RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Max Headroom: "Body Banks" (Episode 3)

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Max Headroom: Body Banks

Now that's more like it. "Body Banks" is what "Rakers" should have been: a gripping science fiction yarn with a cautionary twist, unexpected surprises and convincing supporting actors. It's easy to forgive that the episode actually recycles an idea from the pilot to introduce an element missing from the US show so far: Big Time Television and its owner, Blank Reg -- both crucial elements from the original British television movie.

Max Headroom Episode 3: "Body Banks"

"Body Banks" does everything right which "Rakers" did wrong. It meaningfully fleshes out the world which the pilot could only hint at. A TV report running in the background hints at a sentient orbital space cannon going haywire. "According to a government spokesman, 'I guess it fired before clearing it holster.' The rogue cannon is also suspected of being responsible last week for the loss of two network TV satellites. Quipped the spokesman: 'Maybe it just got... bored.'" Skynet, anyone?

Most of the episode's action is believably propelled by the characters' conflicting motivations. If you wanted to give Max Headroom a miss after seeing its poorly-plotted sophomore episode, "Body Banks" should get you back on board.

Max Headroom: Body BanksThe episode starts with, gasp, a new introductory sequence. The music is still the same awful guitar vs. synths assault as before, but the title sequence spends its first half setting up the show's basic concept which, given its absurdity, is both painfully necessary and yet impossible to sum up meaningfully the allotted time. (There's also a cheat where some Grossberg dialogue is voiced by Cheviot instead.)

For 30 seconds, we are bombarded with facts: Jump cuts inform us that Edison Carter is a star reporter, that his boss wanted him dead, that he had an accident, that his mind was transferred to a computer, that Edison's computer pendant has a minds of its own and that it calls itself "Max Headroom." The intro ends with Max grinning; "Two minds but with one single memory." Yes, but who are all these other people in the credits? Never mind the guy with the moustache, but that fetching black-haired woman... does she do anything beyond being gorgeous?

The Play-By-Play

This episode is good enough to deconstruct in more detail than "Rakers", so here's the play-by-play. A warning to nit-pcierks: This play-by-play takes a few minor liberties in the time line to minimize reading confusion.

We start with a ragged couple fleeing a van with a cyclopic single front light. They try to hide in the city slums called "The Fringes". In the background, we hear an Edison Carter report regarding his investigation whether the city was built on top of nuclear and chemical waste piles (spoiler: it was). Ominous mechanical breaths are mixed into the soundtrack, probably sourced from an iron lung.

Let's try to ignore how quickly night falls. When the young homeless couple starts to run from their pursuers, it's dusk. When they stumble and fall a couple of seconds later, the sky is pitch black. They are Rayna and Mel. They may wear only rags, but they are telegenic and they have grrrreat 80's hair.

Max Headroom: Body BanksThe pursuers turn out to be the same two punk goons who hauled Edison Carter's not-quite-dead carcass to a body bank in the pilot episodes. The punks' names are, no kidding, Breughel and Mahler. A fight ensues, the bad guys win and Mel is knocked out.

They pin the girl down and do something to her back with a tiny buzz saw The camera doesn't really show anything, but the girl's desperate screams and the screeching of the buzz saw quickly turn this scene into nightmare fuel. The buzz saw reads "86.2", to which Breughel responds, "Dr. Mason will be pleased. She's the very thing." He calls Nightingale's Body Bank, reports "She's close" and the punks drive away into the night with Rayna, leaving her boyfriend in the dirt.

They take the unconscious girl to Dr. Mason at the body bank. Mason works for Plantaganet, a rich magnate whose old mother is dying. Since he is filthy rich, he will do anything to extend his mother's life. Realizing that transplanting harvested fresh organs into her will only buy him so much time, he has decided to give her the "Max Headroom computer regeneration process." That's right, Plantaganet wants to turn his catatonic mother into... drum roll... Gran Headroom.

