In 1984 I joined Intel as their graphic workstations were shrinking from video arcade sized units to large desktop computers. In my spare time, I sometimes played with a Commodore64 and saved quarters for Space Invaders. The first IBM personal computer did not roll out until the following year.
That was the state of technology when Max Headroom was born. The creation of a British trio, George Stone, Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton, Max was an artificially intelligent, disembodied personality who lived in cyberspace before the term was coined. Computer animation wasn’t advanced enough to portray the computerized look the group was after, so filming Max required a four hour makeup session that actor Matt Frewer described as “a very painful, torturous and disgusting enterprise.”
Rocky Morton described Max as a “very sterile, arrogant, Western personification of the middle-class, male TV host,” but he was also “media-wise and gleefully disrespectful,” which endeared him to younger viewers.
Max appeared on American TV in 1987, as a talking head – literally – in a TV newsroom in a dystopian near-future dominated by large corporations and television. Although he became a spokesman for “The New Coke,” and appeared on Sesame Street, only 13 shows aired.
Part of the problem was that Max was down right irritating, with his visual and vocal stutter and an op-art background that was the best computer animation could do at the time. Here is a 3o second sample from his Coke commercial:
The fact remains that Max Headroom was decades ahead of his time. In one episode, for instance, terrorists blow up all TV towers in the city, pushing the population to riot when they find they have nothing to watch. In the nick of time, city officials pacify everyone by distributing hand-held video viewers loaded with old reruns.
Remember, this was 1987, when the best technology Hollywood had to offer wasn’t enough to capture the vision of Max’s creators.
So what brought Max Headroom to mind right now? Beyond Max’s “dystopian future dominated by large corporation and television” that is. Why today, December 3, 2012?
Yesterday, after a series of storms, I ventured out to the supermarket and walked in just as they played the Christmas carol holiday song I hate most, “Little Saint Nick,” by the Beach Boys. I had to compliment the store, however – the sound was just barely audible. Not loud enough to cause real annoyance, I thought, but enough to keep silence at bay, which might cause people to riot.
That brought Max to mind. “Ha-ha-ha-happy Ho-ho-holidays, everyone.”