Max Headroom – 30 Years into the Future: War

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: War.

20 more minutes into the future today’s episode opens in an abandoned manufacturing site. We follow a woman through the site, she’s dressed a little bit steampunk mixed with Bubblegum Crisis and carrying what appears to be a gun at first glance. We see a close up on the “gun” where it’s labeled Network 23 and the woman loads in a VHS tape where ammo would go.

Edison is flying in a helicopter with his pilot Martinez. Martinez is telling Edison about his time in the war as they circle the site.

At the same time, in a nearby van there are two men monitoring the site. One with tattoos and a southern accent, muscled. One with mohawk, round glasses, mustache and clearly supposed to be scientist. They pick up the woman heat signature but dismiss it as being “only a rat”.

Meanwhile at Network 23, the board is having a meeting because they’re deep into sweeps week and they’re showing dog videos instead of high rating content. Frank Braddock, who owns a rival network called “Breakthru TV” calls to try and sell the board exclusive rights to an activist group called White Brigade. He pitches it as “an activist guerilla war right in your own city” but the board members won’t buy because the White Brigade hasn’t done anything and isn’t worth covering.

We’re shown Braddock fuming at the end of the call. He’s at the “Ad Market” which is basically the stock exchange for television. It’s set up to look somewhat like a court room but people are calling out numbers and names like the stock exchange – buying and selling programming packages, commercials, and so on

Back at the manufacturing site the two men set off explosive charges which the woman with the gun-camera films but that also explode near her, causing her to get injured. We’re shown the explosion on Breakthru TV, which Theora and Murray are watching back at the TV station. They wonder how the TV network was able to get the footage and how they are on the scene reporting on it so quickly as well.

Since Edison is nearby he is on the scene in just a few minutes but the police are already there and won’t let him through into the site. They do, however, wave the people from Breakthru TV in. When he asks why he isn’t being let into the site they tell him that Breakthru has exclusive rights to any White Brigade action. Edison is fuming that anyone could have rights to the news.

“Since when has news been entertainment!?” “since it was invented”

Network 23 board members are furious that Breakthru are getting such good ratings from this that even their biggest sponsor, ZikZak, is threatening to jump companies. Edison and Murray go to play racquetball to let off some steam. While they play they try and figure out how could have one-upped Network 23 because if the package was that good, 23 would have bought it. Also they realize that BT could have only gotten the footage if they knew about it before it happened which means they are working with terrorists directly. They ask the board if they can make an expose on this and they board approves.

“Sound moral decision” “…the real payoff will be the ratings”

Edison goes back to the site and finds the camera from the woman reporter, along with her footage. While that’s happening Braddock calls to rub it in the networks face that they’re ratings are lower than BT. The execs tip their hand that they’ve got Edison looking into the story of him possibly working with terrorists and that their expose will be prime time TV. When the calls ends we follow Edison getting Bryce to recover the data on the tape which shows a van conveniently at the site waiting for the explosions to start.

Braddock is concerned that the White Brigade are going too far, but the leader of the brigade says that it’s time for the real finale. Braddock insists that he doesn’t want anyone to die. Edison breaks into the plant that the Brigade have been using and it quickly becomes apperent things aren’t what they seem. The entire place is set up like a TV studio with miniatures lined up on a table. They have been staging their attacks, using the Godzilla filming techniques to make them look real.

The leader, Croyd Howser, is good at special effects. He thinks military action is obsolete because people are excited to see war and talk about it but only until the next TV program comes on. He realized he could wage war (through TV) without actually needing a real war since people are only experience it on TV. “What does the White Brigade get out of this?” “Money…we apply modern merchandising theory [to war].” Croyd has his own agenda and a real revolution to create but this war isn’t it. He lets Edison go and Edison glumly realizes that he played right into their hands because now Network 23 will be the one doing their funding.

Edison goes on camera to make his report about how all the attacks are staged and just a short time later there is a real attack at the Ad Market. Theora goes to Edison’s house to tell him about the attack and they tune into BT who are slandering Edison and Network 23 for false reporting since the attack in the market was very real and even hurt a network exec from Network 23. This convinces the Network 23 board to finally buy the White Brigade package. Edison calls Murray and tell him they got “suckered” into to believing nonsense and they worry about Janey, the woman camera operator and worry she might be hidden somewhere at the site.

