Lost Gems: Max Headroom (1985-1988)

Look back 25 years to 20 minutes into the future

Never, in the history of music videos, has so much effort been devoted to giving one VJ a back-story as with Max Headroom.

Picture this: it’s 1985. Music videos are big, especially thanks to the relatively shiny and new channel MTV (music television). Computers and computer graphics are also big, thanks to the Apple Mac, arcade games and movies like Tron and The Last Starfighter. So what more natural blend of coolness could there be than a computer-generated VJ?

Unfortunately, computer graphics weren’t quite up to the job back then, so Canadian actor Matt Frewer got slathered in prosthetics and make-up to become the world’s computer-generated VJ, ‘Max Headroom’, a stuttering, witty, seemingly plastic American ‘shockjock’. And he was very popular. You can still see his influence in Back To The Future 2.

But the arrival of Max Headroom for some reason required an answer to the question, "Who is Max Headroom and where does he come from?"

Bizarrely, the answer was supplied by Channel 4, who decided to cash in on a literary and movie phenomenon, ‘cyberpunk’, to create an origin movie for Max Headroom that was set ’20 minutes into the future’. Surprisingly, it was bloody good, and even more surprisingly, despite its inauspicious British origins, it launched two seasons of one of the most innovative and satirical TV sci-fi shows British and US TV has ever seen.

Here’s the start of the British movie:

Plot (of the British movie, lovingly copied from Wikipedia to save time)
The film introduces Edison Carter (Matt Frewer), a television reporter trying to expose corruption and greed. In the movie, reporter Carter discovers that his employer, Network 23, has created a new form of subliminal advertising (termed "blip-verts") that can be fatal to certain viewers.

While attempting to flee the network headquarters with proof, Edison suffers a serious head injury, caused by striking a low-clearance sign labelled "Max. Headroom". Believing him killed, the network’s chief executive orders Bryce Lynch, an adolescent genius working as a scientist for Network 23, to digitally record Carter’s mind. The recording will then be used to create a computer-based replacement for Carter in order to hide his death.

However, Bryce’s program is flawed and apparently broken — burbling "Max Headroom" over and over again (from the last object Carter saw before being knocked out, and the first thing the albeit-primitive Max says while twitching into what would become his smooth latex form). Bryce instructs his hired goons to dispose of both Carter and his virtual clone, but they simply sell them on — Carter to a body bank, and the machine copy to pirate television station owner Blank Reg.

After a bit of nurturing from Reg, the resulting program achieves a somewhat eccentric life of its own, crackling out rapid fire gags, hosting his own show, and sending Reg’s ratings through the roof.

Meanwhile, a merely unconscious Carter escapes from becoming a premature organ donor. With the help of colleague Theora Jones (Amanda Pays), and the distraction provided by Max, Carter eventually defeats Network 23.

And then what?
So there we have it: a future in which global corporations (largely television networks) run everything, where people are idiot consumers who sit and watch inane TV programmes all day while civilisation falls apart around them, in which people and computers are becoming linked. Very cyberpunk. Very surprising for a VJ’s backstory.

So good it seems was this movie that a couple of years later, the British production company, Chrysalis, that made it managed to sell a TV series version to the US TV network in ABC. Set 20 minutes into the future, the first episode is essentially the same as the British version, even including some of the same footage, except the set-up was shifted to America and slightly Americanised. Frewer remained on as Edison Carter/Max Headroom, Pays remained as Theora Jones, while the other characters were replaced by American actors, including the marvellous Jeffrey Tambor (The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development) as Carter’s neurotic but essentially decent TV producer. Bryce Lynch became a more personable nerd. Blank Reg does appear, again played by W Morgan Sheppard, but not for a few episodes.

Here’s the intro.

To explain everything, ABC also came up with this promo:

Despite the show’s title, the episodes were actually largely Max Headroom-free affairs, in which Edison Carter goes off to investigate stories and exposes corruption and corporate greed. Max himself would just hang around in the background of certain scenes, and typically finish off each episode with a "Thought for the Day" kind of monologue, sometimes about society, sometimes about TV itself.

The plots were often surprisingly prescient affairs, covering issues including identity theft, designer babies, computer viruses, reality TV and copyright theft, warning those of us in the present of what was likely to happen just 20 minutes into the future – in other words, if we didn’t act to prevent it.

Starting as a mid-season replacement in spring of 1987, the show was renewed for the fall season. However, put up against CBS’s Dallas and NBC’s Miami Vice, ratings were poor, so it was cancelled midway through the second season, with the remaining episodes burnt off in spring 1988. A planned movie was quickly abandoned. US network Cinemax went on to create its own Max Headroom Show called The Original Max Talking Headroom Show in 1987.

But that was largely the last anyone heard from Max Headroom until Channel 4’s 20th anniversary. It turns out, even computer-generated VJs age.

While it has been released on DVD (Region 1 only), it’s been discontinued, so at the moment qualifies as a Lost Gem. But if you’d like to watch the first US episode on YouTube, here you go.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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