Max Headroom – 30 Years into the Future: Body Banks

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: Body Banks.

I actually really wanted them to delve into the idea of “body banks” which was introduced in the last episode so I was very happy to see it being explored right away. One of the best parts about Max Headroom is how many ideas are thrown at the wall, many of which not only contribute to rich, interesting world building but also have many ethical and philosophical ramifications on their own.

That being said, this episode has an interesting ideas with a sloppy execution but we’ll get there eventually.

As per usual, we open with a shot of televisions in the dump on the outskirts of town.

On TV Edison is talking about how the fringes of society are neglected and that the dump is actually on top of lethal and radioactive material. We pan away to focus on our actual story, a man and woman being chased by two fashion nightmares that are looking for some sort of “perfect match”. When they finally catch up to the couple, they beat them then use a weird saw device to shave off skin for testing. The woman is a match so they knock her out and cart her away to a mysterious doctor. Said doctor is saying that a match will be found soon and promising the “Max Headroom Treatment” to a rich family surrounding a dying old woman.

Deep in the Network 23 boardroom, the ratings are down and the ZikZak corporation wants to boost them by buying Max Headroom to market products. The network agrees to the deal but when one of the exes, Mrs. Formby, talks to Bryce about it they realize they’re unable to guarantee Max’s cooperation. They think Edison may be able to control him but Edison says it’s basically like having a toddler and he can’t even get him to shut up all night.

Theora gets a call from the man who was with the kidnapped woman. He begs Theora to call in Edison to find out what happened and when she refuses he holds her up at needle point in the parking lot. She tries to call Edison but it cuts off so she drags him to Edison’s house where Edison confronts him. They ask the man why he didn’t just go to the police and the man says that they would have never listened to him because he’s not rich enough to afford justice.

He says many women have been kidnapped. Most of them are like this couple: they live in a fringes, sell their blood for money at the Body Bank, and none of the women ever return. They make a police sketch of the woman and Edison starts his investigation.

We’re shown the stolen woman lying on a hospital cart in a foreboding room that’s halfway between recovery and surgery. The doctors standing over it agree it’s exactly what they need, but that they need to freeze the body right away even if it will damage it.

Edison goes back to the scene of the crime in the dump, meets with his contact Rik who takes them to an informant. Edison leaves his camera locked up under a blanket but once they get back, it’s been stolen by a girl who immediately goes to trade it to Blank Reg. Reg offers her two VHS tapes and a book but she doesn’t know what the book is for and throws it on the ground.

Meanwhile at Network 23, much to Exec Chievot’s surprise Max actually shows up and starts to do the commercial. He thanks Bryce but Bryce admits he didn’t actually do anything, that Max thinks everything is a game and if he’s there, then he just felt like being there. To everyone’s horror, Max starts riffing on the commercial. Mrs. Formby wants Bryce to turn off Max but it’s impossible unless they turn off the entire network.

Blank Reg is broadcasting from inside his trailer using Edison’s camera. He is sending out a Divine-alike music video and calling his station “Big Time Television”. Edison is able to find it right away and Blank Reg bargains with him for his own camera. Reg also knows the men that attacked the woman and points Edison to the bar they’re currently at. Edison goes to the bar, beats up the kidnappers and demands that they dress him up as a corpse and take him to the same hospital that they took the woman. When Edison appears at the hospital, he immediately brawls with the doctors who stab themselves with needles and die to keep from revealing any secrets.

Back with Mrs. Vormsby, Max is still causing problems and Bryce is working on it but she intervenes and takes him to the old woman’s house. Vormsby wants Bryce to isolate Max’s program and to replicate it in order to use it to backup the old woman. They wheel in the kidnapped woman to transplant live to the old woman and Bryce starts to freak out.

Edison, back at the station is looking for clues to track down the missing woman. Cheviot wants him to stop what he’s doing and get Max under control so much that he tries to blackmail Edison into doing so but Edison doesn’t bite. Bryce pretends to open a new account but instead draws a picture for Max to decipher, which he passes on to Edison and Theora.

Edison rushes over to save the day, Max appears to Bryce, and they start the news report revealing the body stealing plot.

Our last shot is of Cheviot and Vormsby back at the Network where they reveal they were once in love but now they’re blackmailing each other.

Deep Thoughts:

I actually really like this episode even if the acting in it is a bit worse than some of the others. It’s the first time we’re introduced to Blank Reg (and his partner, Blank Dominique) and the concept of “blank” people – that is people who live and function outside of the system. It’s a great concept but one that is only barely explored in this episode.

We see that the fringes of society are abused and othered in all manners. From the garbage that surrounds them currently to the toxic waste that their entire living space is built on. Even that the woman who was stolen was already selling a part of herself (her blood) to get by. It isn’t that far of a mental leap to realize she was taken by the same caliber of people she’d been willingly selling her blood to all along.

This episode really hones in on the fact that money buys justice, sometimes literally in this society. Money is why the kidnappers take the woman, the doctors preform the transplants, the exec tries to steal Max’s program, and money even makes the cops to keep out of it all. It’s a more extreme version of reality but it’s not really that much more extreme the more you think about it.

We learned a bunch of new things from just the few minutes of Blank Reg being on screen. Blank Reg runs his own renegade TV station (and TV is power here, 20 minutes into the future). This does mean there are ways outside and around the system. We also see that VHS tapes are quite valuable but books aren’t, either because people don’t or can’t read. Reg describes a book as a “non volatile storage medium” which is an interesting way of looking at how data that is stored in computers is susceptible to degradation and inaccessibility in a different way than physical media.

At the end of the day this episode is the thinnest of allegories about how the rich prey on the poor and doesn’t really get too much further than that though it’s hard to know if these reports will even stop that behavior as we’re never given the aftermath. It’s not unlikely that this was the only operation that was stealing people from the fringes who are poorly tracked and it’s hard to imagine this stopping or even deterring others from doing so in the future. Quite a grim picture.

Stray Observations:

  • Bryce as usual is our grey moral: he obviously does not want to help Vormsby but also goes along when coerced, though it doesn’t seem fair to judge him since he has so much less power in these situations than the adults around him
  • Edison immediately calls Cheviot’s bluff and decides that saving one person through direct action is more important than possibly losing his job
  • A woman is pushing a TV in a pram like it’s a baby and you could replace the TV with a smartphone if you wanted a hot take / art piece these days
  • The rough and tumble bar had a belly dancer AND a pig and I have trouble imagining who that combination is appealing to?
  • Some of the terrible 80s fashion and makeup in this episode, especially the kidnappers, reminds me of the strange things you have to put on your face to block cameras from ID-ing you
  • Edison’s point about how Max is basically a child despite having 27 years of memory feels accurate as an explanation of how Max functions and the types of questions he asks. But it poses a distinct question about who humans are as people: are we not just a sum of our memories? Max has all the memories and experiences of Edison but he doesn’t seem to have any of the ability to interpret them. Does a meaningful schema of interpretation not come from the memories / experiences themselves? Is it somehow separate?
  • As seen on TV: two government satellites are blown up by a rogue canon, quote the spokesmen “maybe it just got bored”
  • “I can’t afford to buy law” – OOF, right in the reality

That’s all for now, until next time!

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