Max Headroom was something of a Cyberpunk star in the 1980s. Supposedly a badly-glitching artificial intelligence construct, Max Headroom was the faulty brain-scanned simulation of a comatose TV reporter. The character originally appeared as the host of a surprisingly successful (non-fiction) pop video show, titled “The Max Headroom Show”.
In the British TV movie created to explain the character’s back-story, “Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future”, it was revealed that the reporter, Edison Carter, had been on a crusade to expose a new form of compressed advertising — the ‘blipvert’ — as a lethal danger. Whilst trying to escape a TV network office on a motorbike, Carter had smashed his head into a height clearance sign. When his brain was imaged, this trauma was what led to his digital echo’s assumption of the Max Headroom personality. Max was discarded as irredemably faulty, but went on to host his own surreal award-winning show. When Edison Carter recovered meanwhile, he was able to use the furore Max had caused to bring blipverts to the world’s attention. A later US spin-off sci-fi series kept the same premise as the film, adding different abuses for Carter to uncover each week. In addition to these outings, Max also appeared advertising assorted products, from New Coke to Channel 4, and was even interviewed by David Letterman.
Max Headroom’s popularity had peaked and was on the decline by November ’87 when the now-infamous Max Headroom Broadcast Signal Intrusion took place. On the night of the 22nd, Chicago viewers were treated to a peculiar interruption in the middle of a WGN news report on the Cubs — thirty seconds of silent broadcast of a strange guy in a Max Headroom mask. That would have been odd enough, but later in the evening, the pirate signal-hacker struck again.
The second time, he hacked into WTTW, a PBS station. This time, he managed to get sound, and was able to complete a 90-second broadcast of the tape over an episode of the Doctor Who story The Horror of Fang Rock. WTTW’s engineers didn’t have time to work out a way of overriding the pirate signal. The whole thing was captured by bemused Doctor Who fans.
Despite best efforts, the hacker was never caught. Which means that somewhere, this person is still out there…
(Thanks to Cracked for reminding me about this madness!)Red Phone Box, a darkly magical story cycle written by myself, Warren Ellis and twenty-six other writers, and edited by the sublime Salomé Jones, is out now. I think you'll like it.