Episode CH4.0.1: The Origin Telefilm

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Episode CH4.0.1
Title Max Headroom

Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future

Max Headroom: The Original Story

UK Air Date 4 Apr 1985
US Air Date NA
Length 57 minutes
Creative Screenplay by Steve Roberts

From an original idea by George Stone, Rocky Morton & Annabel Jankel

Directed by Rocky Morton & Annabel Jankel

Edited by Michael Bradsell

Watch for... The computer map locating the city as London, England.

"Securikams" - changed to Securicams in the US remake.

Apartment 42 and Channel 42.

Carter's sexual harassment line.

Bryce using his computer while in the bathtub - a safety no-no-no that was corrected in the US remake.

Bryce correctly pronouncing "data."

Breugal quoting Shakespeare.

Theora parking in her bedroom.

No mobile phones...?

A final Max Headroom sign.

An early example of a post-credits scene.

Crew Telefilm Crew
Actor Role
Matt Frewer Edison Carter & Max Headroom
Nickolas Grace Grossman
Amanda Pays Theora Jones
"Morgan Shephard"
(William Morgan Sheppard)
Blank Reg
Hilary Tindall Dominique
Paul Spurrier Bryce Lynch
Hilton McRae Breugal
George Rossi Mahler
Roger Sloman Murray
Anthony Dutton Gorrister
Constantine Gregory Ben Cheviot
Lloyd McGuire Edwards
Elizabeth Richardson Ms. Formby
Gary Hope [Gene] Ashwell
Joane Hall Body Bank Receptionist (Florence)
Howard Samuels Patrick (ENG reporter)
Roger Tebb Helipad Reporter
Val McLane Eyewitness
Michael Cule Exploding Viewer
 ? Other Board Member (Female)
 ? Other Board Member (Male)

The entire Max Headroom saga began with a one-hour telefilm made for Channel Four.

The history of this production alone could fill many pages.


(Note: This synopsis is written to be completely "standalone" and is without reference to the very similar US pilot synopsis. For a comparison of the two shows, see the Essays page.)

In a bleak, dystopian future where a downtrodden underclass is ruled by warring television networks and their advertisers, one tough investigative reporter, Edison Carter, strives to make a difference. He is one of the best-known on-air personalities, and "satellites globally" for what has long been the top-rated among thousands of television channels, Network 23.

Like all television reporters, he works solo with a minicam linked back to the network via his base "controller." While in the field on a hot lead, the network executives inexplicably can the story. His controller, Gorrister, commits the error of leaving him cut off and vulnerable in the field, and Carter punches him out on his battered return. Carter then demands a new controller, "the best," and "one he can trust," and gets "the best," the beautiful and skilled Theora Jones, hired away from World 1.

When he tries to continue investigating the story, Carter is blocked at a high level. With Theora's skilled system cracking skills, he eventually learns that the Network 23 executives know something about the mysterious event, and confronts board member Ben Cheviot.

Then, with Theora's help, he breaks into the lab of Network 23's teenaged technical genius Bryce Lynch and discovers a secret "Rebus tape" that shows how a new form of compressed commercial, a "blipvert," designed by Lynch and exclusive to Network 23, causes extremely slothful viewers to explode.

Grossman and most of the Network 23 board, driven by ratings and advertising revenue issues tied to their biggest advertiser, the powerful global corporation Zik-Zak, want the profitable and compelling blipverts to continue, despite the risk.

While Carter is viewing the secret tape, Bryce Lynch sends two thugs, Breugal and Mahler, to capture him and he is sent running for his life. In an epic computer command battle between Bryce and Theora (one of the centerpiece scenes of the movie), Lynch manages to force up an exit barrier that knocks Carter from his speeding motorcycle. The last thing he sees before unconsciousness is the clearance warning on the exit gate: Max Headroom 2.3m. Theora comes running to the rescue, but Carter, his camera and the motorcycle are gone, swept up by the thugs.

When it becomes critical to keep Carter on ice, Grossman allows Bryce to perform a cerebral scan of the unconscious Carter, transferring his memory into an AI program that theoretically could impersonate Carter on television. When the AI clone is started up, all it can remember at first is "Max... Max Headroom." Grossman is disappointed and angry; the simulation is far too crude to pass for Carter.

To keep the secret of the Rebus tape and the blipvert problem, Grossman decides to have Carter disposed of and the useless "Max," with its copy of Carter's memories, hidden away. Lynch turns both of them over to the thugs, who deliver Carter to a "body bank," a wrecking yard for human parts, instead of killing him. Max, in a portable video unit, is delivered to Big Time Television, a pirate television network run from a huge battered pink bus.

Carter regains consciousness and escapes from the body bank, sending the thugs after him again. With Theora's help, he eludes them and hides in her apartment.

Meanwhile, the anchor, VJ and technical whiz - and burned-out ex-heavy metal fan - Blank Reg of Big Time Television has started Max up and discovered, to his and the (improbably elegant) network owner Dominique's delight, that Max is self-aware and interactive. Big Time's ratings soar within hours of putting Max on their broadcast.

Carter corners Bryce Lynch in his studio and leaves him tied up as the ratings surge of Big Time TV - and Grossman's recognition of Max thereon - causes chaos to erupt. Grossman pays the thugs to take him, Lynch and two network security goons to find Big Time TV, Max, and Carter. After Breugal and Mahler turn the goons into body parts, Carter appears and corners Grossman on live global TV to questions him about the blipvert problem. The final decision to go live with the story comes from Network 23 board member Ben Cheviot.

