Metropolis Maria

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Michael Cassutt: The Max Headroom Interview

Michael Cassutt is a writer and producer of a number of television series, including THE TWILIGHT ZONE (1985), THE OUTER LIMITS (1990), and EERIE, INDIANA (1991). But he can also take credit for his work on MAX HEADROOM (1987), and during this 25th anniversary celebration, I am thrilled that he agreed to an interview on what is now regarded as “the first cyberpunk television series.”

GK: Thanks for subjecting yourself to this interview- this is very exciting for me, as I was in college, majoring in Radio/Television/Film when MAX HEADROOM debuted, so you can imagine how it resonated with me. And that affection has only grown over the years.

So, to begin, how did you become involved in the MAX HEADROOM TV series?

MC: I got hired on MAX because of Phil DeGuere, who was my boss on TWILIGHT ZONE. A vastly experienced network showrunner, Phil had been teamed with Peter Wagg (who was the point man for all things MAX from Chrysalis) to develop, then run the ABC series. Phil had screened the UK MAX movie, “Twenty Minutes into the Future,” for several of us on TZ. Then Jim Crocker, George R R Martin, Martin Pasko & Becky Parr and I were assigned to write episodes. Based on my episode, "Security Systems," I got hired as the story editor in January 1987.

GK: What were your initial thoughts about the series?

MC: My initial thought: this has no business being on American network television. (I was right about that, especially for 1987). But I was incredibly excited about it... a satirical show about the world of the future in which television viewing was the primary activity? I was BORN for MAX.

GK: What was your favorite episode? Your favorite memory about the series?

MC: My favorite is "Neurostim," originally a pitch, outline and draft by Art Sellers that I worked on a lot. My favorite memory of the series is the wonderful attention it got -- cover of NEWSWEEK etc. And also just the way it looked and sounded on the air, and the effect that had on viewers.

GK: Describe how you found out that the series had been cancelled – how did you feel about the news?

MC: Frankly, I was relieved. I had been working too hard for too long to be looking forward at that point. We were only about one script ahead of production when you should really have at least four scripts ready to go. So I knew trouble was looming: someone was going to get fired or the show was going to get canceled.

GK: How would you like to have seen the series conclude its TV run?

MC: I never gave a moment's thought to the end of MAX. I would have loved to see it run for five years, a hundred episodes. Maybe Max himself would have become ruler of Earth.

GK: That would have made an awesome tele-election-style episode! If the series had made it to a full second season, what direction do you think it would have taken?

MC: We would have just explored the characters of Max, Theora, Bryce at al more thoroughly -- and Max himself, of course. And shown you more of the world 20 Minutes into the Future.

GK: Could MAX HEADROOM be rebooted today? Should it? Why or why not? If yes, would you like to be a part of it?

MC: It could, and who knows? I don't think it should. BATTLESTAR GALACTICA aside, re-boots are usually awful. I'd like to believe I'd resist the temptation to return to MAX, if someone did re-launch it. It should really have a new team.

GK: It has been 25 years since we first got this vision of life “20 minutes into the future.” What lessons have we learned? How is this future the same as that portrayed in the series, and how is it different?

MC: If you replace "television channel" from MAX with "internet", you can see a lot of similarities.... frightening ones in terms of human behavior, especially when it comes to the nature of popular entertainment and its effects on society. To go back to question 6, if Max came back now.... he'd be a Kardashian, wouldn't he?

GK: Max as a Kardashian. The very thought makes me shudder – but you are most likely right! What surprised you most about what the series got right? What surprised you the most about what it missed?

MC: In addition to the development of the internet, the growth and evolution of media, especially television... the expanding gap between rich and poor, all of that was in MAX and is evident in today's world.
What we missed - I can't say. Given the nature of the series, there were giant freaking swaths of human activity we never looked at or presented. We don't discuss space flight, for example. If we missed anything, it was the shrinking size and massively improved capability of personal data devices.

GK: iPads and smartphones would certainly have opened up new possibilities. What do you wish people would remember about MAX HEADROOM that they don’t now and, conversely, what do you wish they would forget?

MC: They should remember that it was prescient, smart, amusing and stylish. They should forget that some of the story-telling was slow and confused.

GK: Have you ever been invited to conventions based on your stint on MH? Have you ever been invited to speak on the series at a convention? If so, will you give us a little background?

MC: I did one MAX-related speaking event in Boston circa 1988, and later that year was invited back to my alma mater, the University of Arizona, to speak at an event where MAX was prominent. Other than that, I recall no MAX-centric events.... of course, I've attended two dozen conventions and spoken at schools, etc., and MAX has frequently come up... but those are the only two direct invites I remember.

GK: I find it very sad that Max isn’t as fondly remembered at conventions nowadays. But speaking of today, what are some of your current projects?

MC: My current project is a trilogy of SF novels written in collaboration with David S. Goyer, he being the screenwriter for BLADE, DARK CITY, BATMAN BEGINS, the upcoming MAN OF STEEL (new Superman), etc. Book one was HEAVEN'S SHADOW, published in July 2011... Book 2 is HEAVEN'S WAR, out last July... #3 is HEAVEN'S FALL, coming this August. All are from Ace. HS is in paperback now, HW will be this summer. And all three have been sold to Warner as potential feature films; David has written a script for HS and the studio is sending it out to potential directors. You can find out more about it at the HEAVEN’S SHADOW Facebook page

GK: Thanks for interview! As for me, I really wish that MAX would be remembered with as much respect (thereabouts) as STAR TREK or FIREFLY, mainly due to its standing as the first cyberpunk TV series.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

If I may be allowed to get serious for a moment…

This one will not be pretty or fun. It may not even be safe for work.  But I believe it needs to be said.

