Max Headroom – 30 Years into the Future: Rakers

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: Rakers.

In terms of a follow up to what was a genuinely deep and thoughtful first entry, Rakers could have been much worse but it also suffers from a lot of the problems many second episodes do: a much weaker story line, a rigged plot to try and get us to sympathize with characters who only got a cursory introduction in the pilot, and a less stable and less introspective look at world building.

Getting right into it, this is a hard episode to talk about because the premise and visuals of the thing are so outlandish I think they really could only exist in the 80s. At the heart of it Rakers is an episode about a dangerous underground world of extreme sports that many forces use as a push and pull for their own gains. That being said, the actual sport they choose to invent in the show is basically two men in crop tops and cut off biker shorts with knives strapped to them going at each other on skateboards and looks as serious as say, Rollerball or Death Race 2000.

The episode itself is fairly simply in plot. Executives are watching a game of raking to judge if its worth the effort to legalize the sport to make money off of it. We see the general atmosphere of calling for blood and betting on which person will win or die. One of the rakers (players) get injured because that’s part of the appeal of the game and the game ends.

Our main team (Theora, Edison, and Murray) are trying to chase down an arson when Theora gets a “phone” call (which is basically like a Skype call but through a tube TV) about her brother being in trouble and leaves without telling anyone. Murray has to direct Edison to the arson story but isn’t as good as Theora and they miss out on it causing both of them to be mad at Theora. Edison defends Theora against Murray firing her because Edison thinks she wouldn’t leave her post without a good reason and he, naturally, goes to track her down.

Edison tries to get the information about Theora’s video chat from Bryce but he won’t give it to him. Max comes by and allows him to see the video showing Theora’s sister in law calling. Edison follows Theora to a restaurant where she is following the trail of executives who are trying to legalize raking because she knows her brother is involved in the sport and that he is in danger.

Edison confront Theora about leaving at work and she tells him about her family and how her and her brother grew up in state homes and that she was given opportunities he wasn’t so she feels responsible for the trouble he’s in now. Edison vows to help her track down the raking circuit and get her brother out of trouble.

Meanwhile, Max keeps seeing the clips and shows of violent programming on Network 23 and becomes increasingly confused by it. He believes that the violence in the shows is reality and it doesn’t help that all of the violent shows he sees are aimed at children. When he confronts the board at the network about it, they suggest replacing the violence cartoons with actual violence in the form of raking.

Edison goes on a wild chase which ends in the raking arena that Theora’s brother is about to fight in. Theora’s brother is greatly injured though so he’s likely to die. Edison sees the network executives watching the match and has Murray put him on live for an editorial, exposing them but he is attacked by the one of the handlers. Edison’s camera breaks but he sees a TV over the ring with Max watching inside of it and he tells Max to do the reporting.

The last shot shows Theora’s brother and his wife watching the editorial alongside Theora and Edison.

Deep Thoughts:

Despite how frankly ridiculous raking looks, it’s not like you have to look far in the real world to find something close to “illegal and dangerous underground fighting”. Especially in a post-Fight Club world. The episode is a little rushed and clumsy but the point still stands that if there is any way to make profit off of something, even if its dangerous, people will do it. Even worse, people will watch people murder each other for fun as long as it is under the guise of something else (after all how many people watch NASCAR just to see the crashes?)

The sub-plot with Max worrying about violence on TV is a little undeserved by this episode but this captures some of the zeitgeist of the 80s particular moral panic. What made up the idea of kid-friendly programming was a hot button topic with the recent invention of Nickelodeon, a channel full of shows just for children. This thread in the episode is an interesting idea but all that comes out of it is that Max can’t tell the difference between TV and reality.

The world gets a lot of fleshing out during the episode. Every single shot in a new location shows us the TVs scattered all around and since Max is able to report from a TV looking down over the arena it’s all but confirmed that every TV is a two way mirror. You’re not just watching TV, the TV is watching you. It’s clearly a surveillance state even though its a capitalist one which makes it an interesting departure from the usual fascism as surveillance.

The exposé is both about the executives trying to profit off death as it is about them trying to pass laws that allow them to do so. It’s surprisingly unclear if this will change things and it doesn’t help us understand the legal system but since last episode didn’t seem to carry legal consequences for killing people (or we’re not privy to the aftermath of it), it’s a key missing piece of the universe that I hope is explored in future episodes.

Stray Observations:

  • Despite that raking is a sport to the death, everyone is wearing knee pads – safety first children!
  • Max first appears on a TV screen in a dump, a callback image from last episode.
  • Edison’s house has at least three visible televisions. Seems excessive.
  • The arsonist is rebelling against a new “TV tax” but we don’t get any other details 🙁
  • Max wants Edison to report “all the deaths” on the kids show Missile Mike. He refers to Mike as “the gunman”. When Edison tells him there’s no deaths to report because he isn’t a real person Max asks “what’s he for then?”
  • Ratings not people gets repeated a few times in the boardroom
  • The guy Edison taps for information in the bar, Rick, looks like a proto-Morpheus: black man, trench coat, small sunglasses, bald
  • Newscast: Spaceships are privatizing global satellites!
  • Shoehorned romantic subplot? Gross.

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