MacGyver 5.12 – Serenity

“Serenity” is a very silly and very cute little change of pace episode written by Stephen Kandel. The producers rounded up most of the show’s recurring actors – Bruce McGill, Teri Hatcher, Michael Des Barres – and a couple of players like Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert Donner who had shown up in other episodes, and shipped ’em off about six hundred miles east to the Heritage Park Historical Village in Calgary to make a western.

So of course this is all a dream – MacGyver, exhausted from everybody demanding all of his time, collapses on his sofa in front of an old western VHS – but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a good excuse to let everybody play roles that are just so slightly different and have a “this town ain’t big enough for both of us” story in which Dana Elcar’s mean and desperate rancher contracts a hired gun – Des Barres, of course – to run MacGyver off the land that he wants. McGill is a “tin horn” gambler and Hatcher is the showgirl with a heart of gold. It’s good fun, with a few very amusing lines of dialogue.

Our son enjoyed it a lot, which is nice, because I told him that he’ll get to see Richard Dean Anderson in another western in about a year. He also provided the stunningly insightful observation that with all the snow on the ground, they must have filmed this in winter. One shouldn’t be too sarcastic to one’s children, so we congratulated his deductive reasoning with smiles. Then he wondered whether it might be hail instead of snow.

MacGyver 3.14 – The Odd Triple

Meh. I picked this one because I saw Judy Geeson, who had appeared in dozens of British shows in the sixties and seventies, was in the cast. She started showing up on American dramas like Murder, She Wrote and Hotel in the eighties. Here, she’s cast as a French con artist. Is she going to ensure that Jack Dalton’s latest get-rich-quick scheme will blow up in his face again? Of course!

I dunno. Dr. Plausibility had a whole lot of problems with this script, particularly with an unbelievable French police inspector. There are certainly a few fun moments. Our son absolutely loved MacGyver’s nitrogen-powered battering ram, and I adored the camera lingering on Richard Dean Anderson’s long, long slow burn of disbelief as he realizes that he’s letting himself fall for this nonsense again. Writer Stephen Kandel has constructed better stories than this before, but it sparked a few smiles.

MacGyver 3.4 – Ghost Ship

And so now back to the 1987-88 season and another ten episodes of MacGyver. I see that the production of MacGyver moved from Los Angeles to Vancouver between seasons two and three. Looking at eighties LA has been one of the more interesting things about even the weaker episodes, blast it. Fingers crossed!

This one, written by Stephen Kandel, at least starts like it means to be memorable. Mac is in the Alaskan wilderness doing the most difficult phase of a mapping project when he spots an abandoned freighter just chilling in an inlet on the river. It doesn’t look like anybody’s aboard, so what’s going on?

Sadly, what starts intriguing, and includes one effective shock scene when a window gets broken, rapidly deteriorates into an inevitable Scooby Doo plot. It’s obvious to adult eyes where this mess is going, but our son is young enough to have enjoyed the shocks, even if the unmasking left him a little discouraged.

MacGyver 2.15 – Pirates

There’s a scene in this story, which was written by Stephen Kandel, where our hero is trapped in a boat that’s slowly sinking, and the hatch above him has been locked by the villains. I asked our son whether it was a scary scene. “No, it was really interesting,” he replied. MacGyver tries two tricks to get himself free, and our son said he figured that the first one wouldn’t work. He uses a bilge pump to fill a boat bumper that he has jammed against the locked hatch with water, hoping it will expand enough to raise the hatch. “The bumper couldn’t have been big enough, so he’d have to come up with something else.” I’m not sure there wasn’t a bit of “knew it all along”ness there, but I’m glad the show’s keeping him curious about what MacGyver will try next.

MacGyver 2.4 – The Wish Child

I picked tonight’s episode of MacGyver because George Takei is in it, but it turned out to be among the better episodes that we’ve seen. “The Wish Child,” written by Stephen Kandel and Bill Froelich, is about a scam that a Chinatown con artist is playing on a very wealthy sucker, played by the prolific James Hong, who has indeed been in just about everything. IMDB lists him with an amazing 424 credits, and even though most of his most recent work has been voiceovers, you’ve seen or heard him in a thing or twelve. Tia Carrere also appears in a small part, topping and tailing the episode as another very good friend of MacGyver’s that we never hear about before or after this story.

Our son was most taken with the bit that I also enjoyed the most. In order to get on board Hong’s character’s freighter, MacGyver coats himself with dirt, grease, and oil, and stomps past the guards carrying a random assortment of machine parts. His voiceover explains this as an old Minnesota trick: he’s filthy enough to register as untouchable. Nobody wants to touch the untouchable!

Takei’s character meets his end in a remarkably silly scene. It turns out the wealthy sucker may be gullible enough to fall for a scam about the reincarnation of a legendary “wish child,” but he’s also a ruthless criminal himself who intends to enslave the boy and kill any witnesses. So Takei takes a bullet to the chest while he’s talking to MacGyver, and the assassin just leaves… but MacGyver’s heard the whole story and is now a witness to both the scam and the new murder. Talk about a loose end! I bet that assassin doesn’t mention this when he gets a job interview with some other ruthless criminal.

