Thursday, March 26, 2015

#14: Cleo Rocks

Season: 4

Synopsis in 3 sentences or less:
Penny Parker gets the lead in a musical, and MacGyver goes to the theater to watch her rehearsal. Mysterious things are happening around the theater, such as a falling sign, a gift of dead roses, and a photo of Penny with a knife through it. Eventually the culprit is revealed to be Murdoc, and he takes Pete and Penny to his dungeon in the basement so that MacGyver will follow and participate in in his grand revenge plan.  

Memorable Quote:
It's up to you, MacGyver.  It's either deep-fried Thornton or pancake MacGyver.  ~Murdoc

I love the moment when MacGyver is in the houseboat looking at the poem and reading it aloud to look for a clue to its meaning.  Then he stops in mid sentence when he notices "Murdoc" on the page. What a moment!  I also like how he looks at the knife and makes the connection that it was Murdoc's knife that he used on the Widowmaker.

The poem itself is quite clever ("Murder is in the air Under the temple of Ra - Death awaits On the final Curtain").  I imagine that a small percentage of viewers noticed it right away the first time that the poem is seen, but I'd think most people probably missed it.

It's always hard for me to watch the part where Murdoc pulls out a knife and slashes MacGyver's hand.  The slashing sound is surprisingly loud!  

Best MacGyverism:
Ties his jacket drawstring to a board and his pocketknife and uses it to go fishing for the trip line that is attached to the mechanism controlling Pete's cage.  

Other thoughts, observations, and questions I didn’t ask when I was in fourth grade:
  • A fun opening as we have MacGyver watching the rehearsal of "Cleo Rocks," a rock and dance opera starring Penny Parker as Cleopatra.  I gotta admit, the song they're singing is a pretty catchy tune.
  • At the end of the musical number, we see Murdoc as Jacques Leroux, the play's director (I'm guessing the name is a tribute to Gaston Leroux, author of "The Phantom of the Opera"). He's in disguise with a wheelchair and a French accent, but the audience can clearly tell it's him (but MacGyver somehow can't). And you have to wonder how Murdoc got the knowledge necessary to direct a stage play or how he obtained this position in the first place, but let's not clutter up the fun with too many questions!  I love the disguise and how Murdoc is going through the entire charade of directing a play all to lure MacGyver into his trap.  Great stuff.
  • Clever moment in the script where Wintergreen (the theater manager played by Robert Donner) refers to Penny's past experience singing telegrams in Soft Touch (which also featured Donner).
  • 8:52 mark - MacGyver turns his head swiftly as an actress in a skimpy outfit walks by.
  • Surreal moment as MacGyver and Jacques (Murdoc) have a pleasant conversation in the hallway.  Little did we know that the next season they would be teaming up in even more surreal fashion.
  • Chilling scene as the lights go out in the hallway and Penny sees a shadowy figure in the door and hears a squeaking noise.  Hard not to get goosebumps here!
  • 16:00 - Penny leaves the room with the shadowy figure and runs into MacGyver as the lights go on.  She suddenly seems way too calm given that the mystery man is still in the room.
  • Really dumb of MacGyver to send Penny off to her dressing room to call the police. You think Murdoc hasn't thought of that? And why didn't MacGyver call the police before he went over to the theater by himself, knowing that Murdoc was there?
  • There's no way one person could rig all that stuff (e.g. the spotlight, audiotape, etc). and be at 10 places at one like Murdoc is, but again, let's not ask too many questions. 
  • Some fantastic scenes as Murdoc reveals himself, first to Pete and then to Penny. The one with Penny where he peels off his mask and messes up his hair is an incredible moment and also some great work from the makeup department.    
  • An intriguing moment as Penny draws out some humanity in Murdoc and he tells her that he loves her.  Some great acting from Michael Des Barres here.  
  • I love MacGyver's face after Penny talks about how "Jacques" would have been proud of her kick.

  • I reached out to Michael Des Barres (who has a new album coming out soon - more on that in a future post) to ask what memories he had of this episode:
    • I wrote the music. Teri was a great dancer and a terrific singer. I loved the episode because of the elaborate disguise...The makeup took hours to put on and hours to take off - a small price to pay for being Murdoc.

Final Analysis:
During the first half of the episode, the stage is set (no pun intended) with brilliant exposition and rising tension. And then once MacGyver decodes the poem, all hell breaks loose and the story explodes like a runaway train. The final twenty minutes are as good as anything that's ever been on television (I know, I say that a lot). But it's true. The theater basement is a perfect locale and an incredible set, and the trap set for MacGyver along with his corresponding escape is truly memorable. The whole "Murdoc as the Phantom of the Opera" is inspired, and who wouldn't love a dramatic ending with Murdoc, MacGyver, Penny, and Pete? A wonderful episode to add to the Murdoc anthology.

