So I used to love a campy sci-fi show back in the 80s called Max Headroom. It only lasted 15 episodes and is considered one of the most underrated sci-fi series of all time. You can find a few full episodes here. Basically it was about a TV reporter named Edison Carter (completely unrelated to this post, but in Vulcan that would be Edihsuhn Kartuhr) who gets seriously injured while investigating some bad guys. The last thing he sees is a sign that reads “max headroom”. A teenage computer prodigy named Bryce is tasked to find out what Edison had discovered so he downloads his memories into an AI system he developed. Edison makes a full recovery, so now there are two copies of him — one human and one AI. The first thing the AI says upon bootup is the last thing Edison saw, hence the name. The show didn’t have the best dialogue, but the story itself was pure genius.
The concept involves the network where Edison works, Channel 23. They have the 1984-esque ability see out any TV that is tuned to their channel. Max soon discovers he has complete freedom to move about the network and do the same thing, which means he can spy on anyone tuned to channel 23. This takes investigative journalism to a truly ethical edge.
Click the image for a video of the show’s introduction. This intro was always followed with the words “20 minutes into the future…” which then began the episode.
The series came at a time when I didn’t understand how far off-base I was relative to the rest of pop culture. I watched Dr. Who on PBS. I watched the original Battlestar Galactica (which ran for only eight months). I saw Weird Al’s UHF in the theater. I read Philip K. Dick and dreamed of electric sheep. It seems like I have always been attracted to anti-pop. I liked cyberpunk, and Max Headroom was the definitive TV cyberpunk series, but it just wasn’t that popular to the rest of America at that time. Now that I’m older I find I’m still doing it. I like U2 and The Who, but most of the music I listen to will never be found in a best-seller list.
This show never jumped the shark; it just couldn’t get the viewership. The stories were so complex that if you didn’t watch every single minute you would get behind, and there was no catching up. A couple of times I missed the first five minutes and spent the next 55 trying to figure out what was going on. This was radically different than just about anything else you could ever find on television — then or now. Except for the X-Files, most plots are simply recycled scripts from past hits that TV execs know will keep people watching. [“That’s not why people watch TV. Clever things make people feel stupid and unexpected things make them feel scared.” –Fry] But the real killer was that Max Headroom was placed in a time slot in direct competition with Miami Vice. Seriously, if you lived in the 80s would you watch Matt Frewer or Don Johnson? Yeah, you and about 30 million others. Which is why it was canceled in its first full season.
I’ve been thinking about what it would take to have a Max Headroom comeback since it was touched on in an io9.com article. The show was about artificial intelligence, corporate government, and Big Brother. Well, those things aren’t really futuristic anymore. Even the special effects, which were really cutting edge at the time, can be done on any modern laptop. But I don’t really care about what special effects get featured, because most producers now-a-days use special effects for crowd-pleasing explodobomania (thorshaya in Vulcan!) scenes instead of exceptional Contact-type surrealism, so meh to the special effects. I’m afraid that if a Max Headroom movie, mini-series, or even web series were to emerge it would become a fast-paced shooter with a gutted plot and looming doomsday scenarios. What I really want is for it to push the concepts of the ethics of giving rights to an artificial intelligence beyond what could be demonstrated in a family-friendly Star Trek episode. If the intelligence was allowed to traverse any connected system, what would ever make it stay ethical? Would morality apply? Could any court hold it accountable? I think this would be a good outline for a potentially great story.
Now someone just needs to write it!