MacGyver 1.12 – Deathlock

Everybody remembers that one episode of McMillan & Wife where they’re trapped in the house with a big pest control bag. This is the MacGyver equivalent, where Mac, his boss Pete (who had been introduced in episode eleven), and guest-star-with-an-obvious secret Wendy Schaal are trapped in what was supposed to be an agency safe house in Los Angeles. Our son wasn’t as pleased with this adventure, written by Stephen Kandel, as the others that we’ve seen. I think his main objection is that MacGyver spends too much time smooching the guest star.

The villain, Quayle, is played by Christopher Neame, a British actor who I believe had only recently moved to America. To me, he’s best known for playing the incredibly entertaining villain Skagra in the never-completed-for-years Doctor Who story “Shada,” but he has a list of credits a mile deep. It looks like Neame will return as different characters later in this series. Shame; Quayle might have made a good recurring baddie.

The opening gambit this time features the most shameless overuse of repurposed footage so far. This time, they pilfered whacking great chunks from the bridge sequence in Funeral in Berlin and cut to some shots of Mac in the casket. I didn’t time it, but I bet three-quarters of that scene is culled from the movie.

MacGyver 1.10 – Target MacGyver

Our son really enjoyed tonight’s episode, which introduces John Anderson in the recurring role of MacGyver’s grandfather Harry. It’s co-written by Stephen Kandel, and it’s the first of the episodes that we’ve watched that actually has some relation to the pre-credits “gambit.” In this season, each installment opens with a five or six minute “gambit,” usually a quick rescue with some improvisation. Terry Nation is credited with this gambit, in which MacGyver rescues a military general, who is gagged and handcuffed while wearing full dress uniform in the ocean-view room of a beach house right in sight of all the people playing volleyball. Not in the basement, in the main room. Good for Terry. I’m not sure I’d want my name credited on something that silly.

Anyway, the rescue leads into a demolition job, and the demolition job leads into MacGyver being stalked by a contract killer and seven very eighties teevee mercenaries, the ones who wear great big Ray-Bans and carry AK-47s and who were usually being covered with tar or bubble gum in The A-Team. The cat and mouse chase through the desert of Colorado leads them to a backlot ghost town for a final standoff. Our son gave this two thumbs up and said it was almost awesome.

I learned something about the series this week. I remember that in 1993, CBS’s Murder She Wrote ruled the Sunday 8 pm time slot, and the other networks decided to bash heads and split the younger audience. ABC offered Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and NBC offered seaQuest DSV, a show executive-produced by Steven Spielberg. These two shows sort of ended up in the middle of the Nielsens every week. I remember it well because I was pretty active in Usenet’s Lois & Clark fandom then.

If I ever knew this, I must have forgotten: this was actually history repeating itself. In 1985, ABC and NBC first split the potential younger audience against Murder, with MacGyver opposite Amazing Stories, which was also executive-produced by Steven Spielberg. Both shows barely made it into the top 50, just like L & C and seaBore would end up eight years later. Television executives back then just didn’t look beyond the previous season or two, did they?

MacGyver 1.6 – Trumbo’s World

My wife picked this episode because she figured our son would enjoy a story about a horde of billions of soldier ants. He did, but liked it best for MacGyver’s makeshift flamethrower, and gave it two thumbs up while jumping up and down. Sounds like a winner to me.

Now, when she picked it, I was immediately reminded of a famous short story called “Leningen Versus the Ants.” Well, I remember the name, and that I read it in high school, but I don’t remember anything else about it. Earlier this week, when I bemoaned the pilfering of footage from The Italian Job for the climax of another MacGyver tale, one of our readers, Donald, gave us the heads-up that this episode uses footage from a Charlton Heston movie called The Naked Jungle, which is in fact an adaptation of “Leningen Versus the Ants.”

I totally understand the necessity for stock footage for establishing shots or a visual effect here and there. I mean, you drive a white Jaguar into a quarry and blow it up, you might as well stick a marked-for-death supporting character into a white Jaguar in the next program you make. Since tonight’s episode was set in Brazil, with ants, I expected some stock shots of tropical birds, trees, and insects. But this looks like writer Stephen Kandel and the set dressers were given copies of The Naked Jungle and were told “Do that, only have MacGyver build a couple of crazy things too.” It was actually a pretty fascinating experience, watching the new material and the old fit together almost seamlessly, and far more naturally than in “Thief of Budapest.” Even without the stock footage to beef up the action, this hour was a remarkable undertaking. This can’t have been easy to make.

Speaking of marked for death, that’s Peter Jurasik above as MacGyver’s old friend Charlie. Right around the time this aired, Jurasik’s occasional character on Hill Street Blues, Sid the Snitch, was becoming a semi-regular. Trumbo, the Leningen character, is played by familiar eighties guest star Peter Ackroyd. MacGyver’s Calgary Flames hat doesn’t seem to make it out of this episode in one piece, but he’ll have others. My wife mentioned that Anderson was a hockey fan back when we were dating and we went to a Gwinnett Gladiators game, but I honestly don’t remember whether Col. Jack O’Neill on Stargate SG-1 was also a Flames fan. Teal’c, I believe, favored Vancouver.

