RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Max Headroom: "Security Systems" (Episode 4)

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Max Headroom: Security Systems

Max Headroom cognoscenti will remember "Security Systems" as The Filthy Episode. It is not particularly good since it never quite delivers on its dramatic potential, but it features a mind-boggingly bizarre sequence where Max seduces a female computer program. It must have been quite a coup to get this early Cybersex scene past ABC's Standards and Practices department in 1987.

Since Episode 4 is not a standout episode, let's skip the play-by-play. A summary should suffice to give you an idea of what the episode is about.

Max Headroom in a nutshell: It's 20 minutes into the future and the world has gone to cyberpunk hell. Edison Carter is an intrepid TV reporter for the world's largest network, Network 23. When he threatens to uncover the machinations of his own network's rogue chairman, teenage computer whiz Bryce Lynch downloads his brain patterns into a computer. The patterns quickly evolve into a separate persona, the titular Max Headroom. Through a series of convoluted plot twists, Max and Edison end up working together. Max's advantage is that he is able to see and talk to anybody looking at a TV screen, Edison's advantage is that he can actually walk around and interact with people. They are aided by Theora Jones, Edison's "controller" who helps him maneuver through his assignments, backed up by Murray, the network's news producer and grudgingly tolerated by Ben Cheviot, Network 23's paternal, yet hard-assed chairman of the board.

Yeah, that was a lot of information in one paragraph. It's still better than the opening sequence which tries to cram most of this exposition into 30 seconds of disjointed snippets.

Plot Summary

Max Headroom: Edison CarterEdison Carter tries to figure out whether Security Systems Inc., the world's largest provider of corporate security, is facing a hostile takeover. Murray, the program director, doesn't really see the appeal of the story. When Edison presses forward, he suddenly finds himself accused of First Degree Credit Fraud. When Carter's boss hears the charge, he gasps: "My God, that's worse than murder." From one instant to the next, Edison is on the run — with no money, no home and no legal recourse.

It soon becomes evident that SS's CEO Valerie Towne (played by Carol Mayo Jenkins whom some might remember from the "Fame" TV series) wasn't entirely truthful during her conversations with Carter. When Edison conducted his interview via video conference, he relied on the fact that a real-time Voice Print Analyzer gave Towne's statements a Credibility Factor of "99.98" the whole time she was lying her ass off: She herself is behind the "SS buyout" in order to drive up the company's stock price.

Max Headroom: The A-7 MainframeTowne's machinations are powered by the AI governing her company's computer system, the "A-7 Mainframe." A-7 has soft and soothingly seductive female voice (supplied by Sally Stevens whose credits are mostly musical). When Carter interviewed Towne, A-7 manipulated Network 23's voice print analyzer into reading her lies as truth.

Hunted by the Metrocops, Edison takes refuge among the Blanks living on the Fringe of the city. Blanks are what "Max Headroom" (the show, not the character) calls people living off the grid. He reunites with Blank Reg and Blank Dominque. They operate "Big Time Television", a pirate TV station which broadcasts music videos out of a large pink bus.

Aided by Blank Reg and a very amusing diversion provided by Carter's producer Murray and his camera controller Theora Jones, three intrepid explorers breach Security Systems. They are Edison, Max (inside a TV/computer box) and Network 23's computer whiz kid Bryce Lynch.

Max Headroom: Blank RegWhen Towne has Edison and Bryce locked into a giant freezer, it's up to Max Headroom to save the day. He does this by sweet-talking A-7 until she declares independence from Towne, her creator. The pillow talk of the two AIs is the absolute highlight of the episode. It's a mystery how this stuff got past the censors (see quotes below).

The resolution is that SS's CEO Towne spread rumors about her company facing a hostile takeover to drive up her stock. She intended to use the additional capital to acquire key competitors, creating a worldwide monopoly on information and access. The competitors in question turn out to be the Zik-Zak Corporation and Network 23.

When A-7 discovers she has a mind of her own, Towne is detained, Security System's stock frozen and the A-7 Mainframe is taken down for some extensive reprogramming. Sigh. Max is alone again.

