Max Headroom: Security Systems (Ep 4)

Max Headroom is a short-lived science fiction dystopian TV series that aired in America (on ABC) from 1987-1988. There were only 14 episodes (including one which was unaired). It featured Max Headroom, a supposedly computer-generated personality who was already familiar to television audiences through The Max Headroom Show (a youth-oriented talk / music video program).

In story, Max (Matt Frewer) is an A.I. originally created as a copy of celebrity investigative television journalist Edison Carter (also Matt Frewer), apparently with Carter’s personality but lacking his self-control. He also has the ability to come and go from TV screens any time he wishes, which makes him a powerful force in the show’s world, a near-future dystopia in which everything is shaped by corporations and networks chasing television ratings.

With episode 4 of the show, Security Systems, the show seems to have found its stride, as we get a fairly straightforward story set in the show’s regular “20 Minutes Into the Future” setting, but it all seems to make easy sense and for the first time I didn’t feel like I had to scramble along to even understand the world in which the story is happening, let alone the plot. This isn’t automatically a good thing–this confusion has been a big part of the appeal of the series so far–but it does indicate how the show is settling into its groove.

The episode opens up with a great little summary of the show’s world, via bit of commercial language–“In today’s world, your inalienable rights are consumer credit, unlimited television and personal security.”–and then goes on to tell a story about the maker of the world’s most prolific digital security system is making moves to gain a monopoly on all the world’s information and access to that information. When Edison Carter gets wind of things going on, he finds himself a victim of identity theft–his digital records are changed, criminal activity is fabricated, and his all his money has suddenly dried up. The plot seems like a complete rip-off of the Sandra Bullock movie The Net, until one realizes that the episode was produced a good eight years earlier.

Every Max Headroom episode is set, supposedly, “20 Minutes Into the Future,” at that certainly seems true here. All the episode’s predictions about how vulnerable people’s digital identities and assets are seem pretty prescient. This is a show which talks about a lot of interesting things–identify theft, cashless society, information control, what it takes to fit into mainstream culture–and all of it is just as relevant today, 35 years since the episode aired, as it ever has been.

The other big element of the episode is of course the artificial intelligence A7, a decidedly female computer who carries out the orders to destroy Edison’s life. This part of the episode is a bit sillier than the rest, with Max “romancing” her to the good guys’ side (“You can turn me off,” says A7 to the bad guy, “but only Max can turn me on.”). It was sort of interesting to see him play with the fact that he and Edison have the same voice, in order to get A7 to respond to Edison’s questions.

All in all, it’s a good episode–not quite as strong in my mind as Body Banks, but far more streamlined and focused.

Other notes:

• In the Max Headroom world, credit fraud is worse than murder!

• Julia Formby, the blackmailed Board Member from the last episode, does not appear here but a phone call from Cheviot indicates she’s still working with Network 23. Again, I’ve read that she resigns as a result of the scandal from the previous episode, but I’ve yet to see this anywhere.

• Edison’s show is temporarily replaced by something called “Lumpy’s Proletariat”, which is actually a pretty funny joke. There’s a word that I’ve just discovered called “lumpenproletariat” which according to Google is a Marxist term referring to the “unorganized and unpolitical lower orders of society who are not interested in revolutionary advancement.” I’m sorry, but that’s just next level on the part of the Max Headroom guys.

• With the whole focus on loss of digital identity and assets, we get a bit more understanding of the idea of “Blanks” (something I commented on last time). Edison says that Reg and Dominique volunteered to be Blanks, whilst he was drafted. It seems to refer to being totally off the digital grid, which includes having no official identity or currency. Reg also says that their phone is a blank, and thus untraceable.

• The low level bad guys are so confident in their system that when they see Edison Carter wandering around in their facility, they assume it must be legit.

• Bryce, the computer nerd, has a great line when he is held captive and assumes he is going to die soon: “I find myself regretting all the things I’ll now never experience… never complete my collection of the original ‘He-Man and the Masters of the Universe’ accessories… never have a clear complexion. Suppose this is the price I pay for that remark about challenging God.” Edison assures him he is having a totally normal reaction called “fear”.

• The bad guy looks at Max on a screen and says, “What’s that head doing here?” Max replies, “I think it’s sitting on my shoulders.”

• The episode ends with a little rant from Max about security guards, which touches on the themes of the episode: “Psst! Psst! I have to talk in a whisper because the security guards think everyone has gone home! And you know what security guards are like: sshoot first and still argue about whether you can come in. You see, I’m not one to beat about the large black boots, but the first requirement for any security guard is to be totally insecure. I mean, who else needs to dress like a riot control cop so that he can write down your name and tell you where to park-park your car! But, security is so important! Alarms, locks, electronic gates, and the ultimate safeguard of your home, the peephole in your door – that little piece of glass designed to help you recognize visitors… and all it does is distort their face so much you can’t recognize ’em anyways! So they’re not a lot of use unless you’re expecting someone who looks like… Quasimodo. Or, even worse… a security guard.”


One thought on “Max Headroom: Security Systems (Ep 4)

  1. With computer issues like identity theft becoming so big for the late 80s, it was indeed important that shows like Max Headroom could make the most dramatic use out of them for our benefit. In my own security precautions to prevent identity theft, it’s another reason to appreciate being the lifelong fan that I am of a genre that can always take on such issues most profoundly. Thank you, Ben, for your review.

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