Metropolis Maria

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Max Headroom and Matters of Faith

There are three episodes of the Max Headroom series which deal either directly or indirectly with religion and matters of faith. The first season episode ‘finale,’ “Blanks,”[1] dealt with individuals who have elected to remove themselves from the computer databases of the world.  There is no official record of their existence and they are referred to as the “Blanks” of the episode title.  The plot of the story is one where the political chief executive officer,[2] Simon Peller, has decided to wage a campaign against the Blanks. Because they have no records, they don’t officially exist, and therefore have no rights.  In a later episode where another Blank is arrested,[3] we see that Blanks are matched up by a computer with unsolved crimes regardless of whether or not they actually committed them.  It’s almost as if racial profiling has gone berserk.  In “Blanks,” Simon Peller arrests and imprisons the Blanks because he finds them “untidy” and a threat to his vision of “order.” The Blanks, led by computer genius Bruno, decide to fight back, targeting the main computer on which the city depends for everything from running a coffee maker to powering the television networks.

Should the networks go down, the television-obsessed public will react violently. The Blanks interrupt the broadcasts in order to provide warnings of what will happen should the campaign not cease and desist.  During these interruptions, members of the Network 23’s board observe the reactions noting that people are going to the black market and purchasing video players and old recordings of programs in order to continue to feed their habit. Network 23, Simon Peller’s network sponsor in the tele-election that placed him in power,[4] attempts to pressure him into relenting. Peller refuses to budge.  Meanwhile series protagonist Edison Carter and his team try to convince Bruno and the blanks to relent.  Max Headroom himself visits Bruno via his computer terminals.  In their ensuing dialogue, Bruno accuses the world of being devotees of a cult: “Your network, and the authorities, are mesmerizing millions into worshipping the new priesthood of the computer. Like cavemen worshipping fire! It’s a false faith, Max.” 

Worship is simply attributing supreme worth to someone or something.  In other words, its deciding that someone or something is worthy of all you have to offer, and acting accordingly.  Bruno’s accusation stings, because in that world, it’s too close to the truth.  It is awfully close in our world as well. Network executives are always at war to keep people in front of the television screen.  Too often, as I noted in an earlier post, people are more aware and literate of television programs than they are of history, politics, and even religion.
The second episode that deals with religious themes is the second season episode “Deities.”[5]  In this episode, Edison Carter’s producer, Murray, wants him to do a story on the skyrocketing success of the ‘Vu-Age Church,” led by Vanna Smith. Unknown to the rest of the team, Edison dated Vanna when they were both in college.

Vanna is the face of the church’s weekly broadcasts on Network 23.  Each week the church promises a ‘resurrection process’ whereby the grieving family can preserve their deceased loved ones’ brains in digital format, so that they will always be around.  Currently, they can go to the church’s studios and visit the terminals where they can ‘converse’ with their deceased loved ones. It is revealed that the preservation techniques are faulty and the best they can do is a recording of the loved ones, but there is no consciousness present.  As for Vanna, she began well, as an idealistic young missionary but later got seduced by the glitz, glamour and wealth of preaching to millions on TV.

But again, the religion promulgated by the Vu-Age Church is nebulous at best. The Vu-Age church promises a ‘salvation’ that is poorly defined.  Salvation from what? To what? Why is salvation needed?  It is never explored any further than that. The church’s broadcast is modeled on that of many Christian televangelists, but many of the core Christian doctrines are never mentioned.  In the end, when the ‘resurrection process’ is exposed as a fraud, the church’s teachings are also revealed to be empty promises. When Edison Carter is interviewing one of Vanna’s subordinates, he asks “Are you a clergyman? Or just a PR man?” The reply is telling: “When you come right down to it, Mr. Carter, is there a difference?”

While there are many discussions of religion on television, tax emption status of religious entities, and when ‘holy men’ are found to have feet of clay[6], the central conflict seems to be simply between selling hope (a blind one as it turns out) versus offering the truth.