Yesterday, I read a brutally honest, incredibly painful confession of a tech writer at the Verge. It seems that Paul Miller has decided to try an experiment wherein he lives without internet for one year.  As a consequence (I’m not sure if it was intended or not), he found that it was a way to help him deal with his porn addiction.  Now you might want to stop at this point because yes, I went there.  This one is about porn.  Mr. Miller also “outed” himself as a Christian.  

Reading through the comments, Mr. Miller received a great deal of mocking.  This thing is, I couldn't tell if it was because he was admitting to a porn addiction and wanted to do something about it, or because he admitted to being a Christian and understanding that there was something wrong with pornography.

In the article, he shared a his doctor’s medical opinion on the health benefits of masturbation, as well as his pastor’s opposing cautionary comment to “get a second opinion.” Mr. Miller was castigated in the comments section for even approaching a clergyman on the subject of biology.  However, I think these commenters missed the overall point.  Mr. Miller was not only concerned about the physical ramifications of his predilection, but also the moral implications; who better to consult regarding the moral issues than his pastor?

I was disappointed that so many commenters decided to make predictions that he would fail in his efforts to live as porn-free as possible once this experiment was over.  Way to go tech geeks: you have just outed yourselves as insensitive louts who love to see a man brought low.  Why can’t more people be encouraging and uplifting? I’m guessing (and this is only a guess here) that they may well be ashamed that he is attempting something noble and they are stuck in the muck and mire of this world and if they cannot or will not rise above it, they don’t want to see anyone else do so either.

Also, a large number of commenters expressed the belief that porn is natural and healthy and that it is helpful in the enjoyment of sex, and that Christians need to stop being a bunch of prudes and get with it.  They (and a fair number of Christians as well, to be fair), need to remember that sex was God’s idea, and that the physical union between man and woman is s symbol of the mystical union between Christ and His Church.  I know, there was probably a moment of “Ewwww!” there, but I wonder if it is because we have allowed porn to skew our view of sex that this is a disturbing image for us?

But what I’m concerned about here is the exploitation of a very beautiful act of love and surrender and total, vulnerable intimacy being touted as something to be desired.  Mr. Miller rightly hit it on the head that pornography is about objectification.  Objectification is essentially (at least here) treating a person as an object, or as a tool to accomplish what at the end is a selfish goal.  In this case, it is about a man using a woman in order for him to receive sexual pleasure, without regard for her thoughts or wishes in the matter: its all about the man and what he wants.

What many of the commenters on Mr. Miller’s article apparently don’t care to discuss, and what many defenders of porn conveniently ignore, is that porn drives much of what is classified as “human trafficking” today.  A very good definition of human trafficking can actually be found on Wikipedia:  it is “Human trafficking is the illegal trade of human beings mainly for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor.”  Porn is an eighty-two BILLION dollar a year industry.  That kind of money drives people to do all kinds of shady things including luring young teens and desperate young women into surrendering their bodies for the gratification of an uncaring man’s lust.  This article, from the Richmond Justice Initiative covers this subject much better than I could in this post.

Finally, you will note that I have referred to the author of the post on the Verge site by the more formal “Mr. Miller.” I have done so, for two important reasons: first, because I do not know him, and to refer to him by his first name seems presumptuous and second, it is out of deep respect for the way he put himself and his struggles out there for the world to see, and sadly, to be mocked by those who should understand and support him so much better than they did.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Recommended Podcasts

I enjoy listening to my mp3 player on my morning commute.  Often, I check out Old Time Radio series, but increasingly, my player has featured podcasts covering a multitude of topics. 
Lately, three have bubbled up to the top of my playlists, as they focus on science fiction and fantasy TV shows, movies,and other forms of genre fiction.  Now I know that there are a lot of podcasts that cover these subjects, but these three do so from a Christian perspective.
A few years ago, I had wanted to produce a podcast of my own along these lines, and actually managed to put together three episodes before Everyday Life concerns killed the project.  That’s why I’m glad these three have picked up and run with the idea, and done so in  a way that makes my efforts look really puny by comparison.
Below are the shows listed in no particular order.  They are well worth the listen.
Strangers and Aliens
This first podcast is hosted by three friends, Ben Avery, Dr. Jayce O’Neal, and Steve MacDonald.  Ben is a writer (who constantly gets busted by his co-hosts for plugging his books), and Dr. Jayce is an actor, writer, college professor, and now is pastoring a church plant, and Steve is a freelance writer and editor.
The show itself is a conversation-style series.  It features reviews of movies, books, comics, and TV shows, but it is not so much a typical review as it is really more of a discussion of themes prevalent in genre fiction.  They have debated the crews and captains of the various Star Trek series, time travel, and a comparison of the DC superhero movies vs. the Marvel films.
My only real objection is that the release schedule isn’t very regular, and when I catch up, I’d like to have an idea when the next one is coming out.  Having said that, they have started releasing their episodes pretty quickly lately, so maybe I’m being nitpicky.
The Sci-Fi Christian
I discovered this series after Strangers and Aliens when I was looking around to see what else was out there.
For the majority of its run it features two co-hosts, Matt Anderson and Ben DeBono.  These two are seminarians from Minnesota.  Recently, Ben took a hiatus from the show citing Everyday Life concerns.  His slot was filled by two others, Daniel Butcher and Koby Radcliffe, and recently, Ben DeBono has made guest appearances.
Like Strangers and Aliens, The Sci-Fi Christian features a conversational style of presentation, covering deep themes within SF and Fantasy, really looking for the theological concepts that are often layered within the plots of the stories.  There is a strong element of (often) irreverent humor.  Also like Strangers and Aliens, the guys here accept audio contributions from fans.
Ben DeBono recently revealed on an episode that he had converted to Catholicism.  This led to an episode dealing with the why of his conversion.  When they go ‘off topic’ like this on episodes (and they have done so on more occasions than I care for), it leads me to skip those episodes.
Again, that is no reason to skip the series altogether.  The Sci-Fi Christian has a great website that features a number of writers that bolster the podcast, and when the episodes are on, they are really on.
The Spirit Blade Underground Podcast
The Spirit Blade Underground was the first podcast I discovered that reminded me of my aborted attempt at Christian geekery podcasting.  Unlike the other two, this one is features a solo host, Paeter Frandsen.  Paeter produces an audio drama series, known collectively as the Spirit Blade series, and the show began as a way of updating fans on the progress of the series.  To fill the show out, Paeter also did reviews of movies and television series, video games and comic books (he is an unabashed Green Lantern fan). 
Paeter favors dark and gritty stories and this appreciation often shows through in his choices of material to review.  As with the others, he also accepts audio content from listeners, and as the series has developed, there are a number of contributors that have made multiple submissions. In addition, the series has highlighted interviews with individuals who are authors, bloggers and other creative types.
What makes this podcast unique is that the production values are very high, with good audio, very professional bumpers and music production (all done by Paeter himself).  In addition, Paeter closes each episode with a ‘non-preachy’ Bible study that seeks to apply biblical truth to the geek life.
One of the things I appreciate the most about this series is that the running times are kept to no more than thirty to forty-five minutes each.

