The Rise and Fall of Max Headroom

by Michael Synergy
Reprinted from Mondo 2000 No. 1, Reality Hackers No. 7, Fall 1989, p. 67-73

Michael Synergy talks to Peter Wagg and Steve Roberts

Cyberpunk television. The literary cyberpunk movement has deep roots – Bester, Delany, Burroughs, even Toffler’s Future Shock. But other media have little heritage to build upon – with notable exceptions: The Prisoner episodes seen on television, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Out of this relative vacuum Max Headroom has emerged as the premier expression of cyberpunk.

You could see cyberpunk as a dystopian view of the effects of technology and trace its antecedents as far back as H.G. Wells or Sir Thomas More. While that sector of the population that still reads can appreciate cyberpunk, both Max and The Prisoner saw little success; and Blade Runner, while a cult classic, did not fare well at the box office.

Peter Wagg was the producer for the original British Max Headroom and the later American version. Steve Roberts wrote the original screenplay for the British version and the main body of the American episodes. Both of these men have produced a glimpse of what may come, a technically dazzling view of the murky future. They have taken trend analysis and shown how apparent technological advances could turn out to be appallingly retrograde. Organ transplants, for example, would instantly create a black market for vital organs.

Their mordant genius has not struck a responsive chord in prime-time TV. Their vision is too piercing, too unpalatable for middle America. It addresses a new mutation, a new segment of humanity that has not yet been counted and will resist any attempt at a census. Sadly though, this means that we are deprived of the continuing adventures of Max or Number 6.

But the geniuses behind this look at the proximate future are still producing – and have their vision which they are bound to share with us, or at least those of us who look through mirrorshades.

– Michael Synergy

Michael Synergy interviewed Peter Wagg and Steve Roberts separately by telephone. We’ve spliced them together along with outtakes from the original Max Headroom script.

THE R-R-R-RISE OF MAX

“Oh, yes”, said Bryce. “But you know it really isn’t my problem. My brief was to stop channel switching. I mean I only invent the bomb – I don’t drop it. Ha ha!”

If you live in Iowa and watch Dallas every week , you tune into Max and you think you’ve got some Russian satellite station!

MONDO 2000: How did the Max idea originate?

STEVE ROBERTS: The idea originated with a request to my friend, Peter Wagg, from Channel 4 in England. They asked him to put together an original pop video show of some sort. They’d tried it all; fat men, thin men, the whole circus – they were always trying all kinds of people as VJ’s. Anyway, I was standing in a pub, which is where all the best ideas happen in England, with a guy called George Stone, and someone suggested having some sort of a computer-generated figure. Nothing more than that notion.

Then, in order to introduce the character, it was suggested that a short film, almost a cartoon, be made. We were going to show in 5-10 minutes how this character comes to life. But Peter Wagg realized that here was a story that had all kinds of other
values. So he suggested that this become a one-hour piece that would air just before the start of a new pop video series.

At this point, Peter talked to Colin Wilson. We were interested in his understanding of all the left-brain and right-brain stuff, because we figured we were dividing the main character up between his conscious mind and his subconscious mind… or something like that. We didn’t really know, but we knew Colin would help. So we trekked off to Gorenhaven in remote Cornwall to meet with Colin… it was great. We stayed in the world’s worst hotel.

It was run like Fawlty Towers. We had two or three meetings with Colin in the evenings, not only on the mind, but also on how to bend it – in this case by providing quantities of fine wine, one of his many areas of expertise. During the day we would sit drinking on a terrace at the hotel and throw around ideas. It was there that all these characters like Brueghel and Mahler and Bryce started to evolve.

M2: And, of course, the Bryce character changed from a Mad Scientist into a pubescent computer hacker because of Colin Wilson’s son.

SR: Absolutely. Colin Wilson said, “My son has had an idea. He thinks Bryce should be fifteen,” and we all jumped up and down and said, “Hey, that’s great!” I had a marvelous time writing it, because I just sort of let loose and Max popped out.

