Max Headroom – 30 Years into the Future: Baby Grobags

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: Baby Grobags.

20 Minutes into the Future finds us, as usual, watching some television. Today on the TV there’s an ad for a product which allows parents to “grow” their babies outside of the womb. “The new way to have babies for the new age of women.” We’re told that this will help mothers to be freed from the confines of traditional motherhood and then we’re shown a room of these growing babies which is somewhere between a nursery and a greenhouse at the company Ovu-vat.

At Edison’s house though they’re having a big party. It turns out to be Cheviot’s party but they’re holding at Edison’s house because, of course, that’s better for ratings. The party is being broadcast to common people, over 114 million people are watching the rich and famous hobknob, drink, and eat. Everyone is at the party from the network except for Murray because he “doesn’t like parties”. Edison admits he doesn’t like parties either despite being on television all the time.

A woman catches Edison’s attention and Theora introduces her to Edison as her friend Helen Zeno. Helen tells Theora that she’s about to have a baby tomorrow morning but Theora is confused because she doesn’t look pregnant. Helen tells her that she’s “baby bagging” because her husband is an astronaut and in space all the time and she didn’t want to deal with the logistics of pregnancy. Theora is a bit suspicious of the whole thing but Edison is excited and asks if she’ll let him do a piece of in, she agrees.

The ratings for the party start to decrease because of a new show on Network 66 about child prodigies. Cheviot freaks out and tells Bryce to send in Max Headroom to bump up the rating. Bryce becomes annoyed but he sends Max on to the network while he gets ready for a meeting. Max complains about how prodigies are made.

The next day Edison does his report but the camera cuts out before they go to pick up the baby. Since Theora is with Edison and Helen, Murray struggles to get things back together. Helen doesn’t want to wait so they leave Edison outside and go in to pick up her baby but unfortunately the baby is missing from the place its supposed to be. Helen starts to freak out and Theora leads her outside to try and figure out what is going on and calm everyone down.

We see Bryce going to a meeting and it turns out he’s meeting with Network 66’s head broad member, Grossberg. Grossberg, looking very American Psycho, offers him a swim in the pool while they talk business. Grossberg gets a quick call about the misplaced baby at Ovu-vat but he hangs up quickly. Grossberg says that Network 23 doesn’t appreciate and understand Bryce and he should instead join Network 66.

Helen says that she saw the baby two days and there was nothing wrong with it so the most logical explanation is that its been stolen. Edison cannot figure out the angle of why anyone would steal a baby. Murray calls to ask why the piece hasn’t started and Edison explains the situation to which Murray replies:

“Why aren’t you chasing it, that is a story, we do stories, remember? A stole baby is great!”

Edison gets Murray and Theora is pretend to be a mother and father to infiltrate Ovu-Vat and try to get access to their records to find out what is really going on. Murray is extremely uncomfortable with the process because he’s afraid of hospitals and the woman doing the intake checklist for them says that many men feel more comfortable with male councilors and directs him to someone upstairs. Seeing an opening he jumps at the chance into the hall to look for a records room.

Edison is snooping around during all this also. One of the Ovu-vat people spots Murray and recognizes him and Theora from video. Edison in under the building hacking into their records and someone in a cassette bay of magnetic tape knows that someone is hacking them (somehow). There is a big chase scene but Edison gets the data he needs and finds out that Helen’s child was a baby genius.

Grossberg waits patiently while Bryce lists his grievances with Network 23 which are mostly that they don’t let him do anything that he wants. Grossberg lays out his plan which is that Bryce will get anything he asks for as long as he leads a team of baby geniuses. Bryce is intrigued. Grossberg says that Bryce can even bring over his greatest achievement, Max Headroom.

Edison looks through more of the data and sees that not only were they making baby geniuses but they were also making babies “without parents” or more accurately without the permission of the donor parents for the baby genius program on Network 66. Edison hacks back into the system and destroys it and then goes to confront Network 66.

Grossberg tells Bryce that he needs to call Cheviot right away and tell him that he’s leaving Network 23, Bryce does this. A man interrupts this calls to tell them that Edison Carter is on the way. Grossberg tells them to just let Carter walk in which he does making Theora and the others thing it’s a trap. Bryce is sitting at the table once Edison gets inside. Grossberg tells Edison to sit at the table and negotiate with him.

Edison is disgusted because Grossberg stole a baby but Grossberg says that was actually an error, they don’t take babies from parents and it is being returned right away. Edison believes him and says as much and then he pretends to play along with the rest of Grossberg’s idea for him to come to Network 66 because they could make better television together. Edison throws a drink in Grossberg’s face and then turns his camera on and says that he’ll expose the illegal cloning project that he’s running. Grossberg still claims that he hasn’t done any of that and that is so horrible he can’t even imagine doing it. Edison is pretty sure he is telling the truth but he’s also benefiting from Ovu-vat doing so and he’ll be shutting them down with his report soon. Edison then leaves the boardroom with Bryce.