The third episode that touches on religious themes present in the series is “Lessons.”[7] In this episode, Edison and Murray enter an old church building located in the Fringes, or the desolate part of town populated primarily by the Have-Nots.  At the front, on the platform, is a television set, and the people in the pews are watching Network 23.  As the pair moves through the church, Edison asks Murray “Whatever happened to the old religions?” Murray responds, “Television killed it. We have better miracles.”

These episodes address the role of religion in the world of Max Headroom (one specifically, and two tangentially).  And I see this as a warning to the Church that this future is, again, only 20 minutes away.

Specifically, the Church may be on the verge of making itself irrelevant to the life of the world around it.  For the purposes of this discussion, my definition of the Church is the body of Christian believers around the world. The Church was established by God the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to be a witness to the world of the Resurrection of Jesus and to proclaim the salvation from sin that He accomplished by that miraculous event.  Religion refers to the outward expression of that body; it is the life that we as believers in Jesus are called to live.  “Religion that is pure and genuine in the sight of God the Father will show itself by such things as visiting orphans and widows in their distress and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.”[8]  This was written by the Apostle James, who many believe may have been the half-brother of Jesus.  It is in keeping with the long tradition of Old Testament prophets who decried religious ceremonies and rites, but rather called for God’s people to live out their faith in service to others.  However, we need to be reminded that salvation from sin and to a complete reunion with our Heavenly Father is not predicated on doing the right things. Rather, our works should be a reflection of a life transformed by the Resurrection of Christ.  The Apostle Paul makes this clear when he writes “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”[9] Vanna Smith’s Vu-Age Church is about buying one’s way to salvation (however it was defined), but there were no following good works. These good works flow from a saved life, they do not earn it.  I believe that living this transformed life, with Christ as our center, will result in the miraculous. In Max Headroom’s world, believers were co-opted by the world (see James 1:27 again) and made irrelevant. The Church is at its most relevant when it is counter-cultural and speaking the truth (the whole truth) in love to power.

[1] Episode 105, originally aired on May 5, 1987. I refer to it as the first season finale, but its not in the sense that we understand it today.  It simply was the last episode of the first season.
[2] The series never gives the position a title. Is he the Mayor? The President? The Majordomo? The Big Kahuna? We never find out.
[3] Episode 201, “Academy,” aired September 18, 1987
[4] Elections in the world of Max Headroom are held via network ratings during the election period. Whichever network “wins” the ratings period, the candidate that it sponsors wins the election. It is also noted that the results are often negotiated in advance which makes even this kind of election a sham.
[5] Episode 202, originally aired on September 9, 1987.
[6]Betrayal comes to us in many forms: the husband whose credit account shows visit to unlicensed sex therapists; the child who won’t watch his TV; the TV hero who turns out to be quite un-heroic. This is a story about an even greater betrayal: when those who claim to speak for God turn out to be liars.” – Edison Carter.
[7] Episode 207, which was the last episode aired on ABC, on May 5, 1988.
[8]  James 1:27, Phillips NT
[9] Ephesians 2:8-10, New International Version

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Characters I'd Like To See Rebooted: Chandu the Magician

Chandu the Magician is another Old Time Radio (OTR) character I'd like to see rebooted. I reviewed the series sometime ago, and it is still at the top of my favorites list. Frank Chandler is an American who goes off to study esoterica at the feet of a yogi in India for about ten years, where he assumes the alternate name of 'Chandu'. He returns to visit his sister, Dorothy Regent and her children. Dorothy's husband, the eminent scientist Robert Regent, was lost at sea before the war (this would be WWII). Frank, displaying a few parlor tricks he picked up in India, entertains the children, but eventually, the family discovers that Robert may be still alive after all. As they travel to Egypt to track down clues to Robert's whereabouts, Dorothy and her children become more and more aware of Frank's occult powers, and his ability the missing scientist. 

The adventure series was dense with secret societies, dark magic, mad science, lost civilizations, mysterious princesses, and the like. 

The series ran each weekday in 15-minute cliffhanger-ending episodes between 1932-1936. In 1948, it was revived, or 'rebooted' (with a completely new cast using updated original scripts to reference the recent war) and ran again in the same format until early 1949 when it was rebooted yet again. This time the series used a much more conventional 30-minute episodic format, abandoning the serial format, and continued in this format until 1950 with new writers. It was popular in its time as testified by its longevity and the fact that it was brought back in the late 1940's. The final reboot jettisoned way too much, in my opinion, that which made the character great. Chandu the Magician is absolutely worthy of a reboot.