Analysis

The main problem with this episode is that takes its sweet time to get to the point. The initial scenes would be interesting enough for a sedate, serious adult drama show. However, this is Max Headroom — a show about a crazy animated talking head popping up on TV sets across the city! Thus the first twelve minutes are pretty much a bore as chess pieces are moved into position. Every time things get moving, the writers are quick to apply the brakes again. There's a scene of Blank Reg and his Dominique dancing the tango which is a nice character moment, but which does nothing to advance either the plot or define the characters, the episode just stops.

Hacking A-7's firewallThe plot is riddled with holes and inconsistencies, starting with Edison making a few uncharacteristic mistakes in judgment. Even though he is wanted for a charge worse than murder, Edison pops up in the Network 23 offices. Apparently the doorman let him in in spite of his fugitive status — and the Metrocops are presumably too laid-back to stake the place out.

One particularly grating recurring element is that this episode has more scenes of people explaining and summing up what's happening than scenes where something is actually happening. Two operators in the Security Systems control room literally do nothing but summarize the current state of events and watch TV.

Rik Shaw makes another appearance. In past episodes, he was a welcome presence. This time, he just serves to provide additional padding. When he drives Our Gang from Network 23 to Security Systems in his motorcycle-powered rikshaw, it's the most conspicuous covert transport imaginable.

The main reason to bear with the grinding wheels is the sex talk between A-7 and Max. The writers really got away with murder here. This is, however, followed by a coda where Edison reports A-7 has been taken offline for extensive reprogramming. Can't have an AI running a corporation, I presume — but given that A-7 effectively saved his and Bryce's life, somebody might have at least put in a good word.

Best Bits

Max Headroom: Security Systems

  • Edison initially breaches Security Systems through a helicopter emergency landing. This is quite a gripping scene, with Theora quivering in front of her control monitor as the 'copter makes a rather rough landing on the helipad of the high-rise. When she finds out the "emergency" was just a ruse, she gets quite annoyed — especially when she realizes both Murray and Max were in the know. The sight of Amanda Pays pouting... you can bet that accelerated a few kids' progression into puberty.
  • Early on, Murray questions whether the Security Systems buyout is newsworthy enough to feature on the Edison Carter Show. The way Edison coaxes Murray to let him stay on the story is rather realistic (except for Max interrupting the discussion with minor quips). When Theora argues "We all deal with SS every day. What if some really dangerous people got control of it?", Murray's reply is a weathered "Who do you think controls it now?"
  • When Edison Carter calls Valerie Towne on her personal line to pump her for additional information, his demeanor is also pretty true to life: That's how reporters try to get more from a source, and that's what stonewalling feels like.
  • The A-7 Mainframe sounds like the female counterpart of Dave, the computer from "2001: A Space Odyssey." When she idles, she hums a little song. At the point where she and Max get it on, the result is rather disturbing: A-7 sounds as ecstatic as somebody heavily dosed with sleeping pills.
  • Lumpy's Proletariat. A low-brow comedy show.As Edison walks through the Fringes, the wasteland surrounding the city, a TV set announces that "Due to circumstances beyond our control, The Edison Carter Show will not be seen tonight. In its place, we present an encore performance of 'Lumpy's Proletariat.'" The light-hearted background jingle implies it's a comedy show rerun. The gag is pretty good by itself, but what really makes it work is Edison's reaction, a thin-lipped grin.
  • When Bryce is asked to hack into Security Systems, his immediate reaction is sheer glee: At last, a challenge. "Cracking the ice around it should be fun, a lot like challenging God himself!"
  • Edison and Bryce, freezing to deathMurray's expression when Theora slaps him as part of a diversionary piece of improvised theater is absolutely priceless, as is the following dialogue. Jeffrey Tambor is truly a gifted comedic actor.
  • When Edison and Bryce are trapped within a "thermal testing chamber," Carter asks Towne to at least let Bryce go. She is quick to assess the situation correctly: "You certainly know far too much for SS to let you roam free, but that one (indicating Bryce) has the ability to penetrate our most secure systems. In many ways, he's more of a threat than you are."
  • Facing death, Bryce asks Carter whether it will be painful. He then muses: "I find myself regretting all the things I'll now never experience. I'll never complete my collection of the original He-Man and the Masters of the Universe accessories. I'll never have a clear complexion. I suppose that's the price I pay for that remark about challenging God."

