Max Headroom – 30 Years into the Future: Lessons

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: Lessons.

This episode opens with an advertisement for PETV, or Pay Education Television, a television based education system that you pay for. The voice over tells us:

“knowledge is power, you can buy your child the gift of knowledge”

Also we hear through a voice over that there was mass rioting when they cancelled Max Headroom so they’re putting him back on the air to quell the masses which should also be helped by the fact that it is the annual holiday, Sky Clearance Day. Once a year the skies are cleared of debris and this year it’ll fall into the fringes.

We cut to a parade going through the fringes where many people are holding steel / study umbrellas to block out the garbage but also an entire party is raging through the streets. Performers, actors, costumes, a Miss America analog, and more are all happening. Edison and Theora are touring through the festival when Edison starts to complain about a notice he received from the censors. Edison is being told that he will be even more viciously censored due to his already numerous infractions. Theora and him joke about it a little and meet up with Reg and Dom.

The four of them go to see a drumming and dancing act led by a woman named Francis. Reg points out that everyone in the act and Francis’ daughter, Minx, are all blanks. People happily watch the performance while Edison broadcasts it, and then the crowd tips Francis in food.

Meanwhile we see cops in a cop car who are setting up for a raid. The police officer who is leading the raid mentions that he used to live in the fringe and he got out as soon as possible. He can’t figure out why anyone wouldn’t.

Francis’ daughter runs off and we follow her to a building where children are seated around a television watching Dr.Friendly, a learning to read program.

When we cut back to Edison who realizes that the dancing he was broadcasting has been censored even though there isn’t a reason given as to why that is. In frustration Edison and company go to get some drinks from the bar. Theora wonders if there really was anything to censor or if someone at the censorship bureau was just trying to pull rank. She sees some lettering on Reg’s hat and asks him what it says but Reg simply replies that he can’t read, nearly no one in the fringes can.

The cops bust into the building filled with children and break up the small school. They arrest the man who was controlling the television and he protests even as they break the televisions around him while he yells that reading is a right. The tapes themselves are shown to be pirated from PETV. The censor tells them:

“If these vermin want it they should pay like everyone else”

“With what? You’ve closed the circle. No pay, No learning, No pay. You’ve stolen our right to know!”

Edison immediately goes to the scene of the arrest and tries to find out what is going on but one of the men show a badge that he’s a censor and tells him that there is no comment at this time. Edison is confused because the police and the Network 23 censors shouldn’t be working together but as he verbalizes that, his broadcast is immediately censors and cut off. A man drives by on a motorcycle and grabs Francis and speeds away. The screen fades to black with the text “other information has been censored.”

When Francis was taken, Minx was left behind so Theora and Edison take her back to Network 23 headquarters to figure out where her mother is and return her. Theora gets a snack for her but Minx won’t eat because she thinks it’s a bribe for a minute. Theora changes tactics and shows Minx how to use her computer and then looks up an article about what a minx is. Theora starts to read the article to her but Minx mimes reading it herself – which she shouldn’t be able to do as no one in the fringes has the money for education. Murray realizes that Minx has been watching Dr.Friendly and learning to read even though that channel isn’t available in the fringes.

When Edison goes live to find Francis and uncover what the connection between all these things means, he instantly get censored. The board isn’t sure why though and want to reverse it:

“viewers won’t like this! can’t you override this?”

“I’m the chairman, not the creator!”

Theora decides to go back to the fringes and find Edison, she gets Bryce to step in and control her monitor while she does that. Edison asks Bryce to interfere with the censor so that he can get this broadcast through anyway. The censor is automatic and therefore there isn’t a person to appeal to but that also means Bryce can easily program around it instead.

A man approaches behind Edison and threatens him with a gun, Murray is there and just tells him exactly the truth which, surprisingly, works. They’re told to go to the church to find Francis and they hurry along while the cops begin to close in.

