There you were, the night of November 22, 1987, crouched by the flickering light of your Curtis Mathis with a large bowl of cereal to watch the broadcast of “Doctor Who” that night on Chicago’s WTTW affiliate PBS.
The episode, “Horror of Fang Rock,” a 1977 Tom Baker-era episode that I hadn’t seen at the time of this writing, was going straight, until, during a scene with characters chatting in a lighthouse so cheap that the real “horror” It could have been the actors being avalanched by styrofoam bricks if they bumped into a wall, the image started to get blurry and then everything Suddenly you found yourself staring… wait, Max? Is that you?
Sure. Because someone in the Chicago area had managed to figure out a way to completely shut down WTTW’s live signal, just hours after doing the same thing, briefly, during WGN’s nightly news. Now just imagine the helpless night engineers watching someone in a really creepy Max Headroom mask incoherently rant about Chicago stuff like Chuck Swirsky and “The World’s Greatest Newspaper Nerds,” humming the Clutch theme. Cargo, and saying he’s either “Stole CBS” or “can still see the x” whichever transcript you believe for almost 30 seconds in front of a cleverly constructed piece of rotating corrugated metal meant to recreate the “real” background rotating neon lines from Max.
Such things had happened before. Even as a child, I remember hearing about the 1986 “Captain Midnight” incident where a disgruntled satellite engineer, also in the Chicago area, spoofed a late-night HBO showing of “The Falcon and the Snowman.” with color bars and a high charge protesting message for owners of home satellite dishes; and the even crazier “Vrillon” incident of 1977, after which audio from a television broadcast from the south of England was replaced with a statement from an extraterrestrial representative of “Ashtar Galactic Command”.
But “The Max Headroom Incident” was big enough news to, indeed, make it all the way to us here in the Journal on November 24, with Decatur doing the same with a slightly longer piece that included a terrifying screenshot of the broadcast pirate in question.
The Pantagraph didn’t mention it at all until December, in a blurb in Bill Flick’s column, “Any News You May Have Missed, Unfortunately” which helpfully addresses one of the incidents, let’s just say, more PG-13 moments, so that I can bring it up just by quoting him as saying, “(the man in) The Max Headroom Mask, repeatedly uttered ‘ca-ca-ca-catch the wave “while being spanked on the buttocks with a flyswatter by someone standing away from the camera.” Actually, Max only said catch the wave once, Bill, but you’re right about the flyswatter. We will come back to it.
These days, the Max Headroom Incident is “Weird Media” 101, so much so that being in a bunch of know-it-all dudes and not knowing it is akin to, say… not knowing that “Hall and Oates” was only ever credited as “Daryl Hall and John Oates”, or talking like you know something about “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in front of a group of teachers even though you’ve never actually read it . I am guilty of one of them.
Now that you know, especially if you want to “learn about it” in the after-school special sense, feel free to scare yourself by looking at the pictures. It’s all online, thanks, as the articles above mentioned, to the efforts of all those 80s “Doctor Who” nerds who were recording episodes at home the same way I used to from making audio cassette recordings of early ’90s hipster programs like “Get A Life” and “The Ben Stiller Show” to listen to on my Walkman during vacation trips, or how you gently cut all my columns and skip them in a laminator every week.
By doing this, you are going to meet many internet “experts” who all think they are the first to find out. Skip them all and check out The Oddity Archive, one of my favorite YouTube channels, run by an Illinois ex I believe; a source for fascinating excursions into old junky technology like baking a videotape in a food dehydrator to restore it or trying to get old Massey Ferguson publicity material to play from reel to reel, all in half hidden behind the top of a cardboard box.
It is in episode 137 that he revisits The Max Headroom video, from the good point of view that we have already talked about enough, and thus focuses on the last important clues that remain: you can see cans and shelves in the background; there were probably three people involved (Max, the cameraman, and the girl holding the flyswatter, who was probably the one spinning the background because it wasn’t spinning at the time of the ending…um…swatting); it was probably shot on higher quality consumer equipment because the only editing of the piece, again, the swatting, was so clean; and a speculation that the video was probably transmitted in class, before thinking that the incident could have been carried out by people in a nearby building, with homemade equipment and just enough power, as long as they had a clear line of sight to the transmitter.
“Max” and his fellow video pirates remain unknown. Weird, since nowadays everyone wants to be credited with the slightest notoriety they get. Who knows, they might be reading this right now. In fact, if none of what I’m saying makes sense, because every paragraph between the first and the last has been a big picture of Max Headroom laughing at you, then it looks like he’s struck again, and sorry if it ruined your back machine Scrapbook.
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“The Throwback Machine” is a weekly feature that looks back on items of interest found in JG-TC’s online archives. For questions, comments, suggestions or his “Song of the Day” recommendation, contact him at [email protected]