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.
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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…”
In 1990, Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy brought his lecture tour to the University of Georgia. Naturally, I attended, and an acquaintance of mine decided to use the Q&A opportunity to pester Mr. Liddy as to whether Nixon really knew what he was up to. And I mean pester. How Liddy kept his cool under that barrage of obnoxiousness, I’ve no idea.
Since I was even more of an immature schmuck at age 18 than I am now, and since I was being egged on, I joined my buddy at the mic, but not to ask whether Nixon knew. I just decided to tease our distinguished guest about his Hollywood career playing villains in shows like MacGyver. Well, Liddy swatted me like a forgettable fly and I’ve sniggered about what a little jerk I was ever since. Compounding my assholery, the terrible truth is that I’d never actually seen any of Liddy’s roles before. But now that I have, I can safely say that as an actor, Liddy made a good Plumber. (Thank you, thank you, ladies and germs, thank you.)
Of actual note this time, for those of you trying to piece together MacGyver’s unusual past of bomb disposal, military service, longtime girlfriends, and star of the ITC action show that shoulda been with Jack and Mike, he apparently spent most of the late seventies as a professional race car driver in Europe. He is haunted by the experience and never talks about it. Plus, among all the very best friends forever that nobody ever heard of before the plot required them to pop in (a problem endemic to television adventure heroes), MacGyver has one called Jeff who is played by Patrick Wayne in a blisteringly obnoxious ’80s haircut. As is the way of these things, we apparently never see or hear of this best friend again after this story, but at least Jeff doesn’t die as these best friends so often do in stories like this.
Remember all those little girls who were falling down wells in the eighties? Well, that happens here. Then a boy from the local Amish community gets trapped down there with her. Ruth de Sosa, who would later play Young Indiana Jones’s mother, got some practice in the art of acting worried about her baseball-loving boy here. For posterity, our son thought this one was incredibly exciting and he was, despite his protest that he knew it’d all be fine, really worried about the kids.
Back to 1988 and another ten episode best-of from the world of MacGyver. That year, just about every show’s fall debut was pushed back by five or six weeks by the Writer’s Guild of America strike. When everybody came to an agreement, it looked like the earliest that they could get the first new episode of MacGyver on the air was Monday, October 31st. I wonder whether that gave them the idea to do a haunted house story?
I had some fun at our son’s expense before we got started. I picked this one because it’s another to feature the wonderful Teri Hatcher as Penny Parker, and I knew, because Marie actually pulled it off the shelf to watch about a year ago, that it was set around an allegedly haunted house. So I asked our son whether he enjoys MacGyver so much because our hero is never in really serious danger, and because the show is never scary. He agreed on both counts, and then squirmed and hid behind his security blanket at all the goings-on. There are perfectly rational explanations for everything, up until the inevitable “maaaaaaaaybe there really is a ghost?” tag scene, anyway, but I think the producers had fun coming up with as many frights and cobwebs and things that go bump in the night as they could squeeze into the show’s first half.
A fun little casting note: I picked seven of the ten episodes we’re watching just by breezing through IMDB and picking out familiar names. Teri Hatcher was good enough for me. I’d watch her in anything, honestly. So since I wasn’t paying attention beyond her, I was pleasantly surprised to see Ray Young – Bigfoot himself! – in the opening credits. “Is there a real big guy in this episode?” I asked Marie. “Like, seven feet tall big?” And while I firmly believe that actors should receive proper credit, it’s a bit of a giveaway when you’re waiting for Ray Young to show up and the TV show is trying to keep you guessing as to who might be in the haunted house with our heroes. (The worst example ever is when you watch a Law & Order: Criminal Intent from about the middle of the run and the credits read that Olivia D’Abo is guest starring, spoiling that whatever’s going on this week, Nicole Wallace is behind it. That drives me mad.)