Friday, January 30, 2015

#48: Halloween Knights

Season: 5

Synopsis in 3 sentences or less:
Murdoc retires from his job as a professional killer, and his former criminal organization wants him dead.  They kidnap his sister, and he turns to MacGyver for help.  They form an unlikely but effective partnership and crash a Halloween party at the organization's headquarters in the quest to rescue his sister.

Memorable Quote:
I can't trust you!  ~MacGyver
Well trust me now, MacGyver!  Help me or feel free to go!  ~Murdoc

Highlight:
The scene ten minutes in where MacGyver and Murdoc meet in the underground crypt, probably the most surreal scene in the series history.  There's no music and nothing fancy - just two iconic characters having a relatively calm conversation, something they've never gotten to do because Murdoc is always trying to kill MacGyver.  Forget about whether it's realistic for Murdoc to turn his life around, care about his sister, or for MacGyver to agree to help him, and just enjoy this monumental moment.

As a 10 year-old kid, this scene (and the episode in general) blew my mind apart (in a good way). I just couldn't get over the surreal sight of MacGyver and Murdoc standing and talking while three feet away from each other.  I think the idea to team them up was a great idea from a storytelling perspective and adds a really interesting layer to their relationship.  It's also a lot of fun to be able to root for someone that you've previously rooted vociferously against.  And the fact that Murdoc goes bad again in later seasons makes this episode where they're on the same side even more interesting and special.

Back to the scene: I love how Murdoc first unlocks MacGyver's cage with his remote control device and later opens the crypt door as a sign of good faith.  And I've said it before and will say it again every Murdoc episode - Michael Des Barres is a legend and a joy to watch on screen.  

Lowlight:
I would have liked to see a more serious tone with a more competent villain.  Nicholas Helman, the chairman of Homicide International Trust (HIT), is ok as a villain, but he's not that memorable for me, and Sonia (the 2nd in command) is a weak character.  Given the strength of the MacGvyer/Murdoc partnership, I would have liked to see a powerful supervillain worthy of taking on the duo.

Best MacGyverism:
Gets fingerprint off a glass using pool chalk and candle wax.  

Other thoughts, observations, and questions I didn’t ask when I was in fourth grade:
  • Quick check of IMDB says this episode aired 10/30/89, the night before Halloween. 
  • At first I thought MacGyver's neighbor was Wilt Bozer, but it's actually Milt (but a different actor than the Milt in the 2 Westerns). 
  • It's fun to picture Murdoc in MacGyver's houseboat packing up all of MacGyver's mundane things (e.g. toothbrush, socks, shampoo, etc). 
  • Nice job by the producers to not reveal Murdoc's presence in the beginning by way of an opening credit.
  • 11:10 mark - "After our parents died..." Murdoc says.  So that's where it all started going wrong for him. 
  • The HIT "Death Row" obstacle certification course seems like it could be kind of fun, except for the whole "live ammunition" part. 
  • 22:10 - "You know MacGyver, that's why you're so hard to beat.  Nobody knows what you're gonna do next, including you."   ~Murdoc
  • Murdoc is now (and likely will remain) the only member of both the Best Villains and Best Wingmen Club. 
  • It would have been a nice touch if Helman and the other board members would have recognized MacGyver as someone they had been after for a long time.  
  • Great conversation at 35:05.
    • "It's a shooting gallery, MacGyver, and we have no guns."  ~Murdoc
    • "Hand me that apple...and the cabbage."  ~MacGyver
    • "Apple and the cabbage?"  ~Murdoc
  • Pretty awesome how MacGyver uses produce to take out the audio-animatronic gunman, though if Nicholas wanted to he could just push the button again to reactivate the gunman. UPDATE - looks like that's exactly what he does, I forgot.  
  • Just when we think we've seen it all, MacGyver walks through a pit of snakes with Murdoc on his shoulders.  Murdoc is very lucky because 99% of people in MacGyver's spot would have thrown him into the snake pit and gone on to save the girl by themselves.  It's too bad Murdoc's a psychopath or else this could have been the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as Bogart would say.  
  • Reader Corey from Denver suggested adding a best "Murdoc Death Scene" to my Top 5 page, and it's a great idea.  At the end of this episode, we leave Murdoc after he is shot in the shoulder and then he throws a grenade down the snake pit which Helman falls into.  And it looks like the building may collapse around him though it's hard to tell. This one will go as the #1 "death" by default, but it likely will not stay there for long knowing what we have ahead of us.  
  • Conversation from the denouement:
    • "I'm so sorry about your friend.  He must have been a very special person."  ~Ashton
    • "You could say that."  ~MacGyver
  • I reached out to Deb Podowski (who played Ashton, Murdoc's sister), and she was kind enough to respond with some memories from the episode:
    • We filmed that episode years ago but I still have some great memories from it. We were all afraid of the snakes. At one point they were crawling up the sides of the dungeon and we had to call the wranglers in on more than one occasion to control them. I was actually strapped into the chair (and not fake strapped) so when the snakes were close I was really freaked out. Michael Des Barres was so kind and full of energy on set and inspired us. He loved to improv on set and was fantastic at it. The crew was so amazing that I thought the set was real. The crew use to joke that the snakes were poisonous and it always made me wonder. To this day I get creeped out thinking about it. Richard Dean Anderson was hilarious and wasn't phased by the snakes at all.

