When we talk about the early spread of cyberpunk science fiction into popular culture and the emerging techno-culture of the late 80s and early 90s, we always talk about Neuromancer and Ridley Scott’s cinematic masterpiece, Blade Runner, as principal memetic vectors. But another 80s phenom that had an incalculable influence on the spread of the genre was Max Headroom.
As this mini-doc makes clear, Max Headroom took a very strange and circuitous route into canonical cyberpunk history. The character of Max originally started out as an idea to create an animated VJ (video jockey) for an MTV-type music video program in the UK. His creators decided that a one-hour made-for-TV movie could be used to introduce said animated VJ to the world. From there, he became a British VJ and talk show host and a commercial barker for the ill-fated New Coke. Finally, in 1987, Max’s peek “twenty minutes into the future” premiered as an hour-long sci-fi drama series on ABC in the US. The series lasted for two seasons.
Like many aspects of cyberpunk’s speculative fiction, it’s kind of stunning to realize how much Max Headroom got right. Max’s world is depicted as a future where megacorporate media conglomerates turn their ratings-hungry camera eyes toward anything that will spike ratings (and profits), regardless of how terrifying, tawdry, or untrue the feed. TVs have no off switches. It is illegal to turn them off. It’s a first-person POV news world where reporters brandish their own cameras and where every citizen seems to have found their way onto the feeds. The world is one big media and attention frenzy. Sound familiar? The only people in Max’s world that don’t have their eyeballs and attentions enslaved by the networks are the “blanks,” people who, for whatever reason, have chosen to opt out, to have no discernible footprint in the system.
When the UK movie premiered in 1985, there wasn’t any sort of screen data on real-world TV screens (a key feature of the broadcasts in Max Headroom) — real-world TV had no news crawls, no channel logo watermarks, split screens, or other bits of information (or they were rare). Soon, we would start to see bits of this on real-world television and now we live in a world where our monitors and TV screens almost always show multiple streams of data.
In an impressive bit of crystal balling, Max Headroom presented a media ecosystem where viewers’ attention is mined for cash, at any cost. It also sadly portrays a populace suffering from a present-shock that seems to have driven them all mad. This dystopian horror comes to a literal head with Blipverts, commercials in Max’s world that get fed into viewers brains at tremendous speed, causing the heads of some unfortunates to actually explode. (Let us hope this depiction of literal media overload remains metaphorical.)
Here is the one-hour Mad Headroom movie.
The 2-season ABC series in the US is not readily available online, but you can get it on DVD. Some of the episodes are also available on DailyMotion.
In 1987, an evening news broadcast in Chicago experienced a pirate TV “signal intrusion” by a guy wearing a full-head Max Headroom mask. The first intrusion was without audio, but Pirate Max came back several hours later, breaking into an episode of Dr. Who. This time, the intruder spoke, brandishing a can of New Coke and a sex toy, and getting spanked on the backside with a flyswatter. The fascination with this bizarre “Max Headroom incident” has only grown over the years, mainly because the hackers were never identified. Today, numerous theories and accounts of what happened are traded on Reddit. Here is a short video detailing the incident. (Warning: salty language and side butt.)
When I first watched the ABC Max Headroom series in the 80s, I totally identified with Edison Carter, the muckraking reporter who’s the star of the drama (and the involuntary donor of Max’s seed consciousness). Like Edison, I wanted to be in the thick of the feed, to fight the power, to feed the noise back into the system. I looked at characters like Blank Reg and felt slightly sorry for them. I thought their opt out was a cop out. Now, I long to be a blank. To unplug. It’s amazing what a difference 20 minutes into the future can make.