Armagideon Time

Reviewing the statement

March 31st, 2016

Of all the home video releases I expected to get the lurid bait-and-switch treatment in a mid-Eighties trade publication, Overdrawn at the Memory Bank was not one of them.

It’s not difficult to figure out why it happened. The prominent call-out to Kiss of the Spider-Woman on the sleeve makes it painfully clear this was an attempt to leverage that 1985 film’s Oscar cred into marketing muscle for an otherwise unsalable bit of inventory.

If you’re only familiar with Overdrawn at the Memory Bank‘s shot-on-video oddness from its turn as MST3K fodder, a little historic context may be in order. The made-for-TV movie was not a bizarre one-off, but rather a follow-up to PBS’s critically acclaimed adaption of Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven. The idea — which went back to the 1972 public TV Vonnegut omnibus Between Time and Timbuktu — was for an ongoing series of teleplays based on notable works of “literary” science-fiction.

If the producers were hoping that Overdrawn would repeat Lathe‘s success, they were sorely disappointed. The themes of the 1976 John Varley story it was adapted from were solid enough and in tune with the early Eighties zeitgeist — depersonalization in the face of a computerized corporporate culture — but the ability to bring a complex work of proto-cyberpunk to convincing life was well beyond the budgetary boundaries of a PBS teleplay. Lathe certainly had its moments of low-grade effects cheese, but these were more than balanced out by strong performances confined to a handful of sets.

Overdrawn, on the other hand, required a far more extensive visual component involving virtual worlds and a movie-with-a-movie conceit. It wasn’t the type of thing that could be carried by chroma key noodling and stock footage padding, which only turned a complex narrative into an incomprehensible one. (It’s also an early example of how it is nigh impossible to present computer hacking as compelling cinema.)

The end results were an utter mess that mixed cheapjack video effects with unexplained future-tech jargon and some of the goofiest character names this side of a Steve Ditko comic. My wife utterly despises Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, even with the MST3K riffs to keep things mildly amusing. I’m a bit more charitable toward it, however.

It’s awful on so many levels, but it’s also perfectly rooted in an era and aesthetic for which I have a great deal of fondness. Up through the mid-1980s, our local PBS affiliate would give over its school day programming to blocks of affiliate-produced edutainment. It was an outgrowth of old “TV in the Classroom” initiatives, though none of the individual programs seemed to adhere to a set schedule. Much of the material dated back to the days of National Educational Television, PBS’s pre-1970 predecessor, but there were more recent offering thrown in between the grainy parade of troubled tykes in earth-toned bell bottoms.

The common threads in the more contemporary (read: 1982) educational fare were synth-bleep soundtracks, weird video effects, and sets resembling Tom Baker era Doctor Who sets laid about the interior of an abandoned office building. Any lessons about mathematics or grammar skills were lost in the disturbing dream-like quality of the spectacle which arose from these well-intended but imperfectly executed exercises in small screen pedagogy.

It was a strange transitional cul-de-sac between 1970s brutalist futurism and the videogenic neon-and-chrome to come, and it hit me at an age when it could achieve maximum psychic damage. These are the same aesthetics which govern Overdrawn at the Memory Bank — for better and (mostly) worse — making it a singular vector for lucid nostalgia flashbacks — for better and (mostly) worse.

4 Responses to “Reviewing the statement”

  1. David Thiel

    “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank” was produced for one of PBS’ prestige series, the late “American Playhouse.” I remember being very surprised (and delighted) to see it pop up on MST3K.

    The afternoon educational programming you mention was likely so-called “instructional TV.” It was a service that some local stations provided to area schools. Most of them were short-run series intended to be recorded off-air by school librarians to be used by teachers in their classrooms. And yes, some of them were pretty trippy.

    Two of the more interesting ones were “From the Brothers Grimm” and “Tomes & Talismans.” The latter was very much Tom Baker-era “Doctor Who” in style, with a group of young aliens exploring to a post-apocalyptic Earth with the aid of a librarian named “Ms. Bookhart,” who they released from suspended animation.

    “From the Brothers Grimm” featured adaptations of fairy tales transplanted to the American South. The “Soldier Jack” episodes was kinda creepy.

    One of my own favorites was “Storylords,” in which the ultimate evil from an alternate dimension is depicted as a fat, bearded man being chauffeured around on a motortrike.

    And finally, there was the psychedelic horror show that was “The Letter People.”

  2. EAG46

    Not even MST3K could save it for Maura? Wow. What does she think of the song Pearl and Brain guy did in one of their “pledge drive” bits? “When Loving Lovers Love” is my favorite MST3K musical moment that doesn’t involve Tom Servo.

  3. athodyd

    This was never going to be an easy story to adapt, but it’s also one of the few John Varley stories that doesn’t feature lots of weird sex, so I guess it was a pretty tough call on the producers’ part.

  4. Matty.s

    The glimpse from the trailer really intrigues me, I would defiantly try to give it a watch.
    David theil a fascinating list an links to these being on YouTube? As I doubt they were ever shown in the u.k we seem to have sent you doctor who and blakes 7 and all you sent back in return was the a team and knight rider ( just kidding)

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