Max Headroom was born. Across the sad ghettos his face flickered on a thousand screens. This weird, funny, erratic, unpredictable, iconoclastic figure tickled the parched imaginations of the thousands of derelicts who gathered for warmth around the video campfires of the city.

M2: The original British one-hour program we saw here in the U.S. on Cinemax, which involved some work by Colin Wilson, was really the best Max Headroom program, I think. Most of the sci-fi crowd prefer the purity of the original British episode.

PETER WAGG: Well, I do too. The British one was a very, very special piece of work for all of us and we were all intensely proud of it. And, in fact, when you called I was watching it to show someone the difference between that and what we did over here. I’m also proud, though, of the first one hour that we did in this country, for a different reason. I dreaded, frankly, remaking something that, in all our eyes, seemed the ultimate thing that we wanted to do. But, of course, the English show was designed specifically to be an introduction to Max as the VJ of a half-hour rock video show, a sort of pilot for a video clip show. Consequently, you have the story of Big Time Television and how Max goes to Big Time and becomes an on-air video jockey. It was 57 minutes long, and an American network TV hour is 46 minutes. So, to start, we had to cut 11 minutes. Also we had to set up what would be a pilot for a weekly one-hour series of Edison Carter/Max Headroom shows. So we obviously had to have Max and Edison meet – we had to set up what the audience could expect to see every week. So these were two very distinct challenges, if you like. Consequently, we changed the story about halfway through to rinse out Big Time, which was superfluous to the story we had to tell, although we introduced it in show two. No way were we going to lose Reg and Dom… but we had to Americanize it to a degree.

M2: Are you completely happy with the shows that have aired in America?

PW: Oh yeah.

“Listen Ben” said Grossman , “Bryce is a problem. Now that he’s on to this ‘Computer Generated People’ business he doesn’t want to know about Blipverts. He thinks his parrot programme is some sort of breakthrough.”

THE FALL OF M-M-M-MAX

"Ma ma ma ma mamamamama ma max max Headroom mamamama… " gibbered the image. Grossman stared like a frog facing a watersnake.

“Max Headroom! What the hell ? Goddamn it! Get that babbling clown off the screen. Kill it. What kind of a screw up is this, Bryce? Is this a joke!”

Grossman jabbed at the keyboard.

“Leave him alone. Don’t you dare touch him.”

“Him!” boggled Grossman. “Him? This junk is a machine. It is not Edison Carter. It is a computer-generated geek!”

M2: Was the cancellation due to poor ratings alone?

PW: Yes… just the ratings. I mean, my relationship with ABC was extremely positive, very productive… and I’m not just trying to sound like a producer being gracious. Brandon Stoddard is, to my mind, a real producer’s president. Tie inspires you. He motivates you and gets excited by what you’re doing. He gave me full license with the show. He would always say to me, “Just do what you want to do.” And we did. You can ask Steve Roberts the same question. We really did do the show as we wanted to.

M2: The cyberpunk underground assumed that it was probably too sophisticated for the general viewing audience.

PW: Well, as they like to say in America, the bottom line was we just weren’t getting the ratings. Which can mean many different things. There are only 1,200 homes that carried the “people meters” (formerly Nielsen boxes). It seems to me that when you have 1,200 people responsible for the rating system and you’ve got 25 million Americans – it’s not a true reflection of what people are really watching. So, to me, the rating system has some real inadequacies.

But it is the system and you live and die by it.

I definitely think the show was ahead of its time. If you live in Iowa and watch Dallas every week, you tune into Max and you think you’ve tuned into some Russian satellite station! And you’d flick over to Miami Vice or whatever feels more comfortable… or at least those 1,200 people felt more comfortable. Obviously, we were stronger in areas like New York, Chicago, L.A. But we tried to do something that was sophisticated and intelligent. Stories that were told in a whole new language – mixing videotapes, film and graphics. And it was a shock to the system. People either loved it or they just didn’t get it.