Final Analysis:
There's a certain amount of cheesiness in this one, but it's still a lot of fun, and just as in Serenity, Michael Des Barres puts the show on his back and takes it to a higher place.  47 episodes to go on the countdown, including 5 more Murdoc episodes.  And there will be no more Old West dreams or friendly partnerships in the remaining 5.  It will officially be "go time!"  Coming up next, an episode that is one of my Mom's favorites.      

18 comments:

  1. I figured based on your teaser about a returning "friend" we'd be looking at another Jack Dalton episode. I definitely figured it was too soon for this one, an episode so many people believe was the best "MacGyver" episode of all-time. It's not tops for me but I did love it, combining my long-standing boyhood fascination with "Halloween specials" and Murdoc. I knew from seeing the previews back in 1989 that it was a Murdoc episode so the suspenseful opening was sort of wasted on me but it was still terrific to experience, particularly with the "wild goose" chase that involved Jack Dalton. And by the way, the neighbor played by Robin Mossley was subsequently referred to as "Wilt"....it was just this introductory scene to him where he was "Milt" before they changed his name. Anyway, Murdoc and MacGyver in the dungeon under the funeral home.....

    My favorite "MacGyver" writer for the series' entire run was John Sheppard. He wrote a pile of episodes in the middle and later seasons, including this one, and seemed like a 12-year-old boy at heart and had this show's audience figured out to a T, including the extent to which "MacGyver" was something of a live-action comic book, particularly in the Murdoc episodes. And it's a frequent trope in comic books for the hero and villain to join forces against a common enemy. Given MacGyver's background with Murdoc, it was a tough sell to believe they could ever work together, but they made it work with Murdoc appealing to MacGyver's sense of humanity and justice. And from there, the two made terrific partners, allowing us to see a different side of Murdoc that made the character more interesting than the cartoonish madman of his early episodes, deliciously entertaining as they were. It never stopped being surreal whenever MacGyver and Murdoc were bantering together, but it was also fascinating that each was getting an upclose insight to the way the other operates. The royal flush gimmick at the costume party was great and MacGyver's awkward on-the-spot stint as "the joker" in the board meeting was a scream. Great MacGyverism involving the candle wax and the pool chalk as well.

    And then there's Death Row.....a complete "MacGyver" original featuring mannequins firing machine guns via motion detectors, snake pits, and electric chairs. I read one DVD review where this episode was singled out as "one of the few times in the series' run when the series completely embraced its own insanity". Hard to argue. I don't completely agree that Nicholas Helman and Sonya were unworthy villains. They were certainly colorful enough (agreed though that the actress playing Sonya wasn't the best actress) but how could anyone expect them to go toe to toe with both MacGyver and Murdoc?!?! I was a little disappointed that we didn't get a "MacGyyyyyveeeerrrr!" bellow from Murdoc at the moment of his "death" in this one but I guess it wouldn't have made sense. I didn't really care for the sniveling Ashton during her scenes in the electric chair but she seemed much cooler in the epilogue, and Murdoc's audiotaped message made up for the lack of "MacGyyyyyveeerrr!"

    Overall, I guess I had a little more fun with episodes when Murdoc was a straight-up archrival than I did when here when they were partners but it was still a great experiment that was well worth the gamble. Given how much you cluster your episodes in patterns, I'm a little concerned here we'll be seeing five more Murdoc episodes in a row. Whatever the case, I ranked this one #15.

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    1. Let me ease your mind - you will not be seeing five more Murdoc episodes in a row! Not even close.

      I actually thought I was going to have this one higher than you (since in general you prefer the more intense, darker fare), and I wouldn't have guessed that many think it's the best of all time. I enjoy the humorous banter between MacGyver and Murdoc, but as I said I think the whole episode could have gone to the next level with a grittier, more serious tone. The HIT board of directors were pretty cartoonish to me (forgetting about the fact they were dressed up like the deck of cards), like when they are asking the Joker (MacGyver) for an update or watching the proceedings of Death Row on the little tv and acting like sports fans. And I try to be kind to the actors, but Sonia was a disaster ("I'm the chairman of the board now!") And some of it seemed kind of lazy to me, like MacGyver and Ashton escape the electric chair and suddenly they're outside the building.

