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Culture » DVD Reviews

Vintage TV Classics on DVD

Hooked on Classics: When vintage TV shows finally hit DVD, do they hold up to our memories?


It’s been almost a quarter of a century since Max Headroom—the visionary 1987-88 ABC science-fiction series—graced TV screens, but my memories of it have never faded, so great was the impact it had on my nerdy young brain. I had homemade VHS tapes of the 13 episodes that aired before the show was yanked from the broadcast schedule, but they faded over the years, of course, and now it’s been years since I even owned a VCR. Where, oh where, was the DVD release of the show? It’s a profound mystery why a series remembered so fondly by so many and with such deep ongoing geek appeal has been absent from our video libraries.

That has now been remedied, thanks to Shout! Factory, which specializes in orphaned shows; it released a five-disc Max Headroom set on Aug. 10. As excited as I was, however, I approached the set—which includes lots of extras, including a 14th episode that never aired during the original run—with some trepidation. Because, recently, came the first DVD release of another classic show I recalled with great affection, the early-'80s adventure drama Tales of the Gold Monkey. And revisiting that has been a disappointment; the show looks to 2010 eyes horrifically slow-moving and horribly dated, and only warm nostalgia makes it at all watchable.

Ah, but Max is even more mind-blowing today. Back in 1987, it certainly did offer a glimpse “20 minutes into the future”—with its dystopian tales of ubiquitous television, mindless consumerism, corporate hegemony and journalism as entertainment—as well as with how it told those tales, often through the viewfinder of adventurous Network 23 reporter Edison Carter (Matt Frewer), who broadcast his muckraking live and off the cuff. (He feels almost like a blogger to us today.) The fact that the series was so very ahead of its time, in content and style, surely contributed to its untimely demise; mainstream audiences simply didn’t know what to make of its ur-cyberpunk attitude.

Astonishingly, via this DVD set we see now that Max Headroom was even more ahead of its time than it seemed then, because it still feels 20 minutes into the future. For all the technology that it failed to predict—there are no cell phones here, no Internet—it got the social stuff scarily right. “Credit fraud? That’s worse than murder!” That’s a line of dialogue that has stuck with me for more than two decades, and it still feels 20 minutes into our future, if not closer.

Will the same thing be true of The Six Million Dollar Man, which will finally get its first DVD release this November from Time-Life? Will a 1970s-era hit—and one that felt really cool and futuristic, at least to the kid I was back then—still feel relevant in an era when war veterans with bionic legs are an unfortunately ordinary sight? I await discovering the answer—with a certain amount of apprehension.

And speaking of Matt Frewer: Where is his CBS sitcom Doctor Doctor, which aired from 1989 to 1991? It has never been released on DVD, and I remember this as one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen—and I hate sitcoms. Was it as peeing-in-my-pants hilarious as my memory says it was? Or was I more amused by it than I would otherwise have been merely because I was missing Frewer as Edison (and as Max) on Max Headroom?

Speaking of Tales of the Gold Monkey, where the heck is its competitor for the small-screen audience desperate for more imitations of Raiders of the Lost Ark? I loved Bring ’Em Back Alive, CBS’s 1982-1983 adventure show, but if that ever gets released on DVD, will I discover that it, too, no longer has the power to entertain? Such are the chances we take, and the uncertainties we face, when we choose to revisit the past.