If you are interested in checking out geek-oriented podcasts that also feature a Christian worldview, these are probably the ones to check out.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Max Headroom and the 2012 Election

It’s now just a few days to the US General Election and I need to get something out of my system, with this disclaimer: this will be my one and only political post for this election year.

I am increasingly annoyed by blogs, news organizations and Twitter feeds that habitually refer to Mitt Romney as a reincarnation of Max Headroom.  Nothing could be further from the truth. I also do not believe that his opponent, President Barack Obama, is Max, either, or any other politician for that matter.

The gleeful misidentification of a particular politician as Max begins back in Max’s heyday, the closing years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when cartoonist Garry Trudeau decided that President Reagan acted as a Max Headroom-esque character (Trudeau referred to him as ‘Ron Headrest’).

Here’s the bad news for everyone who wants to compare Max to a politician: it’s just not possible.  Trudeau revealed his ignorance in the mid-1980’s, and others have been following his lead ever since.  The fact is, Max Headroom would be the one who would be calling politicians out for their lies and manipulation, not joining them.

Keep in mind  Max’s origin: he was created in Bryce Lynch’s lab at Network 23 by downloading the memories of star crusading journalist Edison Carter into a massive database which then took on a life of its own, as Max.  Do you see the disconnect here?

During the short-lived run on ABC, the series made it very clear that Max said the kind of things Edison would have loved to have said, except that he had a built-in professional filter that would have kept his internal monologue more or less internal.  Edison often did say the same kinds of things as Max, but only in the safety and security of his close friends and colleagues.  Max is wide open with everyone, and his transparency made him a fan favorite on Network 23.

If folks want to make political comparisons with Max Headroom characters, the series was more than obliging.  There was Simon Peller, Network 23’s sponsored politician, was willing to round up all the ‘Blanks,’ or people with no digital record on the grounds that they were dangerous, when he really believed that their presence was “untidy.” The Blanks would have been denied basic rights for the simple reason that because they were undocumented, they didn’t exist, and no rights were due them. Anyone want to make  comparison to Gitmo and the Patriot Act? Feel free.

Another politician that people could point fingers at and make comparisons with is Harriet Garth, rival Network 66’s candidate.  I am surprised that no one has tried to make a comparison between Harriet Garth and Hillary Clinton before now, but I think the resemblance is striking. Hilary&Harriet




Harriet found herself at the heart of a moral scandal, yet was able to respond philosophically “A couple of weeks is a long time in video politics.  This week, ruined; next week, revered.  One good show with the right ratings I’ll be back in days.”

Max, on the other hand would be the first one to call shenanigans.  He would be insulted to be compared with Romney, Reagan, or any other political figure.  Can we please stop the madness?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Metropolis: The First Sci Fi Epic

(This is the text of an audio review I provided to The Spirit Blade Underground podcast.  You can find the episode here.)

Metropolis is not the first science fiction film. According to my copy of Phil Hardy’s The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies (1984), that honor goes to the Lumiere short film “The Mechanical Butcher,”  produced in 1895. It is, however, probably one of the most important science fiction films in history.  Its influence is seen in many films even down to what we might call the modern era.

German film director Fritz Lang had just completed an epic six-hour film version of the Nibelungenlied that was critically as well publicly well-received. To follow up, he wanted to make a film about the future.1 He and his (then) wife, the writer Thea von Harbou, set about working on the story of class struggle that would become the core of Metropolis.  When he and von Harbou and producer Erich Pommer traveled to New York to promote Die Nibelungen, he saw for the first time New York City and the visual look of the film took root.  From aboard the steamship Deutschland, he “saw a street lit as if in full daylight by neon lights, and topping them oversized luminous advertisements moving, turning, flashing on and off, spiraling…something which was completely new and nearly fairy-tale-like for a European in those days, and this impression gave me the first thought for a town of the future.”2

The film took 16 months or more to produce (Phil Hardy notes that this was in a time when it usually only took a few weeks to shoot a film), involving over 36,000 actors and extras, 200 thousand costumes and sets involving 5-600 70-story skyscrapers at a cost of about 7 million Reichsmarks (it was originally budgeted at 800,000 Reichsmarks).3

The film was released in 1926 in Berlin and ran for about four months, resulting in a paltry box office of 75,000 Reichsmarks.  This bankrupted the studio and led the American distribution partners, Paramount Studios, to demand drastic changes.4 The film was edited down from 17 reels to 10 reels for the US distribution (70 minutes of film were removed). The argument was that American theater managers wanted to be able to show multiple screenings of a film in a day and therefore make more money.5 The original edit of the film was considered lost until 2008 when a 16mm duplicate print was found in Argentina and restorers were able to reassemble the missing pieces with the help of the original musical score, censor cards and other documents.  The most complete version possible, then was released on DVD and Blu-ray in 2010.

