Tuesday, January 27, 2015

#51: Slow Death

Season: 1

To Watch:  Click Here 

Synopsis in 3 sentences or less:
MacGyver hops aboard a train in Central Asia after a mission, but the train is hijacked by tribesmen who are looking for two Westerners that sold bad medicine to their village.  No one is allowed food or water until the two guilty people step forward or are caught.  MacGyver creates a lie detector which successfully exposes the guilty ones, and in exchange for MacGyver's help, the tribal leader agrees to let the men stand trial rather than be executed.  

Memorable Quote:
He has a right, but he's wrong.  ~MacGyver

During the previous review in the comments section, Mark and I were discussing Randy Edelman's beautiful piano rendition of the MacGyver theme at the end of Trumbo's World and how it appeared in one more episode.  Well, here it is.  At the 4:36 mark, MacGyver is walking through the train car on his way to get something to eat when he spots a 4 year-old girl gazing up at him with wonderment.  He stops walking, smiles at the girl, and makes her a little doll out of a cloth covering what looks like a pair of socks, and he draws a face on the cloth with a pen - a simple but sweet gesture.  The minute of screen time has no bearing on the rest of the story, but quite honestly, it's a legendary moment in my eyes.  It made an indelible impression on me as a kid, and it's a perfect example of why this show means so much to so many people.  While MacGyver may be about action and adventure, you'd be hard pressed to find a television series or a character with more soul.  And the music, my goodness, was that Randy Edelman's work or did the producers pull Mozart down from the sky to write those notes?  I may or may not have just watched this part 12 times in a row.  And if you think I'm waxing poetic now, just wait until we get to my #1 episode. As Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap would say: "Ohhh boy."

To get some more background on this memorable moment, I contacted Xahra Gilbert who played the girl, and she was kind enough to answer a few questions.

NS: It looks to me like your scene is on a real moving train (as opposed to special effects).  Is that correct?  
XG: Yes, we were on, and around a real train outside of LA. I don't remember where exactly but I don't remember it being too far out of the city.

NS: I was trying to figure out what MacGyver covers to make the doll.  At first I thought it was an apple, but upon further review it looks a little bit like a pair of socks. 
XG: You're right, it's a pair of socks. 

NS: Do you still have the doll?
XG: After we wrapped the show, I was given the doll as a gift, but someone made a pakistani style dress for it to wear before giving it to me. It vanished after a few years. I don't know what happened to it. I was 4 years old when we shot the episode, so like you said, it was a long time ago.

She also shared a great picture of her and RDA together on set (with the conductor and bartender's waists visible in the background).

I'm not a huge fan of Dr. Grant, the one-armed, drinking, British physician.  I find him extremely annoying, and he doesn't stop putting the moves on Diana even though he looks old enough to be her father (though a quick check of IMDB only lists their age difference as 8 years). The Grant/Diana scene at 27:22 where they engage in deep conversation is brutal as he tells her how wonderful she is even though he's known her for all of 5 minutes.  Couldn't they have cut these 3 minutes and instead given us 3 more minutes of developing the other characters to increase the element of mystery?  Or 3 minutes of MacGyver making a 2nd doll for the little girl? 

Best MacGyverism:
Makes a lie detector out of medical equipment and an alarm clock. 

