Friday, February 13, 2015

#37: Deathlock

Season: 1

Synopsis in 3 sentences or less:
MacGyver returns home with some microfilm intel after a memorable escape involving a coffin turned jet ski in East Berlin.  He goes to a safe house to deliver the information to Pete, but the house is anything but safe as it has been commandeered and booby trapped to the max by Quayle, a flamboyant international criminal whom MacGyver brought down once before. MacGyver escapes from the house, only to return once he learns that Pete has been captured, and he tries to lure Quayle out in the open for a final showdown.  

Memorable Quote:
MacGyver is the only blemish on my records, gentlemen.  ~Quayle

Love the scene in the beginning where Quayle is talking to the three guys at the table.  We just saw them in Silent World, and I hadn't realized until Mark mentioned it in the comments that they were the same actors as this episode.  It works much better here as they are shrouded in darkness with the music escalating to match the escalation in dialogue between Quayle (played masterfully by Christopher Neame from the Holy Rose episodes) and the three bad guys.  In particular I like the guy on the right - awesome voice and cool accent. 

You know I don't like to critique the actors too much because I'm an empathetic guy and don't like hurting people's feelings.  But it's hard not to mention a particular performance in this episode that stands out to me as possibly the worst performance in any MacGyver episode.  That's all I'll say on that.  

Best MacGyverism:
Makes a moving cart out of a battery, rubber bands, and a blender, and adds the upper half of a suit of armor on top.

Other thoughts, observations, and questions I didn’t ask when I was in fourth grade:
  • Nice little opening gambit in the beginning where MacGyver breaks out of East Berlin in a coffin turned jet ski, and he adds a fun little flourish on the jet ski once he's out of range. 
  • Strange scene as Karen pulls her car up on a crowded sidewalk and rescues MacGyver from some guys who are following him.  First off, who are those guys, and shouldn't they have done more to stop him from leaving?  Then it's funny how MacGyver gives Karen an extra long, unnecessary kiss.  And when they get to the mansion, he adds, "I thought I knew all the pretty girls in the office."  Kids, don't try that at work.  For better or for worse, early season 1 MacGyver took self-confidence to new heights. 
  • 10:42 - not sure what that is on Quayle's head.  Maybe it's a nest.  
  • 10:50 - it's the second episode for the Pete Thornton character (the first was Nightmares); in fact, MacGyver still calls him "Peter."  We learn about how the first time Pete met MacGyver, MacGyver pulled him out of quicksand and put him on a camel.  This is a good lesson for young screenwriters not to throw in meaningless origin-story dialogue too early in a series because you can't change your mind later on down the line.  Though in this case, the writers do change their mind later and just don't care about the contradiction (in "Partners" during Season 2, we learn that Pete and MacGyver meet for the first time in a taxicab when Pete is chasing Murdoc).  
  • Some great banter between MacGyver and Quayle, first when MacGyver is telling everyone who Quayle is and then in the kitchen when MacGyver is making fun of him, but Quayle doesn't seem to get the joke.  I particularly like when MacGyver turns to Pete and says, "Security leak a little bigger than you thought?"
  • 23:00 - MacGyver gives Karen another long, gratuitous kiss.  The man is out of control. 
  • 30:11 - the headfirst dive over the hedge from the opening song. 
  • 36:13 - "My daddy used to say, you can't hit what you can't see!"  Really, MacGyver? My daddy?  And why was MacGyver carrying a bucket and a box of powder into the hallway before the guns started firing?  Mighty convenient.  And how does the powder turn into smoke with no other discernible ingredients?  And the room's not that big - couldn't Quayle still hit them if he moved his big red lights around the room quickly? And then they run out of the room - why didn't they just do that to begin with instead of sticking around and making a smokescreen? Definitely didn't ask these questions in fourth grade. 
  • To rig a house with this much electronics and surveillance would take years. 
  • 40:13 - MacGyver asks Karen for a mirror and then she makes a comment about how she doesn't want to look in a mirror.  Then he looks back at her with a wry smile and bobs his head slightly for a few seconds.  He is totally out of control. 

