Halt And Catch Fire

I knew zero about this series. Zip. Nihil. I saw it when I was skimming through Amazon Prime’s exclusive vid list and thought, hmmm, I’ll check that out when I have time.

I assumed, because I haven’t seen even one post about it on Tumblr, that it wasn’t any good. I was very wrong. (MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD)

HACF is set in the early ‘80s in the Silicon Prairie, the Texas-based tech industries. The first series main storyline parallels the Apple Macintosh story with Lee Pace’s Joe Macmillan character being the Jobs-wannabe and Cameron Howe, Gordon and Donna Clark (Mackenzie Davis, Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishé) amalgamating as perhaps Woz or maybe even Chuck Peddle.

Davis’ Cameron is all post-punk hair and army trousers, an exposed, fraying junction box of nervous creative energy. With her gargantuan defence mechanisms, first-strike geek shield and outrageous talent, she does actually remind me of more than one female coder I knew in the early ‘80s, albeit I was at school then. I mean, geeks had it tough, but female geeks? They had to be quadruple adamantium to stand up to both societal stupidity and the sexism of the proto-neckbeards who were often their supposed comrade coders. Yeah, there are some moments I found a bit corny, like where Cameron is waving her arms round in the air having supposed epiphanies about BIOS shizzle. Having done a lot of 6502 assembler coding myself around ‘82, I know that working at very low levels like machine code or pure hex is far more boring with a lot less running around shrieking. But I guess drama needs drama… sooo, I’ll let HACF off.

Props to HACF for not only having a lead female coder (unlike Silicon Valley and Betas) but doubly so because the manic energy of Cameron is balanced by the more pragmatic, systematic character of Donna. Where Cameron is software, Donna is hardware, where Cameron is a wilful brat, Donna is a Mom of two kids and wife of Gordon. Donna is no less brilliant than Cameron but just manifests her genius differently. And what I love about HACF is that in the characters of Cameron and Donna, they have two archetypes of the kind of women who have been written out of computing history. The names we venerate are male; Jobs, Woz, Gates, Moore. But what about women like Margaret Hamilton?

Margaret Heafield Hamilton (born August 17, 1936)[1] is a computer scientist, systems engineer, and business owner. She was Director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed on-board flight software for the Apollo space program.[2] In one of the critical moments of the Apollo 11 mission, Hamilton’s team’s work prevented an abort of landing on the moon .[3] In 1986, she became the founder and CEO of Hamilton Technologies, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The company was developed around the Universal Systems Language based on her paradigm of Development Before the Fact (DBTF) for systems and software design.[4]

Hamilton has published over 130 papers, proceedings, and reports concerned with the 60 projects and six major programs in which she has been involved. (Source)

And that’s just one woman I’ve pulled out at random that the average person won’t know about. But they will know the male names. So, it’s lovely to see the show at least trying to address that historical erasure. Also, in having both Cameron and Donna, HACF can cover a lot of ground dramatically without having to stretch one character too thin. One woman doesn’t have to portray and represent all women.

Pace’s MacMillan is note-perfect saturnine salesman, with a sprinkling of Batemans, Patrick and Jason. Yes, it’s very Jobs but the show itself acknowledges that by having someone call out Joe for using one of Jobs’ actual lines. Pace has to portray the most ambiguous character on HACF: whereas we can love the geek trio of the Gordons and Cameron, what is MacMillan? He’s a jumped-up salesman, all snake-oil and soundbites. You better count your fingers after you shake his hand. And yet, without him, would anything get created? It is his passion and focus and lying and manipulation that flip his colleagues way, way out of their comfort zones. That’s where he wants them to be because that’s where he lives himself, always five years in the future, checking out his reflection in the nearest shiny surface.

The last central character is Gordon Clark, husband of Donna and the character that, through the two series so far, has the biggest changes to absorb. He starts off as an engineer at Cardiff Electric, pretty much on autopilot. Then Joe comes into his life and kicks over everything in sight, dragging him into the PC project. Gordon goes from naysayer to evangelist, from someone who had his dream crushed to seeing it all happen, even including riches. Not that it’s about money for Gordon: it’s about the metal. Building something with his hands, seeing it come alive and take its first steps, that’s what drives him. In S2, where we see his health start to fail, we know what means the most to him apart from his children: losing his ability to create.

When I was 17, around the time this show is set, I wrote a few games on the BBC Micro and tried to sell them to one of the indie games houses that proliferated back then. It felt like everyone and their Mum had their own software company. Kids would start and stop computer businesses with the same spontaneity and fiscal irresponsibility as they did punk bands. Shopping my frankly dire games around, I met people who were living in shared houses with other coders, it was really intimidating. They were the real deal, proper maths spods whereas my code was ungainly and ugly, a series of benighted kludges. I remember how scary those companies would seem, how chaotic but because I lived in Britain it was all a bit more Young Ones than the HACF Animal House version. HACF does represent that anarchy well and particularly the openness. I mean, no-one knew what the fuck was going to happen! Some people would write Jetpac and go on to have careers that spanned decades. Most of us didn’t because our games / code sucked.

When you watch HACF, try to put yourself back then, try to forget the last thirty years of what did happen, who did win, of Apple vs. Microsoft, of Tim Berners Lee and the rise of hypertext transfer protocol. 

If you do that, HACF will open up like a flower because the greatest strength of this show’s writing is its complete lack of facile teleological narratives. In S1 we watch the stop-start genesis of the Cardiff Giant and we see, beautifully, just how contingent, how unlikely, how fucking random creation is. And when they have to lobotomise Cameron’s OS in order to beat their cloners, it’s a truly heartbreaking moment. You have to abandon the teleological (OF COURSE IT WAS DOOMED BECAUSE HISTORY) and see this as an AU moment, an Everett-point where who knows what would have happened? We see Donna tinkering in the garage ~ we know she works for TI and they have a Speak And Spell in the house. What if they’d stuck with Cameron’s personality OS and got Donna to give it a voice? What if we’d had Siri in 1983?

I started watching HACF out of pure curiosity, expecting some kind of shonky ‘HEY WOW! ITZ DA EIGHTIES!’ dreck. Instead, I’ve just binge-watched two series of some of the best television I’ve ever seen. The acting, the writing, the directing, costumes, sets. Shit, I was there, they’ve got everything right, even down to having both Vicious Pink and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry on the soundtrack. The attention to detail that HACF presents shames other ‘80s and / or tech series.

An hour ago, I watched S2E9. I have one more episode left to wrap up this series and maybe the whole thing, I don’t know if it’s been renewed yet. I hope it will be but even if it isn’t, HACF will remain a triumph of television, like Firefly or The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

But more than those two series, HACF is a valid historical work. The show presents such a deep love of the times and tech it portrays, it’s impossible for me not to cry when I watch it because it is the most heartfelt love letter to ‘80s geekdom I’ve ever seen.