The report goes off with Edison returning the baby to Helen with the Network 23 board watching on excitedly.

Max Headroom waxes on about how there’s only an outro scene to keep you watching through the commercials. The outro scene after the second to last set of commercials is Helen talking to her husband in space.

Max ends the show giving mixed metaphors about women being a confusing accident.

Deep Thoughts:

This episode has a few interesting points but it’s one of my least favorites. In 1978 the first IVF, or In Vitro Fertilization was successful, sometimes referred to as “Test Tube Babies” this new style of fertilization helps couples with reproductive problems but finds itself uncomfortably at the edge of new questions in ethics. The show spends most of the episode seeming to be take a mostly uneasy edge to the in-world version of it (which doesn’t involve a woman to carry the fertilized egg at all) and has worries about the forms of possible eugenic uses, ethical uses, illegal pirating and cloning of children. These are abstractly valid concerns but they’re also ones that have been addressed by modern science if one bothers to look into this. Many of these concerns exist outside of a “medical” or “intervention” context as well in cases of rape, child abduction, and even medical disposal of organs and fluids containing genetic material. It feels disingenuous to couch these concerns as something only connected to IVF.

What strikes me the most about the episode is that it doesn’t seem to realize the parallels to a company which is making children which the consent of the people’s who genetic material the child is made from and Max Headroom himself. Max Headroom is, for many definitions, a person. One of our modern day ethic questions and world law questions is that when we create things like Max (and independent thinking robots and programs may be coming quicker than we can imagine), what will their rights be? Who will own them? Will they own themselves? Will the creators have rights over them and their actions?

Max wasn’t made with Edison’s consent even though he is made of things which are legally and ethically owned by Edison such as his thoughts, his likeness, and his voice. While the majority of the episode is focused on the missing baby plot it seems like they really missed the boat on the ability to ask questions about the nature of creation without consent. Are you still a parent if you do not know there is a child with half your genetic material? Are you responsible for that child? These questions are starting to get answered in the courts in the US but in the 80s they probably would have been more ground breaking honestly.

The only other thing that sticks with me from this episode is the idea of “divorcing mothers from motherhood.” Which again rubs me the wrong way because people reach motherhood through many different paths and having a child come out of your body which half your genetic material is not the only way to become a mother. If the episode is trying to play with that idea, it feels a little like it’s mocking it. Being a step mother, adopting, or fostering do not in fact divorce you from motherhood, they are all valid ways of being a mother. It all felt a little anti-science and pro-traditionalist for a television show that has spent every other episode confronts tradition. I suppose there are some beliefs that are harder to let go of.

And here we come to the end of Max Headroom. For a last episode it definitely doesn’t go out with a bang or even, particularly, anything special. I think was pretty common for pre-Twin Peaks television. Considering Max Headroom is more episodes and ideas than an actual television show it certainly feels both very fitting and very disrespectful. Max lived on as a television host, an interviewer, an MTV prop, and a strangely popular icon in Germany for a few years after the show ended but this is the end of the line for him as part of a weirdly subversive icon. Max turned into a bland talking head who could spout teenage level nonsense without a television show that occasionally had genuinely anarchist and racialist left takes on present and future social issues. There’s something to be said about a television icon who thinks television is real and destructive and who lives in a world where government and business are the same thing and their loyalty is to a metric which measures nothing of importance to anyone but those watching the metrics. It’s not happiness or good lives or a lack of homelessness or anything that drives the world of Max Headroom: it’s simply ratings which means that everyone lives in a world that is a natural conclusion of taking your eye off the ball. People are miserable, lonely, they live empty lives where they don’t connect with others and they stay inside eating the one brands food, watching the only media fed to them, and interacting in only the most basic of ways. Can you just imagine that world (I’ll give you a second).

Stray Observations:

  • One of the workers in the baby lab is named East and I feel like this might have been a pseudo biblical reference.
  • The “bag babies” are even “watching television” in the nursery
  • I’m completely shocked that no one has filmed famous people having private parties for ratings, though I guess youtubers do this now sometimes?
  • This is the second time that Theora and Murray have pretended to be a coupled and its extra funny because obviously Edison and Theora would be more believable but everyone knows what Edison looks like
  • The second Murray leaves the room the intake lady mocks the hell out of men and I feel that
  • PSA: Do not destroy computers full of medical records and also full of the information that can prove a company was being evil.
  • There is a baby smuggler sub plot that includes the smuggler joking about eating the baby for some reason
  • Grossberg refers to the parents of the babies on his show as “owners” – yikes
  • “It’s all here” *holding up a 3.5″ disc that wouldn’t even hold a picture from my phone on it*

That’s it for the episodes of Max Headroom, I’m going to try and do a postmortem of the series next year so stay tuned for that. Or don’t!

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