  • 40:34 - Shot from the opening credits of the wires and screw.
  • 43:04 - Oh dear, more kissing.  Please make it stop.  
  • "Gosh, Quayle, and all this time I thought you were just...scum."
  • 45:23 - nice shake
  • "Yes, I think we've plugged the leak.  Quayle, that's right."  Quayle is the leak? Doesn't the leak have to be someone who works for your organization?  Was Karen the leak? I'm confused. 
  • "Where were we?  Oh yes, solving a puzzle."

Final Analysis:
Enjoyable episode with an exciting opening, a memorable villain, and a creative plot.  On the other hand, there are some signficant issues with the acting as alluded to above, and there may not be an episode where MacGyver is more insufferable.  In general, I'd say that arrogance is one of my least favorite traits, and while I often enjoy MacGyver's swagger (you'll see a little swag in my top 10), there's a fine line between endearing and annoying in his Season 1 attitude.  In particular when he gets around women, his "charm" is debatable.  Nevertheless, I still enjoy this episode, though I probably enjoyed it a bit more when I was 10.  Next up, an episode with the opposite effect that has grown on me over time. 


  1. Our thoughts are similar on this episode and it's also one I'm a little less in love with now than I was as a boy for some of the same reasons as you. I enjoy this opening gambit (the last one) and it's come to be an iconic image from the series, something people at work have stumbled into on random websites and told me about....the coffin turning into a jet ski bit. I will say, however, that this one doesn't hold up as well to repeated viewings as most. The buildup is exciting the first couple of times you watch it, but by the fourth or fifth time, seeing a group of people carrying a coffin across a bridge very slowly becomes far less exciting. Great ending and worthwhile stunt, but overrated next to some of the more elaborate gambits.

    Totally agree that the best scene from the episode was the very beginning with the shadowy East German heavies grudgingly welcoming Quayle back with another contract against MacGyver. The writers had a real handle on the Cold War-era adventure show imagery in season 1 and this scene was one of their most memorable creations, set to one of the most haunting Dennis McCarthy compositions. And from that great scene we go to the incomprehensible stinker of with Karen picking up MacGyver to get away from the would-be hitmen waiting for him, which was later lamely explained away as being part of Quayle and Karen's ruse. Not very convincing. And you may be too nice to say it but I'm assuming you're talking about Wendy Schaal (Karen) being the party responsible for one of the worst acting performances you've seen on "MacGyver". I won't have the problem of being too nice to say that!! Something else worth pointing out is the scene where MacGyver was getting off the helicopter on top of the skyscraper. The helicopter was experiencing the very dangerous phenomenon of ground resonance when hovering, where it starts shaking uncontrollably before crashing. The pilot takes the chopper straight up even though the door was hanging wide open, which I guess is what you're supposed to do. Still, it says a lot about the timetable a show like this operates under that the director didn't go for another take and avoid airing a scene where a helicopter was seconds away from a real-life fiery crash.

    Although this was chronologically the second episode where we saw Pete Thornton, it wasn't intended to be as "Deathlock" was produced before "Nightmares" and showed that way on USA. ABC decided to air "Nightmares" first though so the episodes are technically out of sequence on the DVD set. Continuity was never this show's strong suit and the revolving door of writers and producers in those first seasons are undoubtedly the main culprit. On the brighter side, Christopher Neame was a great villain in all three of his episodes and was colorful and menacing here as well, and I enjoyed MacGyver's banter with him, along with the booby-trapped mansion of death he apparently rigged in less than a day after landing the assignment. It was particularly amusing to see how quickly MacGyver humiliated Quayle's master plan and the episode's top action scene was that great kitchen cart with an egg beater motor bit throwing off Quayle's machine guns and MacGyver's escape all but completed before getting beckoned back to save Pete. Unfortunately, the episode lost some momentum in the second half. Karen's story about being blackmailed to help Quayle to save her brother was credible enough, but I wasn't buying her budding would-be romantic tension with MacGyver both before and after the big revelation. And that baking soda bomb bit that threw the motion detector was lame enough to negate the awesomeness of the egg-beater-powered cart and suit of armor bit earlier. The rest of the episode set mostly in the basement control room was adequate I guess but lacked the imaginative punch of the first half of the episode.

