Max Headroom – 30 Years into the Future: The Blanks

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: The Blanks.

Today’s story opens with one of the very few views of the “state” that we see. A police car frantically opens into a crowd. When the police rush out, they run upstairs into a building where a woman is then arrested without them giving reason or talking to her.

The woman is taken directly to a courthouse / court room and instead of arguing her case the judge simply holds up floppy discs which contain programs that run for the prosecution and defense. He types in her crime and her name and a verdict is spit out sentencing her as guilty. She rails against the outcome:

“I know my rights, I won’t be judged by a machine”

“You don’t have any rights, you’re a blank”

Meanwhile, Edison is waking up in his apartment. His TV screens (which are always on) are covered by sheets which he claims are to keep Max from spying on him. As Edison tries to go about his day he finds that his coffee machine, his shower, and other appliances are all malfunctioning. Edison checks the televoting results and Simon Peller has won, just as his acceptance speech is about to play the TV cuts out again. He instead calls into work and asks if they want him to go interview Peller. Theora sends him over even though most of their tech isn’t working either.

When Edison goes to interview Peller he finds that Peller’s right hand man used to work for an opposition candidate which immediately gives Edison a bad feeling. Peller keeps trying to win over Edison but Edison refuses to let him call him by first name. Peller talks (on camera) about how he is happy to be elected how televoting allows constant assessment, “instant democracy” and “constant feedback between the people and the networks.”

After that Edison’s camera malfunctions and he leaves Peller. Peller’s right hand worries that Edison is already on to them but Peller assures him that the processes he’s started are too far in motion for anything to stop them now. His plan: rounding up all of the blanks and putting them in jail.

Everywhere else in the city computer systems are going down. When Peller tries to call the network to see his ratings they tell him they don’t know, the ratings system and even the bank system are down. When the network executives worry its his opponent trying to sabotage him Peller replies with “of course not we negotiated election votes weeks ago.” The board is angry at Peller but the feed cuts out before anything can be resolved.

Edison and Bryce are bonding in the meantime. Bryce shows Edison how you can edit video on the fly by changing the background and changing certain objects for others. They’re interrupted by Theora who says there may be a break in the story.

As Edison appears on the scene he sees people flocking into the streets buying videos from black market vendors, huddled around viewing stations that aren’t quite working, and trading videos in the stairwell. Edison meets up with another reporter who believes there might be a link between the malfunctions and a woman who was taken by the police in the morning. A policeman in the woman’s house tells them they arrested her because she was a blank and that Peller has asked that all the blanks be rounded up and jailed. They look around the woman’s house and notice that she has an ‘off’ switch for the TV, something that is highly illegal.

While they watch the TV, text pops up that gives them an ultimatum that they have until sunset to release all the blanks otherwise he will cut all the computer systems. He says that Peller is the reason he’s doing this.

Blanks are people who have erased their names and data from the central computer system and Peller is determined in his quest to round them up but the network executives believe the city is ungovernable without TV and they’re at an impasse.

We see that Blank Reg and Blank Dom are in on this but they just drive up to the mountain top and broadcast while waiting for the sun to set (the trigger is a light activated trigger on their van). Blank Reg is going against the wishes of the hackers by broadcasting but continues to do so.

Bryce is able to trace the signal of the text to a downtown mainframe and they send Max into save the day via a trojan horse program. Max then meet the main hacker who is causing the issues, a blank named Bruno. There’s also a full council of blanks he is working with but he claims sole credit and responsibility. Bruno believes that people are prevented from reaching their full potential because they’re being mesmerized by the network. Bruno isn’t interested in causing actual destruction, he tells Max, he simply wants to turn off computers. He sends Max back to Bryce.

Edison heads to where Blank Reg is to try and persuade him to keep the trigger from going off. Edison wonders why Reg became a blank and Reg simply says he was in trouble with the law and hackers he worked with did him a favor. Edison is somewhat sympathetic to blanks but argues that if the network goes down, people will die which convinces Reg to keep it on and allow Edison to contact Bruno.

Edison talks with Bruno, while Theora goes after Peller to try to get him to let the blanks go. Edison offers Bruno a chance to tell his side of the story and change peoples minds that way instead. Blank Reg keeps the light trigger on with a flashlight but realizes there’s a secondary trigger, a bomb that will go off in 30 minutes. He stays with the trigger to try and keep it on as long as possible and to buy Edison and Theora time. Theora records Peller saying that he’ll go to any length to arrest and detain the blanks. Theora sends the footage to Bryce to edit the recording of Peller until it says what the hackers want to hear. Bruno stops the timer and Peller has to concede since they aired the edited tape on TV. The televoters are happy about the conclusion and re-elect Peller. While Peller is fuming about the ordeal Edison tells him that the public wanted a solution so he gave it to them and just pretended it was Peller’s. Peller swears vengeance.

Deep Thoughts:

This show is basically a perennial nightmare. I say that in the most loving of ways. I watched this about two weeks ago and I’ve been churning it in my head since but especially over the past few days as people have started to talk about deep fake videos again due to the fake video of Nancy Pelosi that was making its way around the internet.

I don’t know which actual part of this episode is the most terrifying: how modern civilization would collapse in strange ways if the internet went offline, how Deep Fake video is becoming more and more common and convincing, how journalism could easily become a force for evil if it uses those types of manipulation to “solve” problems on its own, or how politicians can and will use shows of force to arrest people of a single demographic if they personal objections to them as long as they’re supported by the public. It’s basically like a Russian Roulette of horrifying topics where all of the chambers in the gun are loaded.