Other thoughts, observations, and questions I didn’t ask when I was in fourth grade:
  • Interesting how the first couple seconds of the season 1 opening song are out of tune. 
  • Large cast for this one, most notably Frances Bergen (mother of Candice).  Despite her famous name, her acting is not the best here.  And there several other guest stars who struggle in this episode.
  • 3:56 mark (of DVD) - iconic shot of MacGyver hopping onto the moving train. 
  • I was an Andy fan as a kid - I liked his attitude and enthusiasm, despite some very cheesy lines ("Trust me, gamble on me, love me"), and I like his attempted escape later in the episode.  I must have seen this episode a lot because the dialogue is rushing back to me in torrents - I seem to know just about every line before it's spoken.   
  • 18:00 - brief clip where a tribesman is twirling the strands of dynamite wires like a boss. For whatever reason this made an impression on me as a kid.  
  • Great suspense as MacGyver is in the lead car with the engineer waiting for something to happen and knowing that something will. 
  • 25:44 - after a pep talk from MacGyver:
    • "That wasn't much."  ~Andy
    • "Oh I don't know, he made me feel better."  ~Laura
    • Snap.  
  • 35:06 - not sure what to call this amazing move that MacGyver does.  It's like a flying horizontal foot shove. 
  • Not sure why MacGyver warns Webster against trying to start the train and shocking himself.  
  • Also not clear on how the tribesmen didn't know what the bad medicine salesmen looked like, though obviously that mystery was necessary for the show to unfold as it does.
  • Ugh, some more Diana/Dr. Grant drama at the end, and the disapproving mother all of a sudden approves for no good reason. The acting is particularly weak here.
  • And then just as Diana agrees to take a leap of faith and help the tribesmen with medical care, MacGyver strangely and unexpectedly plays the role of Debbie Downer. "Primitive working conditions.  Lousy hours.  Monster workload.  No pay."  Thanks a lot, MacGyver. 
  • Now that the bridge has blown up, how will everyone get to where they're going?
  • Nice touch with the little girl coming back to give MacGyver her doll (I think it's supposed to be the same one). 

Final Analysis:
I love this episode.  That's right, I'm dropping the L word.  Does it have some flaws?  Sure.  Is the acting iffy at times?  You bet.  Could they have developed the other characters more and spent less time on Dr. Grant/Diana and Andy/Laura?  Of course.  That said, it's a good story that is impressively filmed with a clever plot in a great locale.  Whether the dialogue is brilliant, cheesy, or a combination of both, it sure is memorable, for me anyway.  This one has the MacGyver magic for me, underscored brilliantly by the scene with the doll.  And to think there are 50 episodes higher on my list!  Next up, a memorable episode for some but not all.

Also I made a page linked here (and also now available from the blog header) which goes to Mark's, Al's, and Highlander's rankings (though Al's page is still in progress), and there are some links to other MacGyver-related sites too. 


  1. I figured this one was the likeliest candidate to be next. I continue to be impressed by your interactions with these guest stars. I have a very good memory but I don't remember much before age 6, making Xahra Gilbert's recollections of her cameo appearance on a 1986 "MacGyver" episode when she was 4 all the impressive. It was a fantastic scene with MacGyver making her the doll and I enjoyed your dramatic commentary on it. In fact most of what happened in the first half of the episode played out nicely, beginning with MacGyver's epic leap onto the moving train to the well-produced images of the natives planting dynamite on the bridge to the engineer suspensely slamming on the train brake to avoid the explosion. Everything was shaping up to be a classic MacGyver episode....so I can't fathom how things went so wrong in the second half.

    There are several MacGyver episodes where I thought the first half of the episode was very strong but lost its way in the second half. This episode had a complete and unequivocal collapse in its second half, and I honestly have no idea what the writers were thinking. There were spotty moments of bad acting and throwaway characterization in the episode's first half but they were easy to overlook given the thrilling, high adventure tone, but the spotty moments became the standard by the second half. Perhaps I was a victim of my high expectations here as I went in believing we'd be seeing an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery aboard a train in a hostile foreign land. Instead, writer Stephen Kandel gave us a litany of mostly uninteresting characters played by mostly bad actors who the audience knew were not the two poison peddlers. Only a couple of people on the train were genuine suspects, including Mr. Webster of course, along with some random train conductor who was on screen for all of five seconds the entire episode until he was revealed as one of the killers.

    Now I guess MacGyver's homemade lie detector was pretty cool but the science really strained credibility here, assuring us that liars sweat and thus complete an electric circuit that sounds off an alarm clock when they lie (or in Webster's case, not saying anything!). And while you touched upon most of the bad actors and corny lines in this episode, Andy's girlfriend Laura gets my vote for this episode's Reverse MVP. Attractive gal, but can't act her way out of a paper bag. Clearly, you were able to get past this episode's shortcomings in a way I was not. Just about all MacGyver episodes had some redeeming factors and this one definitely had moments that sparkled, but it fell far short of the potential of its premise. I rank it #126.