The film is a pretty standard tale of class struggle in the year 2026. The super wealthy live high above the streets of Metropolis in their gleaming skyscrapers while the laborers live underground and work at the machines that keep the city running.  There are some absolutely haunting sequences of laborers at the shift change trudging either toward or away from the elevators that take them to the machine rooms, and another establishing shot of workers at the controls of the main machine for the city, moving rhythmically, as if they are parts of the machine themselves.

The story focuses on the son of the Master of Metropolis, Freder. He is a carefree young man shown at play with his peers at the sports arena, or flirting with the girls at the Eternal Gardens. Suddenly, he is confronted by a beautiful, serene young woman leading a group of bedraggled children into the Eternal Gardens and telling the children, “These are your brothers.” Just as suddenly, she is ushered out. When Freder asks about her, he is told she is only a daughter of one of the workers. Intrigued, he pursues her, until he comes into contact with the machine rooms and witnesses the soul-crushing conditions of the work place.  Going to his father, Joh Frederson, Freder attempts to get some relief for the workers, but is ignored.  At that point, Freder decides to join the workers and work in the machine rooms.

Freder later learns that the young woman, Maria, is a sort of leader to the workers preaching restraint and a message that one day a “Mediator” will come that will join the Head of Metropolis with its Hands. Freder’s father engages the scientist-inventor Rotwang to use his newly invented robot to infiltrate the workers disguised as Maria to keep them under control.  The scene where Rotwang transforms the robot into the image of Maria is another one of the iconic sequences in film, and inspired the lab of Dr. Frankenstein in the James Whale version of Frankenstein.

Those who take issue with the overuse of CGI in films today will find the practical effects in Metropolis amazing, especially for their ability to transform a massive machine into the image of an idol of the god Moloch. The miniature city sets are breath-taking as well.

There is a great deal of biblical imagery present in the film. We see Freder at the nearly abandoned cathedral, imagining statues of the Seven Deadly Sins coming to life, and a figure of Death menacing him. The Robot-Maria performs a sultry dance at a nightclub, finishing by reclining on a couch in a pose that is reminiscent of the image of Babylon from the book of Revelation. The overall message of the film also has some religious overtones: “The mediator between the brain and the hands must be the heart.” Most critics find this message the hardest part of the film to swallow. In fact, H. G. Wells called it ‘quite the silliest film,’ and even director Fritz Lang himself revealed in a 1959 interview that he didn’t like the story.  However, in a later interview he conceded that in talking with young people about “what they miss in a computer-guided establishment, the answer is always: ‘The heart!’ So, probably Thea von Harbou…was right and I was wrong.”6

As much as it pains me to say this, given my love for this film, it is not perfect. The acting, in places, is almost laughable, especially from that of Gustav Froehlich (who played Freder), and through eyes jaded by a sex-obsessed culture, Robot-Maria’s dance at the club isn’t that seductive.  Having said that, the actress who played Maria, a young Brigitte Helm in her first role, does well in the dual role, especially as the Robot version of herself. The other actors who played Freder’s father and the inventor Rotwang are far more understated and their performances and therefore that much more powerful.

Metropolis is a visually stunning piece of filmmaking achievement that has its flaws. Its influence is visible on everything from the afore mentioned Frankenstein to Dr. Strangelove and from Star Wars to Blade Runner.  The plot is pretty threadbare, and despite the biblical and supernatural imagery rampant in the film, the storytelling just doesn’t completely match up with its visuals. 

On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d rate Metropolis a solid 8.5 (although on days I could go as high as a 9).   The visuals are just that good that they overcome a lot of the weaknesses in the story.

I’d recommend either purchasing the Restored Metropolis (2010) or catching it in on Netflix or Hulu, or if you can’t do that, another personal favorite version of mine is the Giorgio Moroder version from 1984 that incorporates a 1980’s rock soundtrack. Its not as complete, but the film is just as fun.

1 Documentary: “The Fading Image”
2 Introduction, Harbou, Thea. Metropolis. Norfolk: Donning Co./Publishers, 1988.
3 Documentary: “Voyage to Metropolis”
4 Ibid.
5. “The Fading Image”
6 Introduction

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

46 Pre-2001 Essential Genre Films That Every Geek Should See

By “pre-2001,” I mean films that were released before 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

I selected these films using Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies (1984), as well as my classroom experience in college.  As with most lists of this nature, the choices are mostly subjective, but they do seem to be backed up by critical comments throughout film history, and especially SF film history.

My criteria were simple:
-> The film had to be released prior to 2001;
-> The film could not be a serial;
-> The film must not be a sequel;
-> The film must be generally available for viewing

A Trip to the Moon 1902
Die Spinnen (The Spiders) 1919
Der Golem 1920
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 1920
Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler) 1922
Nosferatu 1922
Phantom of the Opera 1925
Metropolis 1927
Spione (The Spies) 1928
Frankenstein 1931
Dracula 1931
Island of Lost Souls 1932
The Mummy 1932
White Zombie 1932
King Kong 1933
Things to Come 1936
Dr. Cyclops 1940
The Wolfman 1941
Destination Moon 1950
The Thing (from Another World) 1951
The Day the Earth Stood Still 1951
War of the Worlds 1953
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms 1953
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 1954
Them! 1954
Gojira (aka, Godzilla, King of the Monsters) 1954
Creature from the Black Lagoon 1954
This Island Earth 1955
Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956
Forbidden Planet 1956
Plan 9 from Outer Space 1956
20 Million Miles to Earth 1957
The Incredible Shrinking Man 1957
The Fly 1958
The Blob 1958
The Time Machine 1960
The Mysterious Island 1961
The Absent-Minded Professor 1961
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes 1963
The Nutty Professor 1963
The Day of the Triffids 1963
Dr. Strangelove 1964
The Fantastic Voyage 1966
Fahrenheit 451 1966
Batman 1966
Planet of the Apes 1968*

*Planet of the Apes beat out 2001 by 3 days
The entries in bold are the ones I have seen. The others are ones I plan to. 
Feel free to add your own choices in the comments section!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The New Community

Recently, I found myself keeping house alone while the Princess Bride was away for a few days.  I took advantage of the opportunity to catch up on some of the TV shows I find interesting, but don’t watch as the two of us are fans of other shows.

