Halt & Catch Fire: Season 1
I became interested in computer coding just before the dawn the personal computer age. From a humble start writing simple programs for TI-59 calculator to working on hardware and software for biomedical analysis on a Tektronix 4051 computer, I may have lacked genius and drive that a growing number of programmers were developing, but I didn’t realize that these machines were going to be a very significant part of my adult life. When my daughter had to take a course in the history of computers I realized that it was very similar to my resume working with these machines. Coming from this background was understandably quite excited to hear about the new original series on the cable network, AMC, ‘Halt & Catch Fire’. What intrigued me most about this series was premise; a period Drama set in 1983 which focused on the burgeoning computer revolution in Texas. I have seen a number of movies and TV shows that depicted the early years of the PC but there was a notable difference with this new entry. Most of the others were centered on the early pioneers that ignited the revolution; Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. This show took a rather novel approach and that it was most concerned with the immediate aftermath of the PCs invention. It uses a fictitious electronics company as a setting for its point of view characters. I would hazard to guess that few young people who were born into a world dominated by the microchip could imagine a time when many companies have to consciously make the decision of how they were going to reconcile their traditional business model with one of the major paradigm shifts in history; a computer that can fit on your desk. AMC may have ended the cable original programming late, considerably after such giants as HBO and Showtime, but has wasted no time in making considerable contributions. Many of the new cable series that I’ve been provided for review have been so amazingly well done continue watching as a loyal fan.
Set in 1983 in Dallas Texas the story follows a core group of characters that each in turn serve as principles and telling their own perspective of the overall narrative. The first one to be introduced is Joe McMillan (Lee Pace), we will shortly discover worked for IBM while the company was bringing its PC to market. Joe is challenging of college students to the understanding of computers and more importantly their potential. When he asked, "where do you see computers in 10 years", one young man replied, "machines that could think of themselves as well as human beings." You can see by the look on his face that Joe has dismissed this concept as implausible and already rejected him as a candidate for his plans. One lanky young woman, Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), provides a more realistic answer which intrigues McMillan. As it turns out Cameron as part of a new breed of young people, the computer hacker, who lived to code, span what a computer can do improve that most security is futile before their skills. Some old timers may recognize her ‘order on a string’, a device to cheat videogames out of the money, as a legendary hacker trick. Departing from reality just a bit, almost immediately after being confronted by McMillan, Cameron finds itself in a back room of the bar engaging in almost animalistic sex only to part afterwards with barely a word.
Joe’s next stop is to visit Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a former systems designer now working in the sales department for Cardiff Electric. His wife, Donna (Kerry Bishé) is also quite adept at programming as demonstrated by her job working for Texas Instruments particularly on their ‘speak and spell’ educational toy. McMillan visits Gordon and informed him that he wants him to reverse engineer the BIOS from an IBM PC. Joe’s goal is to have a machine that will be twice as fast that half the speed. McMillan had learned about Joe and discovered he was a visionary in the field from an editorial article he wrote for Byte Magazine. Gordon and Donna had built a revolutionary new computer and presented it at a major PC Expo. Unfortunately the dream machine cannot get off the ground. Joe, having read the article, was convinced that Gordon possesses not only the technical skills but the vision necessary for his very ambitious goals. Gordon years to Donna’s better judgment of not risking the future but Gordon is an old-school coder and engineer; he cannot resist a challenge. Soon the two were in the garage that IBM PC obtained by Joe. You meticulously testing the myriad of chips on the motherboard determine which one actually contained the all-important BIOS. After the chip was identified the meticulous and tedious task of pulling out code one bite at a time begins the pair have completely lost track of time but at the end of a few days they did indeed have a copy of this all-important code.
The main characters portrayed in the story to represent several of the types that was responsible for innovation of the early 80s. Gordon is the hardware man was also gifted in programming and design similar to Steve Wozniak. Joe was the more flamboyant one but the head for business who has a deep enough knowledge of what can be done what the public wants to drive the talented people around him to greater heights then they thought they could achieve. In some respects Joe resembles Steve Jobs who only seem to come up with ideas that were just out of reach what was doable pushing everyone to advance technology to achieve it. Cameron represents a broader category of highly inspired and talented programmers that made up the hacker community of the time. In the early 80s there will be recalled white hat hackers, they just wanted to get in where they weren’t supposed to the shield thrill of the game will almost never malicious in nature.
Joe’s general modus operandi to force people into the corner there is no other way than his plan. We first see this if he brings Cameron on board to rework the BIOS. When management is told about the plan there is a parade of more use descending on the conference room. Copyright law is very important in IBM at a staff of boys dedicated just for the purpose. The show is at its best when it depicts the synergy that emerges from Joe, Gordon and Cameron. Each character has their own baggage both emotional and technical but somehow they managed to stay on track to do what was then impossible. Some watching me snicker when Joe proclaims he wants the computer to be portable, no more than 15 pounds for the integrated monitor. I have worked on those early machines and they were closer to the description Joe had a very brief case than the laptop many just imagine that description. The acting is excellent each character portrayed by someone who truly seems to understand the motivation of the character. The little side plots that do help place this properly and its decade. Two women are shown as having exceptional talent in the nascent personal computer industry; Donna and Cameron. Donna dressed like a housewife despite the fact she worked for Texas Instruments and could understand and resolve problems most men would have problems doing. A propensity for deferring to the male-dominated environment was required by the mainstream company that employed, and was expected by her husband. In contrast Cameron was the typical underground hacker; short cropped hair, hyper energetic and unconventional in every sense of the word. She was aware that she didn’t fit in to the company she allowed to hire her. On the first day after noticing all the women in the neat dresses, she became self-conscious of her braless state, pulling a jacket out of her backpack.
It’s these little touches of humanity realism that truly set this show part so many others that on television. We do have the advantage of retrospection knowing which ideas of theirs that are considered will actually come to fruition. In this case the story is not about the destination but the journey. The early 80s was seen as a time of greed and entrepreneurial misconduct. This series reminds us that it was very much a period of time of incredible advances not only in technology and how these ubiquitous chips became such a necessary part of everyday life. ‘Halt & Catch Fire’ relate to human story of technology. This was the time in the history of mankind that drew a definitive line retreat before personal tech and after. You are reading this on a computer screen that would not be possible if not for the efforts of people like those shown here. The show has been picked up for second season and much of the first season may have gone under my radar but it’s now on my must watch list.