Metropolis Maria

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Max Headroom: Thirty-Year Celebration Reblog - 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 11, 2017

Max Headroom: Thirty-Year Celebration Reblog - Future Tense

In celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the premiere of the Max Headroom television series that ran on ABC in the US, I am reblogging my posts from five years back and on:

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