    1. Wow, that helicopter scene is incredible!! I had never heard of ground resonance before and hadn't ever paid much attention to that scene in this episode. I just rewatched that scene about 5 times (and found a video of it here).
      Great work by the pilot to get it up in the air even with the door open! This should go to the top of the list of MacGyver open secrets.

      And that makes sense that this was supposed to be before Nightmares because it sure seemed like an introduction for Pete. And interesting that this was the highest rated first-run and that the Heist rerun is the highest of all time. I like your line about "apparently rigged in less than a day after landing the assignment."

    2. Yeah I learned about the ground resonance bit from the same You Tube video a couple of years ago. I always noticed when watching the episode that it seemed off that the helicopter was lifting off without closing the door. There seems to be a pretty significant margin for error with helicopters in general, at least older ones. On the helicopter action-adventure show "Airwolf" which also ran in the mid-80s, two helicopters collided in one sequence for the series and there were fatalities.

      The biggest contributing factor to this being the highest-rated "MacGyver" episode of all-time.....NBC's "Highway to Heaven", which dominated in the ratings at the time, was either a rerun or pre-empted entirely in favor of a lower-rated special the week of January 20, 1986, when this episode aired. Couple that with snowbound viewers making January the highest-rated month of television and that's all it took back then when the big-three networks had 85% of the market share. When one network aired reruns, another network would gain, sometimes significantly, at their expense. It definitely doesn't work that way now. "MacGyver" had just moved to Wednesday night the week before and was settling in to become a very successful show for ABC. But the new programming executive wasn't a fan and decided to pair to move "MacGyver" to Monday nights in the fall as a companion to "Monday Night Football" right when the show was establishing some rather ferocious ratings momentum for a network that was firmly in the cellar in 1986. Only a few TV industry insiders recognized it at the time but for complicated scheduling purposes "MacGyver" was never gonna be positioned to be a significant ratings hit paired with "Monday Night Football". Thankfully it did well enough to come back year after year but I'm convinced if it had stayed on Wednesday night for season 2 it would have become a regular top-20 hit for ABC for years to come.

    3. Interesting, because I would have thought that being paired with MNF would be a plus. Was it on after MNF? If so, I could see that being a problem if it started at different times depending on when the game was over.

    4. You got it. In the eastern and central time zones, "MacGyver" aired before "Monday Night Football" and got whatever upside their was to being paired with a fairly high-rated institution that drew the same general audience demographic. But in the western and mountain time zones, the pairing was a disaster as the football game aired live and "MacGyver" aired after it....sometimes long after it. In Los Angeles, the second-largest TV market in the country, "MacGyver" aired time-approximate when the football game ended. If the game ended at 9:41, "MacGyver" would start at 9:42, which was too late for kids and inconvenient for anybody who wasn't watching MNF like a hawk to be sure they were there for the end of the game when "MacGyver" would start immediately after. But LA viewers of "MacGyver" were comparatively lucky. In the large media market of Seattle, "MacGyver" aired at midnight. A full 8% of ABC affiliates didn't even air "MacGyver" during the football season. Meanwhile, its sitcom competition on CBS and NBC was fierce during "MacGyver"s first few years on Monday night. The fact that "MacGyver" was pulling in the numbers it did was incredible and greatly unappreciated by ABC until the decade that followed it's cancellation when every other show they tried in that slot failed miserably.

      But ABC always renewed "MacGyver" a half season a time, which was partly responsible for why the show didn't have neat 22-episode seasons every year like most shows then and now did. And most TV industry followers who didn't appreciate the complication time slot drawbacks "MacGyver" was facing during football season always expressed shock when the series' ratings surged in the second half of the season after football season ended. The narrative became something of a legend among clueless TV reporters how "MacGyver"'s moribund ratings surged in the 11th hour year after year and allowed the show to keep getting renewed, and they marveled at the irony of how this was consistent with the show's fictional format. It was only after "MacGyver" ended and that slot became a killing field for many ABC shows that people finally appreciated how impressive of a feat "MacGyver" was achieving but staying competitive in an already tough timeslot with strong-performing challengers on other networks with no better than 75% clearance among network affiliates to even air the program during football season.

