I didn’t intend to watch this. I’d never heard about it. And when I did, I had no real desire. I thoroughly hated the first episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley — so much so I didn’t waste electrons on a post here — and I wasn’t in any mood for more of the same.
But this fell into my lap today and I had some time to watch it.
Right away I could tell this director had a sense of style:
This is a vital skill. When you wind up with a script that’s basically no gunfights, no bloodshed, no explosions, no SWAT teams superheroes or dinosaurs, it takes some real badass talent to make that both stylish and interesting to watch.
This is not going to sound interesting, but this is what Halt and Catch Fire actually is: The fictional story of the birth of Compaq Computer Corporation. But not the way it was actually done — in other words, it’s, um, fictional fiction. If that makes any sense.
Which is not bad. Just a bit jarring to those familiar with the story.
So there’s plenty of liberty being taken here, which is not bad. In fact, they pulled me in so cleverly that I was actually looking up the name of the primary engineer in the show to see if he’d worked for Compaq. He didn’t exist!
The first episode begins with a hotshot salesman who went MIA from IBM and talks himself into a job with Cardiff Electric in Texas.
It’s a calculated move. He wants to be next to the engineer who published an article in Byte magazine about the future being Open Computing.
The salesman doesn’t want to sell Cardiff’s damn software — he wants to get Gordon Clark, the engineer, to reverse-engineer the IBM PC so they can get rich!
And yes, that’s how it was done in real life. The BIOS of the IBM PC was — allegedly — clean-room reverse-engineered. (In reality, it was probably done exactly as dramatized in the show!) These kind of things could be pulled off in the 1980s. The microcomputing — as it was called then — industry was young, no one was really a Suit, and all of those involved had no compunctions about liberally “borrowing” from anyone else to get ahead (see the biographies of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs!). It was the Gold Rush of their day — and for those who believed in the future of personal computing, why stick to the rules and let the wrong people take it over?
Try any of that reverse-engineering shit today, though, and you’ll have a SWAT Team busting down your door and not caring if you’re accidentally shot in the head during the process. Lawyers have ruined the world that much since. Or, perhaps to be blunt about it, those who created the revolution are now the very bastards they fought against at the start of their careers. You can be a “Crazy One” only to the extent they grant you permission.
If it sounds like I’ve gone off on a tangent here, I really haven’t. Those were the issues of then that led to our now. This series isn’t preachy about anything but those of us who lived through that period and have seen everything change since don’t need the overarching lesson given to us — we give it to you in a blog post.
So it turns out that Gordon Clark is really leading one of those lives of quiet desperation.
He once designed his own microcomputer — the Symphonic, which was ahead of its time. For reasons not (yet?) given, it failed. His dream of being independent is over. He’s a desk jockey at a business software company and dying inside every day.
Until the MIA from IBM hotshot salesman Joe MacMillan takes him to a sales meeting and gives the potential client a spiel that wakes him up.
It’s hard to kill a dream. Despite there being a wife (who’s also an engineer, for Texas Instruments) and two children who need security, not risk and ambition.
But Joe’s spiel has gotten under his skin and he decides he has to do this.
Could you ever imagine watching two people disassemble a ROM chip and extract from it 65,000 addresses could be done in an interesting way?
Well it was!
I’m not going to spoil the rest of the story except to say the actors and director really know how to express all of the emotions involved here.
I don’t know what’s going to happen with this as a series.
But I do know that this episode was damned interesting, clever, surprising, and made me laugh out loud several times for its audacity.
I really can’t recommend this highly enough. Especially for everyone who lived through it. They manage to capture the sense of that time in a way that’s compelling viewing. As the movie Jobs showed, that’s not something easily done. In fact, when dealing with something like Compaq — a computer designed specifically for Suits — pulling it off is really an astonishing feat!
And if you can’t stand the idea of watching a series about computing, I’ve got a secret for you: This is more than just about boxes with chips in them. This is about ambition, dreams, bravery, risk, courage, the human spirit, and how things get done.
If that bottom line doesn’t grab you, get repaired.