Canada’s digital doppelgängers: a footnote

As I argue in a 2009 SFFTV article, it’s symptomatic of US-Canadian border tensions over copyright (as Wikileaked cables confirm) that the US-produced Battlestar Galactica TV series (2004-09) was shot in B.C., and that its leading Cylon villains are played by Canadian actors (Tricia Helfer, Grace Park, Callum Keith Rennie…I almost expected Bob and Doug MacKenzie to rise from one of those tubs of replicant goo). The Cylons are evil robots, indistinguishable from humans except for their copying practices: they “upload” their personalities to databases when they die, and “download” them into new bodies. Embodied by Canadian actors not necessarily recognized as such, the Cylons thus act out some of the cross-border differences in copyright law that keep Canada on the USTD’s blacklist of “pirate haven” nations.

In researching a forthcoming essay on new media and identity, I realized that Battlestar — as a Hollywood science fiction TV series casting Canadian actors in digital doppelganger roles — echoes an earlier show, Max Headroom (1987-88).

In that short-lived but fascinating experiment in “cyberpunk” TV, the main character, Edison Carter, was played by Canadian actor Matt Frewer. Carter is a videocam-wielding reporter for Network 23, in a near-future world styled after the McLuhanesque cyberpunk of William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Cronenberg’s Videodrome: in the show’s “20-minutes-into-the-future” world, it’s illegal to turn off a TV, the state distributes sets to the poor, and a genre of hyper-condensed commercials, the “blipvert,” is killing viewers. “Max Headroom” is the name assumed by Carter’s electronic double, a strictly screen-embodied personality (like Videodrome‘s Brian O’Blivion). Presumed dead after a traffic accident, Carter unwittingly donates his body to an experiment to produce a virtual television personality, a kind of artificial intelligence “dubbed” from Carter’s own mind, an AI calling itself “Max Headroom” (one of the earliest deployments of CGI on prime time television, rendered by Commodore Amiga computers). Carter lives (of course), and Headroom, flitting from screen to screen, tags along to help him on adventures through the corporate-dominated, polluted, hyper-mediated world of the series: a talking-head ghost running amok in a toxic media ecology that, from the vantage point of 2010, looks sometimes uncannily familiar, other times a quaint paleofuture. Headroom’s signature stutter and replay turn his lines into a kind of spoken-word dub, which also doubles, in the script, the mise en scene’s mediatized doubling of a corporeal, corporate reporter and his pixelated doppelgänger, the signal-jamming saboteur.

Headroom isn’t the villainous machine that the Cylons are; he’s more of a high-tech jester and trickster. But then again, the decade in which Battlestar got re-made wasn’t the same decade that gave us Headroom. We were more worried about the Cold War than global warming; “free trade” with the USA had yet to prove itself as a vehicle for neo-colonial annexation (which the current government now wants to extend to Europe?); and the Internet was still just a military-academic experiment, not the front in a total war on copying, of all things.

Like Lou Reed sings, you know, those were different times. (How much do I owe his label, now, for quoting him?)

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