Monday, October 4, 2010

Max Headroom: The Complete Series DVD Box Set

Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future was, without a doubt, one of my favorite TV shows of all time.

It made its debut in the spring of 1987, while I was in my senior year.  It was my first exposure to cyberpunk, and it hit me right where I lived-- the world of TV.  In this future, TV ruled everything.  Off switches were illegal, elections were decided by ratings, and television sets were provided free to the homeless-- which there were a lot of.

The story of both the character and the series used to be pretty well known, but since it has been 23 years since this show was on the air, please indulge me while I reminisce. In this world set "20 minutes into the future," Network 23's top reporter meets with an "accident" where he crashes into a parking gate, and the last thing he sees is the words "Max. headroom 2.3 m." printed on it.  In an experimental process, his brain is then downloaded into a computer, and the program of Edison's mind becomes its own person-- and thinks its name is now Max Headroom.  Once Edison recovers, we follow his adventures in this dystopian future as he chases down hot stories, while Max pops from TV screen to TV screen providing witty commentary.

The entire series itself was commentary on society in general and television in particular, and Max, being a "computer" and not a real person, could get away with saying a lot.  The show was a huge success when it was first introduced as a mid-season replacement, so when it came time for its first fall season, ABC put it up against heavyweights Dallas and Miami Vice.  Suffice to say Max Headroom was squashed within 5 weeks, and rather than try moving it back to its original timeslot, ABC just pulled the plug completely.

Max Headroom is one of those shows that I've been eagerly waiting for a DVD release, and now my wait is fiinally over.  The DVD box set is finally here.  Now for the big question-- is it good enough for this nit-picky fanboy?

The answer is a great big HELL YEAH.

It's not perfect, mind you.  Two things are conspicuously missing: the original British Channel 4 version of the pilot episode, and any appearance in the bonus materials by Matt Frewer, who played both Edison Carter and Max Headroom.  I can assume that Matt Frewer's absence is probably due to him working; if you look at his IMDB profile he's never stopped working since Max Headroom ended, and in a wonderful interview with Matt Blank promoting the DVD he has nothing but positive things to say about Max Headroom, both the character and the series.  As to the original British version not being included, although Lorimar appears to own both the ABC version and the Channel 4 version, I'd imagine Channel 4 would still have to have been paid, which was probably why it was left out.

But more importantly, here's what they did get right:

All 14 episodes are here in original broadcast order.  They're uncut-- in fact, one of the episodes had Edison saying the "s" word, which I'm sure did not go out on air in 1987!  And they look beautiful-- the picture quality is the best I've ever seen this show look.

All 14 episodes have the correct, uncut opening and closing titles as they originally aired-- which is no small thing.  When the first season was rerun on ABC leading up to the second season, they created a new opening sequence, and most of the first season episodes were rerun using that opening instead.  When TechTV ran it, they used an edited-down version of the first season opening.  On top of that, the first season had slight differences in both the opening and closing titles in four out of six episodes of their first season.  Each version is here in the right place.  So there was plenty of ways this could have been screwed up-- but it wasn't.  Great job.

The bonus features are wonderful.  We get a roundtable interview with most of the main cast, a separate interview with W. Morgan Sheppard, who played my favorite character of the series, Blank Reg, and lots of interviews with the production cast going into detail about everything, from Max's origins in the very beginning of the British version all the way up to the show's cancellation.

Even the company logo for The SHOUT! Factory at the beginning fits in perfectly, as it fades into static-- and every Max Headroom episode opened with static.  The menus show many of the computer graphics used on the computers in the show.  It's a fantastic DVD set.  

Being a completest, I have to mention the other things left off of this set.  For one thing, the Lorimar logo is removed from most of the episodes, which wouldn't be a big deal except that the final credit reads "A Chrysalis/Lakeside Production, In association with" ...which makes it feel incomplete.  Also, the previews for both the "next episode" at the end of each episode and for "Tonight, on Max Headroom" at the beginning of the episodes were left off.  I'd like to have had them on here as bonus features, but I'm not sorry they're removed from the actual episodes-- I felt they often gave away too much of the punch of many of the shows more ironic moments.

And of course, Max's final farewell is also nowhere to be seen, but I'm not too surprised about that.  I've never seen it turn up anywhere-- if I hadn't taped it when it first aired, I'd think I imagined it by now.  After the final episode and before the credits ran-- in place of the usual "next week" preview-- Max came on and, imitating Winston Churchill, said "Yes. We will fight on the beaches of Miami.  We will fight them on the sidewalks of Dallas. ... We will never, never, never, never surrender.  And if the ratings system lasts a thousand years, men will still say... this was Max Headroom's finest hour."  Apparently that was a one-time thing-- either you were there for it, or you weren't.  I'm glad I can say I was.

So in short, the parts that are missing I still have on VHS, and I can just throw them all on disc and be happy with that.

So, how does the show hold up after 23 years?  Frighteningly well.

You'd think that in our modern age of cell phones, Twitter and HDTVs that this show would look horribly dated.  Amazingly enough, it doesn't, because the show deliberately went for a retro look to begin with.  Cars have headlights from the 1950s.  Computer keyboards look like old-fashioned typewriters.  So the fact the TVs are wide tube-sets feels like just one more retro thing.  And the lack of modern technology in this future?  That's the scariest part-- it's easy to believe it was deliberately taken away by those in charge.

On seeing this series as an adult, I don't see the characters as just the rich network executives and the homeless with TVs-- I'm seeing an oligarchy where the richest 1% of the population enjoys a world they have shaped to suit themselves.  There's a mention in one episode that VHS tapes are illegal, and an entire episode dedicated to showing how education is only for those who can pay for The Pay Education Television channel, guaranteeing  that the poor masses living in the Fringes stay there, watching the advertising pumped at them nonstop and consuming what they're told to consume.  So as you watch the show unfold and see how much of these peoples lives the networks control, it's not hard to believe that just as off-switches and VCRs were made illegal, so could have been cell phones and internet access.  The only ones who can get near a computer are in Network 23; in fact, it's a bit of a shock to realize that in this society, although Edison Carter and the rest of our heroes have a conscience and try to do right by the masses who can't speak for themselves, they're still members of the privileged elite class.

Long story short:  if you missed this series in 1987, watch it now.  Rent it if you can.  Its lessons are just as relevant today as they were 23 years ago.  Maybe even more so, because 20 minutes into the future isn't that far away anymore.

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