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: Security Systems.
This is our first episode that starts without the requisite image of televisions at the dump, I was actually strangely disappointed about that. Instead we’re treated to a commercial from Security Systems Inc. (SSI), a conglomerate in control of peoples information. This corporation serves as the main character (for lack of a better term) for this episode. Edison is reporting on them from a helicopter that is circling around their building. The helicopter suffers flight damage and they’re forced to make a landing on the roof even though the security team threatens them with deadly force if they step out of line. It turns out to be a ruse for Edison to get inside the building to interview the CEO of SSI, Valerie Town.
Edison is able to get past security and into a room that looks like a haunted hotel dream. With white columns, a piano that plays itself, large scale mirrors, and of course nine TVs arranged in a square. Ms. Town appears on the TV screens and Edison grills her about the company. Someone has been buying up shares of SSI. She tells him she doesn’t know anything and the lie detector they have built into the camera confirms it. He cuts the feed and tells Ms. Town that it’s a person tragedy because it’s clear she’s about to be ousted.
Back at the TV station Theora is mad that Edison didn’t let him know about the stunt with the helicopter and Murray is trying to dissuade Edison from doing this story. Murray thinks it isn’t the type of story they like at the network (sex, violence, money). Edison argues that it’s something better, a mystery.
Theora: “We all deal with SS every day, what if some really dangerous people got control of it?”
Murray: “Who do you think controls it now?”
Edison decides to call Ms. Town on her personal line to get more information by appealing to her humanity (“you said you’re afraid, other people will be afraid too”) but she rebuffs him. The call is being monitored by a security system, an AI with a female voice named A7 who sees Edison as a threat, and decides to “isolate” him. Two techs watch idly and are sad that the system is about to isolate Edison because they liked his show.
When Edison tries to return home his key won’t work and his landlord won’t let him into the building since he’s a fugitive now. When asked what he’s accused of the landlord tells him “credit fraud”. When he contacts Theora, the police show up and he has to ditch his camera and run. Theora and Murray find out his entire file has been changed and police show up in their office as well. They manage to weasel their way out of it and meet up with Bryce to figure out how and why Edison’s files were changed.
Edison escapes to the dump where Blank Reg and Blank Dom outfit him as a blank. Edison hates the entire experience and is very resistant despite their help. Edison uses a blank terminal to call Ms.Town (untraceable) but she simply tells him she’s been fired and can’t help him. Edison starts to put the pieces together and ends up at Bryce’s lab needing his help to break into SSI. While trying to hatch a plan they all realize that SSI does security for the network and they are likely monitored so they run away to the dump to finish planning.
Theora and Murray create a distraction at the doors of SSI (in the form of a squabbling couple) while Bryce and Blank Reg do security hacks through a manual conduit. Max appears and follows them in the building through the plug. A7 (the computer program) is actively fighting them so Bryce and Edison go into the building. Blank Reg is forced to drive away when security guards pour out of the building leaving the two of them stranded.
Max meets A7 and starts to flirt with her, manipulating her at the same time. The two technicians monitoring A7 see Edison enter the building but don’t do anything as it appears that he has security clearance. Max appears to Edison and leads him over to A7’s room with his voice. Max is able to appear in two places at one time so he warns Edison to move a security camera and tricks A7 into following instructions from his voice (Edison’s voice).
A7: “Max are you talking to yourself?”
Max: “In a way I am, it’s a bad habit of mine.”
Edison echos his last words and then starts asking A7 questions about SSI stock and Valerie Town. SSI needed capital in order to create a monopoly on information so they manipulated Network 23’s news stories to create a run on their stocks. Ms. Town comes in and orders that Bryce and Edison be locked in a chamber that will “malfunction” and freeze them to death. Bryce has a moment where he realizes he is afraid to die as the chamber cools.
Meanwhile Ms. Town tries to get A7 to murder Max so she can become a shadow owner of her own company but Max makes A7 understand that Ms. Town is using her and will destroy her at a moments notice. A7 changes Ms. Town’s file and the door to the thermal chamber opens, freeing Bryce and Edison.
It closes with A7 being dismantled for repair, Town arrested, and Edison’s report concluding “it is likely SSI will be broken up and divested from its monopoly.”
Max has a secret message for the audience after the credits but he is unable to deliver it as he is threaten by guards off screen before a fade to black.
