Max Headroom – 30 Years into the Future: Dream Thieves

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: Dream Thieves.

Today’s episode opens on a view of the city and then into the dump where we see my favorite, televisions everywhere. This is one of the more thorough views of this area. We’re treated to the camera zooming around showing us the ins and outs of the area: a wedding, a market, people painting each others faces, and so on. Edison is there in front of a former cinema called “Dream Palace” doing a piece about movie theaters which are nostalgic and strange to the modern person. Viewing television now is a mostly isolated experience and the idea of doing it together, all at once, in the same place seems strange. He goes around interviewing people until he gets a quote from one man who does know what a movie theater is:

“Before the world became ratings and people became demographics and everything became the product”

Edison thinks he’s poetic for a moment until he realizes that he recognizes this man, so does Murray and they cut the feed. The man, Paddy Ashton, is an old friend of Edison’s who used to work at the Network with him and Murray. They catch up over a drink.

“What’s the news?”
“You are, I’m history”

Murray tells Theora that Paddy and Edison used to work at the same job but then Edison broke a large scale story, got promoted and it ended Paddy’s career. Paddy blames Edison because he thinks he had Murray in his pocket, that being a robot and uncaring was the difference between them and that being human was a liability for the job. He says this while pointing out the Max Headroom was fittingly created from Edison, of course. Paddy decides to show Edison how he makes his living now and joking tells Edison that may he could do a story on it.

They go to the back entrance of the theater which is the “Dream Factory” now. Paddy says he and other people get paid to sleep and that “it’s like giving body but they empty your head instead of your arm.” Paddy says goodbye to him with glib anger and doesn’t let Edison technically get the story but promises to call him “sometime.”

In the meantime we’re shown a new network from Mind’s Eye which is making a new subscriber cable channel that they are about to release. They are blackmailing a man to get what they need for network show from the Dream Factory participants.

Max wonders out loud how dreams work since it seems he can’t have his own anymore. He goes through to rerun some of Edison’s old dreams. In the meantime, Edison goes to find Paddy again, at night this time to follow up with him but when he gets to his “house” (a prefabricated building in disrepair) all he finds is someone stealing things from inside of the shanty. When Edison confronts him and asks where Paddy is the man points at a truck and run away.

Edison approaches the van and see a tarp in the back, which when he pulls it back, reveals Paddy’s dead body. Edison tells the man driving that van that he wants him to take Paddy’s body right to a cemetery instead of selling him off to other bidders. The van hooligan agrees to do so for cash and Edison makes Theora track the van when it drives away just to make sure. As he’s about to leave, Edison sees that Paddy’s hat had fallen onto the ground and contained within it is a journal full of notes that Paddy was taking for a big story.

Edison stays up the entire night working through the journal trying to make sense of the notes. When Theora and Murray come in they’re not sure that the notes really amount to anything. Theora is pretty sure they are either poetry or a code and Murray thinks that guilt has gotten to Edison and tries to absolve him of any part in Paddy’s death. When Theora looks closely she realizes that the notes refer to shady actions in the Dream Theater, so Edison of course goes back to confirm his suspicions.

There is a ringmaster who admits Edison to the Theater and the lively outside is not reflected inside, which is a very dark and crumbling movie theater of a by-gone era. It’s walls and seats are laid over to be a makeshift medical area, plastic sheets and monitoring equipment filling the room. Edison is ushered to a seat, given a pair of goggles to wear and a pink liquid to drink in order to help him sleep. Edison does not drink the liquid since he just needs to appear as though he is dreaming he hooks his video camera with Max in it up to the recording goggles so that he can snoop around while Max projects dreams.

While snooping Edison sees a woman have what looks like a seizure of some kind and then she falls down, presumably dead, and medical personal come to take her away. They also spot Edison’s camera and take that back with them as well. In the back room we see the heads of the operation talking about how the woman is dead just the guy last night and how the new liquid causes more dreams but it’s running them at a high risk. They realize the camera is from Network 23 also but they’re not sure what it’s doing there or how it seemed to be projecting dreams.

The owners of the operation tell them that they need to hurry because this may have put them at risk. Once people figure out that they’re being exploited for their dreams they may stop selling them which will put the network at risk.

Edison sends Bryce the diary pages that Paddy had after escaping the theater and hopes that he can decipher more. Edison escapes the theater without his camera and decides to go find Blank Reg for backup. Reg agrees to help him immediately and they go back to the Dream Theater armed with a small infrared camera. Once inside they beat up the guards and go snooping, find their way up to a projection room where when they turn on the projector, it seemingly shows a dream that was one of Paddy’s – getting promoted by Murray. They realize the room is filled with reels of dreams and that they now have proof.

It seems that people are being killed when they experience trauma through nightmares and that’s what killed Paddy. Edison wants to go right back in once he tells Murray what he’s found but Murray thinks he’s been compromised. Edison doesn’t listen to him, get a helicopter, goes right back in and once he finds his camera in the back room begins to broadcast the story live. Edison starts to accuse and attack the people recording the dreams and Blank Reg is forced to wrestle the camera out of his hands and stop it from recording.

