Brother Clary

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

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

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

My criteria were simple:

-> The film had to be released prior to 2001;

-> The film could not be a serial;

-> The film must not be a sequel;

-> The film must be generally available for viewing

A Trip to the Moon


Die Spinnen (The Spiders)


Der Golem


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler)




Phantom of the Opera




Spione (The Spies)






Island of Lost Souls


The Mummy


White Zombie


King Kong 1933

Things to Come


Dr. Cyclops


The Wolfman


Destination Moon


The Thing (from Another World)


The Day the Earth Stood Still


War of the Worlds


The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms


20,000 Leagues Under the Sea




Gojira (aka, Godzilla, King of the Monsters)


Creature from the Black Lagoon


This Island Earth


Invasion of the Body Snatchers


Forbidden Planet


Plan 9 from Outer Space


20 Million Miles to Earth


The Incredible Shrinking Man


The Fly


The Blob


The Time Machine


The Mysterious Island


The Absent-Minded Professor


X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes


The Nutty Professor


The Day of the Triffids


Dr. Strangelove


The Fantastic Voyage


Fahrenheit 451




Planet of the Apes


*Planet of the Apes beat out 2001 by 3 days

The entries in bold are the ones I have seen. The others are ones I plan to.

Feel free to add your own choices at my new main blog site!

Brother Clary

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

Brother Clary

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?’

Brother Clary

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

Brother Clary

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

Note:  You could comment here, but I'd invite you to check out the new site at

Brother Clary

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

Note:  You could comment here, but I'd invite you to check out the new site at

Brother Clary

Life in the Big City: Max Headroom and Metropolis

The visual similarity between Max Headroom and Blade Runner is not accidental.  Early on, in the development of the UK telefilm and later reshot for the American pilot and subsequent episodes, the decision was made to emulate the dark, gritty, cold, urban landscape of the Ridley Scott film which has become the standard image of what a cyberpunk dystopia should look like. But what is generally not discussed in the influences for Max Headroom is that this visual look is not original to Blade Runner. In fact, 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 that seems to be perpetually shrouded in night, or at least, near darkness.  The only lights visible are those of the occasional streetlamp and the garish neon of the buildings and billboards.  The shot is dominated by the Network 23 building, which towers over all the others, and is flanked closely by the local offices of its largest corporate sponsor, Zik Zak Corp.

These closely resemble the exterior shots from Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis. The city here is also dominated by the New Tower of Babel, the headquarters offices of Joh Fredersen, the “master of Metropolis.” It is from this tower that Fredersen directs 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, in all ways, in control.

While Metropolisis often cited as an influence on Blade Runner, I think a case can be made that Metropolis is a more direct influence on Max Headroom 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’ and the ‘Have-Nots.’  In Metropolis, the Have-Nots live below ground and work the vast machinery that keeps the city operating. If the workers fail in their duties, the machinery blows up and the city floods, creating widespread death and destruction. The Haves live above ground enjoying sports and frolicking in their ‘pleasure gardens.’  The marginalized in Max Headroom live in an area known as the Fringes, where the people “eat what they can catch,”[2]live in ‘cardboard condos’ (improvised shelters) and yet we see workers constantly welding for no clear purpose. And everywhere, there are television sets for people to watch. On the other hand, many who reside in the city proper live in an apartment complex called ‘Sybaris,’ which is derived from the name of ancient Greek city known for its opulence and luxury.  In the city, the worst crime that can be committed is credit fraud.

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

Metropolis is about the quest to find a mediator between the ‘Head’ of Metropolis (Joh Fredersen) and the ‘Hands’ (the workers). That Mediator, we discover, is actually Freder Fredersen, Joh’s son.  In a sense, ace telejournalist Edison Carter, star of Network 23 and the source of Max Headroom’s personality and memories, is the Mediator between the Network and the denizens of the Fringes. He is often at work in the Fringes, highlighting the people’s plights and hopefully making those who live within the city proper and enjoy its comforts aware that those comforts are not universal.  He is willing to challenge the establishment on behalf of those who have no voice. He is allowed to be confrontational even to the point of biting the hand that feeds him, so to speak, because he generates high ratings for the Network, and ratings mean revenue.