And this seems like a good time to mention that there are only 13 episodes left in the countdown, and 5 of them are from Season 3!  


  1. I've been waiting for this moment and now it's finally here....the revelation of my favorite hour of "MacGyver" and my favorite hour of television. And honestly it's not even a close call. This one blows all other 138 episodes and 2 TV movies out of the water for me. Back in high school, it seemed most of my top "MacGyver"-watching buddies had a consensus here. The best episode was "Cleo Rocks"....what else could possibly compare??!?!? It was only after high school that I learned that not everybody shared my passion for this one! Some even didn't like it...and were capable of making a compelling case why it represented a wrong direction for "MacGyver" as a series. But for me, this hour always takes me back to February 6, 1989, when this masterpiece absolutely rocked me to my core. To be fair, when I was 11 years old, I was still clueless enough to not realize that "Jacques" was Murdoc (making me as clueless as "smart guy" MacGyver!) whic made the moment of revelation that much more impactful (and it didn't hurt that at 11 years old, I was just about at the right age that I was really appreciating Penny's costume in the opening rehearsal!). But even accounting for the fact that adult eyes would make me wise to big reveal, this was just a stunning production representing the best of what this series is capable of.

    In Rick Drew's lengthy e-mail writeup to the old MacGyver Homepage Chatroom in the mid 90s, he said he was watching the "Phantom of the Opera" stage show in the summer of 1988 when he came up with the idea of Murdoc as the Phantom. Factoring in Murdoc's half-scarred face and it already rates as the most inspired moment the series had for this character. And the stage show theatrics really gave an X factor to the production here that stood out to me. But aside from "The Phantom of the Opera", there was another narrative arc here that's always been on the tip of my tongue but which I finally came to terms with this past week....a similarity to the horror classic "The Shining". Like that film, the audience experienced a "slow burn", an escalation of intensity that came with this big, creepy place, knowing that, as you said, "all hell" was eventually gonna break loose with the unhinged, runaway train of a second half. And I cherish the first half as much as that second half, as even the slow moments in the first two acts such as Penny confronting Wintergreen and her private dance routine to Jacques' piano score just smoldered with intensity. The dead flowers....MacGyver's immediate gut feeling that Penny was in serious danger....knives stabbed into fitting dummies with bad poetry....the shadowy presence of the menacing Murdoc....the shadowy presence of Wintergreen whose loyalties the audience didn't really know. Everything was just simmering on the top of the stove for 20 luxurious minutes

  2. And then came the moment of reveal with the poem. Perhaps I'd have seen Murdoc's alphabet gambit coming as an adult but didn't at the time....and obviously didn't see coming that he used the same knife from his freefall death the previous year to stab the poem to Penny's fitting dummy. From there, al hell was just starting to break loose in as wild of a half hour as anything ever aired on television. Murdoc's moment of revelation to Pete, followed by the cage over the fiery pool in the dungeon bit, complete with my all time favorite stretch of dialogue in a Murdoc episode between Murdoc and Pete complete with zingers in Latin. Murdoc's moment of revelation to Penny was even more dramatic than his moments of revelation to MacGyver and Pete....this episode just never stopped raising the bar of awesomeness!!! And despite being season 4 at its dark best, it had a sense of humor to it. This wasn't "Deadly Dreams" or "The Challenge" kind of was winking at the audience in a very fun way with some genuinely funny moments.

    The closing act was all kinds of messed up in the best way, at least for me. I mentioned there are people who really don't like this episode because they say "MacGyver" turned into "Batman", with a cartoonish villain ensnaring the hero with unrealistic death traps and slowly eroding away at the series' adventure show authenticity from that point forward. I would never have thought of it that way but can respect the opinion of those who do. But the dungeon culmination of this narrative worked for me at every level. Our hero didn't disappoint on the MacGyverism front getting himself out of the collapsing doorway and then engaged in his best moment of hand-to-hand combat with MacGyver before succumbing to another hilariously dark high voltage demise. Penny even got to perfect her stage kick to facilitate MacGyver's victory, tying up the narrative with a perfect ribbon. I'd also be remiss if I didn't say this was Penny Parker's finest hour by light years. We got a sample of her trademark bubbleheadedness but her aggressiveness in telling both Wintergreen and Murdoc how it was made me gain respect for her than I never had when she was delivering singing telegrams. And although the writers kind of stumbled into it by way of piggybacking on the "Phantom of the Opera" narrative, it was very helpful to show a third dimension (or at least a second!!!) to Murdoc even though his revenge plot here was the most unhinged. The cartoon villain of the previous two episodes was suddenly distracted by feelings of love towards Penny Parker, and coupling the piano composition scene with Murdoc's emotional reaction to her rejection at the end, it was actually kind of believable!