One of those shows is the BBC America series based on (and sharing the same title with) the popular podcast, The Nerdist.  The particular episode I was watching featured ‘Nerd Girls.’  One guest in particular was actress, writer, producer, gamer and all-around queen nerd, Felicia Day.  She was asked about her hit internet series, The Guild, and had something interesting to say about why she gravitated toward new media over traditional media.

Now, I’m paraphrasing here, but her comment was something along the lines of how much fun it was and how satisfying it was to create something, share it with people who enjoy it, and how these same folks receive, discuss it, internalize it, and then give back to the community.

When I listened to what she said, it made me consider how this is also supposed to be the function of the Church.  The Church was established by Christ to receive His grace, internalize it, then give back to the Church and to the world.

Too often, I fear, members of the Body of Christ forget that part of the equation.  They only to look at what the rest of the Church can do for them and the members of their families, and pass by the needs of others, both within the Church and without.  The Great Commission, which many hold as Christ’s mandate to the Church, reminds us that we are to ‘go into the world and make disciples.’  Nowhere in that command is to receive God’s grace and keep it for one’s self. We are blessed in order to bless.

What would the Church look like if we were accepting of each other’s gifts, talents, skills and interests, made room for their individuality, heard the challenges and comforts contained in the Gospel, shared within Body, and then gave back to the world at large?  I think it would look and be what it was supposed to be all along.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Transcendence and Relationships

I’ve been reading Douglas Cowan’s Sacred Space: The Quest for Transcendence in Science Fiction Film and Television (Baylor University Press, 2010) and the first chapter really got my attention in a way that I didn’t expect.  The author states “…transcendence is not a function of sensation, but of relationship, and the reciprocal boundaries between those who exist in a relationship” (p. 40) and “…relationship is the key to encountering an Other” (P 41).

These two quotes in particular started me thinking about humanity in general.

If the key to transcendence really is relationship, then I think that puts a whole different spin on the story of the Fall found in Genesis 3.  There, we see that God created Adam and Eve as a special part of His creation. He did not call them into existence, but formed them Himself (Genesis 2:7). Mankind was endowed with the “image of God,” which involved much more than the notion that we looked like Him, but rather carried His character. And soon, God declared that humanity was created for fellowship, and Eve was created to be Adam’s equal companion (Genesis 2:18-24). So, initially, mankind possessed a transcendent relationship with God as well as with each other.

In Genesis 3, the serpent appears on the scene to tempt Adam and Eve to go beyond the boundaries set by God.  The temptation took the form of enticing them to take the fruit so that they would “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).  So, humanity was invited to break the relationship established by God in the false hope of transcending the divine boundaries and becoming divine themselves.  However, they transgressed, rather than transcended, and as a result, relationships have been damaged ever since: first between humanity and God, then between human beings themselves, and finally between humans and nature (3:8-19)

Ever since then, we have still sought transcendence while at the same time trying to elevate ourselves to divine status.  Instead, God, in the Person of Jesus Christ, surrendered His divinity to repair the broken relationship, and as a result, God the Father has revealed to us a Christ that transcends all (Philippians 2:5-11).

Because of the work of Christ, we can now be reconciled to God in a way never before possible (2 Corinthians 5:20). The Apostle Paul tells us that the transcendence we seek is found  relationship with Christ when he wrote to the Corinthian church that  “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! “(2 Corinthians 5:17 NIV).  Paul also rightly notes that only in relationship with Christ do we find what it means to be truly human (Acts 17:28). Even Jesus tells us that “I (Jesus) am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing “ (John 15:5 NIV).

It is important to note that the author of Sacred Space doesn’t go into the issue of transcendence and relationships like I do, but the ideas are rather provocative, no?

Note: There will be most likely more posts generated from my readings of Sacred Space. If you are interested in the book, a simple click on the pic should take you

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Once Again

Once again I find myself unable to make my self-imposed deadline for this space.

Happily, I did receive an interesting link to a great media review blog that celebrates Max's 25th here:


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Shades of Gray: Morality in the Max Headroom Series

Having watched the entire series thanks to Shout Factory’s release of the complete series on DVD, I have noticed that there are some six distinct shade of morality present in the series.

Morally Bankrupt
Ned Grossberg, the original chair of Network 23 is clearly the most morally bankrupt person in the series. He was ousted as the chair of the largest network in the world after he authorized the failed Blipvert campaign. The blipvert technology compressed an entire 30-second advertisement into a fraction of that time. The intended result was the prevention of channel switching, thus ensuring Network 23’s hold on the ratings lead, but what actually happened was that particularly sedentary viewers had a nasty habit of spontaneously combusting because they’re nerve endings were over stimulated by the blipverts. Grossberg refused to pull them, choosing to profit above people. 

