Max Headroom – 30 Years into the Future: Academy

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: Academy.

This episode starts back up with my favorite images on television in the dump. I’m unsure why that’s the thing I like most about this series but it is certainly a very poignant visual image.

Inside of the dump we’re shown Blank Reg and Dom watching individual TV shows. Reg is watching his own network while Dom watches the home shopping channel. During the broadcast, a weird thing happens to the television where images start unraveling and interrupting the program with other bits of information, a process called “zipping.”

We’re shown the Network 23 board talking about the issue of zipping. Not only is this a problem because its a security issue but also its obviously driving ratings down so they decide to send Bryce on the case to figure out who is disrupting the network. Bryce manages to track down and block and hackers and sends the board the address. The board is still frustrated with him though because he treats everything like a game.

The Metrocops are sent to arrest the hacker and we see it’s Blank Reg getting arrested even though we didn’t see him commit the crime. Dom calls Edison to tell him about the situation and they all meet at the police station. Reg claims he’s been framed and when they lawyer asks him if he has a criminal record he scoffs because as a blank, he has no record. They go quickly before a judge to determine if there needs to a be a trial and the judge, once he realizes Reg is a blank, shuts down and sends him right to trial. A court date is selected via a spinner on the wall but Edison knows he’s being framed and so he goes to find evidence to free Reg.

Max Headroom comes to Bryce and tells him that he knows he gave them a false address for where the signal came from because he “watched the show”. Bryce is taken aback at being caught but Max doesn’t tell anyone. Theora, looking into it, also sees that the signal has been switched though from the Academy of Computer Science (ACS) where Bryce studied so Edison goes to check that out.

At the academy we see very young students, probably between 6 and 12, studying all manners of computer related fields. Bryce and Edison make their own around the school, splitting off Edison to watch the dean (which is called “Headsysop” here) give an assignment and Bryce meets up with former classmates. The students ask what Edison is doing at the school and he tells them that a signal came from the academy and he just wants whoever was guilty to come forward. The dean also wants that and mentions that since they’re minors nothing will happen to them. Edison is frustrated because the dean doesn’t seem to think anything “wrong” happened:

“I noticed you said responsible party, not guilty”

“A grey area is quite useless to a computer specialist. We don’t deal in guilt, we deal in information”

Bryce in the meantime meets up with the other students who have, in fact, been zipping the networks but obviously none of them will come forward. The dean insists there is no wrong doing and that Bryce must be wrong as no one turned themselves in which would cause a “grey area.”

Blank Reg is paired with a record of felonies on file because that’s what they do to blanks and then he is taken to a game show version of a court where he has to prove his innocence or he will be killed. Edison and Theora desperately want to help Reg but Bryce can’t figure out why. Bryce thinks his redirect to Reg was a good solution that saved his friends but Edison urges him to consider the actual implication of right and wrong, not about the solution to a problem. When Edison urges Bryce to think about justice it finally gets him to review him actions and he goes to try and convince the kids to turn themselves in.

Edison tries to make an emotional play to one of the network executives but they admit, they know it wasn’t Blank Reg who did the zipping but that if they execute him on TV everyone will feel better about the whole event. Meanwhile, Bryce realizes that the same techniques of considering fairness just won’t work on the other students and instead he starts to egg them on.

Reg, at the trial on TV, is losing. Even from the opening argument, about how zipping isn’t merely a crime but that people are being interrupted in their homes, he does not have audience sympathy at all. The persecutor even asks “Are we being too lenient…is consumerism itself under attack!?” Reg is allowed to make a plea for his life but he decides that he would rather die innocent that remain alive and in jail. At that moment Bryce is able to get the kids to zip the station by telling them that it’s so easy even Reg could have done it and when it happens the audience realizes that Reg is innocent. The case is dismissed and they have a party in Reg’s trailer.

Deep Thoughts:

This is the first episode of the second season and like all episodes of Max Headroom, this has so many strange and interesting world building blocks inside of it that make me wonder about the episode long after its over. It takes me a long time to write up these reviews because they’re so complex I usually don’t even know where to start so bare with me that I’m not going to get into everything, just the two things I thought were the most salient to the story.

The Academy Bryce attended is a really interesting one. It’s basically a college for hyper intelligent young children though it obviously only specializes in one area (computers). The students in this university are no only urged to devote all of their life towards a single subject but actually build their lives in the same way that computers work. Choosing to view life in a binary absolutism. Right and wrong hold no sway, only affirmative and negative. An action was done, or not done. We learn some about the students there but none of them are really particularly concerned with other people or how their actions could have an effect, they simply do or don’t do things. The students form a secret society, use 1 and 0 hand signals to express themselves in secret and even have a secret hide out though so on some level these are all actions that children take when they want to be separated from adults.

Bryce mentions that his first day at the academy was his 10th birthday and while he reminisces about having gone there, like most things, he’s pretty detached from the idea of it. Bryce tells us again that he hasn’t seen his parents since then and he doesn’t really have friends at the academy, even though they know him. This is a lonely and isolated life where there wasn’t and isn’t space for the type of human emotion that are needed in complex decision making. As the headmaster/dead/sysop says of the school “we’re all input systems, operators, and podmasters now” implying that humanity is an optional or even unnecessary part of the systems and people who are moving into the future. It’s not simply a school to teach skills or to teach understanding, but a way of moving people from human to computer. All of the students who go to the school are certainly more “successful” than Bryce in this way who spends the episode struggling with the actions he took and the harm he caused. In the end he doesn’t manage to exactly appeal to his classmates on the same level of justice, but more on the deeper lizard brain level of jealousy. There’s certainly the idea that not all of our human traits can be erased so easily.