  2. I generally agree that MacGyver's swagger turned to smarm and arrogance in this one, and Karen was an unlikable sidekick to boot. If you watched more action shows from the 80s, however, you'd notice this kind of macho dynamic was the rule and not the exception, and "MacGyver" was at least a partial product of that time despite being generally more progressive. Nonetheless, some good stuff here with a lot of the inventiveness that defined the show early on. Audiences were tuned in as well as this was the highest-rated first run episode ever of "MacGyver" (interestingly, a March 1986 rerun of "The Heist") was the highest-rated overall. I ranked it #49.

  3. That kitchen cart w/ the armor is one of the coolest MacGyver-isms in the series. And I love the dive over the hedges. Of course, he just has to turn around and come right back to save Pete.

    Re: their first meeting story - some fans have explained the inconsistency away as them telling a 'fib' as a cover since this was a covert-ish thing. (Or something to that effect.) Thus leaving the Murdoc story (which hadn't been written yet) as the 'real' first meeting. Fandom finds a way! =)

    1. Good call on the fib as a cover story - I can talk myself into that!

    2. That would be more believable if the writers of "Partners", where Murdoc was introduced, didn't have yet another gaping continuity problem in terms of Jack Dalton's dungeony apartment.

    3. Eh - it's a fan theory... there's probably an explanation for Dalton too. *g* (I just haven't found that one yet.)

  4. Coming at this one later than everyone else as part of my ‘catch-up’ drive! Probably my least favourite episode of season 1 which as you know is generally highly-rated in my books. I agree, the opening gambit is not the best and as Mark says, once you’ve seen them trudging over the bridge a few times that’ s enough; although the jetski finale is cool. I do like the authenticity of the East German sign on the bridge ‘SIEHSTE DAS HASTE DAVON’ which really was a sign near the Berlin Wall. I think it means something like ‘the faster you try to do something the more mistakes you make’ so is urging people to do things safely. Nice touch.
    I wasn’t sure about the villain, Quayle. He seems very nervous and paranoid rather than threatening although I agree, the atmospheric lighting is good. I’m with Nick, his wig is really weird.
    Like Mark’s info about the helicopter which I would never have noticed otherwise – it looks pretty scary.
    Someone, can’t remember who, calls Pete ‘Colonel Thornton’.
    I’m with you, MacGyver’s attitude to women in this one is over the top with the ‘all the pretty girl’ stuff and I think he even says ‘you look like a Lulubelle’ when told Karen’s name. The goons leaving off the chase so quickly does seem very clunky and I agree with Mark the later explanation for it being part of Quayle and Karen’s plan and which made MacGyver suspicious from the start, is still a bit lame.
    The first time, I too couldn’t work out how, if its (yet another, unsafe) safe house, Quayle had so much time to set up the stuff and thought that Pete’s security was rubbish but this time I caught Pete saying that the ‘safe house is off the list’ and hasn’t been used for a while so perhaps that goes some way to explaining that one.
    MacGyver uses the word ‘heterodyne’ when he’s scrambling the radio frequency – I always love having stuff to look up but physics was never my strong point so I still don’t fully understand this one.
    At one point MacGyver and Pete say ‘ Stay low, think smart and if you go take company along’ ( to paraphrase) – don’t know where that’s from although I probably should. I’m not sure why the decoy trolley actually needed a motor as MacGyver could have just pushed it in front of him but it made for a good MacGyverism anyway. The great classic dive over the hedge from MacGyver is worth waiting for and It’s a good moment when he comes back for Pete - although we’d expect nothing less.
    A classic MacGyverism, MacGyver taking charge, season 1 swagger ( may be a little too much as we’ve said) and some excitement but balanced against a lot of negatives; - Karen is a pretty weak character/actor as we all agree, Quayle seems too easy to overcome at the end, and the romantic interludes are pretty bad; ‘I needed that’ says MacGyver after a long kiss, what - like a cup of tea or a stiff drink? All in all ok, but not great and ranked a little lower for me, in the 60’s, I think

    1. One thing that I noticed recently about the dive over the hedges is that the one from the opening credits is reversed from the way it is in the episode. Funny when you started by saying this was your least favorite from Season 1 I was expecting in the 100's but you still have it in the 60's!