Grossman and Lynch are quite evidently out - perhaps even delivered to the body bank by Breugal and Mahler - Cheviot takes over Network 23, and Blank Reg and Dominique drive off into the hazy sunset with their new ratings booster, Max Headroom, on board. They knock one of its antennas off the bus as they pass under an underpass labeled... Max Headroom 4m.

Notes & Commentary

This telefilm was created to explain the origin and backstory of Max, who was conceived as a talking-head host and VJ for a British Channel 4 music program - sorry, programme. The ending of the film, with Max in the hands of Blank Reg and Big Time Television, was the final setup for Max's position as the music programme's host. The ending of the US remake is different, to better set up the series.

Extended Telefilm: There is also an 83-minute extended version of this film, created by Cinemax to introduce the new US talk and music show. It combines the original telefilm with about 25 minutes of extended Max riffs and introductions to videos, and then several complete videos as well. All of this material is apparently taken from the UK talk and music show and intended to more fully introduce Max and his show. Click Here for a complete listing of the new material and some additional quotes and sound bites.

When Lorimar picked up the rights to continue the story as a series, they completely recast the show, keeping only Matt Frewer and Amanda Pays, with William Morgan Sheppard brought on in later episodes. Of the creative team, only producer Peter Wagg and writer Steve Roberts were brought over to the new show (a few of the special effects people were brought in as well).

It takes careful viewing to determine the city in which the story is set. A prominent computer generated map zooms in on the US, with a blinking dot near New Orleans. Close examination shows that this represents a satellite, and the footprint of the satellite is shown covering the southeastern US. The point of this is unclear, as the subsequent zoom onto Carter's position clearly shows it to be in or near London (a single-frame freeze is needed to resolve the fast moving image). Is the earlier image intended to blur the location in viewer's minds?

The exploding viewer is captured on a "Rebus tape," which becomes a pivotal object in the story. It appears that "Rebus" was intended to represent the possibly secret "two way" nature of the television system, whereby the networks can spy on viewers. Although viewers must be aware that the link is two-way sometimes - as for the "Dr. Duncan Show" - they may not be aware that it can be used all the time. References in the series are to the "two way sampler."

Among the news summaries that flash past on Theora's console are:

  • Whites should be permitted the same access to South African public areas as the majority population.
  • Top secret prototype missile stolen from AKG by terrorists.
  • Nuclear waste disposal space shuttle DMP.5 in difficulty over failed computer link; controller was watching the Polly Show at the time.
  • Bolivian freedom fighters killed a 20-person medic team trying to reach starving peasants.
  • Colonial USSR government in New Delhi ordered military suppression of food riots.
  • Tokyo TV assembly workers threaten strike.

The Polly Show, also mentioned later as a possible Max-ratings killer, appears to be the most popular program on television.

Bryce Lynch's birthdate is given as October 7, 1988 (European style: 7/10/88). If his age is 18 or thereabouts, this places the story in 2006.

Theora's decoding of Bryce's door password is strictly Sherlock Holmes-style ratocination, unlike the technically assisted technique in the US remake.

Bryce's exit code is BZ2VH. His entry code is IJ2FI.

Theora says, "I know all about little boys." Carter turns it into an innuendo, but Theora clearly means something else. Is she referring to her younger brother, a subject not raised until the second US episode?

Breugal and Mahler are a riff on the 19th century Scottish body snatching team of Burke and Hare, who started off stealing newly buried bodies for physicians to use in anatomy lessons, and graduated to delivering still-warm corpses. (Mahler thinks this "has great potential.") Burke was hanged after Hare turned King's evidence. Hare died some 25 years later, a pauper.

Carter's personal ident code is 74928BDG6629.

The nurse receptionist at Nightingale's Body Bank is not identified by name. In the US remake, the joke is completed by calling the character (played by a nearly identical actress) "Florence." (Florence Nightingale? Famous nurse? Get it?)

The relationship between Blank Reg and Dominique (Blank Dominique?) is fuzzy (and remains so in the US series), but it can be discerned that it's Dom's business, and Reg is her unruly but necessary (for technical services) and popular (with Big Time's small audience) employee. Note, for example, Dominique's sour reaction when Reg introduces her to Max as "his partner," and her mention that he might get paid this month.

While chasing Carter the second time, Breugal quotes Shakespeare - Hamlet, to be precise: "Tis now the very witching time of night, when churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes [out] contagion to this world..." Since they are hunting Carter to kill him this time, the unspoken completion of the line that's clearly on his mind is noteworthy: "...now could I drink hot blood, and do such bitter business as the day would quake to look on."

While transporting Grossman and Bryce Lynch to "find Big Time TV," Mahler sings a snippet of a song. Click Here for the complete lyrics.

Among the networks shown on the ratings graphic of stations at the top:

  • TKO TV
  • Channel 28
  • Primetime
  • Pornovision
  • Channel 42
  • Global
  • BBC 126
  • and, of course, Network 23

And among the networks shown on the ratings graphic of stations with ratings "in the thousands":

  • Planetwide
  • Channel 1111
  • Flicks
  • Bigtime TV
  • Fantasm
  • Horrorviz
  • RUBB18H TV

William Morgan Sheppard, often credited as W. Morgan Sheppard or Morgan Sheppard, is miscredited as "Morgan Shepherd" in the final credits.

The two BBC channel references appear to be British viewer in-jokes. Channel 42, one of two "42" references in the show, is a nod to the contemporary "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

Edison Carter never encounters his AI alter-ego Max Headroom.