Like my previous offering, Rocky Jordan, I'm incorporating Chandu in a pulp novella set in pre-war Cairo. It is a reboot of sorts, where I have worked out a number of items for his backstory, but wouldn't it be nice to see Chandu on the small screen, or in monthly comic?

Chandu, the Magician can be downloaded from the Internet Archive using these links: Link 1 Link 2

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Future Tense

The Max Headroom television series almost invariably begins with the tagline “20 minutes into the future.” This is usually seen in a caption at the bottom of the screen superimposed over the establishing shot for the episode.  It is also, not coincidentally, the title of the UK telefilm that served (with a handful of adjustments) as the pilot for the series.

But I see it as more than just a clever indicator of the setting.  In one way, it reveals a sense of immediacy.  That is, it informs us that the society we are witnessing on the screen is right around the corner.  We are not that far off from the passage of laws banning off switches on televisions, the limitation of education for only those who can afford to pay for it, and from television network ratings determining elections.  This future is upon us and we must deal with it, the tagline subtly warns us.

The largest corporate sponsor of Network 23 is the Zik Zak Corporation.  While it maintains offices that are only slightly smaller than the Network 23 building, its main headquarters is in “New Tokyo.” 

Zik Zak has taken diversification to heart.  It produces fast food ‘burger paks,’ ‘soy muffin mixes,’ and many other items (in fact, one slogan says “We make everything you need, and You need everything we make.”). One item in particular Zik Zak made was a bracelet that stimulated the pleasure centers of the brain, creating a euphoric vision that also dampened the internal controls on impulse behavior, thus causing the wearer to seek out more Zik Zak products for purchase.

Its corporate brand is “Know Future.” This is a promise that Zik Zak will deliver the future.  But what future will arrive courtesy of Zik Zak? Its burger paks promise convenience at the expense of taste and nutrition. The Max Headroom character famously noted that the burgers doubled their nutritional value simply by being packaged in its plastic wrapper.

In addition, the future that Zik Zak is inviting us to ‘know’ the one that is only ‘twenty minutes’ away, is a future in which art and politics are heavily influenced by business interests.  The quest for financial gain determines the courses of government and culture.  In the episode entitled ‘Neurostim’[1] (from which the Zik Zak bracelet mentioned above appeared), one bit player lamented the fact that “no one makes anything new anymore,” which reveals that in the world of Max Headroom, creativity and originality has taken a back seat to rushing to make a profit.  And in the political arena, it was noted that at the corporate executive levels that ‘everyone knows’ that the tele-elections (elections determined by network ratings) are rigged.  Each network takes turns supplying its endorsed candidate for the leadership of the government. Keep in mind that the politicians are beholden to the networks for their candidacy, and the networks are not beholden to the viewers, the common citizens, but to the corporate sponsors, like Zik Zak.

Once elected, the Network 23-endorsed candidate begins a program of harassing those individuals who have chosen to live ‘off the grid,’ i.e., outside of the prevailing digital culture. These people, known as ‘Blanks,’ have managed to surreptitiously have their records expunged from the computerized databases. The politician, Simon Peller, believes in order, and the Blanks represent a threat to this order, and so he is willing for the Blanks to completely destroy the public’s access to its television programming rather than release innocent Blanks who he has ordered imprisoned. The stated result of corporate control over government is that very often, justice is about ‘cash flow,’ and Blanks and those forced to live in the Fringes (outlying poverty-strangled areas of the city) are obviously bereft of cash.

Is this the future we are invited to ‘know?’

