Sunday, March 15, 2015

#18: Deadly Dreams

Season: 4

Synopsis in 3 sentences or less:
As MacGyver and the Phoenix Foundation begin a partnership with the local police force, a serial killer escapes from a mental hospital jail. MacGyver does some detective work in the now abandoned cell and discovers that the mastermind behind the escape was Dr. Zito, a brilliant geneticist in the cell across the aisle. MacGyver races to discover the answer to Dr. Zito's riddle before midnight when the escapee plans to sacrifice himself along with Dr. Zito's chosen victim. 

Memorable Quote:
Murphy's gonna be fine, Dr. Zito.  ~Lt. Murphy

Conversation:
This episode was the first MacGyver episode written by Executive Producer Stephen Downing, who recently answered some questions for this blog.  I reached out to him again to see what he remembered about this episode, and his response blew me away to say the least.

Two elements went into the decision to write the episode.  Kim Zimmer was a good friend of Rick’s from his soap opera days.  As you know, Kim was a major soap star. He was dying to work with her so we looked for opportunities to cast her as a guest star.  She had the unique quality of being a strong woman and vulnerable at the same time.  

I had seen Morgan Sheppard’s work several times and thought him the consummate actor with a very, very wide range. So, when I developed the Dr. Zito character I had him in mind during the writing process.  Thus, I started the script with both guest stars in my head already.

The idea of the episode comes from several fronts.  I always say that a story starts with the seed of an idea and as we nurture the seed and it begins to grow, it ultimately take on a life (and direction) of its own.  This episode is a good example of that process.

When I was a police commander and assigned to take over the bureau of special investigations, one of the divisions under my command was the Administrative Vice Division.  One of the functions of that division (in those days) was pornography investigations.  When those kinds of investigations were made, in order to provide a return on search warrants, the investigators had to view the films seized and then write detailed reports on each film for the court.  

Not being familiar with the process I performed an audit by sitting in with two of our investigators during the review process.  It was eight straight hours of watching the most disgusting aberrations of human behavior I had ever witnessed, including grotesque S and M, beastiality and other forms of horribly perverted sexuality.  

When the process was over, I walked away with a very dark cloud that weighed on my mind for several days.  It was haunting. I just could not get the filth and degradation out of my mind. It bordered on being debilitative.  A week later when I got beyond it, it came to me that if it had that kind of effect upon me in an eight hour session, what must it be doing to the investigators who deal with it daily.  So, I looked into that and as a result of the inquiry I changed the focus and duration of pornography assignments, as it did have much the same effect on our investigators, most all dealing with it differently and with some suffering what we call today Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Bottom line: Policy changes were made for duration and mix of that assignment.

Another element that went into that episode involved the infamous case of the Hillside Strangler that occurred in Los Angeles during my time with the LAPD.  It was a major case and homicide assignments were handed to different detectives for each victim.  Although the investigation was a task force approach, there were still what we call the "PRIMARY" or lead detective for each victim, whose job it was to know every detail.  

When the case was finally solved and Buono and Bianchi were found guilty - - all of the Primary detectives, each who had specialized in one victim, had lunch together.  By this time the victims were deeply personalized in the mind of each detective.  They spoke of them as "my girl," and used their first names in the discussion, as if they were their daughters or at least members of their own families.  They had become so attached to them that when they finally succeeded in getting a conviction after many years and finding justice for "their girls" it was clear to me that there was for each of them a need coupled to their sense of great compassion for justice and closure just as strongly as it must have been for the families of the victims.  The convictions brought that kind of closure to the detectives as strongly as it did for the families.  I never forgot that. 

The third life experience that I brought to the script involved an interview I conducted of an ex-convict who we turned into an informant.  He was part of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white racist prison gang.  When the interview was over, I asked him why the Aryan Brotherhood hated African Americans so much.  His answer floored me.  He said, "I don’t hate em, its just that we’re better than them."  I asked, "What makes you better?"  He said, "Well, ya see, way back at the time of Eric the Red, it was us white people that looked out at the ocean and said there was more out there. So, we built boats and went forth - - while all those other lazy motherF****** laid up on the beach." Then he went on and fantasized all the Valhalla crap and wrapped up the session with the statement "That’s all why I named my son, Eric."

