Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future, by Steve Roberts

Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future - Steve Roberts

Warning: 1980s Flashback will commence in 3...2...1...


[insert explosion and synthpop noises/orchestration here]


So I'm packing books remember, and finding it impossible not to pick up and read some of the things I'm supposed to be packing. And this is one of the books I'm going to have to stop and read - which makes it handy that this is only 30 pages long, hardly a bookish length at all.


I was such a Max Headroom (the tv series) fan back in the day. Granted, the Max character got very, very tiresome when he was all over the place in Coke commercials, but the show itself wasn't like anything else on television in 1987. This book follows the story of the 1985 pilot/movie of the same name: Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future, which was produced by the UK's Channel 4, and watched multiple times by a much younger me on Cinemax. The pilot was specifically created to give viewers the creation story for Max Headroom, as well as the usual world-building.


Hey, I just read the pilot's wiki and learned that Midge Ure was one of the show's music composers, along with Chris Cross. I feel that I should have known that. Er, I should add here that I'm an Ultravox fan. And was one of those video-music-addicted people who got up in the wee hours to watch all of Live Aid on MTV. (I have a feeling I'm going to be adding lots of links to this for people who have no idea what I'm talking about. Heh.) I was (am) also an Art of Noise fan, so yes, I did enjoy their song/video with Max.


Anyway, you could say that Max Headroom was pioneering in bringing the concepts of science fiction, cyberpunk/futuristic use of computers, and criticism of the television and news media, as well as the (mindless or not) consumers of that media. Or at least that's what I would say, but then I was a fan, and then went on to study mass communication. So I'd be bound to say that, wouldn't I?


On the first page the book alerts you that it's "A picture book of the film." And like most such books it's not terribly great as far as the text goes. (Though it's also not terrible. It reads like a screenplay. And author Steve Roberts was a writer on both the pilot and series, so that makes sense.) Specifically it's not as interesting as the film itself. And I'll be completely honest about the film and often the series - unlike its editing and Max Headroom's quips, the show's pace often dragged along. Despite having a really fun scifi concept and world to work with the plots often plodded or were somewhat unclear. In fact Max was often vital to keep things lively. But the setup of the show led to that sort of problem - because you have to use a lot of shots of people sitting and looking at computer monitors or (at the time) unexciting computer graphics. (I'm trying to be sure no one searches this out expecting a lost classic - because I don't think it's quite that.)


I really need to re-watch this sometime - all the 80s computer graphics would be so humorous now, but at the time that was The Future of Tech, especially with the security cameras everywhere. PCs were not yet easily affordable (unless you could spend thousands of dollars, basic word processors were a bit cheaper). As far as this book goes, the pictures make up for the text, especially since it's a memento from the days when you couldn't easily re-watch a movie or tv programs. VCRs weren't yet cheap enough for the masses either, and in fact I was watching the Max Headroom show on a black and white tv with bad reception in my dorm room.


You know if someone were to revive this show but instead make it into a video game - that could have interesting possibilities. Because as far as tv shows go, Person of Interest is using (and doing well with) the setup of the hero and the computer adviser with uber-tech superpowers. Max Headroom has Edison (reporter) and Theora (Control); Person of Interest has John Reese/ex CIA dude and Harold Finch/software genius.


I should note here that William Gibson's Neuromancer came out in 1984 and you can't watch Max Headroom without suspecting that at least a few of the writers had to have read that book. Though it's also clear that just as many of the writers/art director/etc. must have seen and loved Blade Runner too.


Random Trivia from IMDB: "William Gibson, a fan of the show, had written a script for the show, but the series was canceled before it was shot." (I did not know this! Of course there's no citation for it, so who knows if it's true or not...) Also: "The futuristic graphics used on the show were created by a top-of-the-line computer of 1987, a Commodore Amiga."


I'd link to some Max Headroom video, but almost everything on YouTube seems to focus on clips of the Max Headroom character, and that gets old fast. Example: David Letterman interviews Max (YouTube, Matt Frewer is actually offstage performing "live" as Max). Otherwise you can find some some very bad video of episode one, if you can stand it. Hey here's a better clip - in this interview with Frewer on The Screen Savers (air'd June 12, 2002) on Tech TV, he gives you the quick backstory of how the character of Max was constructed (the idea and the makeup) - and they play a clip from one of the shows where Max Headroom talks to another computer. That gives you a much better feel for what the show was aiming for. Also this bad quality video, where you see more people behind the look of Max (Peter Wagg), and Max's creation story boiled down into 2 minutes.


