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20 Minutes Into The Future
July 18, 2013 1:57 PM   Subscribe

"20 Minutes Into The Future" (full length film on YouTube) was a sci-fi telefilm with a dinstinctly dystopian/cyberpunk flair produced by Channel 4 in 1985 primarily known introducing the character Max Headroom. The character portrayed by Matt Frewer though popularly believed to be a fully computer generated personality, became something of a pop culture phenomenon. In the UK, hosting a music video block with no wraparound intro, which eventually evolved into more proper chat program The Original Talking Max Headroom Show. In the US, the characters popularity led to Max Headroom (full episode 1x01 "Blipverts") a sci-fi television series with a distinctly dystopian/cyberpunk flair that aired on ABC for two seasons 1987-1988.
posted by mediocre (67 comments total) 87 users marked this as a favorite

 
I am amazed that show was on American network television. I suppose the gimmick was the selling point and no one was paying attention to the vicious social commentary.
posted by banal evil at 2:01 PM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


The UK absolutely got the best part of that deal.
posted by Artw at 2:01 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


/drinks Quatro.
posted by Artw at 2:02 PM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


I was watching some episode of this recently and realized this is almost what I would say the PERFECT filmic representation of cyberpunk. To me, cyberpunk is such an essentially 80's concept that it simply CANNOT be taken out of that era. And that is why all attempts at bringing the genre defining works to the big screen since then have pretty much failed. They always attempt to keep it using the hyper modern tech of whatever era that particular attempt dwells in, and that is the fatal error. The only way a proper cyberpunk film of any sort can be made is to strictly retain the essential antiquity (as it would now be seen) of the tech. It is that ribbon-corded, bread-boarded aesthetic that gave cyberpunk its oomph..
posted by mediocre at 2:02 PM on July 18, 2013 [12 favorites]


I have a Max Headroom trucker cap in storage. That is all.
posted by boo_radley at 2:04 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


no one was paying attention to the vicious social commentary.

posted by banal evil


Eponystetera.
posted by mediocre at 2:04 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dystopian? Sure. Prophetic? You betcha.

Watch the Network 42 executives sit around a conference table checking their ratings in real-time, then pretend they're looking at Twitter feeds instead.
posted by JoeZydeco at 2:12 PM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


And it's got the Sheriff of Nottingham in it
posted by dng at 2:13 PM on July 18, 2013


Max was also the inspiration for a bizarre hijacking of two Chicago TV station signals, WGN and WTTW.
posted by Longtime Listener at 2:17 PM on July 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


Surprised nobody's mentioned the Max Headroom channel-hacker incident yet!
posted by blnkfrnk at 2:17 PM on July 18, 2013


Here a piece on the pseudo-CGI used to create Max.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 2:18 PM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


I very specifically didn't mention the infamous pirating incident, since it oddly seems to be the only thing many people are familiar with the character for.
posted by mediocre at 2:21 PM on July 18, 2013


Videos from episode 1 of the UK show

We had the whole thing taped when I was a kid and would watch it all the time, so seeing this line up of videos again via the magic of Youtube is an odd moment for me.
posted by Artw at 2:26 PM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


He was even a guest on the David Letterman show. I saw it when it first aired. I am old now.
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:39 PM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Wow, I had completely forgotten about Amanda Pays (sigh).
posted by smidgen at 2:42 PM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


OMG THIS!

I remember watching this as a kid. I was like 9 or 10 years old when this was being broadcast. My parents didn't get my fascination with it, but I remember quite clearly loving this to hard.

It also formulated many of my rather cynical views about corporations, executives, and mass media. Also, hacking. And AI. And piracy. Not to mention body chop shops and bypassing security systems and, and , and....

The reporter character was like a cleaned up (or younger version of) Spider Jerusalem, at least from my memory. Now I must rewatch all of this. ALL OF IT.
posted by daq at 2:47 PM on July 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


I am looking forward to watching this. I've been meaning to look up the old Max Headroom shows, and here is my start!

