Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future DVD Review

  • Title:  Max Headroom:  20 Minutes into the Future
  • Original Network:  ABC (US)
  • Original Airdate:  1987 – 1988
  • Cast:  Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays, Chris Young, Jeffrey Tambor, George Coe, W. Morgan Sheppard, Concetta Tomei
  • DVD Format:  3-4 episodes per disc, 5 discs total (final disc is special features only)
  • Number of Episodes:  14

Max Headroom is an  excellent SF program, that was way ahead of its time. This program originally aired when night time soaps like Dallas and Falcon Crest were popular, as were formula action series such as The A-Team, MacGyver, Miami Vice, and Magnum, PI. Max Headroom was completely different. Following the adventures of a crusading, caring tele-journalist and his “computerized” alter-ego in a dystopian future – each episode addressed futuristic issues that seem even more relevant now than then. The look of the show mixed the old and the new – antique typewriter keyboards hooked up to sophisticated computer screens. The effect of the mix was that nothing was shiny and new, everything was old, dirty, and re-used. In one episode, Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) tries to get some information from Sully in the “Fringes” (the bad section of the sprawling metropolis) who remarks, “Nobody makes nothin’ new anymore. We just recycle the old ones.” – He’s specifically talking about cars, but it seems to apply to everything.

Corporations rule this world, and television is everywhere – taking over every aspect of life. Not only is the Japanese Corporation, Zik-Zac the top advertiser and client of Network 23 (where Edison works) – but at one point they actually manipulate a crash in Network 23 stock – a comment on Sony’s acquisition of ABC at the time the series was made. In the world of Max Headroom, television is how people vote, educate their children, shop, attend church, are entertained, and how people are informed. Television is literally everywhere, even in fancy restraurants – and the sets cannot even be turned off. There is also no video tapes, no movie theaters, no books, and no other form of entertainment – just television.

The show commented on television network politics, instant ratings, violent extreme sports, genetic engineering, pervasive private security, televangelists, censorship, and consumerism. And always, always, always – the series mocked the very medium that created it, which is why it didn’t last. Max Headroom predicted many things we now find commonplace, more if you substitute the word “computer” for “television”. For example, Edison and Theora both carry “credit tubes” – these are used to make all payments, as ID to enter Network 23 or any place that requires it, even as the way to unlock their (respective) apartment doors. These days it’s becoming very common for people to not carry cash or checkbooks but to pay for everything with debit or even credit cards. Both Google and Apple have launched payment apps so that in the US, people can start to pay for things using their cell phones (something that’s been common in Europe for years). Personal security companies are creating “smart home apps” that allow you to do everything from program the optimal temperature to lock and unlock the front door. Is it hard to imagine a time when your smartphone is all you need to carry and it becomes the device for personal ID, unlocking doors, and making all payments?

In the episode, “Lessons” (or Project:  Fringes Literacy) it’s revealed that free public education no longer exists – and well-to-do parents pay for subscription paid educational TV. In the episode, Edison meets a Blank (non-registered) person whom the cops think is pirating educational TV tapes. In reality, she’s printing illegal books to teach children in the Fringes how to read. That is also the episode that takes place during the annual “Sky Clearance” festival – where old satellites are shot down to make room for new ones. Today, Earth’s orbit is getting so full of various pieces of space junk, the idea of cleaning it up by destroying bigger chunks isn’t that far-fetched.

Whereas, in the episode, “Dieties” (Vu Age Televangelists) it’s revealed traditional religions more-or-less no longer exist, and have been replaced by Televangelists hosting their own TV religious hours.  Even movie theaters are gone, as shown in the episode, “Dream Thieves”, when Edison does a brief nostalgia piece at a worn out, empty theater – the blanks and fringers he interviews, man-on-the-street style don’t even know what a movie or movie theater is.

Max Headroom was an intelligent, smart, show. The dialogue was frequently snappy and ironic. The characters were great, and had excellent relationships with each other. It was a show that called attention to being television – much of it took place in the newsroom control center, where Murray (Jeffrey Tambor) would decide what stories air and what don’t (though he could be over-ruled by the Network 23 board of directors, or even by the Censor computer.) The room was filled with multiple TV screens, smoke, and streaky blue lighting. Many episodes would start or end with Edison’s “What I Want to Know” program – but at times, rather than filling the screen and being the focus for the audience, it would play in the background, and other characters would talk over what Edison was saying – just as today, TVs play in the background all the time and no one pays attention to what is being aired.

The DVDs in this set look fantastic – the copy quality is very good, and the episodes have been cleaned-up and restored beautifully.

I highly recommend this show. If you haven’t seen it, rent or buy the series on DVD.  If you like Cyberpunk, or dystopian SF – this show is for you.

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