Metropolis and Max Headroom still speak to us eventoday. Just a few months ago, the US saw the rise of the Occupy Movement that sought to bring attention to the disparity between the corporate executives who seem to have control of all the resources in the country and have politicians in their back pocket, and those who struggle to make ends meet. The video images of various police departments evicting ‘Occupiers’ reminded me of scenes from Max Headroom of the people of the Fringes being confronted by the Metrocops.[3]

As a Christian, I understand how many of my fellow believers struggle with the issues before us.  We get that there needs to be incentive for people to work hard and achieve. When everyone is financially ‘equal,’ the incentive goes away and nobody wins.  But at the same time we are called to care for the needy and hurting and lost and alone. We may not have actual Fringes like in Max Headroom, but we have people who live on the fringes of society and are very often overlooked in our drive to consume more and more. What I find disturbing is some Christians who label themselves as conservative seeking to distance themselves from Jesus’ mandate to serve ‘the least of these,’ meaning those naked, hungry sick and imprisoned[4],by producing a translation of the Bible that minimizes this and other scriptural imperatives to treat the poor and disenfranchised with at least the same dignity as you would the owner of a Fortune 500 company.  It is true that Jesus did not heal every one that was sick, nor materially bless everyone who came to Him, but He did charge His followers with following His example and bless those that we could, and not justify 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 surely as their Master did, just as surely as Edison Carter stood with the residents of the Fringe

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

[2]This is a quote from one of the episodes and there is visual evidence with street 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 how it would have happened, as the official public policy seems to be to provide TVs to the masses to keep them mollified.
[4]Matthew 25:31-46
[5]Mark 14:7

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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”)

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Live and Direct: The World of Max Headroom

At 10:00 p.m. ET on March 31, 1987, American viewers were exposed to something very different than what they had come to expect from network television.  Last place ABC premiered the Max Headroom television series, riding off of the hugely popular character imported from the United Kingdom.

By the time the first episode, ‘Blipverts,’ aired, the character of Max Headroom was already a well-known figure on both sides of the Atlantic.  Although the character became something of a marketing phenomenon pitching New Coke, Max was originally intended to be a ‘computer-generated’ on air personality introducing music videos for a show on Channel Four in the UK.  The executives wanted to flesh the character out a bit and give him a back story, a history that described where he came from.  Producer Peter Wagg, co-directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel and writer George Stone imagined a world in the not-too-distant future where television is the driving force in society. In this world, an intrepid crusading telejournalist named Edison Carter discovers a major conspiracy involving his network, the network’s major corporate sponsor and a deadly form of advertising.  In attempting to get the truth on the air and expose the perpetrators, he is forced into a serious motorcycle accident.  The network chairman wants to discover how much Edison knows, so he has the reporter’s consciousness copied into a computer file, creating a ‘virtual person.’ The resulting creation, dubbed Max Headroom, displays a wild streak of independent thought and escapes into the system, becoming impossible to delete. Meanwhile, Edison is left for dead but escapes and with the help of his team at the network, pieces enough of the story together to expose the conspirators.

This is essentially the same plot as the US pilot (titled ‘Blipverts’).  The UK telefilm differs from the pilot in a few key areas. Firstly, in the UK Telefilm (titled ’20 Minutes into the Future’), Max escapes from the Network (‘Network 23’ in both versions) and finds sanctuary in a pirate television station (Big Time TV) housed in a large pink RV operating outside the boundaries of the civilized world. The implication in this is that the ‘rogue’ station is in actuality the UK’s Channel Four and this is how Max ended up hosting a music video program.  The teenaged research and development genius for Network 23 and the Chairman of the network are both exposed for their parts in the attempted murder of Edison Carter.  Overall, the US version is not as dark as the UK’s version, even though much of the plot was reshot using almost identical sets, camera angles and dialogue.  But make no mistake; the US pilot is dark, especially for other mainstream primetime programs of the time.

The tone can be attributed to the subgenre of science fiction that Max Headroom represents.  Wikipedia acknowledges that Max Headroom was ‘the first cyberpunk television series.’[1]  Which now leads to this question: ‘What is cyberpunk?’

