I picked tonight’s episode to get another look at Richard Lawson’s recurring character of bounty hunter Jesse Colton. In it, he and MacGyver are running around Bangkok looking for stolen medical equipment.
It’s dire. It’s social conscience MacGyver again. If Little Susie doesn’t get her dialysis machine back, she’ll die, and the US Embassy isn’t getting the visas issued so all these kids can go to America for special treatment, and Jesse has a surprise son who feels that he abandoned him and his dead mother fifteen years ago, and there’s a one-legged dog who inspires everybody by trying real hard. Okay, I’m lying about the dog, but he’d fit right in.
Since our son really enjoys MacGyver, Marie and I picked eight more episodes to watch from the show’s fifth season. We’re still watching these deeply disappointing DVDs that look like their source for “digitally remastering” was a third-gen copy on a crappy BASF tape recorded on EP speed, but if you enjoy MacGyver, help is on the way. Season one was released on Blu-ray in October and the results are absolutely amazing. Seriously, look at this. I don’t care enough about the show to invest right now, but if you’re a fan, these new editions are a must.
And speaking of not caring… “Legend of the Holy Rose” was the two-part season premiere, shown across two weeks in September of 1989. Richard Dean Anderson needed a haircut in the worst possible way, but part two of this adventure isn’t bad at all. It’s a treasure hunt story, with Lise Cutter as yet another old friend of MacGyver’s that we’ve never heard of before. Interestingly, she’s also an old friend of Jack Dalton’s as well. Cutter went on to star in one of my favorite guilty pleasures when I was in my twenties, a CBS PI show called Dangerous Curves, but I picked this one because Christopher Neame plays the villain, and he’s great fun.
Part two is pretty good, but this really doesn’t start off very promisingly. After an amusing little throwback to the “opening gambits” from season one, things go on with Cutter’s deeply annoying character for ages, and then the producers pretend that they’re overseas in the “merrie olde England” variety of London. You may recall that in the mid-eighties, it was briefly fashionable for American dramas to do the obligatory episode set in the UK. Or maybe it wasn’t all that fashionable, because I can really only remember Magnum PI and Remington Steele actually going to the UK to make episodes. MacGyver didn’t have the budget to do this, but they tried pulling it off with some stock footage and two of the most screamingly, hilariously poor performances I can remember. This one actress wouldn’t have been less believable had she turned to the camera and shouted “It’s a jolly ‘oliday wiv you, Murry Poppins!”
But eventually, we get to another part of British Columbia that’s pretending to be a rural area in France for the last big treasure dig and it’s really entertaining. And part two has an incredibly novel and amusing resolution to a memorable cliffhanger where MacGyver’s chained up underneath a big “pit and the pendulum” machine in a chamber of horrors. You’d have thought the museum’s insurance agency would have told them they can’t have an actual giant axe swinging from the rafters. Our son was a little annoyed with us for making him wait about four hours between episodes, but the way MacGyver shut the axe down was clever enough that I think he forgave us.
About the only thing I can tell you about Babylon 5 is that the two principal characters from the Centauri world were played by Peter Jurasik and Stephen Furst. Jurasik got to appear in MacGyver‘s first season and Furst got a turn in this one. He plays a nervous Phoenix Foundation scientist whose lab has been infiltrated. One of MacGyver’s old friends has gone rogue and stolen a vial of anthrax.
This one’s got spy ninja stuff and dirt bikes and fights, so our son enjoyed it, but it’s all stupidly predictable and tedious, and the story never gives us any reason to hope MacGyver’s renegade buddy comes to his senses. This was a very ponderous hour of television.
It’s not, however, the last MacGyver that we’ll watch. I agreed to forty episodes, and we’ve reached that now, but since our son enjoys this show so much, we’ll rotate in a few selections from season five a few months down the line. So stick around, there will be more to come!
Our son summed up this episode by announcing “that military machine got a taste of its own venom!” He enjoyed it the most, of course, but it’s honestly not bad. It’s a straightforward and simple adventure story where MacGyver and Pete stumble on a plan by some terrorists to hijack an EMP generator. The villains are called the Black Dove Front, and though there’s no particular reason to think that they’re related to the terrorists in season two’s “Phoenix Under Siege,” we can pretend.
I picked today’s episode because one of the guest stars is Walter Gotell, who appeared as the Soviet General Gogol opposite Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton in six of the James Bond films of the seventies and eighties. It’s a good treasure hunt adventure story, and an amusingly well-timed one. Our heroes are up in the Arctic Circle looking for a crate of gold bars that went down on a Soviet airplane in 1944, and the survivors of the crash rigged up their ice cave with the same sort of traps that we watched Indiana Jones navigate around when we saw Raiders of the Lost Ark just a week ago!
Our son really enjoyed this story, which features a couple of very fun impromptu gadgets, a runaway ice sled, C4 explosives, and some creepy frozen corpses. Because I’m a jerk, I grumbled a little inside because neither the tree-filled location nor the one-step-above Land of the Lost ice caves really fooled me into believing this was really the Arctic Circle, but credit where it’s due: this was an honestly entertaining episode of the show, certainly better than the average. Unfortunately, this was writer David Engelbach’s only MacGyver credit, and it looks like he retired to teach screenwriting after this. That’s a shame. With this as a calling card, plenty of early ’90s adventure shows should have been proud to offer him a staff writing job.
