The Max Headroom Incident

Almost thirty years on and it still remains unsolved. On a November 1987 night in Chicago on WTTW-TV, the Doctor Who episode, “The Horror of Fang Rock”, was interrupted by a signal hijack and for the next few minutes, local Whovians gazed upon the disturbing, low-res insanity of this guy.


Imagine to yourself the sort of sick fear that this might have temporarily injected into many young people of the day. This was the second signal hijack after WGN’s Nine O’clock News got intercepted. But that was the boring old news. You’d expect to unsettle the stodgy news viewers. This was targeted at Doctor Who fans, ones who might have a slight awareness of who Max Headroom was as both a character and commercial pitch… construct.

Newcoke_maxheadroomIf you’re unfamiliar with the Max Headroom universe (and shame on you if you are), let me try to give enough context. First seen in the 1985 British film, Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future, Max is a computer-generated artificial intelligence created from the brain waves of Network 23’s star reporter Edison Carter. In the movie and in the US TV series that soon followed, the Max Headroom construct quickly takes on a life of its own and, when threatened with deletion by the network’s boss, he escapes to be a free-spirited, unhindered commentator on media, capitalism, and all points in between. One second you’re watching a nice home shopping channel and the next Max pops up to mention that it’s the one true network because it’s dedicated to nothing but selling things.

The Chicago incident is the same thing, only in a more chilling and perverse fashion.

Granted, it’s not biting commentary or even really related to Doctor Who. But it is an exact replication of what it’d be like if some loose cannon AI infiltrated our communication networks with light kinkplay. In other words, an intrusion on their personal form of media consumption, like the world’s most obnoxious pop-up ad. For the first time ever, we lost the comfort of the familiar and were dropped into a world such as Max’s where an entity could interrupt our regular programming for whatever reason. And much like the TV series, the Max Headroom incident was a direct thumb-to-eye for the FCC and others who consider our airwaves to be sacrosanct. It was also just a really good hack.



One thought on “The Max Headroom Incident

  1. As a science fiction geek, I watched Max Headroom, of course. It was a show a little more than 20 minutes into the future, as it turned out. Thanks for the reminder. I’ll seek it out on Netflix, if possible to rewatch.

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