I didn't get to watch the first show except if I was at a friend's house who had cable. When they came out with a network television show, I was ecstatic. I find it interesting that it stands up fairly well to the test of time. Matt Frewer was brilliant casting for the part. He does the part well, and works with the technology perfectly, even though it appears dated compared to today's CGI, it still works since it's supposed to be a hack without production qualities. Brilliant show that touched on a lot of impending topics.

I guess I'd be a blank in that society...
posted by Eekacat at 3:01 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ah, what a great show. Holds up marvelously.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:03 PM on July 18, 2013


though popularly believed to be a fully computer generated personality

By whom? Max Headroom was a big thing when I was a little kid, but even I fully understood that it was a guy in prosthetic makeup and his stutter was the result of editing. While he was designed to resemble a computer 3-D rendering, it was barely even conceivable that something like Max Headroom could actually be achieved with a computer.

It was only really, really recently that CGI got that good.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:04 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I was a HUGE Max Headroom fan. I had a VHS tape full of episodes that was missing when I dug my old tapes out of my mom's closet. Seriously ahead of its time.
posted by vibrotronica at 3:08 PM on July 18, 2013


By whom?

Journalists.
posted by mediocre at 3:12 PM on July 18, 2013


There's an urban legend that the show was ended "voluntarily" simply because it was too much work to produce -- it takes place on Earth so you don't have the "they're on a spaceship" excuse to keep showing the same gray walls; the constant set building and scene design was killing them.

The real reason, apparently, is the familiar prosaic one: It was getting killed in the ratings. But I do recall reading an interview in which it was said that it was indeed a complete SOB to shoot.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:27 PM on July 18, 2013


I'm really tempted to pick up the disc set of the drama, which I remember seeing as a kid and liking (my dad, more worldly wise than myself, was a big fan and frequently marveled that they were able to get away with what they did on network TV). I'm sure that like a lot of shows of its ilk, it's depressingly contemporary in its social commentary and distressingly dated in terms of making viewers of a certain age profoundly aware of exactly how long ago the '80s were.

(That said, Matt Frewer has a great star turn in the second half of Orphan Black, and is still every bit as awesome as ever.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:27 PM on July 18, 2013


Perhaps someone will release a Max Headroom equivalent to Siri for Android.

I would pay for that app, and I don't even have an Android phone.
posted by davejay at 3:28 PM on July 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


Matt Frewer has a great star turn in the second half of Orphan Black, and is still every bit as awesome as ever.

Funny. I almost gave-up on Orphan Black when Frewer showed up. I guess I was still traumatized by his worst-aussie-accent-evar performance as Taggart in Eureka. My god, that was even worse than the guy who does the Outback Steakhouse ads. Thankfully, he's better in OB.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:36 PM on July 18, 2013


distressingly dated in terms of making viewers of a certain age profoundly aware of exactly how long ago the '80s were.

Except for W. Morgan Sheppard whose numerous genre appearances always create a sense of timelessness for all the shows I've watched over the years.

Sheppard interview about Max Headroom.
posted by audi alteram partem at 3:42 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thanks for posting this! I loved this show, although the UK version was definitely better.

There were two theme songs for the U.S. version of the show. I’ve been unable to find the first theme, which I recall was the better of the two. Does anyone else recall this, and know where I might find it?
posted by action man bow-tie at 3:49 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ooh! 34 minutes into 20 Minutes into the Future, Divine!
posted by Sys Rq at 3:57 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow, I had completely forgotten about Amanda Pays

I hadn't forgotten about her--she and W Morgan Sheppard were my favorite actors in the show. (Big Time TV! All Day! All Night! There has to be a YouTube channel of that name, but I'm afraid to look.)

Though I had completely spaced that she married Corbin Bernsen.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 4:10 PM on July 18, 2013


Funny. I almost gave-up on Orphan Black when Frewer showed up. I guess I was still traumatized by his worst-aussie-accent-evar performance as Taggart in Eureka. My god, that was even worse than the guy who does the Outback Steakhouse ads.

