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.