Max Headroom: Body BanksTo get Max's computer code, Plantaganet blackmails Network 23's board member Ms. Formby with the threat to expose her intimate relationship with Ben Cheviot. Cheviot is the current chairman of the network's executive board, whose paternal manners cloak a ruthless side.

Back in the Fringe, Mel regains consciousness, literally stumbles across a TV set with Edison Carter. He tries to get in touch with Edison through Network 23's newsroom, where he is brushed off.

Somebody else has designs on Max Headroom as well. The head of the Zik Zak Corporation interrupts a Network 23 board meeting with a view-phone call from New Tokyo. He complains about the discontinuation of blipverts and demands that the products of his conglomerate be presented by... yeah, you guessed it, Max.

Network 23's chairman promises to see what he can do and asks none other than Julia Formby to check up with Bryce on his "progress" with making Max Headroom a more controllable entity. Bryce is the network's teenage head of research and development who inadvertently created Max. Yes, that's the same Mrs Formby who is being blackmailed.

In the background, Edison Carter closes his broadcast with the words: "We are one of the unlucky generations. We are the children who have been left to play in the poisonous backyard our parents decided not to tell us about."

Max Headroom: Body BanksWe get reacquainted with Network 23's news room. Murray, the news producer, congratulates everybody on a great show and ends up embracing Edison Carter's controller, Theora Jones. Yeah, the same Theora he wanted to fire one episode ago. There are some nice touches in this scene: Cheviot calls in to recommend a follow-up story just moments after Murray and Theora have already discussed this as a fait accompli. After the call, Murray deadpans: "It's tough at the top. Always one step ahead."

Mrs or actually Ms Formby demands that Bryce should get Max under control and compel him to do the ads demanded by Zik Zak. Bryce tries to explain that Max is not exactly a team player: "Well, if they don't care when he comes or goes or what he says or does, fine." When pressed by Cheviot via view-phone, he suggests that Max might listen to Edison.

In the newsroom, Edison tells Theora how Max has been pestering him about their common memories: "You can't shut him up! I had to throw a blanket over him and he started talking to that!" Over the course of the episode, it becomes clear that Max is fishing for information about holes in Edison's memory which were caused by drinking binges.

Max Headroom: Body BanksWhen Theora heads home, Mel kidnaps her and brings her to Edison's apartment. Theora overpowers him shortly before her partner opens the door. After Mel explains that Breughel and Mahler are systematically hunting down homeless girls in the fringes and selling them to the body banks, Carter agrees to help him find his girlfriend (or is she his sister? It's never made clear).

At the body bank, Dr. Mason runs into a series of delays. He can't quick-freeze Rayna since another body is currently being processed in the cryogenics lab. They try to get rid of the other body, but eventually it looks like the transfer of the pituitary gland will become a direct transfer from the live donor.

Edison and Mel are searching the Fringes for a trace of Breughel and Mahler when they come across Rik. Viewed in hindsight, ignoring "Rakers" altogether in this episode might have been a good idea. However, that's the episode which introduced Rik and his ricksha. Knowing the show's penchant for godawful puns, it comes as little surprise that Rik's surname turns out to be... Shaw.

What follows is one of the few scenes in this episodes where a character does something solely because the plot requires it. Before visiting a potential source, Rik asks Edison to leave his camera outside. In the pilot, Edison was so attached to his camera that he didn't let go of it even near death. Here, he readily accepts Rik's demand and leaves his camera chained to the riksha. Of course it is stolen and sold to Blank Reg. The whole setup merely serves to get Edison and Reg face-to-face.

However, this also gives us a chance to see another bit of Theora's techno wizardry: When Edison abandons his camera, she switches her tracking mode to satellite surveillance.

Blank Reg is a weather-worn old punk with a white Mohawk and a sleeveless leopard shirt (William Morgan Sheppard). Reg runs runs a pirate TV station from out of a clunky pink van. His station ID: "Welcome to Big Time Television. All day and everyday making tomorrow seem like yesterday. Remember when we said there was no future? Well, this is it." Big-Time Television is a punk version of old-style MTV, spending its airtime broadcasting music videos from Divine and other classics.