He later resurfaces as the chairman of Network 66, a rival of Network 23.  Not long after joining Network 66 as an executive in charge of new technologies, he manipulates a tele-election in order to orchestrate the deposition of the chairman and then, to take his place.  When asked what he did for a conscience, Grossberg replied, “I occasionally rent one.” [1]

In the last episode aired[2], Grossberg is involved in a scheme to kidnap babies who are not only conceived in vitro, but also gestated outside the mother’s womb in a process known as “baby gro-bags.” These babies would then be used to star in a reality/game show that exploited supposed advanced cognitive abilities of these babies. He later claims to not be behind the scheme claiming that such an accusation is “beyond even me!” He at least acknowledges that his morals are self-serving, but his claim of innocence in this case rings rather hollowly.  He was willing to kill sedentary viewers, and even Edison Carter to protect the investment in the blipvert campaign; he was willing to smear a politician and entrap a fellow broadcaster (as well as the man who gave him a job after he was removed at Network 23) so that he could ascend to a seat of power; he was willing to be linked with an ethically ambiguous project in order to have a ratings winner and defeat Network 23.  Why should we believe his denial of involvement?

Morally Challenged
The Network 23 Board represents the next level, or shade of morality. I believe that they are the ‘morally challenged,’ due to the fact that they seem to have a firm grasp of right and wrong, but often fail to exercise it.  They are too willing to follow Ned Grossberg’s lead and keep airing the blipverts, even after it is shown conclusively to them that they are lethal. When Ben Cheviot takes over at the end of the pilot, they willingly follow him.  The board seems to lack the will to make independent and risky choices, settling rather for the easy way out. In fact, one of the board members by the name of Edwards notes that “In our business morals are one thing but ratings are everything!”[3]

Morally Under/Un Developed
Bryce Lynch, the teen wunderkind who first developed the blipverts and was responsible for the creation of Max Headroom, falls into the category of “Morally Under- or even Un-Developed.” As a disclaimer, please note that I am confining my observation to Bryce as portrayed in the television series; the Bryce Lynch in  the original British telefilm is much darker and closer to the moral bankruptcy of Ned Grossberg.

Bryce was sent away at a very early age to the Academy of Computer Sciences (ACS), and upon graduation, employed at Network 23. The only thing he says about his parents is that they are in ‘middle management.’[4] The lessons he learned about morality, he learned while at ACS, and in the episode ‘The Academy,’ we see that a basic understanding of morality is not taught.  In fact the Head SYSOP of the Academy tells Edison Carter “We don’t deal in guilt; we deal in information.”  As a result, Bryce’s moral compass is simply not present. 

However, the more time he spends with Edison, Theora and Murray, we seem him developing a conscience.  In the pilot (based heavily off the UK telefilm), he confesses that he’s glad Edison wasn’t killed. This is a markedly different attitude than the British Bryce. The next episode shows Bryce struggling with whether or not to be party to another’s death so that a terminally-ill wealthy woman could be given a life-sustaining treatment[5].  In another episode, Bryce covers up a crime committed by classmates at ACS and shifts the blame to an innocent person, believing that the authorities would figure out that their suspect was innocent.  However, when it looks like the suspect will be found guilty of a capital offense, Bryce manipulates the guilty parties into revealing themselves and proving the suspect’s innocence.[6]

Bryce is far from being a role model, but we see him growing during the series.

Morally Conflicted
Ben Cheviot is the current Chairman if Network 23 following the scandal of the blipverts and fall from grace of Ned Grossberg.  Cheviot is the one who clearly sounded the call for blipverts to be pulled in the face of their deadly side effect of causing people to blow up.

But let’s not be fooled. Cheviot is also a man of his time and trade. He did not get to a seat on the Network 23 board by being a clarion of righteousness.  He has no qualms about participating in the fraud known as tele-elections, noting that the results are negotiated long before the tele-election is held.  He has even gone on record as saying that when Network 23 manipulates the news, they always do so for the public’s own good.[7] His priorities occasionally conflict with crusading journalist Edison Carter’s, as they did when Edison wanted to rescue a girl from death, while Cheviot believed that his time was better spent convincing Max Headroom to go on air and boost the ratings.[8]

In short, Cheviot is a much better network executive that either Grossberg or anyone else on the board, but he’s clearly flawed.

Murray is the news producer and Edison Carter’s direct boss.  Murray is a good man, who lost his family presumably due to his dedication to his work.  He’s much closer to what I could call morally upright than even Cheviot, but Murray is caught between his desire to see the truth exposed and the desire to maintain his job at the network.  He is willing to help but refuses to cross the line and thereby jeopardize the only life he has.

Morally Upright
I’ve mentioned Edison Carter several times earlier and Theora Jones at least once.  They compose the investigative journalist team that is consistently Network 23’s top-rated program.  Edison and Theora fiercely pursue the truth no matter how dangerous it is to them personally, or how difficult it might be for certain persons to hear it.  They are the true heroes of the series.  However, as upright as they are, even Edison is not above falsifying a ‘live’ interview in order to accomplish something good.[9] He is not as pure as the driven snow, nor will anyone ever accuse him of being a boy scout.  He is a man determined to truth and justice, but will bend the truth if necessary to secure justice.

As you watch the series, take special note of the ways in which these layers or shades of morality are played out. It really is fascinating to watch.

[1] Episode 203 “Grossberg’s Return”
[2] Episode 208 “Baby Grobags.” The series ended its network run on ABC May 5, 1988, but this episode didn’t air in the US until September 10, 1995 on the Sci-Fi Network (now known as SyFy)
[3] Episode 105 “War”
[4] Episode 201 “Academy”
[5] Episode 103 “Body Banks” Actually, this is the third episode aired, but it was the second episode produced.
[6] Episode 106 “Blanks”
[7] “Blanks.” Cheviot also acknowledges here that tele-election votes are “computer enhanced.”
[8] “Body Banks”
[9] “Blanks”

Saturday, May 19, 2012


For regular visitors to this site, the regularly-scheduled Max Headroom post for this week has been pre-empted. It will return next week.