One of the recurring character, Blank Reg (played by the marvelous William Morgan Sheppard), notes “Remember when we said there was ‘no future?’ Well, this is it.”  This is the character’s assessment of the world he lives in.  Blank Reg and his companion Dominique, operate a pirate television network called ‘Big Time TV.’  In the original UK telefilm, Big Time is the mirror for Channel 4, the British television network featuring the Max Headroom character as the host of its music video program in the 1980’s. In the US series, Blank Reg, Dom and Big Time TV are allies of intrepid tele-journalist Edison Carter and his comrades at Network 23. They live in the Fringes, and the network is housed in a large, pink RV, and thus mobile, setting up shop wherever the mood strikes them.  Blank Reg is illiterate, but still cherishes education.  In one famous exchange, he is approached by a denizen of the Fringe who has stolen Edison’s video camera. She wants to trade it for something of value. Blank Reg produces a book. She says “What is it?” He responds, “It’s a book. A non-volatile storage medium. It’s very rare. You should have one.” To which she tells Blank Reg to “Shove it!”

If we look at the warning that this future is only ‘twenty minutes’ away, the corporate suits’ invitation to ‘know’ it and the assessment of someone who lives in that future and decides that it is empty, we wonder if we really want to live there ourselves.  It is a bleak vision of the future, one that seems to offer no hope for a happy ending.

But for the Believer, we look forward to a happy ending.  We have faith in the promise of one and that there are no trials, tribulations or difficulties that can in anyway compared to the joys to come.  This does not negate the reality of the hardships of this world, but rather encourages us to endure them.  Stripping away much of the eschatological prophecy seeking in the Book of Revelation we read one common theme: that the end of the story, filled with light and rest and joy is promised to those who have endured the hellish persecution presented in the first nineteen (or so) chapters.[2]  Elsewhere, the Bible contains promises for the believer, where God promises to give those who trust in Him a ‘hope and a future’[3]  Other passages also indicate the promise of a future full of good to those who believe.[4]  Once again, the Book of Revelation teaches us that no matter how bad things get, human history is progressing toward a definite end, and it is an end full of promise. That is the future I want to know.

[1] Episode 206
[2] Revelation, chapters 21 and 22
[3] Jeremiah 29:11
[4] Psalm 2:1-6 and Proverbs 31:25, for example

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Characters I'd Like To See Rebooted: Rocky Jordan

As I pointed out in my review of the OTR series, Rocky Jordan is an American expatriate restaurateur from St. Louis, now the owner and operator of the Cafe Tambourine within the native quarter in Cairo, "within sight of the Mosque Sultan Hassan." The series was highly reminiscent of the film Casablanca, with actor Jack Moyles playing the part of Rocky Jordan, who can be described as perhaps "a poor man's Rick Blaine." But I'm not sure that characterization is actually fair.

 Rocky Jordan, while similar in many respects to Bogart's Rick Blaine, was a different character. The radio series made Rocky a much more well-rounded character than what appeared in Casablanca: we learn that Rocky is from St. Louis, but for some unspecified reason, he cna never go back; at one time, he operated a version of the Cafe Tambourine in Istanbul before settling in Cairo; he has a reputation for somehow being implicated in murder cases; he has a love-hate relationship with the Cairo police - he respects Police Capt. Sabaaya, but at the same time tries very hard to stay out other people's messes and give as little information to the Police as possible.

 This is a character who is street wise, tough, smart, and a danger/intrigue magnet. He has a soft spot for damsels in distress (even though he tries to hold them off for as long as possible). He is a rogue, but one that you actually root for.

I would love to see a Rocky Jordan TV series, or even a comic book. I think the character is that good.

Having said that, I would move the setting back a few years and put him in pre-WWII Cairo, with all of the intrigue that suggests.

 I'm working on a novella that incorporates him in just this way, but this is a piece of fanfic; I want someone to really reboot this character.

Episodes of the OTR series can be downloaded from the Internet Archive

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Life in the Big City: Max Headroom and Metropolis

The visual similarity between Max Headroom and Blade Runneris not accidental.  Early on, in the development of the UK telefilm and later reshot for the American pilot andsubsequent episodes, the decision was made to emulate the dark, gritty, cold,urban landscape of the Ridley Scott film which has become the standard image ofwhat a cyberpunk dystopia should look like. But what is generally not discussed in the influences for Max Headroom is that this visual look isnot original to Blade Runner. Infact, there are several references that Ridley Scott, the director of Blade Runner was heavily inspired by the1927 film Metropolis.[1]

The establishing shots for Max Headroom always involve a long shot of a city skyline thatseems to be perpetually shrouded in night, or at least, near darkness.  The only lights visible are those of theoccasional streetlamp and the garish neon of the buildings and billboards.  The shot is dominated by the Network 23building, which towers over all the others, and is flanked closely by the localoffices of its largest corporate sponsor, Zik Zak Corp.