Once again despite the veneer of 80’s nonsense and the silly “hacking” sequences and the the generalization to the point of parody of voting, elections, and politicians the show hits on timely and important ideas. The “network” may or may not be a stand in for public internet (which did exist in ’87 technically) but it may as well be. It’s interesting that television might have been seen as powerfully as we view the internet today, despite that fact that television is such a one way stream. In the episode though, taking down the network didn’t just knock the televisions out of commission but also household items, security systems, and basically all electronics which is someone eerily predicting the “internet of things”.

There’s so much going on in this episode that I’m not even sure where to start but the main ideas include that the “networks” (television/media) are holding people back from their potential as people by being distracting, that people who are outside the system are inherently a threat to the system, and also the entire slippery slope question of lying in service of the greater good. I hope they continue to explore all of these concepts but for me the stand out is that the blanks are people who simply exist outside of the computer systems. They’re not necessarily people who have been proven to have done anything wrong. While Blank Reg says he became a blank because he was in trouble with the system its impossible to know what his crime was or why he was forced to “blank” himself. If we judge him without any other information we’re the same as the computer program at the beginning of the episode. While Bruno was trying to disrupt the system, his intention wasn’t to hurt anyone but simply to gain rights and freedoms for his fellow blanks and he upholds his word. The woman at the start of the episode is violently arrested for no reason other than being a blank and even though she has an off switch in her house (I’ll come back to that), they didn’t even know that when they arrested her. These people are illegal just on the grounds of them not being documented in the way the system wants them to be. I’m unsure if they wanted this to be a metaphor for undocumented people or if this is just supposed to be a metaphor for people who don’t want to buy into corporatism and capitalism or if we’re really supposed to think that the blanks are the bad guys but we keep seeing sympathetic or at least humanizing / complicating traits. Blank Reg and Blank Bruno do the right thing in the end where they could have easily both disabled the system.

One last note since we’re one third of the way through the series: It’s been stated time and again that you can’t turn the TVs off. Something the show keeps coming back to again and again is how the television do not come with off-switches and that installing one is illegal. Televisions are absolutely everywhere. Edison has at least four of them in his apartment by my count. Televisions are on the streets, in windows, in the dump, in medical offices, and even in up scale restaurants and none of them come with an off-switch. They are always on, always transmitting, and always vying for attention in the form of constant ratings. I do think this may be literal in the forms of televisions being just a pervasive part of culture but even with the internet (and technically TV) in all of our pockets in this day and age its hard to stomach this as something literal and not a metaphor, at least in part because at the end of the day you can choose to turn your TV off. And while I didn’t live through this time I cannot believe on any level that turning your TV off in the 80s would not have been the destabilizing or socially destructive force that not using the internet in 2019 is. You still would have had radio and newspapers and libraries to access information (resources which are slowly fading today). So what is TV a metaphor for? In this episode alone we have two statements “people would be ungovernable without TV” and “without TV, what is there for them [the public]?” that give me pause. Is TV the stand in for capitalism? Is it media as a whole? Is it religion? Is it just societal norms? TV in the world of Max Headroom is a little bit of all these things and more, maybe it is just the systems we don’t ask to be a part of. The country we’re born in, the parents we have, the educational systems we spend our youth in. Or maybe its something else entirely. I’m still making up my mind. Whatever it is, turning it off isn’t presented as a possibility for most and has dire consequences when you do.

Stray Observations:

  • I didn’t even touch on televoting / public as electoral body because this episode didn’t seem very interested in it
  • Edison has Network 23 brand boxers and his TV remote is in the shape of a car
  • Bryce is humanized a bit more in this episode and we learn that he doesn’t have friends or family because he was separated from them when he was 10 but Blank Bruno is a former teacher of his meaning Bruno was, fairly recently, a part of normal society
  • This show, despite being in the 80s, continues to have an exceptionally diverse background cast. Crowds in the city have plenty of WOC/POC and white women even, something modern shows struggle with
  • The woman who is arrested at the beginning of the episode says “blank is beautiful” which makes me think of commune / off the grid movements but the episode never circles back to motives for blanks
  • The “hacking” and “trojan horse” sequences in this episode are so bad / 80s CG that I had to pause the video to laugh for a full minute both times
  • My favorite part of this episode is easily when Max asks Bruno to let him know if there’s life after the off switch, to which Bruno replies “I already know” (of course there is because Bruno already lives in the life after the off switch)
  • While it feels natural that Bryce is happy when Max isn’t dead/deleted, Max is actually shown as being afraid of dying. He, at the very least, has a concept of being nothing.
  • All of the AI voices on this show are female so far, Max is the only one who isn’t which is kind of interesting. Max is also, arguably, the only complex and independent AI as well.
  • Holy crap is the ending to this one a slippery slope. Don’t doctor video kids! That’s like, super illegal and super villain bad!
  • Today’s moral: We’re always teetering on the edge of society collapsing. Yikes.

I don’t know why I keep putting these off, I find them super interesting and fun to write but I also kind of feel like I can’t dig into them as much as I want or I’m missing key themes. It’s a dorky 80s show so I shouldn’t feel so much pressure but…I do.

Hopefully, I’ll see you next time with Academy!

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