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: Deities.
20 more minutes into the future and instead of looking at TVs in the dump, we’re watching Save Yourself, a new age church television program. This church is offering modern religion for the video age. We see inside the church where there are plenty of television terminals and people in white robes surrounded by holy looking statues. The camera cuts to the host of the program, a soothing voiced woman bathed in white robes who tells us that the church needs donations for their resurrection program.
As we scan away we see an older woman standing in front of one of the church’s TV terminals, talking with a black and white image of an old man. The woman praises the church and the man in the television replies “It’s wonderful… isn’t it!” While at first glance this appears to be a video chat or maybe an AI, instead the screen simply loops at random intervals, it is no more than a single short clip.
In the board room of Network 23, the board are delighted by the fact that the church can bring in so many viewers and so much money. They wonder if they can extend the same ideas to other programs. The journalism team at Network 23 doesn’t mirror the joy of the board though and they want to do an investigative report on the resurrection claims and especially on its leader, the white robed woman, Vanna Smith.
Edison, in an uncharacteristic move resists the story and walks out of the office. Murray and Theora are left questioning if Edison is very religious or if there’s something else going on. Theora goes to ask Max if Edison is religious but Max doesn’t seem to remember anything in particular about religion in his memories, however he thinks the church is running a really great racket.
Edison is sent to do the story despite his wishes and when he steps in the church he immediately becomes disquieted by the televisions with faces set up around the main floor. The woman we saw talking with her “husband” earlier is still there and Edison interviews her while in the background the television loops her husband. Edison questions if she really believes that is her husband and on cue the television set says “It’s wonderful… isn’t it!” again. Once he accuses the television of being just a loop a man from the church escorts Edison to a separate room.
The church man explains that the televisions aren’t the full resurrection experience yet. Parishioners get brain scans periodically and when they die their scans are sent to the monitors to wait until they can make them a new body and have their personalities downloaded to that body. Edison cynically wonders if they get their money back when they’re reborn. The man asks if this isn’t exactly how Edison created Max Headroom. It trips up Edison so much he asks:
“Are you a clergyman or just a PR guy?”
“When it comes down to it, is there any difference?”
The man refuses to let him see Vanna Smith, who runs the church, but Edison continues to needle him until he calls her. Upon hearing Edison’s name she comes out from her office, crossing the room, and punches Edison in the jaw.
Back in the news room Theora is wondering if they should call for backup but Murray mentions that Edison gets punched a few times a year. Max sees the confrontation as well and mentions that while Edison isn’t religious, he does have a history with Vanna.
Vanna gives Edison ice for his wound and they both apologize. They talk about her place in the church. Edison accuses Vanna of taking money from vulnerable people and she turns it around and accuses him of doing the same. She calls it the “reassurance racket.” Edison starts to defend himself but she mentions that he never follows up with his exposes and since he’s not solving the problems himself he doesn’t know if they are ever actually dealt with or not. They both leave each other pretty unhappy.
Edison goes to see Bryce to figure out if anything the church has said could be theoretically done. Bryce says that it’s feasible but not likely because of the amount of power it would take to display even a single person. Network 23 only has Max and Max takes up more than almost any of system on Earth. The process of mapping and displaying many people just wouldn’t work without unheard of processing power, and its even less possible to put those memories back into a blank human body especially considering the low quality scans that the church is making.
Edison goes to do his final review of the program and Theora asks if he had a relationship with Vanna. When Edison finally admits he did, she urges him to shore things up with her by showing her the tape ahead of release. Edison agrees but before showing Vanna the video, they end up in bed together. Edison wakes up alone with the phone ringing. Edison picks up, thinking it’s Vanna, but instead it is Theora telling him that Max is missing.
In the middle of the night, someone with credentials came into Network 23 and took Max via a single terminal. Murray isn’t sure how that’s possible since Max is well integrated throughout the network. Edison laments that it was almost certainly Vanna and that he shouldn’t have shown her the story ahead of time and he rushes off to the church.
Meanwhile, at the Network, ratings have been falling slightly and the board worries that it’s because of the complexity of the story lines. They note that the church has had rising viewership since they promised to bring people back from the dead. They wonder if its a good idea to have Edison Carter do a report on the church since it might damage the uptick in viewers but conclude that “If there’s a knockdown drag out between our two ratings leader, the winner is still us.”
Edison and Bryce watch the footage of Max being stolen and to their surprise, it’s actually one of the executives, Gene Ashwell, doing the stealing and not Vanna. Edison goes to confront Ashwell about his loyalty to the church outweighing his loyalty to the network but Ashwell replies “What’s good for the view age church is good for network 23, and Max Headroom is our property.” He accuses Edison of being the disloyal one because he keeps doing these pieces that tear down the network.
Ashwell calls the church and they give Edison an ultimatum to drop the story or they will erase Max. Edison refuses. Meanwhile the church goers discuss Max, who is much more complex than any of the other “people” who have been saved. When they ask Max if he’s excited for a new body he tells them “What do I need a new body for? I never had an old one” which shocks them.
Max alternates between mocking the church members and growing progressively agitated that the other “people” in the televisions around him aren’t as interactive as he is. Vanna comes over to Max and starts questioning him about himself and his soul and how he was made. Vanna can recognize Max as being Edison, but at the same time, he is something else. She believes that he is a message sent to her until she realizes that Max did not come of his own free will.
Edison and Theora argue about if it is worth it for Edison try and appeal to Vanna:
Edison: “She used me don’t you understand?”
Theora: “And you never used her?”
When Edison reaches the church he sees that Max is rigged to a timer that is counting down to when the new report airs. Vanna says that Edison cut it too close and she has to go into another room and get ready for her show as well. Vanna and Max are on TVs side by side. Vanna thinks that her show gives people hope and happiness but Max and Edison aren’t really convinced. Max lays out how he sees the whole thing and argues that he should have a say in his own life. Vanna relents when she realizes that Max is not just a computer program, or an echo of Edison, but something that is alive, possibly with a soul.