In the meantime, take a look at this excellent post from 18 months ago:

Note: where the author refers to the creator of Max Headroom as "George Strong" it should be "George Stone."

Saturday, May 12, 2012

In Consequence

As a follow up to the previous post on Truth and Justice in the Max Headroom world, I wanted to reflect on the consequences for crimes and misdeeds as portrayed in the series.  One of the tropes in cyberpunk (of which Max Headroom is an example[1]), is the subversion of justice in favor of the wealthy.  I’ve already explored briefly the fact that justice is outside of the means of the have-nots dwelling in the Fringes and beyond[2].

But on the other side of the equation, it appears that the Haves in the world of Max Headroom don’t have a problem securing sufficient cash to avoid much of the consequences of their actions.  In the pilot episode, “Blipverts,” Ned Grossberg is the chairman of the number one television network, Network 23.  Edison Carter is the largest ratings producer though his investigative journalism program[3]. Edison stumbles upon a conspiracy to roll out a revolutionary advertising system that has the unfortunate side effect of causing sedentary viewers to spontaneously combust. In order to prevent Edison from airing his expose’, Grossbergs hires thugs to stop him, which results in Edison’s near-death.  In order to discover how much Edison knows, his memories and consciousness are downloaded to the Network 23 computer, which results in the creation of the virtual character, Max Headroom.  Determining that Edison is now expendable, Grossberg orders him to be done away with, and taken to a body bank.  However, Edison is ‘not quite dead’ and returns to expose the nefarious plot.  At the end of the episode, Grossberg is disgraced and loses his place as the chairman of Network 23.  There is no sign that the police are called or that Grossberg has been arrested for his part in the plot.  In the second season, in the episode titled, tellingly enough, “Grossberg’s Return,” Grossberg has joined up with a rival network, and manipulates his way to the chair of that network[4].

Harriett Garth, the political candidate sponsored by Network 66[5], is herself exposed for her part in a tele-election fraud.  When confronted by her wrongdoing, she remains philosophical: “A couple of weeks is a long time in video politics.  This week, ruined; next week, revered.  One good show with the right ratings I’ll be back in days.”  Garth indicates that she is not concerned with the consequences of her actions, as it will soon be forgotten by the public and she will return to be a force to be reckoned with.

In the episode “Body Banks[6],” one of the Network 23 board members, Julia Formby is blackmailed into kidnapping teen genius Bryce Lynch to have him replicate the ‘Max Headroom process’ for a wealthy man to preserve his dying mother in digital form.  She is clearly exposed as having played a part in not only the kidnapping of Bryce, but also in the kidnapping and attempted murder of a young woman from beyond the Fringes.  However, the end of the episode shows her being reconciled with the chairman of Network 23.
Season two episodes featured this theme in almost every episode.  “Dream Thieves,” a story about a company harvesting dreams from people of the Fringes in order to provide a new entertainment option, actually shows no police presence or justice outside of a few fists flying.[7] The process of collecting the dreams is shown to be in fact killing people. However, no one is ever arrested on camera in the episode which leaves one wondering, who will pay for the crimes?

“Whacketts[8]” is a story about a couple of program packagers who sell a terrible game show laced with a digital signature that causes viewers to become addicted and watch no matter what is occurring around them, even when an entire apartment building collapses in ruins.  The perpetrators are eventually arrested, but mostly because they were responsible for the death of a MetroCop Lieutenant, and not for any other crime.

The very next week, the episode “Neurostim[9]” introduces a bracelet (provided by Network 23 sponsor Zik Zak Corporation) that causes wearers to become obsessed with purchasing Zik Zak products.  When Edison Carter is about to expose the plot, they give him an even more powerful bracelet to keep him away from breaking the story.  At the end of the episode, again, no one is brought to justice.  In fact, Murray tells Edison “You can fight Zik Zak, but you’re not going to beat them.”[10]

And so it goes.  This is a common theme throughout the series. The Have-Nots are denied the opportunity for justice because they do not have the resources to pay for a fair hearing, while the Haves are very rarely mad to pay for their misdeeds.

The media circus surrounding the events of the trial of former football player O. J. Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife and a friend captivated America.  Every day there was a new development and we saw it all on television. Many believed that he was acquitted due to his wealth and notoriety, and not because there was insufficient evidence for a conviction.

Many years later, the infamous “Tot-Mom,” Casey Anthony was on trial for the death of her daughter, Caylee. The trial was covered in great detail through many media outlets, including a program by ex-prosecutor Nancy Grace, who declared that the Devil danced when an innocent verdict was proclaimed. And in recent years, there have been numerous stories of people who have been acquitted, in many cases years, after advances in forensics have shown their innocence. It is almost no wonder that many people are often suspicious of the justice system.

The Book of Psalms contains many passages where the writer laments that the powerful wicked seem to prosper, while the innocent suffer.[11] The Believer is called upon to speak on behalf of those who have no voice and to oppose any system that would allow the privilege the Haves over the Have-Nots based solely on a bank account, and not on the merits of their individual cases[12]. Ultimately, justice will be pronounced by God Almighty[13]. And that is the hope that we have not usually found in cyberpunk fiction.

[2] Episode 103, “Body Banks.” Mel (played by Scott Kraft) tells Edison Carter that he cannot “afford to buy law.” And Blank Reg later reminds Edison that “Justice is cash flow.”
[3] Alternatively titled “What I Want To Know” and “The Edison Carter Show”
[4] Episode 203
[5] This is the rival network that Grossberg assumes the leadership of in the episode “Grossberg’s Return
[6] Episode 103, above
[7] Episode 204 (10/9/87)
[8] Episode 205 (10/16/87)
[9] Episode 206 (10/23/87)
[10] Emphasis mine
[11] Psalm 73:16, for example.
[12] Exodus 23:6, Proverbs 17:15
[13] Lamentations 3:35

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Truth, Justice and the MetroCity Way

 There was once a disparaging comment about believing in something simply because “I saw it on TV.”  Max Headroom takes that tension and makes it a central theme.  Many episodes deal with what people see and how easily they can be duped and the cavalier attitude that people in power have toward the truth.