    1. Poor Laura - she did really struggle in this one. This episode is like most of the ones left in the first season in that I watched them so much as a kid that I can't help but feel warm and fuzzy when they're on. I think the first season must have been my favorite season as a kid (I remember those episodes generally better than others) - probably was my favorite because they're the most like pure adventure. Same goes with all the Murdoc episodes - I used to watch them over and over.

    2. I kind of liked Andy, despite his cheesy lines. Not sure if you watched "Seinfeld" at all but the actor who played Andy had a memorable role as a date from hell for Elaine in one early episode. I liked the first season a bunch too, and to this day I hold MacGyver's first season as the purest nectar of action-adventure ever produced for network television. This episode at least had the template for what made MacGyver's first season so memorable and profound. And it actually helped the show that the character was such an empty vessel/mystery man early on, as his personal narrative got to be revealed slowly and credibly, building his mythology rather than jumping the shark with it. Today's shows--even the best of them--give away everything they can about the character early on and then are forced to go in convoluted directions as the series progresses, introducing long-lost sisters and revelations that their father who they watched die is really still alive. I'm glad "MacGyver" never went to those places. And so endeth my rambling rant....other than to say I had my favorites as a boy that I watched over and over again too.

  2. This one is #137 on my list for being SLOW slow slow slow SLOW. Draggy plot is draggy. And nothing really happens.

    The science on Mac's lie detector in theory is fairly sound... since that's sort of how lie detectors work - they track changes in body responses like heart rate and perspiration. However - it doesn't *always* work, which is where the science falls down a little. But, this was 1986 and all the 'cop shows' still used lie detectors as pretty standard practice.

    But, yup - slow plot is slow and I've never been a big fan of this episode, but struggle through it every time I do a full re-watch.

    1. Maybe it should have been called "Slow Slow Slow Death!"

  3. Another observation from this episode that always hits me. They always made a big point of MacGyver's vegetarianism but in this episode he orders a lamb sandwich on the train....and a "big" one at that.

    And this episode was right in the epicenter of the series' Lazarus-like late season ratings surge that assured there would be a season 2. As I mentioned before, "MacGyver" was struggling in the early months of its first season, but ABC moved the show from Sundays to a less brutal Wednesday night timeslot in January 1986. The ratings perked up but the show was still "on the bubble" regarding its future until one point in March when the ratings absolutely exploded, producing some of the series' best numbers ever. It didn't stay at that high plane but the surge made ABC's decision to proceed to season 2 easy for them. This episode was one of the episodes that got those really high ratings in March-April 1986....and interestingly most of the others were reruns.

    1. That's interesting - do you have a certain site that you go to for ratings info or were you keeping track as it was happening?

      The ratings process in general has always mystified me - I think in general I'm distrustful of the small sample size leading to broad sweeping conclusions, though I admit I'm not a statistician.

    2. I got the early ratings numbers from a Washington Post article in the summer of 1986 that tracked the show's upward trajectory week to week through season 1. After that, I tracked the ratings myself every week. In late elementary and middle school, me and my friends would race to the library on Wednesdays at lunch to see the weekly ratings. At the time, "MacGyver"s Monday night time slot rival was "ALF" on NBC. In its heyday, "ALF" was kicking MacGyver's butt but MacGyver outlasted ALF considerably. The "MacGyver" faction and the "ALF" faction had a good-natured rivalry for years at my school. I don't disagree that the sample size for the ratings seems too small to derive too many conclusions. It's just a hunch though.

    3. It's hard for me to comprehend that there'd be even 1 person out of 1000 who would forego MacGyver in favor of ALF, but alas, that's the world we live in.