Be sure to avoid Frewer playing Sherlock Holmes. I was outraged. His performance is an affront to every Holmesian.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:22 PM on July 18, 2013


C-C-C-Catch the wave. Coke.
posted by Wild_Eep at 4:31 PM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


...Frewer playing Sherlock Holmes

*shudder*
posted by Thorzdad at 4:31 PM on July 18, 2013


I once stood in line in NYC to get "Max Headroom's Guide To Life" signed by a little hole-punch machine. The machine was on the fritz and the nice lady convinced me to forget about it because it wasn't a real signature anyway. HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE A PERSON WHO IS WRONG
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:43 PM on July 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


My yay at seeing Intaferon was immediately erased by fast-forwarding to Jesse Rae. Why oh why oh why …
posted by scruss at 4:45 PM on July 18, 2013


Friends and I sat down with the full Max Headroom DVD set a year or so back (we'd previously watched through Babylon 5, The Middleman, and sundry other shows). Sadly, we only got 3 or 4 episodes into Max Headroom before we gave up. The content was still good, but the pacing was so slow! Because it cost so much to shoot, they didn't have a lot of footage to work with, so they kept in bits that would have been edited out in other shows--you know, people walking from the car to the door, people standing up and sitting down, all that sort of empty business that modern shows leave out. Well, they couldn't leave it out because otherwise they wouldn't have enough footage to fill their slot. It mad the pacing of the show just deadly by comparison with anything filmed in the last 20 years.

Such a shame, because I have such fond memories of it, especially Matt Frewer and Morgan Sheppard. And Dom!
posted by suelac at 4:46 PM on July 18, 2013


When this show came on ABC I was 6. I had every episode taped and would watch them ad nauseum (and, my parents let me stay up to watch two or three episodes as they aired, I remember that I could have stayed up to watch MacGyver afterward, but MacGyver didn't have a talking head who lived in the TV).

I enjoy the concept of the Blanks (there is a similar concept in the Shadowrun RPG). Favorite episode is 'Lessons' from season two. The premise is that the children of those who live outside of the system are not entitled to public education, so an underground school which displays pirated content from a pay-tv education network is set up for the children. The censors step in (using the arguments that property owners always tend to use to justify the privilege of holding property), and shut the school down.
posted by banal evil at 4:55 PM on July 18, 2013


My parents wouldn't let me stay up to watch it, but I had a black and white Sony Watchman that I smuggled into bed in order to watch Max. Awesome stuff.
posted by Fleebnork at 4:58 PM on July 18, 2013


I was about seven years old when Max Headroom was a thing, and I definitely believed his face was computer-generated. In fact, I had remembered him having a much lower "polygon count" than he actually did. Looking at the videos today, it's clear that it could never have been done with computer rendering in the mid-1980s.
posted by mbrubeck at 5:11 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I was watching some episode of this recently and realized this is almost what I would say the PERFECT filmic representation of cyberpunk. To me, cyberpunk is such an essentially 80's concept that it simply CANNOT be taken out of that era.

Cyberpunk was yesterday's future, and hence, its aesthetic is essentially analogue as opposed to digital. It's the last gasp of the old analogue world before the tide of the digital washes over it, attempting to understand what is happening in its own terms. Hence VHS tapes, bulky, glowing cathode-ray tubes, TVs tuned to a dead channel showing static, signals degraded by analogue glitches (not, say, JPEG artefacts), and such. Even computer graphics are more redolent of a vector display than the retro pixel art retroactively associated with the actual 80s these days.

Even the technology in Gibson's early books (which were observations and extrapolations of the new technology, written on a typewriter after seeing kids play arcade games) had a curious analogueness about it (hackers' consoles physically melting down from the force of conflict in the matrix and such).
posted by acb at 5:45 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


What? No Paranoimia by Art of Noise featuring Max Headroom?
posted by grimjeer at 5:51 PM on July 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


When I was That Age, my musical tastes extended to Huey Lewis and Phil Collins and, well, generally just completely shit music.

But one day at the mall I was walking past Zellers on a trip to the nearest local city (still a 45-minute drive from home) and I saw a Max Headroom 7" single. I bought it! The music was by some group called the "Art of Noise."