In a media and corporate-driven society, ratings are cash and cash is power.  If one has enough cash, one has enough power to shape truth to whatever form is most expedient to increase ratings and thereby increase revenue.

In this world, network executives realize that they are playing fast and loose with the truth, but that knowledge is of no concern. One board member of Network 23 accuses Network 66 of theft by “falsifying ratings,” to which Network 23 Chairman Ben Cheviot responds “Nonsense, its merely ethically dubious, perfectly normal practice.” [1]

The same episode focuses tightly on the role of media and its manipulation of the truth.  Theora Jones, controller for ace reporter Edison Carter exclaims that their rival has moved past simply reporting the events and on to creating them, with the dire statement that “they’re manufacturing their own truth!”[2]

Theora’s outrage is somewhat suspect when we realize that even Network 23 is not necessarily above a little manipulation in order to get what it wants.  Murray says as much when we notes that “Pictures don’t lie, at least not until you’ve assembled them correctly.”[3]  In another episode, even Edison and Theora stoop to the same practice by recording politician Simon Peller refusing to issue an order to free the Blanks he has had arrested, then using a “data rescan process” to present video evidence that Peller had, in fact, capitulated.[4]

In the season two episode “Grossberg’s Return,” the former chairman of Network 23, Ned Grossberg, has taken a position on the board of 23’s rival Network 66.  He neatly maneuvers the board into ousting its current chairman and getting elected to the position himself.  His position on matters of truth and falsehood is reflected in two statements.  The first is an observation by Edison Carter that Grossberg is a “man who regards truth as a market commodity,” in other words, as something that can be bought and sold without much thought as to its use or its consequences.  The second statement is an admission from Grossberg himself: “What, after all, is one more lie?”  Finally, we can see how this cynical attitude is pervasive throughout this episode in the following exchange between Edison Carter and the Network 66-sponsored candidate Harriet Garth:
Edison: “We’ll see where the truth lies.”
Harriet Garth: “The Truth lies, all right, Mr. Carter. We saw the pictures.”

Closely allied with truth in this series is a notion of justice.  It seems that justice is reserved in the city for those who have the power to fight (or pay) for it.  Those without the means to do so often find themselves disenfranchised, disparaged, and disengaged from any opportunity for a better life.  In the third episode of the first season (though apparently the second episode produced), Edison encounters a young man from outside the city who had come into town with his girlfriend to sell blood in order to have some money to live.  When Edison learns that the girlfriend was kidnapped, he asks why weren’t the MetroCops (local police) notified.  The young man replies “I can’t afford to buy law.” “Justice is cash flow, my son,” Blank Reg clarifies.[5]

When a Blank is arrested in the roundup ordered by Simon Peller, it is noted that she has an off switch on her TV – a criminal offense.  She is then taken to be tried in a secret court in which a computer adjudicates her crime.  She objects stating that she knows her rights and refuses to be “judged by a machine.” The court functionary rejects her plea.  “You don’t have any rights – you’re a blank!” he snorts.[6]

In another episode[7], Blank Reg is arrested for “signal zipping,” which is interrupting a network television feed, and is considered a “terminal offense.”  As he is a Blank, that is, a person whose entire history has been erased from all computer databases and are thus able to live completely ‘off the grid,’ there is no way to determine if Reg has a criminal past.  So, they upload his personality template into something called the “Career Capacity Malfeasance Program,” which matches his template with unassigned criminal profiles.  Since there is no way to prove that he is not in fact the person represented by the unassigned template, there is sufficient cause to try him. This disgusts Reg’s friend Edison Carter: “Template matching isn’t justice, its convenience.”

His trial is put on the network’s premier justice program, “You the Jury,” which allows viewers to determine the innocence or guilt of any person tried in its studios.

I am reminded that just a few years after the Max Headroom series went off the air, the nation thrilled to the criminal proceedings of the State of Californian vs. O. J. Simpson. The former football player was on trial for the murder of his ex-wife and a young man who apparently was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  This was followed by the cable channel Court TV (later renamed TruTV) and followed by criminal prosecutor-turned-TV commentator Nancy Grace.  Many cases today are tried in the court of public opinion, and justice is often subverted as a result.

Truth and Justice are inextricably linked for the Christian. In the Old Testament, we read the story of King David’s seduction of Bathsheba, a woman who was not his wife. When she discovered she was pregnant by the king, David attempted a deception by bringing her soldier husband home from the front so he could have a conjugal visit.  When that failed, he arranged for the man to be killed at the battlefront.  God’s spokesman, a man named Nathan, confronted the king with his deception and his act of injustice in the sanctioned murder of the king’s loyal subject and Bathsheba’s husband. [8]

Truth must always be the counterpart of Justice; they can never be separated.

[1] “Grossberg’s Return” (episode 203, 10/2/87)
[2] Ibid. In an earlier episode (“War”, episode 105, 4/28/87), there is some light banter between characters. One says “Since when has news been about entertainment?” “Since it was invented” was the quick response.
[3] “Grossberg’s Return”
[4] “The Blanks” (episode 106, 5/5/87)
[5] “Body Banks” (episode 103, 4/14/87
[6] “The Blanks” (episode 106, 5/5/87)
[7] “Academy” (episode 201, 9/18/87) Would this be considered a cyberpunk version of ‘racial profiling?’
[8] 2 Samuel 11:1-12:12