    I can't say enough great things about this episode and was relieved to see I wasn't crazy when DVD reviewers heaped praise on the episode back in 2005 as the series fully embracing its most colorful tendencies. This was the first episode with John Sheppard as the scriptwriting front man and will forever be his master work for me. It's #1 and standing alone at the top of my pyramid.

    1. We finally made it to your mountaintop! I don't drink alcohol, but I feel like busting the apple juice and having a virtual toast! This wouldn't have been the one that I picked for your #1 a long time ago, but once we got past Dr. Zito I thought it was either one of the Murdoc episodes or Invisible Killer. And I support your choice - a great episode!

      I agree with you in that I don't see anything here as a negative or "MacGyver becoming Batman." Like you said, it was dark but in a fun sort of way, something that was perfect for kids. What was your reaction like the first time you saw it? Did you just stay up the whole night with excitement? I watched this one a lot as a kid and it never fails to disappoint.

    2. One question I had when watching was that I wasn't sure exactly what happens at the end - does MacGyver electrocute Murdoc by hitting the metal brace on his leg with a power surge? Amazing that Murdoc was able to get swim out of that one!

    3. Interesting....I don't drink alcohol either. I'll toast you some apple juice though. Where would you have guessed I'd have ranked this one early on? I usually knew going in as a boy which ones I was gonna love and at age 11, the timing was just perfect for me to see this one as I wasn't mature enough to pick up on the big secrets (Jacques was Murdoc!) but was mature enough to appreciate the intensity and the narrative arc. I was in fifth grade at the time and remember having to go from this episode to some math homework that I was struggling with, and suffice it to say it was a struggle to power down after watching this masterpiece.

      When USA reruns began airing in the fall of 1990, I didn't immediately have an impulse to videotape them on USA. For one thing I didn't have cable and the only one I knew who did was my grandma. But on a random Thursday night in late November, I knew by the episode succession that "Cleo Rocks" was gonna be on and requested my dad take me to my grandma's so I could videotape this one as my fledgling "MacGyver" episode collection (at that point consisting of mostly season 5 and 6 episodes) would not be worth its mettle if it didn't have "Cleo Rocks". My grandma actually watched it with me and suffice it to say she went on the ride of her life here. I also remember going through the Burger King drive-thru and getting Chicken Tenders on the way to watch this episode....and laying on my side where I inadvertently busted open a packet of barbecue sauce inside my coat pocket when I did. TMI I'm sure but just going through the magnitude of associations I have this particular episode.

      Yes, Murdoc was zapped by the power surge on the leg brace that represented the extent of his injuries from falling 2,000 feet off the Widowmaker a year earlier. One would think that would be enough to kill him not even accounting for falling into a pool of boiling water following the electrocution. Ah but there's a broken sewer line!!! So why didn't the water from the pool empty out through that sewer line? Oh stop.....if you're thinking at all about the real-world logistics of one microsecond of a Murdoc episode, that means you're overthinking it!

    4. Good story - glad to hear Grandma got in on the fun! I don't have nearly the memory for episode associations to real life events that you don't, but I think I can remember going to the movies one afternoon to see Robin Hood with Kevin Costner and then coming home and watching this episode in the evening on reruns - that's at least one thing that resonates with me when I think about this one.

      I'm not sure where I would have thought you would have had this - I knew you loved Murdoc and Season 4, so probably should have seen it coming.

  3. Another production observation. The corridor leading to the dungeon struck as a repurposing of the set design used as the cave full of cocaine on "The Survivors" two episodes earlier. I even have a hunch that the dungeon itself was merely "the actual room" that was originally the cave MacGyver and Pete were barricaded in during "The Survivors". I could be way off on the last part, but given the rocky texture of the corridor leading to the dungeon, I'm also certain that that was the set design entryway from "The Survivors".

    1. Interesting - I'll keep my eye out for that next time.

    2. Check the dimensions of the cave when you get to "The Survivors" on your countdown. Couple that with the rocky backdrop on "Cleo Rocks" and I'm convinced they repurposed the "Survivors" set the same way they repurposed the "Gold Rush" set on "Brainwashed". Considering these elaborate MacGyver sound stages cost like $100,000 to construct, it's no surprise they found a way to use them the way MacGyver used Guy Roberts' 59 Caddy convertible.

  4. This is one of my top episodes too. And I was going to point out that MDB wrote the music pieces for the stage production for it - but he did that for you. =)

    I'm not going to say much else, b/c I'm still quite a long way from this one in my own countdown, but I like the other dimensions to the characters too. And Murdoc pulling off the make-up is great. Also, the continuity - Murdoc having to wear leg braces after falling off the side of the Widowmaker is a nice shout-out. And proves that Murdoc might be semi-immortal, but he's not indestructible.

