Original Aired: 1987 – 88
Two seasons: 20 episodes
Available on: Tubi
In 1987 I sat down in front of our family television set to watch the premiere episode of Max Headroom, a new show on ABC. I was familiar with Max Headroom. His digital persona was already seeping into pop culture and advertisements. He was everywhere, in Coke commercials and even in the “Paranoimia” music video by Art of Noise. I wasn’t sure what the show would be about, but I was intrigued. As the opening credits rolled, I found myself transported 20 minutes into the future.
Max Headroom starred Matt Frewer as Edison Carter, an inquisitive, well-known, and respected TV reporter for Network 23 and his digital alter ego Max Headroom. Assisting Edison at Network 23 is his controller Theora Jones played by Amanda Pays, and producer Murray McKenzie played by Jeffrey Tambor. The show’s other supporting characters included Ben Cheviot, head of Network 23, played by George Coe, Bryce Lynch, a child prodigy and computer hacker, played by Chris Young, and Blank Reg, owner of Big Time TV, a mobile pirate television station, played by W. Morgan Sheppard.
The show revolves around Edison Carter, who broadcasts “live and direct,” groundbreaking greed and corruption news stories. His reputation for candid reporting and obsession with truth establishes him as a rating juggernaut for Network 23. He doesn’t carry any weapons. His weapon is his camera with its live feed and reputation as a trusted journalist. When the camera is not broadcasting, he relies on his controller to aid him in getting out of tight situations. Many of the stories Edison Carter covers link back to his network, which he has no problem exposing. Luckily for Edison, TV ratings are the only thing the network’s board cares about, and he always puts them on top.
In the premiere episode, the origin of Max Headroom is revealed. Bryce Lynch created the persona of Max Headroom after Edison Carter suffered a motorcycle accident. Edison was fleeing Network 23 with evidence for his latest story. Bryce Lynch secretly locked away on his private floor, accessed the building’s security system, and activated the parking garage gate systems to make Edison Carter crash his motorcycle. The last thing Edison saw as he was going over the handlebars of his bike was a gate barrier arm that read max headroom, which his head struck with great force. Edison’s unconscious body was retrieved and brought to Bryce’s laboratory, where his mind was digitized to find out what Edison had discovered, thus creating his digital alter ego Max Headroom.
Before this, I didn’t know where the Max Headroom persona blossomed from. Now I had my answer. But as I was researching for this article, I found out that Max Headroom premiered two years earlier in the United Kingdom as a host of a video music program titled “The Max Headroom Show.” To UK audiences’ context to the persona, a one-hour “Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future” special was produced that told his origin story. This special was later reworked for American audiences and became the premiere episode of what I sat down to watch in 1987.
Max Headroom opened up a whole new world to me, the dystopian future of cyberpunk. It certainly wasn’t the first to shine a light on this emerging genre. Movies like Blade Runner and the novel Hardwired written by Jon Williams preceded the show. I wouldn’t fully embrace the genre until I was introduced to the Cyberpunk 2020 roleplaying game years later. When I envision a Cyberpunk world, “Max Headroom” always dominates its images. With only 20 episodes between the two seasons, Max Headroom is jam-packed full of cyberpunk goodness to harvest for any cyberpunk game.
If we look at the characters in the show, we can equate them to Cyberpunk 2020 character classes. Edison Carter is a Media, while Theora Jones and Byrce Lynch could be considered Netrunners, though netrunning in the show is portrayed differently than in the game. Murray McKenzie and Ben Cheviot are corporates, while Rik, a supporting character in a few episodes, is a fixer—providing Edison with street information. Blank Reg is a bit outside the classes. With his punk attitude and disdain for law and order, I think of him as a nomad fighting the establishment with his mobile television station.
Technology in Max Headroom is not that far advanced—say 20 minutes into the future. The aesthetics of the technology is a lot like Terry Gillian’s movie Brazil. It is a fusion of futuristic and antiquated technology—manual typewriter keyboards linked to CRT computer monitors. The landscapes are similar in style—debris-covered streets, bombed-out buildings, small fires here and there or in metal barrels, eclectic wardrobes on dirty faces, steam pipe-filled locations, buttons, knobs, switches, anything that adds texture to the set is used. Vehicles are given a streamlined look, but their technology is no more advanced than modern-day (the 1980s). Edison Carter was often transported to and from the network by a modern-day-looking helicopter. The overall feel of Max Headroom is a mixture of grime, technology with analog workings, and dramatic lighting.