These closely resemble the exterior shots from Fritz Lang’ssilent masterpiece Metropolis. Thecity here is also dominated by the New Tower of Babel, the headquarters officesof Joh Fredersen, the “master of Metropolis.” It is from this tower that Fredersendirects all activity of the city, and he is truly its master: he is efficient,ruthless and scheming, and will stop at nothing to ensure that he remains, inall ways, in control.

While Metropolisis often cited as an influence on BladeRunner, I think a case can be made that Metropolisis a more direct influence on MaxHeadroom not only visually but thematically as well.

The visual similarities have already been noted.Thematically, both feature a world with sharp divides between the ‘Haves’ andthe ‘Have-Nots.’  In Metropolis, the Have-Nots live below ground and work the vastmachinery that keeps the city operating. If the workers fail in their duties,the machinery blows up and the city floods, creating widespread death anddestruction. The Haves live above ground enjoying sports and frolicking intheir ‘pleasure gardens.’  Themarginalized in Max Headroom live inan area known as the Fringes, where the people “eat what they can catch,”[2]live in ‘cardboard condos’ (improvised shelters) and yet we see workersconstantly welding for no clear purpose. And everywhere, there are televisionsets for people to watch. On the other hand, many who reside in the city properlive in an apartment complex called ‘Sybaris,’ which is derived from the nameof ancient Greek city known for its opulence and luxury.  In the city, the worst crime that can becommitted is credit fraud.

The Master of Metropolis is the de facto ruler of the city.His word is law.  There is no one personin the city of Max Headroom like JohFredersen, but government is in the hands of people sponsored by the networksand ‘elected’ through television ratings. And of course, behind the networks are the corporate sponsors directingnetwork policy, which then becomes public policy.

Metropolis isabout the quest to find a mediator between the ‘Head’ of Metropolis (JohFredersen) and the ‘Hands’ (the workers). That Mediator, we discover, is actually Freder Fredersen, Joh’sson.  In a sense, ace telejournalistEdison Carter, star of Network 23 and the source of Max Headroom’s personality and memories, is the Mediator betweenthe Network and the denizens of the Fringes. He is often at work in theFringes, highlighting the people’s plights and hopefully making those who livewithin the city proper and enjoy its comforts that those comforts are notuniversal.  He is willing to challengethe establishment on behalf of those who have no voice. He is allowed to beconfrontational even to the point of biting the hand that feeds him, so tospeak, because he generates high ratings for the Network, and ratings meanrevenue.
Metropolis and Max Headroom still speak to us eventoday. Just a few months ago, the US saw the rise of the Occupy Movement thatsought to bring attention to the disparity between the corporate executives whoseem to have control of all the resources in the country and have politiciansin their back pocket, and those who struggle to make ends meet. The videoimages of various police departments evicting ‘Occupiers’ reminded me of scenesfrom Max Headroom of the people ofthe Fringes being confronted by the Metrocops.[3]

As a Christian, I understand how many of my fellow believersstruggle with the issues before us.  Weget that there needs to be incentive for people to work hard and achieve. Wheneveryone is financially ‘equal,’ the incentive goes away and nobody wins.  But at the same time we are called to carefor the needy and hurting and lost and alone. We may not have actual Fringes like in Max Headroom, but we have peoplewho live on the fringes of society and are very often overlooked in our driveto consume more and more. What I find disturbing is some Christians who labelthemselves as conservative seeking to distance themselves from Jesus’ mandateto serve ‘the least of these,’ meaning those naked, hungry sick and imprisoned[4],by producing a translation of the Bible that minimizes this and otherscriptural imperatives to treat the poor and disenfranchised with at least thesame dignity as you would the owner of a Fortune 500 company.  It is true that Jesus did not heal every onethat was sick, nor materially bless everyone who came to Him, but He did chargeHis followers with following his example and bless those that we could, and notjustify our inability or unwillingness to do so. Yes, it’s also true that Jesus said we would never eliminate poverty[5],but Christians need to stand with the hurting, lost and lonely just as surelyas their Master did, just as surely as Edison Carter stood with the residentsof the Fringe.