Wonder Woman 1.10 – Judgment from Outer Space (part two)

Ah, yes, the corridors episode. Predating Castle Wolfenstein by years, in this episode Wonder Woman and Andros run up and down lots of hallways in the underground fortress of Schloss Markheim with a series of locked doors on either side. The far wall is either blank or has one or two different combinations of swastikas and eagles. Of course, it’s the same set, redressed in slightly different ways, just like the long central hallway of my childhood home was the same hallway no matter how many times my friends and I would barrel up and down the thing, turning around and pretending we were racing down another corridor.

This episode sparked a million games of escaping every conceivable enemy fortress, and it retains its weird, imaginative power. “I loved it when they ran around the Nazi building!” our son exclaimed. Then he looked around and confessed “I have to get some ants out of my pants,” before barreling toward the front door.

This was the last episode for Tim O’Connor’s Andros. Wonder Woman turns down his offer to see the galaxy with him, and he leaves Earth with a promise to return and ask her out again in 1992. As it turned out, Andros would return the next season, when the show moved to the present day, so he waited 35 years, not 50. In his return appearance, Andros would be played by the ever-so-slightly younger and hunkier Dack Rambo. I loved the bit at the end when Steve Trevor confides to Diana that he’s glad that Andros is gone, because he saw how Wonder Woman looked at Andros, and he didn’t want the competition.

Wonder Woman 1.9 – Judgment from Outer Space (part one)

You want a time capsule look at what science fiction right before Star Wars was like, look no further than this story by Stephen Kandel. It was broadcast thirty-two years after World War Two ended, and is forty years old today. It is closer, historically, to the war than it is to us. There was a feeling then that space travel was right around the corner, which is what this story is about.

Tim O’Connor, who was then best known for a few years starring in Peyton Place, plays a scientist named Andros. He’s sent by the Council of Planets to determine whether Earth would become a threat to other civilizations. I’m not sure who came up with that concept first. The Day the Earth Stood Still did it in 1951 and it seemed to be repeated in comics and juvenile-aimed short fiction for decades. What results here is a very slow and very measured story that the director, Alan Crosland, just can’t rescue. It’s talky and remarkably predictable, but it’s full of that seventies feeling that space travel was in our immediate future. Four decades later, we still have nowhere to go.

It succeeded in worrying our son, at least. He didn’t really care for this episode, either, but I think that’s because he’s very concerned that Andros, inevitably captured by Nazis, will not report back in time and his testy colleagues in outer space will blow up our planet. At least he’ll only have one night to worry about what will happen next instead of the week we had to spend in 1977.

Batman 2.37 – The Zodiac Crimes

I wish that I could say that Daniel’s mind was blown when the Penguin shows up about a quarter of the way into what seemed initially like the Joker’s episode. Unfortunately, my son was very restless, wiggly, and not on his best behavior tonight. He was a little more alarmed by the cliffhanger than he has been in quite a long time, though.

This time, our heroes are trapped in a museum, tied down underneath an eight-ton meteorite. They’ve just lost a fight with the Joker and his men because his moll-of-the-week, Venus, finally decided to stay evil instead of good. Venus is played by Terry Moore, who had been a glamour girl and in-demand actress in the early 1950s, but parts had been drying up. Charitably, accepting that the babe-of-the-week role is a fairly routine one, she’s not the best actress to tackle this role. Moore largely faded from the spotlight not long after this appearance, before reviving her career in the mid-1980s along with the surprising claim that she had spent a quarter of a century as Howard Hughes’ secret bride.

But that was much later. What happens onscreen is what I recall as one of my favorite stories, and it’s held up pretty well, without any of the eye-rolling goofiness that had been punctuating recent episodes. The original story was by Stephen Kandel, who wrote an episode or two of dozens of interesting TV series over a thirty-year career*, and it’s a great example of throwing dozens of ideas and locations at the wall, seeing what will stick. I think that I liked it when I was a kid because I liked the Zodiac for a time, as kids do, but I like it today because while the heroes know that the Joker intends twelve Zodiac-related crimes, they don’t know the order or the exact targets.

Dropping the Penguin into the proceedings just makes things more complicated, and that’s a great thing. The plot moves far too quickly to afford Cesar Romero and Burgess Meredith more than one scene together, but Meredith does his usual, calm, stealth stealing of every scene that he’s in. At one point, he calls the criminals’ lair from a payphone with a message about the evening’s plan, then casually does that old stunt of repeatedly tapping the hookswitch to get his dime back.

But the Penguin is arrested before the final fight – seriously, this episode moves at warp speed – because this is Joker’s show and he’s just one of many elements of it. If the previous Joker story had been disappointing with its half-finished laundry list of extremely odd ideas, this one’s much better, with trick magic wands and distracting, exploding jumping beans, and Romero ratcheting up the egotism and the mania. He’s in peak form and having a ball in this story.

(*These include Banacek, Mission: Impossible, the Nero Wolfe with William Conrad and Lee Horsley, MacGyver, Harry O, Wonder Woman, and all the Harry Mudd episodes of Star Trek – even the cartoon version!)