One more thing of note from this set up is that the students look down on Max Headroom as being primitive at the same time they don’t seem to recognize that Edison is the origination point of Max himself. As if the human that began Max is even less important than the program that is running from his thoughts and memories. It’s quite chilling to think that we could probably mold people in this way by changing the systems around them.

The second major component in this episode is the justice system. This has a lot of moving parts and some of them are probably a little flippant but it was still pretty interesting to me. We haven’t seen a lot of the justice system, just glimpses of it but as per usual all the police are dressed in what is basically undeniably fascist gear. The police take Reg away in handcuffs, but also in a hood that covers his entire head as well as his arms, it looks like a specific combination of a straight jacket and an execution hood. Reg is isolated and so monitored in his cell that saying certain words gets him electric shocks, while Reg is assigned a lawyer she is overworked and doesn’t know the specifics of his case – like a modern day caseworker. The system not only assigns the charge to him with only the networks proof but since he is not in the system they use an algorithm called CPMP or Career Capability Maleficence Program, which matches blanks with an unassigned criminal profile that exists and then assumes they are the same person – effectively making them guilty of crime they cannot prove the blank (or anyone) has done. There are more crime than people who have committed them in this sense. Crime is unassigned until its useful to slap a charge on someone and have them killed. Template matching isn’t justice, just administrative convenience. The absolute highlight of not using human judgement in place of the black and white binary of computers.

Reg is technically given a chance to avoid a trial but then is immediately sent to one when its realized that he’s a blank. It voids what small change he would have had at fairness. His court date is literally selected randomly by spinning a wheel on the wall and he is given a trial in public which is sensationalized and without evidence. The trial is a mockery of justice. The persecutor merely stands in front of the audience and tells them what an evil, terrible crime it is and how someone, anyone has to be punished for it. The TV show has a circus feel. It is a game show which has likely ended many peoples lives without any reason and Reg is here because of convenience, because it’s too hard to do the actual work to find the actual criminal or the work to prove him guilty. As they say:

“in cases where there’s no evidence they work off probability”

“that saves everyone a lot of work”

While it can be tempting to think that the US justice system of today does a better job of his watching When They See Us or reading anything about how people take plea bargains because their lawyers do not have the time and resources to research their cases shows that this isn’t all that far off from reality. Reg is a criminal because he’s been assigned to play that role by Bryce, but moreover there is no point in the system which allows him to prove his innocence, where the court or the police or the lawyer take even the cursory time to evaluate if he has or hasn’t done the actions leading to court instead every step is “how do you want to plead guilty?” and mitigating the types of punishment that come from a guilty sentence.

There are so many more themes going on in this story but I think at the heart of it, the story wanted to be about how if we only make decisions using logic, using raw data and without feeling and thinking we’re going to make bad decisions at best and unjust decisions at worst. The episode ends with the sentence “converts are the worst kinds of bigots” which seems to drive this home as converts are the people who are most familiar with enacting this type of hypocrisy. Bryce knows what he’s doing is wrong but completes the action anyway to try and protect himself. Even Edison does the same thing when he tries to appeal to the Network exec instead of getting proof (and he’s an adult and a journalist, his entire job is to find proof instead of making extra-legal plays). It just goes to show no one is immune from these sorts of mistakes. We’re all human after all.

Stray Observations:

  • There have been plenty of Douglas Adams references but Reg is kept in block 42 because we can never have enough of that
  • Several people accuse Bryce of acting like a computer during the span of this episode but it’s so obviously how he was forced to act that it made me feel a ton of sympathy for him, not sure if the episode was specifically trying for that or not
  • Theora is the only person who is actually trying to use the truth to see Reg free, everyone else is trying to manipulate the systems around them. None of them succeed though which makes the episodes a little bit worse than it could have been
  • I am going to spend my life endlessly amused by how bad the hacking scenes are in this show
  • Even in the high tech school all the keyboards for the computers are typewriters
  • 7 INCH FLOPPY! AH! I’d only ever seen a few in my life
  • Bryce uses so many computer puns when talking to his friends that it hurts me but I realize even though they’re all still terms and concepts in use today, I doubt the average person would know them. They might still seem high tech. That’s kind of concerning to me
  • The most accurate part of this episode is that when the kids are tasked with capturing a robot mouse as their assignment, they immediately ask if they can kill it
  • “Justice will compute…eventually” – this is the same misread people have on the long arc of morality bending towards justice. Justice doesn’t just happen, justice is a verb.
  • Bryce gets mad that because he illegally found out about the signal information its inadmissible in court, which is probably the funniest irony in an episode where this was all started by illegal hacking
  • Bryce levels up in humanity, 10 points to house computer boy
  • “You remind me of myself” “Should I take that as a compliment?” “No”
  • I know I didn’t even get to the fact that the prosecutor acts like a television show being interrupted is akin to being murdered but it was a jam-packed episode. You’ll have to think about the implications of that and how the same type of hyperbole exist in our day to day systems yourself.

This one was pretty heavy but I don’t think we’ll be letting up anytime soon so I’ll see you next time (hopefully in a week or two) with Deities!

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