The show portrays a lot of corporate greed and its control over the masses. It is illegal for television sets to have an off switch in this world. Televisions run 24/7, with 10,000 channels broadcasting mostly poorly produced shows. For broadcasting networks like 23, ratings are everything. They are so crucial that some executives will go to any length to hold the viewer’s attention. For instance, in the first episode of the series “Blipverts,” Network 23 develops a thirty-second commercial compressed into three seconds for their largest client, the Zik-Zak corporation, to prevent channel switching. When viewed by sedimentary viewers, it causes the minor charge of electricity within the human body to excite and amplify until the viewer explodes. When Network 23 corporates discover the side effect, they dismiss it and cover it up.
We see corporate greed again in the episode “Academy.” Network 66, a rival of Network 23, has a new show called Prodigy. It’s a quiz show featuring brilliant young children as the contestants. To sustain its talent pool, Network 66 kidnapped genetically manipulated babies born in grobags, an alternative to traditional pregnancy and birth, without the parents knowing it, all in the name of ratings.
Television in this future is everything. Sets are given out to the needy or to anyone who needs one. The populace is addicted to its flashing images either by choice or design. In the episode “Whackets” a building collapses in a slum area known as the Fringes. Survivors scramble to save their buried television sets, broadcasting a show with hidden subliminal euphoric messages. Removing all televised broadcasts like in the episode “Blanks” caused significant confusion and anxiety among the population. Those who control the airwaves control the masses.
There is so much more to pull from this show. In episode “Rakers,” we are introduced to an underground sport called Raking, a sport created by street punks. Two combatants ride motorized skateboards in a bowl or empty swimming pool arena, attacking each other with metal claws strapped to their hands. The winner is the one that can walk away alive—the audience cheers and bets on the combatants.
Another great takeaway from the show is Body Banks. Body Banks are repositories for harvesting body parts from dead bodies. People are paid well for dropping off bodies, more if they are well-known. It is a gruesome way to earn money fast and easy pickings on the outer fringes of society where people won’t be missed.
If you’re looking for stuff to use with a corporation, the Zik-Zak corporation featured in the show is a great template to work off of. The Zik-Zak corporation is the biggest company globally, headquartered in New Tokyo. They produce many different products and are a big sponsor of network television. The corporation is always looking for new ways to sell its products. They’ve used Blipverts in the premiere episode, which we already covered. They also used Neurostim Bracelets to get people to purchase their products, as seen in “Neurostim.” Zik-Zak sold Neurostim Bracelets alongside hamburgers and fries at their restaurants. When worn and activated, the bracelet implants euphoric messages directly to the brain with an underlining urge to purchase more of their products. The Zik-Zak corporation isn’t all that bad. They are credited with creating an annual festival, as seen in the episode “Lessons.” Each year the Zik-Zak corporation shoots down one of their old orbiting satellites, causing a colorful shower of debris to fall back to earth. The populace celebrates this annual event as the Sky Clearance Festival. People dress up with wide-brimmed hats or wide umbrellas, gather in the streets for festivities, and collect the fallen debris.
If you’re looking for interesting personalities, the show has a lot of great characters. Take, for example, Blank Reg, the owner of Big Time Television. He’s a blank, a person who has removed their identity from the computer systems to make themself untraceable. Reg is a mohawk-wearing, aging anarchist who still adheres to a punk lifestyle. He and his wife, Dominique, cart around in their pink bus, the broadcasting center for Big Time Television. Reg is the show’s foot into the past. The character often reminisces about the old days and anchors the past with the future. He appears in several episodes, and actor W. Morgan Sheppard who portrays Reg, was also in the original UK broadcast as a different character. There are other great characters to pull out of the show, but Reg is by far my favorite.
Rewatching the show after many years, it still holds up mostly. The futuristic technology is obviously outdated when compared to our modern standards. There are no cellphones or flat-screen televisions to be seen. Many of Edison’s troubles stem from the loss of communication with his controller. If he had a modern-day smartphone, he could easily communicate, record, and broadcast his show instead of luging around his sizeable clunky video camera that acts as his communication device to his controller.
The world of Max Headroom can easily fit into a cyberpunk roleplaying world. Lifting the show’s stories directly is the easiest way to create a campaign around a Media character. If you don’t want to be that obvious, use some or all the ideas I’ve outlined above. Watch the series yourself and gather more. There is still a lot more content to cherry-pick, like paying law enforcement to start an investigation for a missing person. Yes, the show can come across as dated, but back in 1987, we were only going 20 minutes into the future.
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