    1. I had forgotten about the leg brace until I rewatched it just now - I agree, it's a nice touch.

  5. I actually found that when watching the Murdoc episodes in sequence, it was not that easy to tell that Jacques Leroux was Murdoc, as this was the first episode without his scars and messy hair. I found that he did look quite different here. Of course if you had seen Strictly Business or Obsessed first, it would have been super easy to notice.

    1. Yeah I believe that. I don't remember if I could tell the first time I saw it. A true master of disguise!

  6. Sorry Nick and Mark, but I’m afraid I’m one of those fans that isn’t quite so keen on this one and I’m aware I’m in a minority. I do like it, but not amongst my top episodes.
    I agree with lots of what’s been said; Terri Hatcher is great as Cleopatra (does MacGyver really still think of himself as her ‘big brother’ after he’s seen her in that costume!), the musical is actually quite good, Penny Parker is at her best especially when she’s standing up for herself and when she’s kicking away the gun. There’s lots of suspense built up when we know that someone’s after Penny and the theatre setting is creepy and the mask reveal and Murdoc’s mad hair and grinning face is redolent of a horror movie. Maybe my problem with it is that’s its all a bit too theatrical for a MacGyver episode; I hadn’t thought of the ‘Batman’ analogy but now you mention it….
    I do enjoy these bizarre interludes and I applaud the series for making both the weird and surreal and the ‘issues’ episodes but I guess some of them are just not up there in my favourites. MacGyver’s certainly not at his best in this one; he doesn’t recognise Murdoc, ( if he was better at languages he might have been suspicious of Jacque’s ‘adieu’ which suggests a final parting, instead of the more usual ‘au revoir’ which suggests you’ll see the person again!) he’s a bit slow to work out the poem and the knife, he sends Penny off alone, which you’ve already noted, he goes under the stage knowing Murdoc’s expecting him and sets off the laser, follows ‘Penny’s voice into an obvious trap and it takes Pete to distract Murdoc or he would have finished MacGyver off!
    I do like; his test on the wires in which he detects sulphur, Pete knowing the zoological name for cockroach, Murdoc’s taunting ‘Do you really think you’re good enough to take me? and the hydraulic floor escape. I like the ending best; MacGyver’s ‘after all this you’re not going to just shoot me are you?’ and the scenes where they’re all tussling with something; Pete with the lock, Penny with the ropes and MacGyver with Murdoc. The atmosphere and the bonkers Phantom of the Opera set are surreal and the Murdoc/MacGyver struggle is dramatic and the ending spectacular.
    It’s in the 70’s, around 72 for me. I’m afraid there are one or two more coming up in Nick’s list which are going to get much less flattering comments from me!

    1. Curious if there were any Murdoc episodes that you really liked. You've been lukewarm on the five so far. Guess I'll find out with the reviews of the remaining two on Nick's list. It's not that uncommon. Some fans just didn't warm to Murdoc the way most did.

  7. I like the Murdoc character; and it maybe its just been the context of the episodes we've seen so far ..... I'll just have to keep you guessing!

    1. Sorry..this should have been a reply to Mark not a new comment!

  8. I did not like Cleo Rocks all that much....but it was a good episode just with Murdoc in it. I thought the MacGyverism was especially dramatic and heart stopping since it really did look as though Mac was going to be made "flat as a pancake". I thought the fight sequence with MacGyver and Murdoc was an especially good one...and the knife cut to MacGyver's hand was very if it actually happened. Terri Hatcher did a very good job in all she did in this episode....but it still does not measure up, in my mind, to some of the other Murdoc episodes - especially Strictly Business.

  9. I hate musicals and I cant stand Penny Parker. She is so obnoxious and irritating. So this episode already has a cinderblock tied to it. However, Murdoc is able to salvage this a bit. I will say that its well written and well made but seems a bit boring, annoying, and flat. The premise is clever and the second half is good, but this would be at the bottom middle for me, only saved by Murdoc. I avoid it as much as I can.

    1. Hopefully Mark won't see your comment!

  10. This was my top episode as a child. It was the first episode I'd seen with Murdoc in it and I was instantly drawn to the seemingly invincible character and the over the top revenge schemes. Going through the series again I have many episodes I'd call better than this one but there's still a place for the Batman vs Joker quality this episode brings to the table.

  11. That is awesome that you reached out to Michael Des Barres and he reached out back to you! :)

  12. Another strong episode for me.

    I like how during that conversation after the sign fell, Jacques/Murdoc says: "somebody is gonna be hurt". It probably sounds like a genuine concern statement when watching the episode for the first time, but when you know what is going to happen, you can take it as a serious threat.

    It seems likeTeri lost weight since the last episode she was on MacGyver. Love the white dress, it looks more like a wedding dress, but it's beautiful.

    13 more to go!!