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When "Captain Midnight" Hacked HBO

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IStock // Collage

The credits were rolling on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure when John MacDougall decided he'd had enough. It was just after midnight on April 27, 1986, and the engineer for Central Florida Teleport had spent the evening transmitting programming to area cable stations. Alone in the office, MacDougall used his console to maneuver the 30-foot, $500,000 Teleport uplink transmitter dish so that it was pointing at the Galaxy 1 satellite hovering in orbit. He knew one of its transponders belonged to HBO’s east coast feed, and that it was scheduled to begin airing the 1985 Sean Penn conspiracy thriller The Falcon and the Snowman.

MacDougall had a personal message to deliver to the subscription channel. Like Penn’s character in the movie, he’d be accused of threatening national security in order to do it.

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When Home Box Office debuted in 1972, the premium channel transmitted its signal unscrambled. While cable subscribers were expected to pay to have the network “unlocked,” owners of backyard-mounted satellite dishes could receive it without incurring any surcharges.

It was that kind of unfiltered access that led to the growth of a small but loyal group of dish enthusiasts in the 1970s and 1980s. It was also what led MacDougall to open MacDougall Electronics in 1983, an Ocala, Florida satellite dish installation service. Like the CB radio hobbyists before them, dish owners enjoyed patching together their own systems and exchanging tips. They also enjoyed a virtually unlimited selection of channels from the growing cable industry, as well as regional affiliates from clear across the country. If you loved television, it was like having a master key.

Nothing about the operation was illegal, and there were enough people intimidated by the prospect of erecting a mini-NASA shrine in their yards to guarantee it would never be a serious threat to cable subscriptions. But HBO was still slightly peeved that consumers were able to access their service—which cost cable users $8.95 a month—for free. Worse, restaurant and hotel chains were able to use the dishes to grab the feed and distribute it to patrons or guests without paying HBO for commercial service.

Channel executives were so bothered by the workaround that they petitioned Congress to grant them the ability to scramble their signal in 1984. They succeeded, and by January 1985, they became the first pay-TV service to require a descrambler box for viewing.

Dish users were angry: They had been sold on the premise that the hassle of installing the expensive equipment would mean not having a cable bill, let alone the need for a $500 set-top box. Customers thinking of getting into the equipment were put off or confused by the additional steps needed. They’d also be paying $12.95 for HBO every month, $4 more than cable users.

MacDougall saw his satellite business decline drastically. It was the loss of income at his shop that led to him getting a second job at Central Florida Teleport, manning the satellite uplinks for cable providers. Left alone, and slightly embittered, he decided to take a jab at HBO.

There was no great mystery in locating HBO’s transponder. Coordinates were easily found in manuals and enthusiast magazines. What MacDougall had that most irate customers didn’t was the power of Teleport’s uplink system. Aiming it at Galaxy 1, a satellite owned by Hughes Communications and used by a variety of companies, MacDougall quickly sent up a test pattern and a typed message expressing frustration at HBO’s perceived greed. He signed it “Captain Midnight” after a popular radio serial character whose name was later adopted by auditory “pirates” who would interrupt radio broadcast signals.

SuperSonicTailsEas via YouTube

Satellite operators at HBO’s facility in Long Island looked at their monitors, confused. Starting at 125 watts, they steadily and incrementally increased their own signal to try and override the screen and restore The Falcon and the Snowman; MacDougall did the same. Both were trying to drown out the other with sheer power. When the duel reached 2000 watts, HBO gave up. Any higher and they risked damage to the satellite.

MacDougall kept his message on the screen for over four minutes, long enough to cause a crisis at HBO and at Hughes, who told the other they had no idea what was going on. Satisfied he had made his point, MacDougall ended his transmission and went home.

The next day, a frantic HBO huddled with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to discuss what all parties believed was a deliberate act of sabotage. The consequences went beyond interrupting feature films: The FCC had no policies or safeguards enacted to prevent dish owners from interfering with delicate transmissions, including government communication. Mother Jones posited that an amateur hobbyist could, in theory, hijack the same satellites that alerted military forces to Soviet actions, confusing world leaders and putting us on the precipice of nuclear annihilation.

It was a little—or a lot—of fear-mongering, but neither the FCC nor HBO was going to dismiss it as a prank. (Showtime’s then-vice president dubbed it an act of “video terrorism.”) While several attention-seeking people called in to “confess” to being Captain Midnight in the days following the incident, the FCC realized that the signal likely came from an uplink facility with licensed transmitters, narrowing it to a field of 2000 locations. From there, only 580 had a large enough antenna. Of those, less than 100 used the particular kind of typeface seen in the hacked screen’s message, and even fewer used the specific equipment needed to compose it.

Central Florida Teleport was on the short list. Within a few weeks, MacDougall was getting visits from the FCC and a U.S. attorney. Captain Midnight had been cornered.