Brought it home. Listened to it. Got... freaked out. This was like nothing, nothing I had ever heard before. My musical tastes to date had been defined by mainstream radio and CBC 1.

I just couldn't wrap my head around what I was hearing. It was like somebody had taken music and cut it apart and put it back together and it sounded really wrong but it sounded really interesting and I sort of hated it but couldn't stop playing it.

Two years later, I was listening to Skinny Puppy's VIVISECT VI and Ministry's The Land of Rape and Honey and to this day I still think there's very little musically that can beat Testure and Thieves as my go-to bad-day music.

It literally opened me up to a world of music that I don't know how or when I ever would have discovered otherwise, polite white preacher's son in a town of 500 in southern Ontario.

I still own the 7", held together by masking tape at the edges, a brittle yellow spacer in the middle.

Thanks, Max.
posted by Shepherd at 5:54 PM on July 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


Even the technology in Gibson's early books (which were observations and extrapolations of the new technology, written on a typewriter after seeing kids play arcade games) had a curious analogueness about it (hackers' consoles physically melting down from the force of conflict in the matrix and such).

Upon reading the first sentence of Neuromancer, anyone born in the last 15-20 years or so will picture a bright blue sky.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:09 PM on July 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


Ron Headrest?
posted by headless at 7:12 PM on July 18, 2013


I do not remember Max Headroom as being "Ace Ventura, as portrayed by Peter Weller" but that is exactly what I'm seeing in that David Letterman link, right?
posted by elr at 7:12 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


This may break your heart a little: Max Headroom as a bitter old digital man. I'm sorry.

Somebody once pointed out that we are now basically living inside the ABC show, except we have the internet. The show was so prophetic in so many ways, but there's this big, internet-shaped hole in the middle of their future.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 7:29 PM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Looking at the videos today, it's clear that it could never have been done with computer rendering in the mid-1980s.

Of course it could have been done. Triple I did a CG character demo in 1981. Tron was released in 1982, it had plenty of animation at that level (although the characters were film animation). The Last Starfighter came out in 1984.

But this level of work would have been prohibitively expensive for TV.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:30 PM on July 18, 2013


I think I am slowly become blank reg.
posted by mrgroweler at 8:00 PM on July 18, 2013


Even computer graphics are more redolent of a vector display than the retro pixel art retroactively associated with the actual 80s these days.

That's because they weren't actually done on computers either. At least, I don't think so. They very closely resemble those of the tv series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which were done in traditional cel animation.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:02 PM on July 18, 2013


I really liked Max Headroom when it was new. I would go out of my way to see that show, which has never been true about much TV for me.

In the blipvert episode, Edison Carter investigates a new technology that crams a complete commercials' worth of hype into just a second or two of airtime. The super-short commercials are called "blipverts." They are profitable for the network, but they are explosively fatal to some viewers.

It occurred to me the other day, while zipping through commercials with the DVR, that we sort of subject ourselves to blipverts accidentally-on-purpose now. We have machines that automatically convert ordinary commercials into blipverts. As a time-saving convenience. That's kind of weird.

The show was produced well after Tron and The Last Starfighter. A CGI Max Headroom would have been perfectly possible at the time, but makeup and off-the-shelf analog video processing were quite a lot faster and more cost effective. I don't think anyone should feel silly for having assumed that something designed to look like computer graphics was in fact computer graphics.
posted by Western Infidels at 8:48 PM on July 18, 2013


A CGI Max Headroom would have been perfectly possible at the time, but makeup and off-the-shelf analog video processing were quite a lot faster and more cost effective.

It is worth noting that the early 80s CG work I cited was all done on Cray supercomputers at about 80 to 100 MFLOPS. Today, an iPhone 5 GPU runs about 25 GFLOPS.

I don't think anyone should feel silly for having assumed that something designed to look like computer graphics was in fact computer graphics.