I picked tonight’s episode because it features an early acting appearance by Cuba Gooding Jr. I’m glad I did. It was a look back at how an eighties show addressed racism. The answer is, of course, “with a very heavy hand,” but there’s more than that. It’s interesting to see MacGyver seem to dismiss any allegation of white privilege, as to be expected from the time, and it’s also interesting to see what language was permissible on network television in early 1989. I believe this was the first installment of the show written by Chris Haddock, who would contribute several more stories through season six, and who would go on to create the successful Canadian cop drama Da Vinci’s Inquest. Dana Elcar doesn’t appear in this episode, but he directed it.
As for the content of the episode, it sparked a discussion about with our son afterward, especially to remind him that only horrible people use words like the villains of this story did. A race-baiting bigot has been trying to close down a boys and girls club for kids in bad situations that one of MacGyver’s old friends, played by Michael D. Roberts, runs. When things don’t go his way after an attempt to frame one of the kids for car theft, the bigot and his goons murder MacGyver’s friend, intending to taint his memory by making it look like he was connected to a local gang.
Considering how fluffy and light MacGyver always is, the episode features an unbelievably stark scene where our hero finds the body of his friend, murdered by the white supremacists. We haven’t seen Richard Dean Anderson get to lose his composure and collapse in grief before. That was a very powerful and sad moment. I do think the show missed one major opportunity: the cop character is obnoxiously gullible and stupid; it would have been so much better to have an intelligent cop see right through the obvious frame. Other than that, while some of its perspective has dated, this was a strong and important episode, and I’ve never said that before about any of MacGyver‘s heavy “social conscience” stories.
Let’s watch something fluffy and light tomorrow, shall we?
Speaking of a little song and dance, like we were last time, in this morning’s episode of MacGyver, Penny Parker lands the lead role in a hilariously eighties rock opera, and in the first scene, MacGyver visits an afternoon rehearsal. It’s all downhill from the end of the song.
I apologized to our son for missing out on another recurring character in MacGyver. When I was choosing episodes, I looked at the cast lists on IMDB and passed right over the ones with Michael Des Barres, because he’s an actor I don’t particularly enjoy, without it registering that he plays MacGyver’s arch-enemy, Murdoc. I wasn’t going to go for the obvious metaphor and say it would be like deliberately skipping all the episodes of Doctor Who with the Master, because I didn’t know the character, but darned if he’s not remarkably like the Master, particularly the eighties version played by Anthony Ainley that we’ll meet soon, all silly disguises and outrageous accents and hiding his true identity in clues for the hero, not to mention the unbelievably overcomplicated screwball bad guy schemes for revenge, revenge, revenge.
Although it must be said that as hairbrained and dopey as some of the eighties Master’s schemes were – I’m honestly looking forward to “Time-Flight” about as much as I’m looking forward to my next trip to the dentist – he never tried to stage a freaking rock opera to ensnare our hero. I know there’s been some competition, but this might just be the stupidest episode of this show we’ve seen.
Also, remember what I was saying a couple of weeks ago about naming the surprise actors in the opening credits? It’s cool to list Teri Hatcher and Robert Donner in the opening, but when you say “Michael Des Barres as Murdoc,” it kind of gives the game away. Eighties Who hid their guest villains in the credits with pseudonyms, so anybody picking up the TV listing would see names like Roy Trommelly (Terry Molloy) or James Stoker (Master’s joke) and not, ideally, be on the lookout for anybody wearing a fake mustache and beard! Eh, it fooled our kid, anyway.
Playing catchup with the last couple of MacGyver installments we’ve looked at, “The Survivors” at least starts with an interesting premise. The Phoenix Foundation requires its operatives to be physically fit enough for field work, and so, knowing that he is old and out-of-shape enough to be certain to fail, Pete wants MacGyver to give him the assessment solo, so he could flunk out quietly and let his friend break the bad news alone instead of in front of a group. A little Hollywood magic helped Dana Elcar, then in his early sixties, navigate some of the obstacle courses that surround a plot about drug smugglers, but this truly felt like a cheapie of the season with as few speaking parts as possible. Nice location, though.
There’s also a ridiculously nice location in “Ma Dalton,” which introduces Richard Lawson as a new recurring character, Jesse Colton. Various members of the Colton family showed up in seasons four through six, ending with a failed pilot for a proposed spinoff. Jesse is a flamboyant bounty hunter who’s looking for a $15,000 prize: Jack Dalton’s mother, who skipped bail three years ago. Unfortunately, Ma Dalton is trying to turn surprise trial-day evidence in some nebulous eighties insider trading / Wall Street business against some men in Armani suits and bad haircuts. That’s where the episode fumbles for me. It’s far too tame and trendy. It would have been a million times more interesting if she had been on the lam since the late sixties for being part of some radical Weather Underground / Symbionese Liberation Army group. As it is, the episode is mawkish, sentimental, and far too predictable from top to bottom, with only the larger-than-life Jesse Colton and this one eye-popping building to make it notable.
Thanks to the eagle-eyed gang at the MacGyver Online Forums, we know that they filmed the evil stockbroker’s headquarters at this building in Burnaby, British Columbia which was the headquarters for Kodak Canada and is today the home of Schneider Electric. Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, which was designed by Richard Meier, opened in 1983. This building looks like the work of a Richard Meier tribute act. There’s a similar huge, open central atrium with natural light, along with some very modern gigantic primary-colored objects keeping the visitors’ sightlines occupied. I just bet that MacGyver‘s location scouts had a meeting with the writers’ room at some point and said “Just as soon as you can write a script where the bad guy’s a super-rich dude who owns a building, we’ve already talked to this one place they can let us have on a Saturday…”