In July, MacDougall was approached as a person of interest. He confessed and pled guilty in exchange for a year’s probation and a $5000 fine. The alternative was to fight the charge (of illegally operating a satellite uplink transmitter, even though he had a radio license) in court, with a potential loss of $100,000 in fines if he lost. The plea made sense for both parties: The FCC was less interested in prosecuting MacDougall than in learning how he did it.

World War III never did break out as a result of interrupted satellite signals. The FCC placed stronger safeguards, including station identification, to better track communications. MacDougall, meanwhile, was able to fend off the giant-dish downturn and get his footing with the advent of the mini-dish industry, and his business is still in operation today.

HBO was never targeted again, though it wasn’t quite the end of hijacked transmissions. In November 1987, a Chicago station had their local news interrupted by a man in a Max Headroom mask dancing in front of the camera. Later that night, the same individual took over a PBS affiliate and mooned the audience. He was never found.

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Star Trek Theme Song Has Lyrics
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Star Trek theme song is familiar to pretty much anyone who lived in the free world (and probably elsewhere, too) in the late 20th century. The tune is played during the show's opening credits; a slightly longer version is played, accompanied by stills from various episodes, during the closing credits. The opening song is preceded by William Shatner (as Captain Kirk) doing his now-legendary monologue recitation, which begins: "Space, the final frontier ..."

The show's familiar melody was written by respected film and TV composer Alexander Courage, who said the Star Trek theme's main inspiration was the Richard Whiting song "Beyond the Blue Horizon." In Courage's contract it was stipulated that, as the composer, he would receive royalties every time the show was aired and the theme song played. If, somehow, Star Trek made it into syndication—which, of course, it ultimately did—Courage stood to make a lot of money. And so did the person who wrote the lyrics.

WAIT... THERE WERE LYRICS?

Gene Roddenberry, the show's creator, wrote lyrics to the theme song.

"Beyond the rim of the star-light,
my love is wand'ring in star-flight!"

Why would Roddenberry even bother?

The lyrics were never even meant to be heard on the show, but not because the network (NBC) nixed them. Roddenberry nixed them himself. Roddenberry wanted a piece of the composing profits, so he wrote the hokey lyrics solely to receive a "co-writer" credit.

"I know he'll find in star-clustered reaches
Love, strange love a star woman teaches."

As one of the composers, Roddenberry received 50 percent of the royalties ... cutting Alexander Courage's share in half. Not surprisingly, Courage was furious about the deal. Though it was legal, he admitted, it was unethical because Roddenberry had contributed nothing to why the music was successful.

Roddenberry was unapologetic. According to Snopes, he once declared, "I have to get some money somewhere. I'm sure not gonna get it out of the profits of Star Trek."

In 1969, after Star Trek officially got the ax, no one (Courage and Roddenberry included) could possibly have imagined the show's great popularity and staying power.

Courage, who only worked on two shows in Star Trek's opening season because he was busy working on the 1967 Dr. Doolittle movie, vowed he would never return to Star Trek.

He never did.

THE WORDS

If you're looking for an offbeat karaoke number, here are Roddenberry's lyrics, as provided by Snopes:

Beyond
The rim of the star-light
My love
Is wand'ring in star-flight
I know
He'll find in star-clustered reaches
Love,
Strange love a star woman teaches.
I know
His journey ends never
His star trek
Will go on forever.
But tell him
While he wanders his starry sea
Remember, remember me.

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Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
The 10 Wildest Movie Plot Twists
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

An ending often makes or breaks a movie. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as having the rug pulled out from under you, particularly in a thriller. But too many flicks that try to shock can’t stick the landing—they’re outlandish and illogical, or signal where the plot is headed. Not all of these films are entirely successful, but they have one important attribute in common: From the classic to the cultishly beloved, they involve hard-to-predict twists that really do blow viewers’ minds, then linger there for days, if not life. (Warning: Massive spoilers below.)

1. PSYCHO (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock often constructed his movies like neat games that manipulated the audience. The Master of Suspense delved headfirst into horror with Psycho, which follows a secretary (Janet Leigh) who sneaks off with $40,000 and hides in a motel. The ensuing jolt depends on Leigh’s fame at the time: No one expected the ostensible star and protagonist to die in a gory (for the time) shower butchering only a third of the way into the running time. Hitchcock outdid that feat with the last-act revelation that Anthony Perkins’s supremely creepy Norman Bates is embodying his dead mother.

2. PLANET OF THE APES (1968)

No, not the botched Tim Burton remake that tweaked the original movie’s famous reveal in a way that left everyone scratching their heads. The Charlton Heston-starring sci-fi gem continues to stupefy anyone who comes into its orbit. Heston, of course, plays an astronaut who travels to a strange land where advanced apes lord over human slaves. It becomes clear once he finds the decrepit remains of the Statue of Liberty that he’s in fact on a future Earth. The anti-violence message, especially during the political tumult of 1968, shook people up as much as the time warp.