…he heard the morning television shows ebb and flow as the doors passed by… “Mr. Beefies Bisonburger injected at source with all the relishes… Hello Nyasaland welcome to global Song of the Century…” The camera swung up the stairs of the dreadful , spiritless ghetto. A huge distorted face filled the screen as a woman stared into the camera and bent to collect something from the floor… “Asian Premier Kysoty reports full foodbanks for the next quarter… and now from Zikzak , the world’s biggest corporation , comes ‘Musquash’ a combined fly-killer and deodorant…”

M2: Personally, I felt you were addressing – with the language and the feel of the show – the counterculture that I’m a part of. So for me, it was a fantastically fun show to watch.

PW: I just think, “Face it! They just couldn’t understand it.” Also, you had to watch from the moment it started until the moment it finished. You couldn’t dip in and out of it. It was a very layered show; you could videotape it and rewatch a few times and pick up lots of things you’d missed. I felt very proud of it, as did the crew, the cast. Everybody; the studio, the network. But some people just couldn’t get inside of it.

M2: It’s interesting that Max Headroom could be on the cover of Newsweek magazine and, in a few short months, completely disappear off the face of the earth.

PW: Yeah. It’s a very transient world. New people are coming in all the time, new shows – just like rock ‘n’ roll. It moves on. I still get stacks and stacks of fan mail. Clearly, there’s an awful lot of people out there that would love to see Max back, in some shape or form.

He switched off the erratically rotating globe which bore the legend ‘Big Time Television.’

“You are tuned into the wired society. This is Big Time Television , day after day making tomorrow seem like yesterday.”

Expressionless faces stared at his face crackling over the illegal airwaves.

“You know we said there is no future?” he continued cheerfully, “Well, this is it.”

BREAKTHROUGH TV

The controller traced the reporter’s position with his cursor. He spoke swift instructions to a pilot 8,000 miles away. Beyond him another controller hunched over his desk. “Your satellite will be over the horizon in two-five seconds.”

While another, arms raised in horror yelled, “Annie, I know it’s an important interview but you can’t just smash the window in. I mean, holy shit, it’s the Vatican!”

PW: I’ve sadly gotten out of the habit of talking about Max… but I could talk for a week about it, I love it so much. It really was so – it’s an overused expression, now – but we coined the term “cutting edge” for Max. My nickname from the crew was “Breakthrough,” because I always used to call it Breakthrough TV. We consciously tried not to make every show a total satire of television since, ultimately, that would get a bit boring. We tried instead to do really good TV… take relevant present-day subjects and just extrapolate them a bit, push them twenty minutes into the future. We’d take a story… do you remember that Captain Midnight guy?

M2: We ran a piece on pirate TV a few issues back.

PW: I mean, that was a natural. The writers were briefed by Captain Midnight about satellite pirating. That became Academy, the first American show. And we took present-day artificial childbirth techniques and computer security systems… and just set them into the context of the show.

Deep in the many-levelled basement of the network tower an armored van stood amid scattered wreckage. Close by it, poking about among a macabre selection of items was Mahler. Around his waist were strung the plastic bags into which he sorted severed limbs of accident victims.

Within the van, Brueghel, his partner, a thin reed of a creature, an insect beside Mahler’s blubbery frame – replaced a handset on its rack.

“Yes sir, there will be the usual expenses?”

“Got a nice accident?” asked Mahler, ever eager to ply his trade.

HERE COMES CYBERFORCE!

“Picture good. Balance fine. Your link locked and strong. I’m cutting up time code.” Carter was carrying his camera low in one hand. The picture was clear. It seemed to skim over the ground, its eye noting debris and filth on the streets, now and then catching darting, furtive figures. Carter was in one part of the vast dereliction that was the city. In this dangerous world Gorrister was more than a trained technician handling the battered but complex machinery of the great satellite links. He was at Carter’s side – ahead, behind and above him.