It is too easy for people, Believers and non-, to desire tocavort in the Pleasure Gardens of Metropolis,or to establish residency in the Sybaris of MaxHeadroom, but may we ever put that aside that we may care for those on thefringes.

[2]This is a quote from one of the episodes and there is visual evidence withstreet vendors selling what appear to be rats on a stick in another episode.
[3]Although, such a scene never actually occurred in the series. I’m not sure howit would have happened, as the official public policy seems to be to provideTVs to the masses to keep them mollified.
[4]Matthew 25:31-46
[5]Mark 14:7

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Background Noise

Much has been made of the predictive nature of the Max Headroom series.  The show has been credited with predicting things like hacking, network ‘viruses’, on-line shopping, and many others.[1]  However, some critics have also pointed out that what science fiction does best is not predicting the future so much, but either extrapolating current evens to a logical conclusion, or simply holding up a mirror to contemporary culture.[2]

So, in Max Headroom, we should not be so much looking at the technology it predicts, but the world it is showing us.  So what kind of world does it show us?

For starters, it shows us a media-saturated world.  There are televisions everywhere. And what’s more, off switches on televisions are illegal.  In one episode, a group of ‘Blanks’[3] have essentially cut the networks’ ability to broadcast programs to the masses. This results in riot conditions for the populace.  As an emergency measure, video playback units and recordings of old shows are distributed to satisfy the emptiness left by the lack of television programming.

Also, television becomes the vehicle for political expression. Perhaps as a solution to declining numbers of voters actually going to a polling place and casting a ballot, each network sponsors a candidate and then compete for viewers. The candidate of the network with the highest ratings at the end of a special sweeps period wins.

Television trumps traditional education as well.  Within the handful of episodes produced, we see a world where education is packaged and sold to people who can afford the price tag of educational TV.  One episode in particular[4] deals with the fact that there is an underground movement to trade bootlegged recordings of educational programming to be used by children of the ‘have-nots.’  In the pilot, one character steals a network minicam in the wasted outer areas of the city known as the Fringes. She attempts to trade it for something of value to her. The character she is negotiating with produces a book.  She asks what it is.  He replies “It’s a book. A non-volatile storage medium. It’s very rare. You should have one.” To which she answers “Shove it!”

These examples serve not to predict a time “20 minutes into the future,” as the series’ tagline promises, but to hold a mirror up to our own time. While we don’t see box television sets littering the landscape as we do in the series, we do see the ability to watch virtually any television program anywhere at any time. There is traditional network broadcasting, cable networks, YouTube, Hulu and others, available on your television at home, your computer, your smart phone and your tablet media device. We have become as a society much more celebrity savvy than we are aware of current political events or even history.[5] The American Academy of Pediatrics has released a report that indicates that unmonitored television watching can be detrimental to a child’s educational processes.[6] The evidence seems to indicate that the more television and media watching grow, the further it dilutes traditional, solid education and critical thinking.  And yet, there doesn’t appear to be much slowdown in TV consumption. 

Scripturally speaking, the Christian believer should take the implied warnings in Max Headroom about becoming so enamored with media that we lose focus of what’s important.  We are warned about giving in to ‘empty philosophies’ (Colossians 8:9), and encouraged to keep our attention fixed solely on Jesus as the one who has established and fulfills our faith (Hebrews 12).  This is not an endorsement of the idea to ban television. Rather, I would hope that it is a call to carefully consider what we watch and then answer a few basic questions:

What is the underlying message?

How does that message stack up against the Word of God?

How does it encourage me to believe and to behave?

And then maybe, on occasion, commit a Max Headroom-world crime: turn off the set.

[3] Blanks are computer experts who have removed all traces of their existence from any digital network –they are, in fact, “off the grid.”
[4] Episode 207 “Lessons” (aka “Lost Tapes”)