      All that said, I still really enjoy the episode (it's in the 40's for me which makes it great in my book).

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    2. I never felt a lighthearted tone with this one, interestingly enough....and definitely didn't see one microsecond of this one being narratively lazy. I can sort of see what you're saying about the lightheartedness but for whatever reason I don't walk away with that vibe, perhaps because of the whole spectacle of machine guns, snake pits, and electric chairs. And I'd bet that if you asked 1,000 MacGyver fans their favorite episode, "Halloween Knights" would get the most votes, based on many years of asking around. It would definitely be in the top-3.

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    3. That's really interesting, I would have never guessed this one would have gotten the most votes. I think that speaks to the power of the hero/villain joining forces trope you mentioned.

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  2. When you mention that this episode originally aired on October 30, 1989, I remembered back to those depressing Monday night religious ed classes I took from 2nd to 6th grade that required me to get my uncle to videotape "MacGyver" for me for over three years before my family finally got our own VCR. But I lucked out on October 30, 1989.....because it was snowing! Not much....but enough for my mom to give into my demands and let me stay home and watch this much-hyped episode live. Only two weeks later we got our VCR working and it wouldn't be an issue any further, but those religious ed classes interfering with MacGyver were torture!

    Now I know your "MacGyver" experience began in the fall of 1990 and you consumed the series on a nightly basis on USA for the most part in the months and years that followed. My "MacGyver" experience was on a week-to-week basis dating back to the fall of 1985 when it premiered. I'm curious if you were satisfied with your own pattern of watching the series or if you would have preferred my arrangement.....being able to watch it from the origins week to week?

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    1. That does sound like torture - missing MacGyver for religious ed! I certainly don't have any complaints or regrets about my MacGyver viewing experience. But given the choice in a vacuum, I'd probably go with your arrangement of watching it week to week from the beginning - that way you start from the beginning of the narrative and grow with the character. Though it was nice to watch a new episode every day on USA instead of having to wait a week.

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    2. I've always found that watching shows on a weekly basis is a more enriching experience with most shows as the show's attractions are a weekly treat rather than a nightly entitlement. Certainly I find this to be the case for nonserialized shows. Take a show like "The A-Team", which was probably before your time, but was a mid-80s action-adventure show that was fun on a weekly basis but would have seemed like the same thing every night if I were to watch it nightly. "MacGyver"s diverse story content isn't quite the same so I could see that being much more fun to consume night to night but looking back I'm very grateful to have grown up with MacGyver for seven full years.

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    3. Yeah I agree with you. Similarly, I caught on to 24 when it was in Season 6 and ended up watching the later seasons on a weekly basis (after watching the early seasons on DVD whenever I wanted, including one memorable weekend when my wife was out of town and I watched like 10 episodes in one weekend). At that point it gets to be kind of addictive and nihilistic, and the waiting a week feels a bit more fulfilling.

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    4. I was in on 24 from the beginning too. I liked the earlier seasons of that best but found the formula started to tire in the second half of the show's run. I think that show's biggest challenge was that by season 2, the stakes were already raised to a nuclear bomb on American soil! How do you build on that in subsequent seasons? My wish is that they wouldn't have kept trying to and would have a more scaled-back threat level like that of season 1 where Jack's pursuit of his kidnapped daughter was the primary source of conflict. Don't get me wrong though....I enjoyed all of the seasons, including last summer's mini-season, and would have the popcorn ready again if it returned for another season.

      Curious if you ever watched "Prison Break". There was another show with a "MacGyver"-like flair whose first season may well have been the best single season of a series ever produced for network television. The show squandered some of that legacy by sticking around too long as each subsequent season got weaker, but that first season was some of the most perfectly crafted escapist TV I've ever seen. Another recent favorite with a proud "MacGyver" influence was "Burn Notice". The tone was lighter-hearted than I preferred for an action series but it was a rock-solid show that sometimes upstaged "MacGyver" on the crafty gimmick in a pinch front.

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    5. There are a lot of shows I haven't seen (you mentioned Seinfeld the other day, and I never got into that) because a lot of them just don't appeal to me. But I love 24 - a fantastic show. Season 3 was my favorite because it was the confluence of all the characters from the early and later years (e.g. Nina, Mrs. Palmer, Chloe, Michelle, etc.) and I thought Chase was a great character and I loved all the stuff in Mexico. But I enjoyed every season and never tired of it. I could go on and on about 24. I never saw Prison Break or Burn Notice - I vaguely have heard of them but don't know anything about them. Based on your recommendations, I will try them out at some point since we have similar tastes in television.