Whatever Carter’s camera saw was transmitted back to Gorrister.

M2: What’s your current project going to be about?

PW: The current project is called Cyberforce. Last summer, ABC asked me to go and watch RoboCop. They felt there were lots of Max elements in it, and because it was a very complexly stylized show it would require interesting special effects and graphics. They thought I might be able to come up with some things that would work on television. So we came up with Cyberforce. We’re just about to submit a one- hour script of what would be the first show and depending on how that goes down, they may give us permission to start in April of this year.

M2: Will this be sort of the same flavor as Max Headroom?

PW: Well, it’s a little bit like Max. It’s a futuristic show but not really science fiction. It takes place in a very near future. Syd Mead, who worked with Ridley Scott on the look of Blade Runner, and also worked on the Short Circuit robot, has designed the four cybernetic characters that are the cyberforce. He’ll be working on the environment too, which will be like Blade Runner – the look of L.A. in the year 2000. So it has got all those edges. It’s about these four characters who have very special talents, enhanced mechanical capabilities.

M2: You and Peter Wagg are now working on a new show called Cyberforce.

SR: I was. In fact, we created that show together with Sam Nicholson, a guy who worked on Max Headroom doing special effects. We put the show together as a concept, and I wrote a two-hour script. But I think the network found it hard to swallow. So I left the show to do another show of my own. I’m also working on the movie, Macrochip, with Peter, John Shirley and Bill Gibson.

“Low at one hundred and fifteen million” intoned Edwards , “High at two hundred and thirty six million. That keeps us top network. Projections for the next hour are excellent.”

THE CYBERPUNK CONNECTION

“I wonder,” ingratiated Grossman , “if you could spare a moment to illustrate to the Board here this little hitch on Blipverts ?”

Bryce groaned, fiddled off-screen, and his image was replaced by a computer graphic of a typical consumer watching a television screen. “Well, put simply,” sighed Bryce, “the human body has millions of nerve endings. Each carries a tiny electrical charge, which, when added together, becomes a surprisingly large charge. Normally people just burn it off. But in inactive people it builds up. Now, because I designed Blipverts to compress thirty seconds of advertising, it appears that the brain violently stimulates these nerve endings simultaneously. In some subjects, this causes a short circuit. Some particularly slothful perpetual viewers literally explode. Simple as that.”

M2: Do you have any connections with cyberpunk? John Shirley, who has worked on some Max Headroom scripts, is associated with this movement and authors like William Gibson…

PW: I’m working on a film, actually, at the moment, with William and John.

M2: Based on New Rose Hotel?

PW: No, no. This one is called Macrochip.

M2: Can you talk about Macrochip at all?

SR: Ummm… well, I can to this extent – we have now developed a story that we think is quintessential cyberpunk. It deals with the kinds of elements that everyone knows from the work of John Shirley and William Gibson. Hopefully it brings them into a form that will be digestible to the public. It concerns a near future where national boundaries have totally evaporated. The world is run by 30 megacorporations – essentially enormous economic nation-states. If this hasn’t already happened, it certainly will. Each of these is so complex that it can’t possibly be controlled by human beings any more. So each of these corporations has a computer, run by a chip that is, in fact, the downloaded mind of the C.E.O. – the chief executive officer, repository of all wisdom! As we all know, C.E.O.'s are wiser than God. The story concerns how one of these men manages to get a number of these chips onto one chip, called the Macrochip. This becomes the center of some special attention for the people from whom he stole it. Secondly, some street-level, very cyberpunk characters want to get their hands on it. So this cyberpunk guy, Yoshio, gets hold of the Macrochip and starts doublecrossing everybody in sight. There’s a good guy/bad guy scenario. The good guy, whose name is Kendall, has been in prison. My version of prison in the future is that you simply have your mind downloaded and switched off for two years, then you’re given it back.