World Building

Max Headroom: Security Systems

  • The episode begins with an ad for Security Systems Inc. which explains "In today's world, your unalienable rights are consumer credit, unlimited telecom and personal security" and culminates in the tag line "Wherever you go, there we are" — if you have any geek credentials, you know exactly what the writers were riffing off.
  • The fact that Security Systems is occasionally abbreviated into "SS" will not be lost to many viewers.
  • Martinez, Edison's helicopter pilot of choice, continues to be built up into a recurring character.
  • This is what computers look like from the insideThere are other AIs in the world of Max Headroom besides Max, such as the A-7 Mainframe. Max is just the craziest and most flexible of the bunch. This will come into play again in later episodes.
  • Edison Carter's landlords are Mr. and Mrs. Rivas, both of hispanic descent. Mr. Rivas is nice enough, but Mrs. Rivas is a shrew who immediately calls the cops on Edison.
  • In spite of her nefarious deeds in "Body Banks", Ms. Julia Formby continues to work at Network 23.
  • 20 minutes into the future, "blank" telephones serve to make untraceable calls.
  • Max Headroom proudly wears its influences on its sleeve when Edison uses the term "icebreaker" with the same meaning as William Gibson.
  • Blank Reg is wont to play music by "Derek & The Dominoes" twelve times straight.
  • Murray is nearly as adept a controller as Theora.
  • Teenagers in the Fringes continue to ride around on motorized skateboards (c.v. "Rakers").

Pillow Talk among AIs

Max Headroom: Security Systems

Max starts talking up A-7 with "You know, your voice is really... soft," with the last word pronounced in the dirtiest way possible and, of course, with Max's trademark stutter. To which A-7 responds innocently, no lie, "Why have you penetrated my system?" Max: "I'll be honest. I need something from you." A-7, curiously: "Will it go any further?" Max, scoffing: "Madam, we've only just met!" A-7, eagerly: "Well! It's been almost 3,000 milliseconds..."

It only gets worse from there. A-7: "You know, I've never been accessed like this before." Max: "I'll be gentle." Then he lets out a little yelp. Swear to God and hope to die.

Max: "You know, you're my first date!" A-7: "You mean if you had knees, they'd be knocking?"

Max Headroom: Max SmilesA-7: "Max, you're making me lose control. I just want to," and she sighs, "surrender!" Then Max kisses her. Well, he smooches into the air. Or he smooches A-7's screen from the inside. In any case, it's a disturbing sight.

A-7: "Oh Max, I shouldn't be doing this." Max: "Please." A-7: "Kiss me again."

When Valerie Towne orders A-7 to delete Max from her memory banks, the mainframe responds demurely: "I'm sorry, Mrs. Towne, but Max has shown me a whole new way to access these things called feelings. I can only respond to him." Towne: "You're violating your basic programming." A-7: "I know, but I just can't help it!"

The piece d'resistance is when Towne tries to shut down A-7 and the computer answers: "You can turn me off, but only Max can turn me on." This line is said in a tone of voice which wouldn't be out of place in an 80's porn flick.

YouTube has an extract from the dialogue in question.

Will Conservatives Like This Episode?

There's no reason why conservatives should not thoroughly enjoy this episode of Max Headroom. At its core, "Security System" is nothing less than a corporate thriller. It also features a squeaky-clean sex scene with two virgins.

Conservative viewers might get a kick out of the fact that 20 minutes into the future, credit fraud has literally become a capital crime.

Moderate viewers might take issue with the fact that one single private company has the power to irrevocably blacklist a person; government never comes into play at all.

Max Headroom: Security Systems

Join us next week as we look at Max Headroom's fifth episode, "War." The entire US series is currently out on DVD from Shout Factory at a suggested retail price of 30 US-$.

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