Join me as I re-watch and review every episode of the 1987 satirical science fiction television series, Max Headroom. Even though the series aired just over 30 years ago, it echoes to me through time with its ever relevant themes and thoughts. Today’s episode: Blipverts.
I’ve never done reviews before so this may be a little shaky. Originally I wanted to do an overview of the whole show but after re-watching two episodes I had so many notes I figure it would be fun to go episode by episode instead.
Blipverts is the first episode of the TV show but it’s a basic recut/rehash of the TV movie, Max Headroom: 20 Minutes in the Future with some changes to cast and script. Impressively it does more than just introducing us to the characters and the world they inhabit but actually it digs in to the main themes that will crop up in the show: anti-corporation, constant media presence, truth vs profit, invasive technology, grey mortality, privacy issues, and more.
This episode gives us a slice of life look at investigative journalist Edison Carter (Matt Frewer), who works for Network 23, a conglomerate TV station. He’s joined by his collages there, producer Murray McKenzie (Jeffrey Tambor) and a controller who feeds Edison information to help him follow the story. Edison carries around a camera everywhere he goes doing interviews at the same time the controller looks up information “online”. The idea of the internet isn’t quite fleshed out in the first episode but we see the controller basically taking the place of a Siri/Alexa/Google application: looking up maps and names and being able to do some light hacking and scanning.
Edison has uncovered a big story at the beginning of the episode. New super condensed commercials called Blipverts that air on Network 23 are causing some people to explode when viewed. Edison is on the scene and tries to get answers when the woman he is talking to is drugged by the police while at the same time in the networks center, his producer is told to cut the feed. Edison is left out in the field without a way of escaping and is nearly killed.
This isn’t even five minutes in and we’re already seeing some major themes of the show.
The feed is pulled by the higher ups who are concerned that if the public finds out about the Blipverts, they will lose their sponsorship with the ZikZak corporation and their viewing numbers will go down. At Network 23 the board there reviews the situation clinically and decide they should continue to run the commercials despite the deaths in order to keep profits up. While the exploding is explained with comic-book style science it’s still taken seriously as a tape is show of a man exploding to death. The head exec brushes it off:
“The only people [this will affect] are pensioners, the sick, and the unemployed. I mean who really cares [about them].”
This may eerily remind people of present day scandals where companies simply letting customers get injured as a cost effective measure. We’re shown that these ads were created by a young genius scientist, Bryce, who works for the head exec. Bryce also seems fairly unconcerned that these ads have killed people but he’s about 15 years old so it’s not entirely his fault.
Edison on the other hand wants the full story, no matter the cost. He asks for a new controller and is partnered with Theora who hacks in to a feed in a bathroom where they see two exes talking about the existence of a tape that shows the death. Edison and Theora then begrudgingly work together to get Edison inside the building to find the tape. This leads them to the 13th floor which conveniently “doesn’t exist” but a little hacking and spy scene later, and Edison is able to uncover the tape. While he thinks he’s sending his camera feed over, it’s actually being blocked by Bryce.
Once they figure out someone is on to them, there is a chase scene out of the building. Theora and Bryce try to, respectively, aid and stop Edison from exiting the building. As Edison is on his motorcycle in the parking garbage, Bryce is able to lower a beam that says “Max Headroom: 2.3” which Edison crashes into at full speed – knocking his camera feed out. When Theora rushes to the scene, she only finds the pieces of the motorcycle lying on the floor in the rain.
Edison is in fact alive and in Bryce’s apartment. Network 23 believes that Edison has seen the tape and subtly suggests killing him. One exec wants to pull the ads and the head exec, who is working with Bryce, wants to know how much Edison knows but doesn’t want to wake him up. Bryce comes up with the inventive plan of scanning Edison’s memories and creating a digital copy to look at. The exec believes Edison’s controller also saw the tape and so he puts a hit out for the first one, not knowing Theora had replaced him.
The show now kicks into full gear as Bryce’s mapping of Edison’s memories takes the shape of a 3D model on the screen. This 3D model is Max Headroom, who introduces himself and immediately asks if he’s “on air”. Neither Bryce nor the exec are sure what to make of it but Bryce realizes that Max Headroom is not just the memories of Edison Carter but that it is sentient and learning.
Meanwhile, Theora goes on a search for Edison. She is informed that the past controller has been killed also so she calls a body bank and they confirm that they have him. When she asks about Edison the woman show him all the “blank does” they have and one of them is indeed Edison. Theora brings Edison back to his house and informs him that his feed cut so they don’t have the proof they need.
Max takes this time to explore and finds his way in to the exec room, able to control TV signals at will. He them begins to appear on the Network 23 live feed as well. It turns out that the network can’t seem to actually remove Max off their channel until Bryce takes the time to actively jam him.
The network is about to hold a press conference announcing Edison Carter’s death which prompts Edison to break in to the building again, where he comes face to face with Max Headroom and Bryce. Bryce admits that the tape was taken and there was only one but Bryce realizes it was recorded in Max’s memory. Edison records the tape from Max’s memory and they are given the go ahead by the sympathetic member of the board to release it even though it exposes the network to criticism. Edison interrupts the press conference being held about his own death and confronts the exec about Blipverts, finally able to show everyone the truth.
This is our set up episode and it’s so densely plotted that it’s hard to say much about that won’t be covered better in future episodes but I think it works really well as a starting point. We see the Edison is a guy who is very interested in the truth, no matter what it costs him. His controller Theora seems to be a mostly neutral party, and his boss is the push back from higher up. In this way it starts out like a classic David vs Goliath but obviously this will get fleshed out later.
We’re given the corporate board as our “villains”. They don’t care that what their network does is harming people if it makes them money. They kill Edison’s first controller to protect themselves and they try to do the same to Edison. They’re not exactly active villains right now though, simply a shadow corporation that is doing its best in what we assume is a very competitive corporate world.
Bryce, despite being a child, has some of the most troubling actions in this episode. While he seems to be happy that Edison survived his accident, Bryce also had no problem with his creation killing people and also with the extremely questionable morally to copy Edison’s memories without his permission. He does all this for fun – though one could argue some of these actions are taken under duress from the exec board. Bryce is clearly excited by being challenged but this expresses itself in almost dehumanized ways. Bryce understands the tape of a man dying is graphic but doesn’t hesitate to re-watch it or show it to the board and describing the death as a “side effect”, side stepping his part in the death.
We don’t get a lot of Max Headroom in this episode but his first appearances are very telling. Max immediately demands to be on air. He seems like the embodiment of Edison’s ego. He tells jokes to make himself look good and wants people to lump praise on him. He also reacts positively to Edison, for whatever that’s worth.
- Edison can talk to control somehow and broadcast wirelessly but still has to use a pay phone
- Edison’s camera basically works like a smartphone
- The tape is called the Rebus tape, a rebus is a style of puzzle combining pictures and words
- The building layout computer screen reminds me of PS1 survival horror games
- Body bank lady thought Theora wanted a body to have sex with 🙂
- All the cars are from the 40s and 50s giving it a future-steampunk vibe
- Society has a low value on human life in general: People’s bodies are worth credits, there’s a service to turn peoples body parts in to consumables, and a general ambivalence around death from everyone
- Quantum Leap was name dropped
- 80’s action scene music – yikes
- How swole is Edison that he just carries around a 30lb+ camera all day!?