One week a month, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new show coming out that week. This week: The return of Black Mirror has us thinking about TV’s other visions of ominous futures.
Not long after C-3PO and R2-D2’s scene-stealing turns as the Bert and Ernie of the Star Wars universe, wise-cracking artificial intelligence became a standard feature of science-fiction film and television. Short Circuit had El DeBarge-loving military ’bot Johnny Five, Knight Rider introduced droll Trans Am KITT, and who can forget Rutger Hauer as that barrel of laughs who saw attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, Roy Batty? (Okay, maybe not that last one.) But they all paled in comparison to Max Headroom (Matt Frewer), a chattering combination of prosthetics, post-production monkeying, and screen-saver-worthy animations. In the mid-to-late ’80s, the glitchy talking head in the Klaus Nomi threads became ubiquitous through sheer versatility: He was a VJ, the face of New Coke, and, for 14 episodes broadcast on ABC between 1987 and 1988, the namesake character of a cyberpunk thriller set in a dystopian future where it’s illegal to turn off a TV.
That everywhere, all-the-time quality informed Max’s role on Max Headroom, too. An AI created from the digitized memories of investigative reporter Edison Carter (also Frewer), Max is something of an electronic genie—gaining access to places Edison can’t via a network of ever-flickering TVs. In the first-season episode “Security Systems,” this leads him to smooth-talking his way into the heart of a female HAL who ruins Edison’s life when he gets too close to a story about her employer/creator. The symbolism isn’t subtle, and it shouldn’t be: Security Systems—or “SS,” for short—is one of several sinister corporations dotting the Max Headroom landscape, an all-seeing, all-knowing service provider with alarming amounts of access to its clients’ personal information.
Like the network Edison works for, Network 23, SS is the authoritarian establishment, putting its own interests before the customers’. Paradoxically, that’s why Network 23 keeps Edison around, despite so many of his stories leading back to wrongdoing on 23’s part: He gets big ratings, the most valuable currency in Max Headroom’s world. Edison and his control-room cohorts—controller Theora (Amanda Pays), producer Murray (Jeffrey Tambor), and whiz kid Bryce (Chris Young)—represent the most viable threat to that authority, along with Blank Reg, a pirate broadcaster played by supporting-cast MVP William Morgan Sheppard. It’s Reg who helps the Edison Carter Show crew gain access to SS—but only after he fills the airwaves with 12 straight spins of Derek And The Dominos.
And then there’s Max, the ultimate weapon of disorder in this tightly ordered world. In addition to possessing Edison’s memories, Max has the reporter’s emotions, too, and they prove quite handy in “Security Systems.” (For a guy without any hands, that is.) In his other television appearances, Max made the ’80s feel a little bit more like the future; in this show, he makes the future of Max Headroom a little less daunting. He’s a cyberpunk court jester, poking holes in a potentially dour setup while keeping its satirical aims front and center. Sure, Johnny Five and KITT could crack wise, but only Max Headroom had a whole, fascinating world built around his not-so-artificial intelligence.
Availability: “Security Systems” is available as part of Max Headroom: The Complete Series.