  5. @Al - "SIEHSTE DAS HASTE DAVON" is German slang and means "See - that's what you get". Literal translation is "You see, this is what you have from this".

  6. "For better or for worse, early season 1 MacGyver took self-confidence to new heights. 23:00 - MacGyver gives Karen another long, gratuitous kiss. The man is out of control. 40:13 - MacGyver asks Karen for a mirror and then she makes a comment about how she doesn't want to look in a mirror. Then he looks back at her with a wry smile and bobs his head slightly for a few seconds. He is totally out of control."

    ROFL! You are cracking me up!!! :) Macgyver was a player in the 1st season! :)

  7. This episode, along with the Pilot and The Human Factor, would make an awesome computer game! In fact before I started watching, I was convinced that this is where MacGyver and the woman throw flaming balls of paper at heat seeking robots to make them shoot each other!
    A memorable opening gambit in spite of the stock footage and the ready-made props instead of MacGyverisms! When he says he’s the first to have attended his own funeral and lived to tell about it I always think, “and I was late from mine!” A few years ago Thorpe Park opened a new maze called The Passing. The ceiling of the first room was a large screen playing a video of people looking down, throwing handfuls of soil telling we were sinners just being buried and we were to get through the maze for redemption. It was all pretty spectacular and so popular that you had to book the time so they could let people in in small groups, and I missed mine and had to go in later!
    Next we see one of the precursors of Murdoc’s board meeting, and his one is the best of the three and so much better than this one as unlike Quayle’s miserable boot-licking, he totally owns the place! And the first moments of Quayle watching them on the screens (was there ever a safe safe house in this show?) commenting reminds me of the start of Cleo Rocks. I think Karen was ok (though not so much to have more kisses than Kate Connelly!) and it was MacGyver acting a bit weird at times (“I thought I knew all the pretty girls in the office”...), not to mention Quayle. I couldn’t decide whether or not to like his cartoonish rants but I always like to hear a British accent in American movies!
    The moment after Chung gets stabbed by the door handle the music sounds like the one from the Psycho’s bathroom scene.
    I liked the “Security leak a little bigger than you thought?”. I don’t understand though what the point of talking to him in the kitchen was, and it was even more strange that Quayle had the brain to rig the place but not to realise that the guys were taking the mickey.
    I liked the music when MacGyver set the batteries up, it sounded a bit like the beach one from Target MacGyver. They were a bit too cheerful & romantic for the level of danger they were in, the kiss when MacGyver takes Karen’s radio was particularly unnecessary as he could as well have taken it shortly before when he was behind her looking straight at it. I wonder what the radio was for the first place as Quayle had ears on the whole house but I liked how MacGyver caught her out!
    Explaining the obvious “We’re invisible” and the “my daddy used to say, you can’t hit what you can’t see” sounded pretty stupid. Plenty of shooting accidents happen for hitting something that isn’t noticed and in this case all Quayle would have had to do was to keep the red dots covering the exit routes like he did before the smoke.
    The hedge leap was great and I liked how MacGyver just kept on running completely ignoring Quayle’s wannabe commanding yelling until he mentioned Pete. Then Quayle was a bit like Murdoc trading efficiency off for the sake of playing games, All he would have had to do was to turn his guns back on in time when MacGyver was returning.
    I’m not getting the thing with the mirror. If Karen meant she felt guilty why was MacGyver’s answer that interesting-looking smirk? I liked the “I’m a geometric rarity, my dear, there’s only one side, myself", I think Jack Sparrow said something similar.
    I don’t like the shakes, even a secret agent whose combat skills are not his main strength should have had enough training to have stronger bones (by the way, Quayle is bone dry when MacGyver runs up to him to punch him out...) but the “This one is free of charge” was another great one-liner from him!

  8. Not sure about this one. I should have enjoyed it - it's the kind of season 1 ridiculousness I like - and I think I did when I last saw it (which was about 14 years ago - yipes!), but there was just too much silliness. I found the interaction between MacGyver and the girl embarrassing, and the bad guy was completely one-dimensional and over the top. But even a silly MacGyver episode is worth watching, right?