It’s eerie and comforting how much Max Headroom seems to get right about the future in every episode. While it’s a show that’s deeply rooted in the time it was created, it feels like somehow it understood where the future was going – something I don’t really see reflected in media these days. Future media now seems dead set on the idea that somehow a large scale catastrophe has wiped out a large percentage of people and that’s how we’ve forged ahead instead of in Max Headroom where it’s all business as usual.
This show is not subtle and it will likely continue to smash me in the face with its lack of subtly. While there have been plenty of time periods with monopolies and corporate underhandedness via capital / stock market / acquisition, the 80s was certainly a banner time for that and this episode puts a thick, bold line underneath it. This episode might be a hat tip to 1984’s Bell Telephone Company / AT&T divestment and/or the 1982 rulings that started a roll back of the post 1920’s laws which prevented many unscrupulous activities and speculation in the stock market.
While it’s true that there’s no single system today that could do the type of harm that befalls Edison, it isn’t that far off from manipulating Google results, making a misleading series of Facebook posts, or posting YouTube videos that can do irreparable harm to someones life, career, long term prospects, and standing in the community (deserved or undeserved). There’s no denying that companies still administer shady practices including large scale buy backs, shadow investors, and strategic reputation manipulation of people inside and outside of their company for material gain. In a way, that’s the most boring part of the episode because it has been happening for the past 100 years and we’ve simply upgraded our methods with technology. Companies cannot have outright monopolies in the US but they find ways around the system via vertical integration or self-investment projects or shell companies and subsidiary holdings – this hasn’t changed one inch in 30 years.
The biggest thing that I took from this episode was actually the A7 itself. Max Headroom (the character) is a complex construction but he doesn’t work off an algorithm (or if he does it’s an internal base of Edison). A7 is a security system that clearly is an algorithmically controlled AI. Not too far from Alexa or Siri. A7 acts independently to some degree but has mostly programmed orders and is set up to (generally) follow commands when given them. I’m sure the choice to give A7 a female-sounding voice was to make her interactions with Max appear sexual / flirty but it’s worth noting that nearly all AI system have female voices in our modern age (at least as default). There are plenty of studies noting that we’re kinder to AIs who have female voices, we accept directions better from female voices, and we assume female voiced AIs to be more accommodating. Just food for thought.
This is getting pretty long but I wanted to note how uncomfortable Edison and Murray are in the dump / pretending to be blanks. How they’re both very weary of stepping too far outside of the system, even when the system is trying to destroy them. Edison does not want to be a blank, he wants to fix his name and return to society and Murray spends his entire time in Reg’s company in a suit, complaining how uncivilized the entire thing is. Blank Reg and Blank Dom lead good, happy lives though. We are introduced to them in this episode with them next to a campfire, dancing a tango. I can’t remember if a future episode will explore why or how people become blanks (or if they’re born that way) but I hope they do.
My goal is to finish up this series this year and since there’s only 10 more episodes to go, one episode a month should be doable so look forward to that!
- The SSI slogan is “Wherever you go, there we are” which could be a hat tip to
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Cheeky!
- The only time Ms. Town appears in person is when she is talking to the AI, otherwise she appears at a distance in a TV frame.
- People are “warming” themselves around televisions in the dump
- Edison makes SEVERAL appeals to Ms. Town’s humanity which is kind of sweet is a misguided way
- Credit fraud is worse than death in this universe which the script reminds you a few times because this is the least subtle show on television
- Speaking of not subtle, when Edison’s show can’t be broadcast they show “lumpy’s proletariat” in it’s place.
- Murray minored in drama in college which is delightful
- Max thinks A7 is just as real as he is, which I don’t have time to unpack
- Bryce is a teenager so he is the most dramatic when he thinks he is about to die including the line “This is the price I pay for…challenging God”, which I assume is about creating Max and his other AI creations.
- This is easily the most straight forward episode so far with very little side plot, I’m not sure if I like that or not. In the end we’re left with some questions about Ms. Town’s plan but the vagueness of the plan makes it easier to overlay real world scandals of corruption over it so it’s likely intentional
- I can’t tell if algorithm based AIs are a natural outcome of the 80s computer programs or if the writers in this show were very clever. I’ll leave that up to you but it didn’t feel that conclusive to me even growing up in the 90s (though I was a young child) so I will give them at least some credit for now.
Before I sign off, I want to say rest in peace to William Morgan Sheppard (Blank Reg) who sadly passed away earlier this month. Sheppard was not only a character in Max Headroom but in too many shows, especially science fiction shows, to list. He was truly a wonderful actor who brought life and meaning to characters and his passing deeply saddens me.