Television is the greatest cyberpunk invention of all time. It is, at once, magnificent and horrific.

M2: Was the original episode of Max in any way influenced by Ridley Scott’s work. Blade Runner?

PW: Oh, totally. Totally. The reference points for the English ones were Blade Runner meets Network. And The Prisoner as well. In fact, Ridley was lined up to direct the British version, but couldn’t because of contractual problems.

M2: What exposure to the scene that you were addressing – hackers, cyberpunk and so forth – did you have before you did the script?

SR: Absolutely none at all. I just made it up as I went along, really. Cyberpunk has more to do with a way of thinking than with following a particular bible. It was only after writing the first three or four episodes that I actually read Bill Gibson’s Neuromancer. And absolutely erupted: “Great God! This is amazing! I’d give my right arm to be able to write the stuff this man Gibson has written.” I didn’t know at the time who he was. I didn’t have a clue that it could wind up that he and John Shirley and I were furiously writing in exactly the same style. It was in no way derivative. It just seemed appropriate to the subject – all of us by some kind of osmosis.

M2: You mentioned that you don’t necessarily see cyberpunk as a movement but more as a set of ideas. What do you see as being cyberpunk’s themes or philosophy?

SR: If there was a movement happening, this movement appeared to be on auto-pilot. There was no organizing body promoting the concept of cyberpunk. In terms of Max Headroom, it seemed to be a way of addressing social problems through entertainment. Science fiction has done that at a very high level, it seems to me, for decades. The best science fiction is that which says, “All is not what it seems,” and “Rethink and reconsider who and what you are, your position in the universe and on the planet.” It’s kind of a shift in perspective that gives you instant philosophy – just add water and joie de vivre. As far as Max was concerned, everything we did was an extrapolation.

I think this was the key. I mean, it fascinated me just to think about organ banks. And it struck me straightaway that in an immediate future – twenty minutes into the future if you like – there are people going around killing people to get organs. Of course, the movie Coma covered that, and various other stories have. But I get the feeling that cyberpunk may be about extrapolating, with a tremendous sense of reality, a truly appalling and possible near future. In one of the shows, “Dream Feat,” people were taken into a place, paid money, and had their dreams recorded. And the recordings were sold to the public. Now that struck me as being a very interesting metaphor for the way things happen in entertainment. In other words, taking people’s dreams, getting right into the inner sanctum of their souls, extracting it and selling it on the market as a commodity. Imagine: you could have deeply erotic dreams, deeply fascinating dreams, psychically disturbing dreams. So it’s extrapolation. Everybody in the “cyberpunk movement” seems to be working that way. It seems to me a very dark view of the world, but probably a very deserved one.

But what I love about Gibson and Shirley is that they, themselves, are such delightful folk. You don’t get a sense of foreboding and horror and hand-wringing from them. What you get is delicious humor.And I think that’s what we were doing with Max as well. Max perceived the world humorously. People who enjoy this kind of work have this same sense of humor – an extremely wry, ironic, satirical view of the world. This may not rest easy with most audiences. Nevertheless, this is not a didactic exercise. It is, in fact, entertainment which dares to be more than that. Entertainment with all the corners filled in. I think that’s what a lot of cyberpunk writing is. And I just hope to God that people will grasp this and realize that this is what can be done for television. Television is the greatest cyberpunk invention of all time. It is, at once, magnificent and horrific. And I think those of us who work in it should have a sense of our responsibility for extending that. I hope that people like Gibson and Shirley are encouraged to come into this extraordinary business of television. What they bring is so valuable – and they don’t preach. Their intention might be didactic but they disguise it extremely well. Actually, my suspicion is that they simply write what they see and think, and the rest of us sit back and marvel.

As Bryce set up the system he explained that he had so far only worked on the head. Not only was the body massively complex to generate, on a television screen only the head was needed. The rest was assumed.

Grossman wasn’t so sure.

“I see it as the future, Mr. Grossman. People translated as data.”


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