Vanna lets Max go just as the program begins to air, the voice of Edison coming over the screen “When those who claim to speak for god turn out to be liars”
At that moment the TV set containing the loop of a dead man
“It’s wonderful… isn’t it!”
Everyone meets back together in the news room and Theora apologizes to Edison that things didn’t work out with Vanna but at least they got Max back. Max admits he let himself get kidnapped to try and get Vanna back together with Edison but it didn’t work out which Edison thinks is for the best.
Carter: “I guess you saved my soul”
Max: “And without asking for any donation!”
I think it’s pretty obvious that the main theme of this episode is that there are religious institutions which take advantage of people for profit (or even under some misguided idea of knowing what people need / what is best for the masses). That’s probably the least interesting thing that happens in the episode so I’m going to stick a pin in that forever. Instead let’s talk about the nature of being instead.
Another theme explored in this episode is one that sci fi loves to hang its hat on: what makes a person? Its nice to see that Max Headroom (which starts with this premise but rarely uses it) wading into the shallow pool of this topic. In the episode there are two distinct things happening: the church is scanning peoples consciousness in the same way that Bryce scanned Edison Carter’s consciousness in order to create Max and also that they are promising to “save” that distinct consciousness to place it in another body at a future date. This is pretty much word for word what is happening in Doctor Who episodes “Silence in Library” and “Forest of the Dead.” The tricky question is: can you really copy everything that makes up a person? And even if you do, and you’re able to put them in a new body, will they be the same person? The show is only minorly interested in this idea because the technology for these two processes isn’t really possible yet, instead the church peddles the idea but what it sells is the snake oil version: a singular frozen version of a “person” which amounts to little more than a short film. Neither acting nor reacting. It’s probably possible and easy to program a machine in this universe to go through a roulette wheel of responses or to program an AI to respond “correctly”, wherein it might even pass a Turing test at some level but otherwise, we’d be laughed out of the building to say what the church currently has is “alive” or a “person” but the rub here is that in theory, Max is a person. Max is more than just an AI. He runs beyond his programming, with free will, is allowed to learn and transform himself with few bounds. We see Max learn, create, think, and in this episode, we see Max actively fear for his life. Moreover while we may think of Max as a copy of Edison Carter, not unlike the copies the church wants to make of its parishioners, Max isn’t Edison, at least, not anymore. Max and Edison have a singular origin point and share memories but Max hasn’t really experienced any of the things Edison has. Max has memories but no point of reference for them which we know since he confuses reality and TV, cannot understand things that have happened to Edison (such as drinking to the point of black out), and beyond that he holds but cannot comprehend Edison’s memories because he did not live them, Max does not identify himself as Edison either. Max is a distinct and new thing. Max is NOT Edison.
The most important dialogue (arguably) is after Vanna has had a long conversation with Edison and Max and she comes to the conclusion “[Max] not only sounds like you, he seems to have a soul of his own.” I think Edison misses the point when he replies, “Isn’t that exactly what you’ve been claiming?” since Vanna is saying that Max has a soul, a life, a person hood of his own. He doesn’t have Edison’s life, or Edison’s soul, or Edison’s body even – he is a new and wholly distinct living thing. The question here, the thing that would make me pause as a believer of this faith would be that if I were saved and moved to another body would I be myself or, like Max, would I become a new thing? Not entirely separate from myself but obviously not my original self.
Max wasn’t even made with this idea in mind, Max wasn’t supposed to be alive in this way but he is and this complicates what we see as alive and what we see as program / AI within the story as well. Would copying someone make them a new person? Would it make them an AI? Does the flesh part of the equation factor in? It all only opens more questions and thoughts.
Anyway don’t give your money to a church that promises you eternal life but gives you no proof. That’s bad kids.
- When Vanna explains reincarnation she uses the phrase “I know these are big words” which is hilarious to me
- I had to Google what the 700 Club was and that’s cursed knowledge
- The Christmas story they show every year in this universe is that a TV bursts into flames and puts a family on the street. Wow.
- I’m unsure if it’s public knowledge how and why Max was created but I assume the man at the church knows because of one of the board members being a member of the church
- Edison’s job contract includes being punched a few times a year.
- This episode does a surprisingly good job explaining the metaphor of how Max uses processors
- “Can you promise me it’ll make me happy” “I wish I could” oof
- There is a fairy raunchy for 80s TV sex scene in this episode which include saxophone music and a lot of blanket wiggling
- The poke at ratings going down because the story lines are too complex is a little too meta for me. Max Headroom, now in its second season was seeing decreased ratings but I assume it was the spectacle around Max lessening and probably the material the show choose to spotlight, not “complex story lines”
- Edison makes fun of Bryce for not partying at 3am but Bryce is 14? Edison, you are a bad parent!
- While Bryce is tracking the men who stole Max he says “I’m using two dots [on the on screen visualization] as designation” because i guess people aren’t used to 3D visualizations? It feels obvious to me or is that just because I’m from the future?
- Bryce gets to MAGNIFY! the footage a couple times but more in line with real life, it doesn’t do very much and he still can’t read the license plate because somehow this goofy show is more realistic than CSI
- There’s a secondary argument to be had in this episode of whether or not Max is property of himself, Edison, or the network. I hope, but don’t think, they explore this in later episodes
- I absolutely adore the parallel at the end of the episode when we get to see Vanna in the TV set about to do her show next to Max in his TV set, almost as if the difference between a live person and a “fake” person on TV is zero.
- In conclusion: It’s wonderful… isn’t it!
I’ll see you next time with Grossberg’s Return!