Max Headroom – 30 Years into the Future: Neurostim

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: Neurostim.

Today’s episode opens on a view of the city. We’re treated to a voice over introducing the new Neurostim bracelet from ZikZak which is a bracelet which seems to transport the user into a fantasy inside their mind. When the woman presses the button she sees herself on a beach with a beautiful man coming towards her.

Edison is flying in the helicopter on his way to a story. He and the pilot banter about the Scumball game that is about to happen. The pilot doesn’t really like the game because it only has fake death in it and Edison scoffs at him for being a maniac. Max appears on the channel to do a commercial about how people are all too excited to be sold things they don’t need.

Back at Network 23, the board is curious why they’re using Max to push products when all he does it talk ill of the network itself and the advertising process. The board is concerned that ZikZak won’t like this style of advertising. One the board members says:

“The fact that ZikZak allows Max to mock their commercials allows the audience to identify with ZikZak!”

Back on the scene with Edison, he walks through a residential building that is completely littered with garbage on the floor. All of it from ZikZak and all of it fairly new. The building is full of people who are in debt from buying too much. Edison knocks on a door and is invited in by the family who recognize him and want to be put “live and direct” on TV. Max appears on the TV and starts talking about what a scam paying to watch a sports game is. Edison asks to go live but Murray has to tell him no as Max is better for ratings.

Meanwhile in Neo Tokyo, at the ZikZak headquarters all the businessmen there are gathered around watching the rise of their Neurostim bracelets. A British man who seems to be the lead scientist or product developers mentions that the bracelet simply allows them to directly advertise to the people so they will buy ZikZak items and possibly they will be able to avoid having to advertise on networks.

Edison comes storming into the newsroom, mad that he was taken off air. He’s got a Neurostim bracelet in his hand and he wants to delve into the story. Murray tells him again that Max gets better ratings so they can’t just pull Max off the air. Edison, clearly having enough of this, proceeds to unload on Max about how he is interfering with his job. Max is mad at Edison because Edison doesn’t just say the things he’s really thinking. Edison tells him that Network 23 is the only way to get his voice out and that means sometimes he has to self-censor. He can’t just say whatever he wants, like Max does. Max thinks that means he should stay on air because:

“As long as it’s the truth, does it matter which one of us tells it?”

Edison kicks the desk over and then goes off to find Bryce instead and figure out what is going on with these new bracelets. Bryce tries on the bracelet and is transported, much like the woman in the beginning of the episode, to a kind of Baywatch Miami 80s paradise dream on a beach where a beautiful woman approaches him. When he comes back to the real world Edison tries to question him but Bryce simply walks off saying he’s hungry.

Back in Neo Tokyo the Chairman explains his strategy for the bracelets, a project which they call Serendipity as they hope to “dig for worms and find gold.” The plan is to break free from the stranglehold of network television by disrupting the market so much that stocks will plummet and they can buy up more of the shares. The bracelet will mean they don’t need television networks and so their stocks will plummet if they pull their contract and then they can buy up network television once its cheap and be able to advertise right on their own network.

Edison files his first part of the report where he suspects that the bracelet is causing people to be insatiable and buy things they don’t need. The Network 23 execs realize what ZikZak might be up to and are concerned about them pulling out of the network but they don’t think they will because “this system because it works too well “for all of us””

ZikZak knew that Carter would file this report and they’ve designed a special bracelet just to take Edison out of the picture. They call Edison and goad him into trying to the bracelet but Edison wants to try it on his own terms so he goes to a random ZikZak location to order that and some food and one of the bracelets. The restaurant looks like a cross between a McDonald’s and a 50’s style diner. The ZikZak program finds Edison and when he uses the bracelet he sees a fairly similar style delusion to the others but his is more intense. He is driving down a highway in a black car with glasses and a white suit and a woman in leans over to tell him that she knows exactly what he wants. Edison then appears to suffer a seizure and wanders out of the restaurant.

Edison disappears from Theora’s radar and turns up in another store where he proceeds to buy items that look the ones he saw in the delusion (sunglasses, a white suit, etc.). Once he acquires these he goes in search of a car which leads him to a shady man in an auto mall. Max tries to reach Edison but he walks away from him.

Back at Network 23 the board is flailing as the ZikZak Corporation pulls out of their contract, effectively destroying their stock and the networks ability to function independently. One of the board member starts crying while he says, “I never thought I’d see this, the end of the world.”

In the auto store the owner remarks:

“Terrible thing that happened to that network huh? Same thing happened to my business, cars. Nobody makes nothing new anymore, we just recycle the old ones”

Edison wants to buy a Ferrari like the one in his vision but the owner of the store and the sleazy man who led him there are trying to trap him and steal his money which they do after they beat him up and throw him off the second floor of the factory. Behind him, a television flickers showing old comedy clips. Max appears for a moment tell him “Neurostim will make you see everything differently” before the television goes back to clips.

ZikZak buys the stocks of Network 23, meaning they effectively own the market. “Network television has proved to be the most effective means of mass persuasion ever invented.” They tell the board that they’re taking over and that they will be making many changes soon. When the Chairman says they’ll be able to give the audience everything they want Cheviot walks out telling him that even after all this time the network doesn’t even know what they want.

Edison is returned to his apartment by the police. Theora comes over to enact a plan that Bryce has thought up to help him return to normal by overlaying Max’s memories back into Edison. This involve jumper cables and Max floating around in a 3D box in Edison’s delusion. Edison and Max hash it out and Edison is concerned that no one can look at him anymore without seeing Max. That Edison is being overshadowed by a part of himself. Max is angry because he doesn’t want to be seen as only a part of a person either. Edison resolves this by confronting the idea that both these things are difficult and he returns to Network 23, freed of the Neurostim’s hold. Murray is looking for a new job because ZikZak is probably going to fire all of them.