Max was an obvious spoof on the newly emerging computer graphics scene. I suppose this was more obvious to my friends and I, since we worked in computer graphics studios.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:15 PM on July 18, 2013


NEW COKE SUCKS!!!
posted by not_on_display at 9:48 PM on July 18, 2013


NEW COKE SUCKS!!!

I remember when New Coke was announced... I convinced my father to go to the nearest grocery store and buy 5 cases of the Coke they had in stock. I dealt that out with skill and pleasure during the time between Old Coke and Coca-Cola Classic. Enjoyed quite a bit of it myself, and made friends gasp with glee when I brought some out.

I also managed to get him to stockpile some 7-Up Gold when it was discontinued. Sadly, I haven't tasted that wonderful deliciousness in ages.
posted by hippybear at 9:53 PM on July 18, 2013


I remember thinking that New Coke just tasted like Pepsi.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:21 PM on July 18, 2013


I LOVE this show, and honestly, it still holds up. I really recommend people check it out.

Also -- in radio, there've been a few attempts to move to shorter and shorter ads. It used to be that :30s and :60s were the defaults -- we're seeing more :15s and :30s now. There were also, however :02s, which would just be a audio logo. Like just the "ba-da-da-da-da" McDonalds thing.

These were called, unironically, "Blipverts".

I never figured out if the people behind the real Blipverts were calling them that based on Max, or if they just individually thought that was an awesome name.

AFAIK, though, the real ones don't make anyone explode.
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 12:43 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


PSAs, to the extent that they even exist on network TV anymore, are down to blipvert length:
[Actor you barely have time to recognize] If you're being bullied, tell someone. [*Dum dum dum dum* The More You Know™]
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:50 AM on July 19, 2013


One of the reasons it crashed was that ABC set it up against a new show on NBC: Miami Vice.

I sometimes wonder if we need an Edison and a Max in the modern world, just to get the truth out.
posted by mephron at 2:10 AM on July 19, 2013


Matt Frewer's voice rocks my world. I'm glad I've never heard his Australian accent.
posted by h00py at 5:14 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I remember thinking that New Coke just tasted like Pepsi.

You said the P word!
posted by Spatch at 6:09 AM on July 19, 2013


Aw, I loved this show when I was little, though all I remember watching was the shorter show with Max on his own. I didn't even know of the US dystopian version until a few months ago.

I used to have a latex puppet of his head, and I got excited when my parents drove to Morrisons as it said 'MAX HEADROOM' in the carpark.
posted by mippy at 6:56 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I also am highly amused by the music video block, as a few seconds in Max says in a broad Lancashire accent 'Get out t'best cups Martha'.
posted by mippy at 6:58 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is the best of Metafilter, and I now have post envy.
This show DEFINED Cyberpunk for me for about 10 years.

Matt Frewer's voice rocks my world. I'm glad I've never heard his Australian accent.

Have I got a show for you, mate.
Crikey, a dingo stole my remote.
posted by Mezentian at 11:03 AM on July 19, 2013


I was a HUGE Max Headroom fan back in the day. I'm watching the blipvert episode now. The most dated aspect of it is the idea that the truth will make a difference.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:46 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I definitely had a "thing" for Max Headroom when I was a teenager. Thanks for posting all of this stuff - I've gleefully enjoyed reliving my obsession.
posted by MsVader at 1:33 PM on July 19, 2013


Who Owns Cyberpunk?
posted by Artw at 1:39 PM on July 19, 2013


I loved Max Headroom when I was a kid, and I was so pissed when they canceled it. In retrospect, I'm amazed it was ever on TV in the first place.

Thanks for posting this, mediocre.
posted by homunculus at 10:30 PM on July 19, 2013


When I was That Age, my musical tastes extended to Huey Lewis

Do you like Huey Lewis and the News?
posted by homunculus at 10:35 PM on July 19, 2013


Cyberpunk was yesterday's future, and hence, its aesthetic is essentially analogue as opposed to digital.

Though the first time I saw Real Media Player choke and stutter on some dropped packets on a streaming video in the mid 90s, I instantly thought of dear old Max.
posted by radwolf76 at 2:14 AM on July 20, 2013


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