When returning to the “studio” it indeed turns out that staging the attacks was a fake out and there is nothing left of the studio. The see the van from Janey’s footage and decide to follow it. The White Brigade have Janey in the back on the van and they have set charges. They’re setting up a narrative in order to kill her and further their cause. They set her camera up so that it will look like she dropped it while running from the explosion. Braddock absolutely does not want to kill the woman and he starts to argue and bodily fight with the other men. Edison spots the van and Janey and is able to grab her from the side of the helicopter just moments before the site blows up, too close to the van where it probably kills Braddock, the leader of the movement and the other men.

Edison breaks the story, the ratings go wild, and Janey gets to do the final report “Live, just, and direct from the scene.”

Max’s outro is a bunch of puns on car parts that he “doesn’t want to sell”

Deep Thoughts:

Like most of the episodes this is both strangely intense AND strangely silly at the same time. This is the first episode that doesn’t really involve Max much, he pops up a few times to say silly things but doesn’t contribute to the solution or the plot really and I didn’t even notice until the end of the episode.

There’s a lot going on in this episode though and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to really cover all of my thoughts about it. Most of all the thing I kept coming back to again and again was wondering if this story came from television coverage during the Vietnam War. Live and in peoples living rooms, the Vietnam War was a turning point for both journalism and how people experienced war. While extensive and live coverage of the war probably influenced popular opinion it is still somewhat true that it was only important until the next big thing. Going forward there hasn’t been a war or military action covered in anywhere near the same comprehensive manner making it even easier for people to ignore wars or at least put them out of their mind the majority of the time.

I also kept circling back to the idea that war is only real on TV if we believe it’s real. Since we’re not there having the experience, it could just be another show. Just a disconnect between reality and the viewer. I really enjoyed that the White Brigade leader wasn’t just a person who deployed actions or blew up buildings but used the manipulations of what Edison would have wanted to see (and what the people would have wanted to see from a terrorist group) against them. We talk about war in the future not being as connected to bodies and bombs as it is to opinions and cybersecurity which honestly isn’t too far off from using media to influence the outcome of a war. We can see a few examples of this having happened since this episode aired and while it’s not corporations doing the influencing and dealing, I wouldn’t take that option completely off the table in the future. News networks do a lot to frame issues in ways that either line up with their own internal ideas and those lines have gotten less clear over time in many places.

I’m still a little puzzled about what conclusions I’m supposed to draw from the fact that the camera we’re shown at the beginning looks like a gun. The VHS tape loads exactly like you would load ammo and she even carries it like a gun but no one else reacts to this and it’s never really brought up.

The “AdMarket” is also another really good element. I’d argue that we have something akin to that but it’s (obviously) online. Advertisers spend a great deal of time jockeying for your attention and to advertise in the places your eyeballs are. Google and YouTube both have entire systems devoted to up to the minute changing costs for ads and ad placement. I don’t think or feel that other more analog types of advertisement have had similar changes since the 80s but I don’t know enough about that industry to say so.

Stray Observations:

  • I spent a good five minutes trying to figure out if Janey’s camera was also a gun or just shaped like a gun
  • The police are basically dressed like the First Order from Star Wars, they’ve got stars on their lapels and they’re in all black and they don’t bother looking for any survivors at the site even. They’re really not subtly kind of presented as bad guys.
  • The White Brigade are described as “neo radicalistic anarcho syndicalism”
  • Theora flirts with Edison after his racquetball game telling him he has nice legs
  • Janey isn’t actually a reporter which is why no one had reported her missing, she borrowed a camera from a man by basically charming him until he gave it to her which is a mixed bag
  • Edison has a tiny folding bike which he pulls out to explore the site, it is hilarious.
  • “A half baked cliche ridden world of semi revolution” and “The scripts need changing all the time” were such good lines they made me pause the video and have a big think for a minute
  • We don’t actually get to learn the real goal of the revolutionary brigade but again, it didn’t really matter what their cause was I suppose
  • When the AdMarket blows up it’s all shot in slow motion and it clearly cost them next to nothing, it’s hilariously cheesy with sparklers and people and paper flying around at all angles. What an innocent time before CG.
  • “Theora you still there?” “As ever”, awww
  • At one point Max appears and talks about “Chernobyl pops”, it’s unrelated to anything but I find his dark humor amusing
  • This whole episode is a play within a play but it doesn’t really resolve as neatly as it looks and that bothers me because rights to news stories is creepy but not out of the realm of future possibility

I really wanted to get this out in February but I’ve been feeling really burnt out about writing. I hope I can get through the next episode before the end of the month.

But whenever it comes out, I’ll see you next time with The Blanks!

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