Edison files his report about how consumerism in finite either because you run out of money or you run out of things to buy and this is echoed in the fact that at ZikZak they realize they don’t have anyone to compete with and other networks now view them as a threat and won’t make cooperative deals with them either. The Chairman decides to sell all of the Network 23 stock and try again with a different plan in the future.

Deep Thoughts:

This episodes major themes revolve around advertising and compulsive urge to buy. The Neurostim bracelet shows people their desires and both seems to make them hungry but also make them buy directed items they don’t need or didn’t want in the first place. In a way this is pretty close to targeted ads on Google or Facebook which show you options for products you wouldn’t have previously sought out but when presented with them, begin to consider. As a theme in the episode this isn’t particularly well explored actually despite it being the central theme. In a way the episode wants to remind us that the impulse to buy isn’t fulfilling a need and is more likely to be trouble than anything else. The residents in the building are in debt with extra items, Edison buys pieces of a fantasy he (likely) previously didn’t want which causes him to get beat up and almost killed, and the ZikZak Corporation itself bites off more than it can chew by buying Network 23.

Over the course of the episode we get a lot of allusion to the insatiability of people and how even just a small image of themselves gives them a false hope for more than they might be capable of attaining. I think this is also mirrored in the fact that ZikZak Chairman is always eating. In every scene he is eating or drinking a different product as if to try to satisfy a hunger that can never be fed.

Another theme from this episode is one of the id vs the ego. Max and Edison often at problems from different angles despite being the same person which is an interesting conundrum but when you consider their positions (at least relative to ours), Edison lives in the real world and his actions have to be mediated because they have consequences on his person that Max is largely free of. Max also is younger and has less restraint in general due to the lack of experience. Max personifies the id, a literal talking head which is allowed, and impowered by the network directly, to speak any and all things that come to mind. Edison is the moderated version of Max and they come to blows and each has what the other want. Max wants to be taken seriously the way Edison is and Edison would love to really give people a piece of his mind and the funny part is, they are actually both technically able to do this due to their separation as entities. Instead they see each other as competition:

Edison: “Do you have any idea having a part of me competing against me?”

Max: “And do you have any idea what its like just being a part?”

Further asking us if the ego and the id can ever peacefully coexist or if they will really always be at some level of contention with each other. I wish that the show had more time or focus on issues like this because they’re really interesting which brings me to my last point about today’s episode.

Probably more than any other episode before it, this episode highlights the specific limitations of episodic story telling. You see, in the dark days before serialized television, most shows had episodic plots where every week the entire show would be reset back to a status quo. Sometimes finales were allowed to advance a small amount of characters or plots but largely every 30 minute or 60 minute show would reset back to Episode 1 parameters at the end of its time slot. Max Headroom is no different. At the end of this episode the Chairman, seeming to have gotten everything he wants and having put Network 23 on the ropes suddenly has to decide to undo everything he worked for over the past 44 minutes because the next episode demands that the viewer not have missed a beat between episodes. This means the last 5 minutes of this show are actual nonsense. It’s worth noting that shows like this, with such strict limits about what can and cannot be changed can only allow so much “growth” and “change” on the part of characters or stories and it really hamstrings this episode and the entire series. More on that in the future…

Stray Observations:

  • Scumball is an in-universe game with “fake death” which is especially interesting because Max can’t tell the difference between when someone dies on TV or not but this confounding element of television is so ingrained in this universe that people at home might truly not be able to either OR games have become so involved they need to contain “death” to be entertaining
  • Network 23 allowing Max to badmouth them, ZikZak, and their products is like a built in release valve on society for dissatisfaction, parallel to Edison’s (possibly useless) reporting where he can point and say “it’s a problem!” but he never has to make any concrete actions
  • ZikZak has the best slogan of all time : “We make everything you and you need everything we make”
  • The doors at ZikZak are labeled “Know Future” which is pretty ominous
  • The Chairman at ZikZak is constantly eating which may be an allusion to the fact that his company is constantly trying to buy up other companies / is greedy but it’s also low key hilarious (he has a different food product in every scene)
  • This isn’t the first episode we’ve bumped into weird racism in but the meeting in Neo Tokyo stars all our favorite Asian tropes: the logo is a pagoda, moving target accents, geisha for no reason, men who appear to have Chinese names implied to be Japanese, a British business man telling them all what to do, mysterious ninja visuals, the “East Asian riff” etc.
  • Bryce accurately predicts a game upset in Scumball, which he could stand to make money from but doesn’t because he’s more interested in being right
  • The episode uses a saying from Robert A. Heinlein ” Serendipity is digging for worms and finding gold. “
  • Mutually assured destruction is a hell of a drug
  • “If Network 23 disappears, where does that leave Max Headroom?” “Pittsburgh?”
  • On his way to the ZikZak restaurant there is a public announcement about bringing in blanks for a reward
  • Edison orders a “soy and bacon burger” which is interesting, is soy seen as healthy? Is meat artificially grown? Is the bacon just vegan bacon?
  • Credits seem to be contained on keyfob style objects
  • In the clothing store, there is a 3D display for trying on clothes which is a still-possible future tech
  • When the gangsters are chasing Edison they play what I can really only call “circus music”
  • “Who died?” Network 23″ – Murray, you drama queen

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 Lessons!

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