According to the diverse sites I checked online, cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction that is characterized by a dystopic future where computer networks are thoroughly integrated into society.  Outlaw hackers infiltrate these networks for personal or societal gain.  In this society, large multinational mega-corporations exert an almost total control over every segment of the social order, including government.  This creates a distinct divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’  Rather than being the salvation of humanity, technology is shown to be a curse, and quite often, human beings are ‘augmented’ by the use of computerized devices to the extent that the line between man and machine is practically non-existent.[2]  Visually, cyberpunk society is best represented by the film Blade Runner, with its gritty, dark city skylines shrouded in nearly perpetual night and rain competing with garish neon signs and video billboards.

The Max Headroom series borrows many, if not all of these elements.  In addition to omnipresent computer and security networks, television media is also a central concept of the series. There are literally hundreds of television networks competing for ratings supremacy. The multinational corporations sponsor the networks, which in turn endorse a particular candidate running for office. In the world of Max Headroom, if a network wins a ratings battle, its candidate is elected. Legally, no television can be manufactured with an off switch. There is also an acutely sharp class divide.  Many of the wealthy live in an apartment complex named ‘Sybaris,’ which is taken from an excessively wealthy city from ancient Greece.  The poor and those individuals called ‘Blanks’ who are hackers determined to live off the grid and removed themselves  from the computer networks live in an area known as the Fringes. The Fringes are characterized by urban blight, city ruins and makeshift dwellings. Even in the Fringes televisions are everywhere, almost as an opiate for the masses.  Like Blade Runner, the exterior establishing shots for Max Headroom are almost entirely shot in a deep darkness, either under massive cloud cover or night.  The Network 23 building towers among all others, indicating its stature as the number one network.  Next to it is the skyscraper office complex of the Zik Zak Corporation, Network 23’s largest corporate sponsor. Zik Zak’s building in these shots is local; the main headquarters are in New Tokyo, revealing that the sponsor is a multinational conglomerate.

Max Headroom was notable in its day as a series that was willing to challenge the establishment even within the network television world.  Television critics were quick to point out the surprise that the series would be such an indictment on the consumerist media culture of the mid-to-late 1980’s.[3]  I plan to explore some of the tropes, ideas and tropes displayed in this series as it celebrates its 25th anniversary.  In addition, I will look at them through a lens of faith as I believe that the series, using the cover of science fiction, has much to teach us even today.

[3] Harry F. Waters, Janet Huck and Vern E. Smith. “Mad About Max:the Making of a
Video Cult.” Newsweek April 20, 1987

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The 50 Geekiest Movies

The site Masters in IT has posted its list of the top fifty geeky movies of all time. While I would quibble with their selection, I have decided to print their list. I have bolded the ones that I have seen.

50. Akira
49. Stargate
48. Spaceballs
47. Gattaca
46. Office Space
45. Fight Club
44. Run Lola Run
43. Memento
42. 300
41. Lucas
40. Sin City (well, most of it, anyway)
39. V for Vendetta
38. 28 Days Later
37. Battle Royale
36. 12 Monkeys
35. Blade (again, an incomplete viewing)
34. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
33. The Crow
32. Shaun Of The Dead (I've seen the intro, and the last 2/3 of the film)
31. Zombieland
30. Hellboy (and Hellboy II)
29. The Big Lebowski
28. Being John Malkovich
27. Highlander (most of it)
26. WarGames
25. Army of Darkness
24. Seven Samurai (and The Magnificent Seven, as well!)
23. Dune
22. Brazil
21. Sneakers (a personal favorite)
20. Revenge of the Nerds (I know I've seen one of them, and I think it was this one)
19. Hackers
18. The Alien Franchise (only the first two)
17. Metropolis (my all-time favorite)
16. Robocop
15. Primer
14. Pi
13. Ghost in the Shell
12. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
11. Ghostbusters (and GB II)
10. Tron
9. Batman / The Dark Knight
8. Princess Bride
7. Matrix Trilogy (really only the first one)
6. Lord of the Rings
5. Blade Runner
4. Serenity
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey
2. The Star Trek Franchise
1. The Star Wars Franchise

It's interesting to me that I've seen the top 12 films on their list.

(edit: I've updated the list as of 7/18/2012)