No Talking, Just Headroom

Adam Clarke was disappointed by the newly-released Max Headroom DVDs because Skeletor hurt his feelings.

Nostalgia can be a very dangerous thing.

I once had tremendously fond memories of He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe. I was captivated by murky recollections of an evil sorcerer with a skull for a head threatening humanity with an army of grotesques atop a great castle in his shadow realm. He-Man, in my mind, was a dark cartoon that would not shy away from pulpy thrills.

When I was twelve, I dug out a box of old VHS’ full of He-Man episodes taped off NTV. I don’t think I could have been more excited unless the tape had nipples on it (again, I was twelve).

When the first tape began with a shot of Castle Greyskull, I felt a chill. Monsters and mutants were everywhere, each doubtlessly plotting to dismember He-Man. Then, a hush falls over the monsters as Skeletor, the granddaddy of badness himself, rises from his throne and announces his latest scheme.

“We’re going to cancel the circus,” he says.

Yes, the despot of a sci-fi medieval Hell was going to get his nemesis once and for all by cancelling the circus. Just like Idi Amin did. No, wait. That was genocide. My bad.

What? Had my childhood lied? I’m afraid so. He-Man wasn’t a stylized piece of ultra-violence, but a colourfully idiotic diversion starring an ensemble cast of barely-animated hunks of plastic. Not unlike Desperate Housewives

Ever since that disappointment, I’ve become exceedingly leary of re-watching fuzzily-remembered films and series I enjoyed in the past. Sure, there are plenty of TV relics that still stand the test of time, but my He-Man experience loomed strongly in my mind when I picked up the newly-released Max Headroom: The Complete Series DVDs.

Headroom, if you recall, was a much-buzzed about piece of visual trickery. The character was supposed to be the first entirely computer generated TV personality, but was actually Canadian actor Matt Frewer under pounds of latex. When the pseudo-CGI character made his debut in the 1985 telemovie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future, it turned out to be something of a hit. Soon Max was all over the place, introducing music videos, recording novelty jingles, hosting a chat show and hawking New Coke to a bewildered public. A TV series that picked up where the telemovie left off premiered in 1987 and was cancelled the following year. Despite such blips as an infamous PBS station hijacking involving a Headroom impersonator and the promised Max Headroom For President film, the character had vanished from the public consciousness.

Now, in the Summer of 2010, Max Headroom’s back! Yes, those wonderful Pog-like pieces of data storage we call DVDs now have Max’s glory days forever lazered into them. The results are something of a mixed bag.

First off, the title is something of a misnomer, as this set doesn’t feature the UK telefilm nor any of Max’s iconic pop culture appearances. Instead, we have a decent set that collects all 14 episodes of the US series.

Secondly, Max Headroom himself is absent from all of the special features. Yes, despite interviews in which the show’s creators and staff credit Headroom for inventing all that we hold dear, Matt Frewer is nowhere to be found. Sure, we have to make allowances for scheduling conflicts, but a few words with the man whose facial tics, quirky voice and improvised one-liners made the character such a success. He would’ve brought some much needed levity as the disc’s subjects race to see who can give themselves the biggest pat on the back.

As for the series proper, each episode takes place “20 Minutes Into The Future”. The setting is a bombed-out American city that’s home to several of the major TV Networks. Televisions are everywhere, as it’s now illegal to turn them off. TV execs and advertizing agencies hold all the power. It’s up to crusading TV reporter Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) to keep the public informed despite hour after hour of mindless fare like fatal sports, addictive game shows and the long-running soap opera “Porky’s Landing”.

Carter’s hard-hitting reports are a regular thorn in the sides of his employers at Network 23, but his ratings are high enough so that they let him live. That is until somebody comes up with the bright idea of murdering Carter and replacing him with an easy-to-manage digital facsimile. Mayhem ensues as the TV journo unexpectedly recovers from a near-fatal attack, while his computer generated double is even harder to placate than Carter was in meatspace.

So, with his employer having put a hit on him, what does the intrepid Carter do? He goes straight back to work, meeting the digital duplicate named Max Headroom and exposing ruthless network head Ned Grossberg (Charles Rocket) as the real villain behind-the-scenes. With order restored at Network 23, Carter teams up with his sexy producer Theora (Amanda Pays), his neurotic editor Murray (Jeffrey Tambor), a nerdy whizkid Bryce (Chris Young) and Carter’s stuttering, wise-cracking, online duplicate to solve crimes each and every week!

If I sound unimpressed by Headroom, it’s because the He-Man-effect has struck again. Despite some neat concepts, surprisingly effective special effects and a decent cast, the series never coheres into anything. When I first watched Max Headroom, the series rewarded me for getting its pop culture references and sci-fi satire. Having seen the series after more than a decade, the whole series is nearly derailed by its own laziness.

Is Edison Carter actually reaching anyone? Is Max merely his id or are they both expressions of each other? Why is a romantic tension written between Edison and Theora, if it’s only going to be written out the following season? Why did they insist on filming that creepy scene where he non-chalantly sniffs Theora’s hair upon first meeting her? How does this TV-based political system work, exactly? Is Murray a bumbling oaf in over his head or a genuinely good “old hand” reporter? If the porn version of Max Headroom is the busty Maxine Headroom, is her alter-ego known as Edison Twinz? These questions and many others will be raised and summarily dismissed at nearly every opportunity in the series.

The prime offender for lazy characterization is, surprisingly, Max. Even in his own show, the poor pseudo-sprite is sidelined in the bulk of the episodes in favour of his human pals. Despite the promising idea of an emotionally distant newsman having his id run rampant on global television without a censor, Max Headroom is mostly written as a child-like version of Edison Carter after the first few episodes. Is there a greater indignity than going from the lead in a series to its Scrappy Doo in a matter of weeks? Worse still, when Carter and Headroom do end up discussing the nature of identity and their predicament, it’s in the weakest episode the series has to offer (“Neurostim”) and is never brought up again.

There are a handful of great stories here and some even benefit from strong characterization. The obvious highlights involve Carter running into a former colleague whose destruction he and Murray may have caused (“Dream Thieves”), subliminal ads that cause the obese and elderly to explode (“Blipverts”), Carter illegally trying to supply lower-class children with PayTV education tapes (“Lessons”), a religious cult that promises immortality through videotape (“Deities”) and Carter having his identity erased when he runs afoul of a corrupt security company (“Security Systems”).

Niggles like this aside, it was nice to see the series again, albeit mostly for nostalgia. Max Headroom‘s a curious series, as it always seems to be on the verge of greatness without ever reaching it. Even though the aforementioned episodes are really quite good, the show stumbles a few too many times in its two short seasons for me to fully recommend it. It’s not a series that was “brilliant but cancelled” so much as “clever and justly forgotten”.