Metropolis Maria

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

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Characters I'd Like To See Rebooted: KC Smith of the Ghost Corps

While the previous entries in this series were specific characters in their own right, I am featuring a character that I am not totally in love with mostly because I like the series he's featured in and would love to see the series rebooted.

The Ghost Corps is a group of 'free-lance diplomatic' operatives (translation: spies) at work in the Orient in the years between the World Wars. The radio series focused on an agent, KC Smith and his aide, Mohammed Ali, who were stationed in Egypt (the series places them variously in Cairo and Alexandria). Smith is identified as an American who had also served for a time in the French Foreign Legion and was a master of disguise and languages. Ali is a stalwart friend who possesses skills as varied as swordsmanship and ventriloquism. Together, they made a formidable team.

I could see Smith and Ali interacting very easily with the other characters mentioned in this series of posts. In fact, as I've mentioned before, one of my projects is to write a pulp-style 'novelette' featuring Smith and Ali, Rocky Jordan and Chandu, the Magician in a single adventure.

But again, it is the Corps itself that fires my imagination. The Ghost Corps had only two 'seasons' of fifteen-minute episodes. The first has Smith and Ali preventing a jihad in Egypt, while another sends the pair to an area near Pakistan to solve a mystery of a prayer rug that might actually be a map to a fabulous treasure. The second season ended with the promise of a new adventure further East in story arc titled "The Ming Ruby." However, I'm not sure this arc exists.

Nonetheless, I wold love to see this series picked up and given justice by competent hands. Until then, it appears to be stuck in my inexpert grasp.

My original review can be found here

The series can be found at the Internet Archive