Inside of the church there are televisions set up broadcasting Max Headroom’s face to every corner of the room. Edison and Murray are both a little unnerved by this but make their way to the confessional where a video service starts to play. After a minute, Bruno (who appeared in The Blanks, and is a blanks rights activist), appears instead. Edison wants to know what this is all about before the censors and the cops catch up to them. Bruno decides to trust them and brings them deep into the church where a printing press stored in the middle of the basement.

The printing press is surrounded by banks of stolen television because they are pretending to pirate VHS’ to cover up their real plan, a printing press free of commercialization. The censors break in at that moment and try to shut down the pirating ring. Edison goes live and direct during the ensuing fight, asking who ordered any of this. The censor claims to not know why he is doing this and also that doesn’t need to know because he’s following orders. When Edison presses further he tells him that a computer decides these things. The police chief comes in and Edison demands what the cops have to do with censorship. The chief produced orders to which Edison screams “From where!?” It dawns on Edison that all of this was ordered by a computer and there isn’t any human reason for any of it.

Francis and Minx are reunited outside. Inside, Edison is still broadcasting with the override assist from Bryce but the censor believes that none of this is getting through since it would so obviously be censored in any other condition. The censors and cops together break the computer banks once and for all but entirely pass by the printing press. Edison wraps his report.

As they are leaving the cop chief lingers. He holds up a rubber stamp letter “A” and says “I’ve got kids too you know” but then tells them he’ll be back and they need to get everything cleared out.

Minx reads the opening from “A Tale of Two Cities” out loud to the gathered crowd and Max laments that the show has ratings that are so low it’ll get cancelled.

Deep Thoughts:

I find it amusing that one of the big repositories for Max Headroom information calls this a “filler episode” as if there is an overarching plot to the series. Aside from that I find this one of the more interesting episodes because there are just so many parallels to modern society. Education as a pay model / gated knowledge is certainly been in discourse lately in the main that it pertains to high education at least, but I’d argue that this is increasingly the model for the elementary education as well as charter schools start to take up a large portion of the American education model. As we move away from funding and supporting a national platform of education we end up closer to a pay model. Again, this is most evident in high learning and the gating of academic papers, models, books, and so on but even at the lowest level we see this gating occur in television where PBS is de-funded or when Sesame Street was put on (for pay) HBO and not released for free to a public that had ostensibly paid for it via taxes for several months. It’s amazing how close that is to the narrative of the actual episodes plot. While many programs are now available on the internet via YouTube or directly from the channels that are on television, many of them are also gated behind paywalls which defeats the idea of free and available education that can uplift all.

This episode goes out of its way to give the cop who is in charge of the arrests a personality and a back story. The cop is from the fringes himself and he left as soon as he could and resents the people who stayed behind. This is actually not that far from what happens for many actual police officers in the US. Police rarely live in or interact with the communities that they work in outside of their job hours. This is a problem on many levels but even in this episode we’re shown that the cop has very little sympathy for the people in the fringe (which is abstractly, his homeland). He does do the “right thing” by being somewhat sympathetic to them instead of destroying the printing press when he comes through with the raid but this is only after taking other violent and inciting actions and following orders he know will harm the community but are otherwise non-violent and do not damage society as a whole. No one is harmed by the copying of a few VHS tapes or the teaching of children to read, people are harmed when you take away their parents and community leaders and members by arresting them. The cop understands that they are trying to do something to enrich the community but still strictly enforces and holds the line of the law knowing it will directly harm these people’s lives. It’s a good illustration of how people who uphold unjust laws do harm even though they may believe they are simply following orders.

This episodes main focus is on censorship obviously but funny enough, the last censorship incident that I can remember is 2004 (the Janet Jackson nipple slip at the Super Bowl). I’m sure that I’m just behind on all the coolest gossip but I do believe that censorship in the past decade has become a pretty rare event especially as media moves towards digital distribution and people have to seek it out rather than the random bombardment of limited choice that is television. I’m sure that censorship happens the most on news programs but especially when I was growing up there were plenty of arguments about what should and shouldn’t be shown on television that I find absent from today’s hand wringing dialogues. I’m glad that censorship has largely been replaced by trigger warnings in the form of informed consent (yes that’s what the sticker of the show telling you it has cursing and violence is). Censorship is a pretty hot topic for the internet but its largely left unenforced or easily violated. The dark web, 4 chan, parts of Reddit, and even live streaming services like Twitch, YouTube Live, or Facebook Live have bumped into these problems and there hasn’t been consensus on how to move forward with this either.

