Max Headroom
[cast] [history] [glossary] [trivia] [episode guide] ad gallery downloads links

Max Headroom was one of the most innovative science fiction series ever produced for American television, an ambitious attempt to build upon the cyberpunk movement in science fiction literature. The character of Max Headroom, the series's unlikely cybernetic protagonist, was originally introduced in a 1984 British television movie, produced by Peter Wagg, and starring Canadian actor Matt Frewer. ABC brought the series to American television in March 1987, refilming the original movie as a pilot but recasting most of the secondary roles. The ABC series attracted critical acclaim and a cult following, but only lasted for fourteen episodes. The anarchic and irreverent Max went on to become an advertising spokesman for Coca-Cola and to host his own talk show on the Cinemax cable network.

The original British telefilm appeared just one year after the publication of William Gibson's Neuromancer, the novel which brought public attention to the cyberpunk movement and introduced the term, "cyberspace" into the English language. Influenced by films, such as The Road Warrior and Bladerunner, the cyberpunks adopted a taunt, intense, and pulpy writing style, based on brisk yet detailed representations of a near future populated by multi-national corporations, colorful youth gangs, and computer hacker protagonists. Their most important theme was the total fusion of human and machine intelligences. Writers like Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, and Pat Cadigan, developed a shared set of themes and images, which were freely adopted by Max Headroom.

Set "twenty minutes in the future," Max Headroom depicted a society of harsh class inequalities where predators roam the street looking for unsuspecting citizens who can be sold for parts to black-market "body banks." Max inhabits a world ruled by Zik-Zak and other powerful corporations locked in a ruthless competition for consumer dollars and television rating points. In the opening episode, Network 22 dominates the airwaves through its use of blipverts, which compress thirty seconds of commercial information into three seconds. Blipverts can cause neural overstimulation and (more rarely) spontaneous combustion in more sedate viewers. Other episodes centered around the high crime of zipping (interrupting a network signal) and neurostim (a cheap burger pak give-away which hypnotizes people into irrational acts of consumption). We encounter blanks, a subversive underground of have-nots, who have somehow dodged incorporation into the massive databanks kept on individual citizens.

At the core of this dizzying and colorful world was Edison Carter, an idealistic Network 24 reporter who takes his portable minicam into the streets and the boardrooms to expose corruption and consumer-exploitation which, in most episodes, led him back to the front offices of his own network. Edison's path is guided by Theora Jones, his computer operator, whose hacker skills allow him to stay one step ahead of the security systems--at least most of the time--and Bryce Lynch, the amoral boy wonder and computer wizard. He is aided in his adventures by Blank Reg, the punked-out head of a pirate television operation, BigTime Television. Edison's alter-ego, Max Headroom, is a cybernetic imprint of the reporter's memories and personality who comes to "live" within computers, television programs and other electronic environments. There he becomes noted for his sputtering speech style, his disrespect for authority, and his penchant for profound nonsequiters.

Critics admired the series' self-reflexivity, its willingness to pose questions about television networks and their often unethical and cynical exploitation of the ratings game, and its parody of game shows, political advertising, tele-evangelism, news coverage, and commercials. Influenced by MTV, the series's quick-paced editing and intense visual style were also viewed as innovative, creating a televisual equivalent of the vivid and intense cyberpunk writing style. This series's self-conscious parody of television conventions and its conception of a "society of spectacle" was considered emblematic of the "postmodern condition," making it a favorite of academic writers as well. Their interest was only intensified by Max's move from science fiction to advertising and to talk television, where this non-human celebrity (commodity) traded barbed comments with other talk-show-made celebrities, such as Doctor Ruth, Robin Leach, Don King, and Paul Schaffer. Subsequent series, such as Oliver Stone's Wild Palms or VR, have sought to bring aspects of cyberpunk to television, but none have done it with Max Headroom's verve, imagination, and faithfulness to core cyberpunk themes.

Max Headroom appeared on the cover of the April 20, 1987 edition of Newsweek Magazine which also featured an extensive article about the character, his history and a peek at the Max headroom television show. Along with the cover story is a short article about Amanda Pays and her character Theora Jones. The articles are dated with references to New Coke and speculations on the future of the character and the television show. In spite of this this is a wonderful time capsule that captures the public awareness of the character at the peak of his popularity The articles have been preserved on this site and can be read here.

Previous Home Next