Edison continues to yell, pace, and assault the guards until Murray begins to talk him down. Murray asks if he’s going to knock him out too because he stole Paddy’s dreams by picking Edison over him and admits, “He died a bit then too.”

After that Murray and Edison go to visit Paddy’s grave and Edison apologizes both to Paddy and to Edison. As they stand there for a long while Murray finally asks:

“Are you okay?”
“Is that a professional inquiry?”

Edison cries and thanks Murray for being a good guy.

Deep Thoughts:

Considering that this is one of the most personal stories to the characters in the show, it’s probably not surprising that it’s a little bit lighter on the idea end of the spectrum. I think this is probably the most transparent episode as well tackling the selling out of ideas and dreams in a 1:1 literal selling and facing the consequences of nepotism and favoritism. There’s a lot of little gems hidden in this episode including how concerned Edison is about what will happen to Paddy’s body now that he’s dead even though it seems like Edison did not really follow up on Paddy during his life after he left Network 23.

This episode is yet another which posits that some part of the human expeience has to be sold (and then commodified further) in the world. We’ve seen people giving up their blood, their bodies, their youth, their organs, their credits, and their votes so it makes sense that this episode would streamline this out to their dreams. The dreams will be sold back to other people via a subscriber network (of course) which is probably supposed to be akin to how people give up their dreams for day jobs and then watch television to feel fulfilled by the stories of others but because I live in 2019, I couldn’t help but think of Patreon / Kickstarter and other money giving services where we offer people money in exchange for them to enact their dreams for our entertainment.

I like the way that episode opens with the idea that people no longer publicly get together to watch movies because in a world where televisions are everywhere and images are constant there would be little incentive to go to the theater to specifically watch a movie. While of course the writers couldn’t imagine on-demand services like we have this was certainly true for the box office once television became more popular in houses and VHS and the advent of movie channels certainly took their dent as well.

This episode is mostly about the guilt that Edison has for not realizing that things that had benefited him might have left other in the dust. He also has to briefly, think about his privilege and position and what it affords him. Edison has always seen himself as a person above others and that the things that he has are somehow, deserved. Paddy was his friend though and he knew that Paddy was a decent person before he was forced out of his job and just for a moment, Edison realizes that this is all chance or outside of his personal control. I think the end of this episode is especially distressing, where Edison reassures Murray that he’s a good person even though his actions have led to Paddy’s death in someway. Is Murray actually a good person? Unclear. What is clear is that Edison blame himself and has to live with the fact that his success came at the expense of others. That his reporting is after-the-fact to good people getting hurt and that, despite Max Headroom’s existence, he is not a robot and the reality of life does hurt him too.

Stray Observations:

  • I know many shows use the dreams / last moments are able to be recorded but it’s amazingly bunk / junk science to the point of howling laughter
  • Blank Dom holds up people with a rocket launcher and I love her a little more than average because of it
  • “People love to pay…it massages their self esteem”
  • This is probably the “downer ending” episode and in my mind, I thought this was the last episode of the series because of that
  • The bad part of the dump town has houses called “cardboard condos”
  • Edison is extremely concerned about Paddy’s body being treated with respect, possibly to atone for not taking care of Paddy in life
  • Edison did, to some extent, get his job through nepotism but obviously Edison does not see it this way
  • The ringmaster who lets people into the dream theater is aggressively queer coded including referring to the wizard of oz, affecting a “gay accent” and flirting with all male entrants.
  • One of Edison’s dream is the equivalent of writing real person EdisonxTheora fanfic
  • In the dream theater everyone is wearing pink, the drink that puts you to sleep is pink, the tinting on the dream is pink, and the techs make note only especially of dreams where people are doing taboo behavior, especially of a man dreaming he is a woman. I wish this had a deeper meaning but I’m not sure it does.
  • There’s a lot of clunky symbolism going around here but capitalism directly stealing peoples dreams to use against other consumers as enticement is pretty on the nose
  • Paddy accuses Edison of being a robot, which is ironic in some sense because of Max Headroom actually being a “mechanical” part of Edison but of course Edison immediately become too human at the end of the episode. While Paddy is right in some sense, Edison usually detaches himself directly from issues in order to report on them, I think it’s more clouded by Paddy’s anger at losing his position as Edison has always been too emotional for a job like this.
  • I love the end of this episode because it offers basically no resolution. For anything. Edison probably finished his report and maybe no one else will die but it’s likely the network still launched and it was all for nothing. Paddy is still dead, Edison is still upset, and Murray still made the call that set things in motion. Things just happen sometimes.
  • Edison absolutely punched someone on live TV without any explanation and will be on TV next week which is fine for us because he’s the “good guy main character” but I think it also underlines a fatal flaw in celebrity culture and framing in media. We assume the main character is the person we should root for and therefore find excuses for their behavior, even though if the person were a stranger we would regard their behavior as bad. Celebrities get a pass because we have para social relationships with them, which Edison would be a part of for the people of his world. This isn’t Edison’s first “problematic” episode but its certainty the most blatant and just something to think about in the wider social context.

This one was a long time coming 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 Whackets!

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