  4. I agree that this one started with so much promise that it didn't ultimately deliver but I still like it anyway. What did you expect; its a season 1! The dramatic catching the train and MacGyver taking charge as the drama unfolds is a great but the switching of the hijackers to the good guys somehow defuses all the excitement. I don't mind the story with Dr Grant and Diana; they've got some depth of character unlike the pointless Andy and soppy Laura. At one point' when Laura says 'He made me feel better',' she looks like she'd rather go off with MacGyver and who can blame her? The mother is awful and the acting even worse.
    I'm not clear who Andrea really is and does she believe that MacGyver's an agent after he trustingly tells her what he's been doing or does she think he's kidding? For once MacGyver tells someone what he does without them actually asking the question.
    Having listened more carefully to the music, I can see what you mean. The little girl is very sweet and and the scene appealing but ( and I don't want to upset anyone here) I can't help feeling its a bit too good to be true. I agree though, the actress has an amazing memory if she was only 4 at the time.
    There are some good moments with MacGyver and Andrea sitting in the doorway waiting to see what tomorrow will bring. Macgyver's making a whistle to scare the horses, there's one of those vague hints of attraction (that so often in MacGyver, never quite materialise) between them and MacGyver, the optimist, says 'Another day, a whole set of fresh possibilities'. Why can't we all think like that! He also seems to stay up all night- doesn't this guy even need any sleep!
    Good move by MacGyver to take off his shoes to a) distract the villain and b) creep up on him but he should have seen the whack with gun coming.
    There's some suspense and a reasonable amount of action but you're right, it does move too slowly in the middle, although this could have worked with better characterisation and acting. Because of this and because I wasn't so keen on the lie detector test and the clunking self discoveries, its not one of my favourite Season 1's but I like the setting, the train and the promise it held at the beginning so its still in the top 40. Thanks for all the interesting background on ratings etc.

  5. Oh dear, my opinion is going against Nicholas here but seems to be with the majority of others. There have been a few episodes that I have watched so far that I didn't particularly like but very few, if any, that I really didn't like. I'm afraid this is the one. As mentioned in the comments above, this episode was extremely slow. Nicholas, you suggest extending the number of 'slows' in the title but I would go further and just call it 'SLOW' without the death, which suggests intrigue. There wasn't much of that evident!

    It may not have helped that I was quite tired when I watched this but the beginning did not start well with the much repeated images of Asian men from an unidentifiable country (one had a turban, one looked Turkish, some looked more Middle Eastern) setting explosives under a bridge. This was presumably to build suspense as the train rolled on but it was so over done and all the while it was interspersed with the lack of action on the train itself. It was admittedly briefly exciting when MacGyver was trying to get the train to stop but verged on the ridiculous as the driver suddenly changed his mind so quickly and easily and agreed. It's a shame that he did because that meant we had to get on board and meet more of the passengers!

    There has been lots written about the other characters in the comments above and I don't want to be too harsh but what really made it worse was the fact that most of the time they were just interacting with each other in long slow scenes without any involvement from MacGyver himself. Dodgy acting aside, this alone made it impossible to like any of them or feel any surprise of emotion when the crooked ones were revealed later on.

    The piano theme music with the doll was outstanding but the slow motion, soppy and gooey eyed scene itself was not so good even though it showed the good nature of our hero. However, I wasn't as impressed with MacGyver's character when the militia held up the train. He took out one at the bar and then fled, leaving the other armed man free to shoot up the carriage if he so wished. We somehow have to believe that MacGyver knew they would chase him even though they expected one or more of the other passengers to have poisoned the son and stolen the gold. But then the militia were quite sloppy in general because why would only the boss and one other get on to the train and be happy to leave the rest to laze about in the distance around their campfires? Inept baddies on MacGyver again!

    I don't really know what else to say about this one. There haven't been any episodes up to this point that I can think of that I wouldn't want to watch again but suffice to say this would now be the the one. I really hope to never encounter that slow train to nowhere!

    1. It's ok, I don't mind being in the minority. "The Coltons" from Season 7 is another one where I'm on an island to myself.

    2. The episodes I seem to be on the biggest island on are "Harry's Will" and "Deadly Silents", which I find fun and clever despite too much silly stuff. Most others online don't seem to be able to get past the silliness in either one.