The least surprising and most prophetic part of the entire episode is that all the censoring and the orders being given out to the censors and the cops, is done by computer. YouTube has over an hour of video uploaded every second to its network. This level of information could never be sorted and censored by mere humans and so the work is left to machines. This abstractly isn’t a problem but machines aren’t particularly good at doing this type of work though and they don’t understand the nuances of copyright law or even understand the images and sounds they’re sorting through. You could see this when Tumblr banned “female presenting nipples” and then immediately found out that its visual sorting algorithm did not know what that meant any more than humans did. It began to ban images that didn’t even contain people, I saw things as innocent as vases and cakes get banned. This is the problem moving forward with a world that is increasingly run by algorhym instead of by people is that while we trust computers not to make as many mistakes as a human, the truth is that computers are good at different skills from people. Humans are better at nuance, at things which need a lens of understand that reflects that complexity of our world. When we leave things like this up to computers we end up in the world we have on YouTube now where many creators use short clips in their videos for the purpose of parody, education, and other fair uses but get flagged because an algorithm can only understand the clip used and not the purpose that clip has in a wider context. Going forward we’ve decided this isn’t dangerous but as we institute laws like COPPA (and YouTube’s even worse voluntary augmentation of it) we’re going to increasingly be asking ourselves who is making these decisions while they are blindly followed.

Lastly, the episode addresses that Max Headroom is going to be cancelled. Max Headroom was an interesting experiment in television and I might explore Max’s legacy in another post because this one has gotten too long but at the end of the day this show was never going to be popular with audiences, censors, or critics. The show critiques systems and ideas that are dominant in society and for that alone it’s impressive that it continued as long as it did. Max Headroom isn’t the best shot, best acted, or even best vehicle for its ideas but I do give it credit for trying when so many things in this era didn’t and we could really use more television that speculates about who we are and where we are going even if it doesn’t always do so elegantly or accurately.

Stray Observations:

  • “Knowledge is power” in this episode is so on the nose that it actually distresses me
  • This is probably the most meta episode yet because it addresses that Max Headroom is affected the “real world” outside of the television
  • Shoot debris out of the sky would not work like this at all but nice try at science guys
  • Edison’s infractions are: Cursing, sexual innuendo, remarks against the network, and “a joke about the son of God” to which Theora questions, “Does it say which one” and Edison says “Probably the current one”
  • Reg either could read in a previous episode OR he just appreciates the fact that there are books one could read – it’s unclear
  • “They’ll have a law against thinking next”, an obvious homage to 1984
  • The conflict of education being a right and not a privilege is annoyingly one we are still having despite education for all improves society as a whole we’re very slow to get behind it
  • I don’t think much about censorship on TV anymore, there’s very little overt censorship these days so it’s an interesting thing to remember that on every level before a media gets to you it’s being carefully scrutinized and “censored” in some way
  • “What happened to the old religion?” “Television killed it, we have better miracles” this episode is so dense I don’t even have time to get into this quote
  • “It’s keepers of the public morals, they’ll have no compunctions about smashing into a church!” I loved pretty much every thing everyone said in the church
  • Theora is a straight up bad ass in this episode and I love that
  • I love the idea of a free press being the one way to guarantee education but it’s done pretty sloppily as a metaphor here
  • “A Tale of Two Cities” is too on the nose for me but there is always going to be “the city” and “the fringe” in the world of Max Headroom and the difference between the people who live inside of the system without question and those who live outside is a difference (in this show and in much of life) is not morals or souls or something fundamental but simply a disparity in money, power, and access.

Next time it’ll be the final episode, Baby Grobags!

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