Mini-review: Halt and Catch Fire 1×1 (AMC)

Dramatising the reverse engineering of the IBM PC BIOS

In the US: Sundays, 10/9c, AMC

Of all the events in history you might have expected to have seen dramatised on TV, the quest in the early 1980s to develop 100% IBM PC-compatible computers by reverse engineering IBM’s proprietary BIOS chip probably wasn’t one of them. Leave it to AMC, then, to expand the envelope, because here we have Halt and Catch Fire – named after an obscure assembly language instruction – which seeks to do just that.

Starring Lee Pace of Pushing Daisies as Joe MacMillan (the Steve Jobs of the piece), Scott McNairy as Gordon Clark (the Steve Wozniak), it sees former IBM salesman MacMillan go rogue and turn up at a fictitious Texan computer company a year later. There he meets Clark and persuades him to help him build a PC-compatible. Along the way, he’s also recruited a bright young engineer, Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) who’ll help them both to make MacMillan’s dreams a reality.

And actually, it’s very good. While Silicon Valley and the BBC’s similar Micro Men decided to take the comic route to deal with computers, this is as serious and as hardcore as AMC’s Mad Men. Although it’s not based on a real company or people, it draws elements from real events to look at the somewhat overlooked Texas companies that helped to create the PC revolution and recreates the early 80s as convincingly as The Americans, albeit that portion of the 80s that led to Tron, right down to the synthesiser incidental music and theme tune. Lee Pace is compelling as the visionary and ruthless MacMillan, who’s prepared to destroy an entire company to get what he wants. The technical details are impressive and assume a level of knowledge in the audience, whether it’s a discussion of firmware, the use of hexadecimal notation or comments familiar to anyone in IT (“No one ever got fired for buying IBM”).

And although it’s an AMC show, this first episode actually clips along at a reasonable pace. Admittedly, the first 15 minutes or so are a bit shaky, thanks to an Armadillo accident (no, really) and Clark’s sheer lack of charisma next to MacMillan’s overwhelming personality. And Davis’ character is somewhat undermined in that after a cracking introduction that shows how bright she is, that’s initially only to show why MacMillan wants to sleep with her and his near-sociopathy.

But by the end of the episode, it becomes a compelling watch. Definitely one to stick with.

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