Sheppard is a face you will immediately recognize because he has been everywhere: At the point of this writing, his IMDB entry lists 161 acting credits and by the point you read it, there will probably be another five or ten. He mostly has guested in a wide variety of TV shows. He's been both on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and in "Star Trek VI: The One Where Kirk Kisses A Man".

What makes Blank Reg immediately likable is how he trades the stolen camera for a couple of video tapes and a hardcover book. "What's that?" the thief asks him. "It's a non-volatile storage medium. It's very rare. You should have one." The thief isn't interested. Reg's joined by Dominique, his accountant and sarcastic significant other. When Edison drops by (courtesy of Rik), Reg readily surrenders the camera and invites Carter in, calling him "my son."

Meanwhile, back at the ranch... erm, Network 23.

To everybody's surprise, Max goes on the air to promote Zik Zak products in his own inimitable style: "Yes, Zik Zak. The corporation that makes you give away your money the nicer way." Once the ratings start to go up, Max really cuts loose: "Have you ever wondered why Zik Zak burgers come in plastic packs? Easy! Some of the plastic rubs off on the burger and doubles the nutritional value!"

Max Headroom: Body BanksNetwork 23's executives Ms Formby and Ben Cheviot order Bryce to get Max off the air. This turns out to be difficult, because Max is embedded so deep in the Network's computer system. Bryce explains that simply powering off all computers is not possible: "Do you realize that means losing everything that is Network 23?"

With Max listening on a nearby screen, Bryce sums it all up: "You kill the power and you're ordering the execution of the whole network." It should be reinforced at this point that the show was first broadcast in April 1987, when large LANs were still relatively uncommon.

Bryce comes up with a solution that isolates Max for a while from network broadcasts. Formby tries to use the situation to get her hands on Max Headroom's code -- that sounds even dirtier when written down.

Cheviot urges Carter to come back to the station in order to talk some sense into Max Headroom. Edison Carter weighs Rayna's fate against the network's financial interests, which Cheviot brushes off: Max "seems to think this network is some sort of toy," something the network's top brass is understandably not ready to embrace.

Max Headroom: Body BanksCarter's quest to locate Breughel and Mahler ends them up at a bar named "Caligula's", a dark dive with bellydancers and live pigs. We get a nice fight scene which ends with Edison shoving Brueghel's head against the counter and telling the punk through clenched teeth: "I want to talk business, gentlemen." Edison's plan is to get the two punks to take him to the body bank where they took Rayna. Neither the punks nor Edison seem to realize that they took this very route once before, in the pilot. The endeavor proves to be fruitless however: Dr. Mason's assistant gives the doctor a fatal injection before he can spill the beans and then kills himself.

At Network 23, Ms Formby keeps trying to get Max Headroom's "regeneration software" from Bryce. When he keeps refusing her, she kidnaps him. That's the third kidnapping in this episode. Max tracks their destination to a up-scale part of town, Sybaris condo. With a wry smile, Max announces: "I'm going to have to switch myself off. It's safer. Call it professional pride." That's probably as risque as the networks Standards and Practices Department would allow in 1987. Remember: Back then, Crockett and Tubbs were still required to sleep in separate bedrooms.

Max Headroom: Body BanksWhen Cheviot realizes at Network 23, that Carter, Bryce and Formby are all missing, the A and B plots finally intersect. Edison returns to the newsroom, finally giving Cheviot a chance to order his reporter to talk some sense into Max Headroom. When Cheviot forces Carter to choose between saving the girl and losing his job, Carter chooses the latter.

The moral backbone Edison Carter was lacking in the pilot? It's just appeared out of thin air. On the one hand, it's nice to see that Edison is not merely a likable, yet soulless newshound. On the other, Carter's concern is probably evenly distributed between the girl and the story behind her disappearance.

This scene is very smartly written, one of the highlights of the show. Instead of simply accepting Edison's resignation, Cheviot convinces his star reporter that he needs continued access to Network 23's resources and to do that, he will have to play ball by persuading Max to do the Zik Zak endorsements.