3. DEEP RED (1975)

It’s not rare for a horror movie to flip the script when it comes to unmasking its killer, but it’s much rarer that such a film causes a viewer to question their own perception of the world around them. Such is the case for Deep Red, Italian director Dario Argento’s (Suspiria) slasher masterpiece. A pianist living in Rome (David Hemmings) comes upon the murder of a woman in her apartment and teams up with a female reporter to find the person responsible. Argento’s whodunit is filled to the brim with gorgeous photography, ghastly sights, and delirious twists. But best of all is the final sequence, in which the pianist retraces his steps to discover that the killer had been hiding in plain sight all along. Rewind to the beginning and you’ll discover that you caught an unknowing glimpse, too.

4. SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)

Sleepaway Camp is notorious among horror fans for a number of reasons: the bizarre, stilted acting and dialogue; hilariously amateurish special effects; and ‘80s-to-their-core fashions. But it’s best known for the mind-bending ending, which—full disclosure—reads as possibly transphobic today, though it’s really hard to say what writer-director Robert Hiltzik had in mind. Years after a boating accident that leaves one of two siblings dead, Angela is raised by her aunt and sent to a summer camp with her cousin, where a killer wreaks havoc. In the lurid climax, we see that moody Angela is not only the murderer—she’s actually a boy. Her aunt, who always wanted a daughter, raised her as if she were her late brother. The final animalistic shot prompts as many gasps as cackles.

5. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995)

The Usual Suspects has left everyone who watches it breathless by the time they get to the fakeout conclusion. Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), a criminal with cerebral palsy, regales an interrogator in the stories of his exploits with a band of fellow crooks, seen in flashback. Hovering over this is the mysterious villainous figure Keyser Söze. It’s not until Verbal leaves and jumps into a car that customs agent David Kujan realizes that the man fabricated details, tricking the law and the viewer into his fake reality, and is in fact the fabled Söze.

6. PRIMAL FEAR (1996)

No courtroom movie can surpass Primal Fear’s discombobulating effect. Richard Gere’s defense attorney becomes strongly convinced that his altar boy client Aaron (Edward Norton) didn’t commit the murder of an archbishop with which he’s charged. The meek, stuttering Aaron has sudden violent outbursts in which he becomes "Roy" and is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, leading to a not guilty ruling. Gere’s lawyer visits Aaron about the news, and as he’s leaving, a wonderfully maniacal Norton reveals that he faked the multiple personalities.

7. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

Edward Norton is no stranger to taking on extremely disparate personalities in his roles, from Primal Fear to American History X. The unassuming actor can quickly turn vicious, which led to ideal casting for Fight Club, director David Fincher’s adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel. Fincher cleverly keeps the audience in the dark about the connections between Norton’s timid, unnamed narrator and Brad Pitt’s hunky, aggressive Tyler Durden. After the two start the titular bruising group, the plot significantly increases the stakes, with the club turning into a sort of anarchist terrorist organization. The narrator eventually comes to grips with the fact that he is Tyler and has caused all the destruction around him.

8. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

Early in his career, M. Night Shyamalan was frequently (perhaps a little too frequently) compared to Hitchcock for his ability to ratchet up tension while misdirecting his audience. He hasn’t always earned stellar reviews since, but The Sixth Sense remains deservedly legendary for its final twist. At the end of the ghost story, in which little Haley Joel Osment can see dead people, it turns out that the psychologist (Bruce Willis) who’s been working with the boy is no longer living himself, the result of a gunshot wound witnessed in the opening sequence.

9. THE OTHERS (2001)

The Sixth Sense’s climax was spooky, but not nearly as unnerving as Nicole Kidman’s similarly themed ghost movie The Others, released just a couple years later. Kidman gives a superb performance in the elegantly styled film from the Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenábar, playing a mother in a country house after World War II protecting her photosensitive children from light and, eventually, dead spirits occupying the place. Only by the end does it become clear that she’s in denial about the fact that she’s a ghost, having killed her children in a psychotic break before committing suicide. It’s a bleak capper to a genuinely haunting yarn.

10. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

David Lynch’s surrealist movies may follow dream logic, but that doesn’t mean their plots can’t be readily discerned. Mulholland Drive is his most striking work precisely because, in spite of its more wacko moments, it adds up to a coherent, tragic story. The mystery starts innocently enough with the dark-haired Rita (Laura Elena Harring) waking up with amnesia from a car accident in Los Angeles and piecing together her identity alongside the plucky aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts). It takes a blue box to unlock the secret that Betty is in fact Diane, who is in love with and envious of Camilla (also played by Harring) and has concocted a fantasy version of their lives. The real Diane arranges for Camilla to be killed, leading to her intense guilt and suicide. Only Lynch can go from Nancy Drew to nihilism so swiftly and deftly.

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