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    6. I think season 3 was probably my favorite season of 24 too. I liked how the season escalated towards the end. In season 2 it kind of seemed like the most exciting part of the story played out in the first half and they drug things out in the second half. I still enjoyed it, but enjoyed how season 3 escalated. Interesting that you liked all of the seasons. I was decidedly lukewarm on seasons 6 and 8, but was fond of all of the rest to some degree. I have a couple of seasons on DVD and the entire series on VHS.

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    7. I can understand why you (and why I think most fans in general) didn't like Season 6 as much and I think it is the weakest season if I had to pick one, but I still enjoyed it all the same.

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  3. The focus on this episode is more on Mac & Murdoc pairing up and less on the villains going after them - hence the HIT Board being less than 'scary'. (The Board members in "Obsessed" later are kinda sad too - all hot air and bluster.)

    This episode is fun - I like Mac and Murdoc working together. And Murdoc is one of my fave characters from the series - so I like it when he shows up.

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  4. I prefer the first third of this one - the mystery build-up is well done especially as we think is another Jack escapade until it turns more sinister. The cemetery crypt scene is great campy Gothic and, of course, completely bonkers, but its good stuff. Once they start creeping around the HIT headquarters it goes downhill for me. I like the quote about 'embracing its own insanity' that Mark found and it sums up the whole episode well. There's still plenty to like here but I do have a problem with the villains and some of the dialogue. Helman and the woman just don't seem a serious threat, the board members are very disappointing and why are there so few henchman around so they have the free run of the downstairs..'Cheesy' is a good description, Nick, for lines such as 'As beautiful as she's deadly''...who came up with that? There are some good lines too; 'I just work here' from the goon who carries the body out and 'Don't split hairs with me' as they bicker about what to do but I feel that generally Murdoc (a great English psycopath so beloved of US tv and films) is diminished in lots of these scenes; he just doesn't seem as competent or even that bright when he's working with MacGyver, although I do like the concept of them working together. I agree, Ashton is annoying here and the whole idea of him rescuing a sister is nuts, particularly as in a later episode Murdoc casually mentions that she's dead, without any apparent concern whatsoever. Still, as you say its best not to question any of the plot details too closely. It is redeemed by the finger print take-off MacGyverism and the escape through the shooting gallery. 'I don't believe this' says MacGyver as Murdoc climbs on his shoulders through the snake-pit....and neither does the viewer but this is one of the best moments in the episode.
    I agree, Ashton is much cooler at the end (it must be the relief of not being about to be electrocuted) and I like the sinister 'Just keep looking over your shoulder'. Its a good Halloween episode in spite of its (many) faults but I guess I'm just not a great fan of the sent-up Gothic genre (can't stand the Rocky Horror show!) and would rank it somewhere in the 50s.

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    1. Totally agree on Murdoc's abilities seeming diminished. Other than taking out the bad guy with the gas and knocking out Sonia, he doesn't provide any value at all. In fairness, he'd be more effective if MacGyver let him use weapons, but still it would have been nice to get more of a window into his mind and how he liked to do things instead of having MacGyver take the lead the whole time. And this episode is primarily why I have him at #2 on the villains list (behind Piedra) because he just isn't all the competent here. But that could still change as I watch the rest of the Murdoc episodes (I could be convinced into chalking this up to his skills being rusty due to his retirement). I'm also with you in that I like the first third the best.

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  5. Love love love this episode! :)

    "Quick check of IMDB says this episode aired 10/30/89, the night before Halloween."

    You were 10 and I was 15! :)

    "It's fun to picture Murdoc in MacGyver's houseboat packing up all of MacGyver's mundane things (e.g. toothbrush, socks, shampoo, etc)."

    Hahahaha. I wonder if Murdoc helped him put all his stuff back! :)

    "Nice job by the producers to not reveal Murdoc's presence in the beginning by way of an opening credit."

    Hey they learned their lesson! :)

    "It's a shooting gallery, MacGyver, and we have no guns." ~Murdoc
    "Hand me that apple...and the cabbage." ~MacGyver
    "Apple and the cabbage?" ~Murdoc"

    Hahahaha. Murdoc is probably thinking, huh!?!?!!

    "MacGyver walks through a pit of snakes with Murdoc on his shoulders."

    Murdoc: Snakes. I hate snakes Macgyver!

    Hahaha. That sounds familiar.. Who says that too? Oh I know! Indiana Jones! ROFL!

    "The crew use to joke that the snakes were poisonous and it always made me wonder."

    Hahahaha. Nah I doubt that the snakes were poisonous! :)

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