Cheviot also gets to sum up the entire Max/Edison conundrum in a few sentences: Two people with similarly volatile personalities one common set of memories, living in separate worlds. He does this very elegantly without making it sound like exposition.

Max Headroom: Body BanksCarter asks Theora to contact Max, who notes: "That's odd. he's not in his file." They then try to locate Bryce, with similar results. Theora traces Max's route until she finds him in the Accounts department, trying to get out via an open port. Max agrees to do the Zik Zak spots in turn for some information: "One, why is there a fuzzy hole in my memory banks and two, what is drinking?" When Edison explains he got wrecked at a graduation party, Max retorts: "In that case, how many times did you graduate?"

At Sybaris condo, Bryce briefly grows a moral backbone as well. When told to replicate the old woman's mind just like he has done with Edison, his response is: "That girl's alive. You can't... I mean..." Bryce accesses his home terminal via remote to retrieve the regeneration program -- also using the Accounts department. Through this link, Bryce manages to communicate his whereabouts to Edison, who commandeers a helicopter to Sybaris condo.

Edison and Mel crash into the operating room. They save Rayna, kill the catatonic mother and link up to Network 23 to deliver a special edition of the Edison Carter Show, live and direct from the crime scene. We cut to Blank Reg and Dominique watching Edison Carter on their TV screen.

Analysis

Aside from minor issues, "Body Banks" is an excellent episode. The characters are believable, the A and B plots intersects nicely and the underlying subplots work (except for a puzzling exchange between Rik and Edison).

Max Headroom: Body BanksThings to look out for: Virginia Kiser plays Ms. Julia Formby as a character study of an extremely tense career woman. She will stop at nothing in order to protect her relationship with Cheviot, even if it means kidnapping the teen prodigy whose technical proclivity keeps Network 23 afloat. It reads paradoxical on paper, but it works very well. This plot thread resolves into a multilayered scene which serves as the episode's tag: Standing alone in the twilight of the board room, Cheviot and Formby talk about what's happened before breaking up with each other.

George Coe's Ben Cheviot also gets to shine. The way he masterfully switches between the stick and the carrot to get Edison Carter to rein in his electronic alter ego is played perfectly -- and all this without actual contact between him and Matt Frewer; they only communicate via view-phone.

Mel and Rayna are the McGuffins here, serving only to advance the plot. Both actors are forgettable, but they do what they need to do: Mel helps Edison to rough up low-lifes and Rayna just lies there, looking beautiful and needing to be rescued. The roles of the rich magnate and his mother are so limited that they don't even get names; the surname Plantaganet is only revealed in the episode's IMDb credits (turns it's Lieutenant Kyle from Star Trek: TOS!).

This episode features the fist significant exchanges between Max Headroom and Edison Carter. They're not bonding exactly, but they start to realize they're stuck with each other and that they will have to make the best of it.

Theora and Murray provide solid support, creating atmosphere and propelling the story forward. Jeffrey Tambor's Murray gets two great character moments, Theora shows that she can easily knock out a tall man. We finally get to meet Blank Reg and his Dominique, two essential characters from the British TV movie who provide a much-needed counter-balance.

In addition, the episode once more makes a quick allusion to Max Headroom's Big Secret (see last episode's review), the details of which will be revealed at a later point.

Will Conservatives Like This Episode?

Well, you definitely should. You get to see Ben Cheviot applying his management skills in the best possible way. Sure, he's the head of a ruthless television network, but he merely does what he has to.

You might also take appreciate the scene where Blank Reg and Dominique watch Edison Carter on the TV. In the real world, more left-leaning people watch Fox News than they care to admit. Just in the same way, the counter-culture punks of the future actually end up watching Network 23.

It gets even better: Max Headroom actually allows himself to be used as an advertising vehicle. Chalk these up as two epic victories for the establishment.

Overall episode rating: **** (out of four)

Join us in three weeks as we look at Max Headroom's third episode, "Security Systems." The entire US series is currently out on DVD from Shout Factory at a suggested retail price of 30 US-$.

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