  6. Happy new year everyone!
    The first rewatch is probably the most interesting as it lets you find out which parts were the most memorable. My first thought when this episode started was, “this is the one with the little girl!” A supposedly insignificant scene but how could you ever forget those huge beautiful brown eyes? Nick, it’s great that you managed to find and interview her and the others, and that she remembers so well!
    From Andrea’s response it looks like MacGyver made the bit up about thwarting a war as something that sounds inflated enough to someone who doesn’t know that his missions could actually have this level of importance to let her know that she was overly inquisitive.
    Andy and Laura do come off weird in their conversation about marriage. Hassan yelling “we are not bandits” while wielding a gun cracked me up and I wonder what MacGyver tasted kerosene for?
    I agree that the setting up of the explosives was drawn-out but I liked that the bridge got covered in smoke so much that it was uncertain if the train could stop in time.
    I liked MacGyver’s Serenity Prayer reference and I’m so much with him on his view about revenge that I wonder if this is where got it from the first place. For those who say “but it makes me feel better”, the mentalist has an “only for a short time” answer from his experience of – spoiler alert for anyone who’s not seen it yet – killing Red John.
    I don’t know how Hassan knows that Kramer stole the suitcase of money.
    I also remember keep trying to think what I would do. Running off like MacGyver did while the train was still moving would probably only serve to implicate myself (though making two of the gunmen to jump of the train was a nice move), and running off in the middle of nowhere like Andy would not be very wise either. It reminds me of a funny scene from the second episode of Jonathan Creek, when Jonathan susses out that Maddy’s driving him down on a countryside lane to get him to solve a murder mystery, so he demands that she stops the car immediately. After he gets out and she drives off, he starts to look increasingly worried as there’s nothing but crops to see and nothing but birds’ chirping and cows’ mooing to hear. In the next scene, he’s back in the car with Maddy, grudgingly asking her where they should start the investigation...
    The one thing that bothered me besides the clunky dialogues was MacGyver setting up a 1. death trap 2. without making sure that it won’t be set off by the wrong person.
    I liked the homemade “lie” detector too, even though MacGyver forgets to test it by asking for true answers first (I don’t know why Webster reveals his accomplice as soon as he is caught) and it demonstrates why I wouldn’t consent regardless if I’m guilty or not. It can only detect stress, not the reason for it, and knowing that of course I would set it off at the worst time!

  7. I was 8 years old when this episode aired. I like this one so much because it took place on a train travelling through a "foreign country", there was dialogue in a foreign language, MacGyver made a doll for a little girl(homemade dolls are the best), I like the music, the calendars and posters.. I always thought how neat it would be to do something like that in real life. I haven't yet taken a train trip through India, but I did travel by cattle truck through the Venezuelan plains, at least four 15+ hour bus trips over the Venezuelan Andes mountains, several more 6- to 8-hour trips to mountain villages. The children were precious and were fascinated by the blond-haired, blue-eyed kid(I was just 20 years-old then, in 1999).

    I re-watched this episode the other day. The "I'm a tourist. I didn't want to miss the scenic ride(soy una turista, disfrutándome del paisaje tan lindo)" is a line I used a lot at military checkpoints in Venezuela and Colombia. Both are beautiful countries.

    The bus drivers in Venezuela customized their buses just like the train conductor did in this episode. :)

    1. We're the same age. This originally aired when I was eight years old as well.

  8. This was a very enjoyable episode. I know you've gone on about it, but the music they played when MacGyver gave the girl the doll was beautiful. (I missed that piece when they played it at the end of Trumbo's World - I was probably too concentrated on the dialogue.) There was a lot of action at the beginning and a bit near the end, and I enjoyed it.

    But there were a few flaws. The lines given to Laura and Diana were terrible, and some of the acting wasn't terrific either. And when they revealed the baddies at the end, I wondered if we'd seen them before - which, of course, we had done, but not a lot. I don't think Agatha Christie would have approved!