Rating: I can't honestly give this any stars because I can't separate my reaction to this book from the fun of watching the show in the 80s. So no stars simply because trying to quantify this just doesn't have a single answer, and memories often complicate matters like this. I'll just say that in going through my books and getting rid of some - this one immediately went into the Keep Pile.


From the back of the book's cover:


20 minutes into the future, television is the only growth industry as the networks grapple with one another in an unrelenting ratings battle. Network 23 has become the top station due to the creative genius of its manipulative producers, who have developed the mind-blowing Blipverts. But Edison Carter, crack reporter, aims to expose the deadly side effects of Blipverts. Follow Edison through his nightmare journey to the truth and into his future as the world's first computer-generated TV host, MAX HEADROOM.


Catch Max on cable TV's Cinemax.
See Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future
A Karl/Lorimar Video Release


"Max Headroom will doubtless become the talk-show host of 1986 - no, make that the year 2000." - Newsweek
"Max is Max Headroom - TV's hottest personality." - USA Today
"If you're thirsting for adventure in entertainment, don't miss MAX...Grade A." - People


Here's a sample of the writing - I can't give any page numbers since there aren't any.


"...Bryce, Network 23's Research and Development Head had developed a system for compressing conventional TV advertisements into a matter of seconds effectively stopping viewers channel switching. And, as there were several thousand channels to choose from, this was all too easy. The key to global success was to keep them once you had them. And Blipverts did just that. They happened so fast nobody had time to activate their remote controls.


Only Network 23 had Blipverts. They had therefore captured the advertising account of the world's biggest corporation 'ZikZak.' It was a winning partnership.


There was however a problem, it was what Bryce had described as a 'side effect.' The executives had debated inconclusively.


"This is only the first generation to have viewed television constantly from birth," observed Ms. Formby, "there may be some effect."


..."Good heavens," [Ashwell] chortled, "there may be no connection with Blipvertisements. Isolated incidences of this phenomenon occur throughout history. People sort of 'blow up.' You know."


"No," replied the cold voice of Grosman, "I do not."


The evidence was mounting that in some way Blipverts caused certain people to explode.


...But nobody was watching Grosman. They watched the screen with earnest attention and respect. They were looking at a genius. The face that had transformed the Network into the most powerful on earth.


They were used to the fact that he wore a T-shirt. They had even become accustomed to his spotty arrogance. But what, even now, gave them a feeling of discomfort was that the face staring at them, was that of a boy of sixteen.


"Well, I'm rather busy" lisped Bryce, "I have just succeeded in computer generating a parrot on screen. It squawks."




....Most days, like this one, he opened Bigtime Television to the watching world - a few thousand arid-faced derelicts grouped around the discarded pile of old television sets.


So it was that a group of derelicts watched the piled, identical images of Reg as he introduced Bigtime.


"'Ello," said Reg on twenty sets, "Fine, great, wunnerful."


He switched off the erraticly [sic] rotating globe which bore the legend 'Bigtime Television.'


"You are tuned into the wired society. This is Bigtime Television day after day making tomorrow seem like yesterday."


Expressionless faces stared at his face crackling over the illegal airwaves.


"You know when we said there is no future?" he continued cheerfully, "Well, this is it."





Random Link:


Max Headroom and the Digital Future of the Past (on the dvd release)

LA Times, Aug 9, 2010

"...But, watching the show from a 21st century vantage point, this long-gone vision of the future is not quite as compelling as you would hope. Time hasn’t been kind to “Max Headroom.” Though the computer scenes are fun, it all seems a bit clunky now. There was a vague feeling in the 1980s about the way digital culture might manifest, but now that we’ve seen the real thing, “Headroom” is a quirky time capsule, a “Jetsons” with some scenes of peril and MTV production values. Worst of all, that “Blade Runner” ambiance seems less like innovative TV than a “been there, done that” sort of thing.


...The fifth disc is devoted to some terrific extras, including “Live on Network 23: The Story of Max Headroom” and “Looking Back at the Future,” which is a round-table discussion among Pays, Tambor, Young and Concetta Tomei, who played Blank Reg’s companion. There’s also “Producing Dystopia,” which finds producer Brian Frankish talking about the insanity that revolved around making the series; and “The Writers Remember,” a conversation between executive story editor Steve Roberts and story editor Michael Cassutt."