child.

Bryce Lynch: The childhood prodigy, half netrunner, half techie, more brilliant and misunderstood than all of the adults around him. He's powerful not because of what he is, but because of what others need from him, and he knows how to use that to his advantage.

Blank Reg: If Max is the cyber, then Blank Reg is the punk, a man who's erased his identity from the world's computers, who lives on the edge, broadcasting pirate television from a beat-up school bus. From the mohawk haircut and multiple-piercings to his attitude, he's every bit the renegade punk anti-hero, ready to fight back against corporate greed for no reason other than he likes a good fight.

Bringing these characters into any Cyberpunk campaign is easy, as is bringing elements of any Max Headroom episode into your plot. More difficult is capturing the attitude and meaning behind the show itself:

1: Media, media, media. News is entertainment is news is entertainment is news. People watch TV for the sake of watching TV, because (to paraphrase Dennis Leary), one day they saw JFK get shot on live television and from then on they had to watch all the time because they never knew when something like that would happen again. The media brings the truth to the people (or at least one version of it) because the people want it, and the people want it because the media provides it. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

2: Paranoia, paranoia, paranoia. Big brother isn't watching you. He doesn't have to. Because you're watching him. The real menace isn't some secret government security agency, it's the media, the entertainment industry. Is your email address on your website? The media has collected it and can bombard you with spam. Download a cookie? The media can track your buying and viewing habits and serve you the content you want before you know you've wanted it. There's no such thing as privacy any more, unless you're willing to become a Blank and erase yourself from the system.

3: Truth, truth, truth. Nietzsche once wrote, "Fiat veritas pereat vita." Let there be truth, and may life perish. If you're in this for the truth, you've got to be in it no matter what. Friends will die, cities will crumble, corporations will be utterly ruined in the name of truth. Because it's all built upon lies. Sitcoms are lies. Commercials are lies. The news is a lie. A shade of the truth, a spin, presented to you in a way that makes you believe it's what you want.

And speaking of what you want... When I presented you with the choices from 1985, you overwhelmingly replied that you wanted Max Headroom. But only one astute Cyberpunker (who shall remain nameless) pointed out that I'd left out one of the obvious choices for that year, starring another Max. And that's why our next installment will feature the Road Warrior himself, Mad Max, in the classic Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. See you after the holidays... 20,000 minutes into the future.