So the Haunting of PTSD was given to Kim Zimmer’s character who had experienced Zito’s crimes, the controlling nature of Zito's character was seeded by of the influences that I saw Buono exercised over Bianco and the Valhallah fantasies were seeded by my exposure to the twisted mind of a member of the Aryan Brotherhood.

Kim’s character was give the "Haunting," having seen Zito’s crimes as well as the "Closure" of being able to look Zito in the eye and not go crazy.  

The rest of it came together though the Function of the Phoenix Foundation as the vehicle to put Mac into a police environment and be the observer of the psychological motivations I observed in real life and subsequently used as seed for a good story.

As to the MacGyverisms in the story, the "Door Opener" was based upon my need to set the story up and it harked back to my days in the LAPD when I wished we had better breach techniques than battering rams - - or tanks.  It also served well as a bookend for the story.

The uses of phosphate and water for the timing devices harked back to my college days when the destructive (and foolish) prank was to take potassium phosphate from the chemistry lab, flush it down the toilet and see how far it would be before it blew the plumbing.  Arrrrrrgh.  I just admitted to being an idiot.

Behind the scenes Morgan Sheppard was the consummate gentleman.  He was a professional in every sense of the word and a pleasure to deal with in all respects.

Garry Chalk's character had to be along at the end because police officers would never go alone on a call like that. Then the story required that Garry be taken out of the picture so we could get a singular focus on Kim’s jeopardy and an axe was used to do it because it worked with the Viking theme.  

I do not recall any discussion of "going dark" on the episode.  MacGyver was a unique series in that the story telling was so varied because of the Foundation franchise that the tone of the show was not fully consistent.

I also thought the young actor we cast as Zito’s tool was tone perfect for the part.  

Hope this answers your questions.

Final Analysis:
Normally in an episode recap post I include a list of my own trivial thoughts and observations, but I have nothing to say that would follow that.  MacGyver Nation and I can't thank Mr. Downing enough for the powerful information he shared with us. While there may be a few MacGyver episodes higher on my favorites list for my own irrational and emotional reasons, it's hard to think of too many hours of television in any series that are better than this one. W. Morgan Sheppard steals the show by giving perhaps the series' best performance, and Kim Zimmer is amazing as are the rest of the actors. The Norse mythology angle is extremely compelling as is everything else about this episode.  A tour de force, and a legendary effort from Mr. Downing and the cast and crew.

30 comments:

  1. That is one fascinating response from Downing.....and really puts to bed the biggest myth about this episode perpetrated by a bunch of wiseguys in the published DVD reviews.....that the Zito character was derivative of "Silence of the Lambs". At the very least, I assured anyone who would listen, the Zito character is a precursor to Hannibal Lecter since the movie came out two years after "Deadly Dreams" aired. True, the "Silence of the Lambs" book was out by then, but even if Zito was a variation on the literary Hannibal Lecter character, it was quite a feat for a network television show, and the similarities between Lecter and Zito pretty much stopped at the fact that that were gray-haired older guys in jail cells as Zito had his own personality and motivations. I always figured that Stephen Downing wrote this episode (his first for the series) because his history as a police officer was useful in drawing out the characters and in authenticating the dialogue and procedural specifics, but I'm further impressed at the wealth of different motivations that went into the writing of this episode, one of the best episodes of the series.

    The previews for this episode back in January 1989 seemed pretty intense so I went in expecting a darker than usual episode of "MacGyver", but I'll never forget the look on my uncle's face when my mom and I went to his place after religious education class preparing to watch that evening's episode. He was not at all prepared for what an episode of "MacGyver" had just served up and my mom wasn't either. It's fascinating that Downing didn't have any intentions of "going dark" when they pressed forward with this episode because I always figured this episode was the pivot point moment where the series decided it was gonna take a darker approach. I have watched a number of shows from the 80s that were intended for an older audience than "MacGyver" was ("Miami Vice", "Crime Story", and "The Equalizer" being a few examples) but never saw anything quite as intense as this episode of "MacGyver". A lot of darker procedural shows like "Profiler" and "Criminal Minds" have emerged since where the entire series is dedicated to this kind of intensely dark storytelling but I haven't seen any of them come within a mile of matching the skill level of what Downing and director Les Landau accomplished with "Deadly Dreams". It was just a flawlessly executed hour that left my 11-year-old heart pulsating from beginning to end in 1989 and still gets me on the edge of my seat today. Composer Dennis McCarthy also deserves credit for a musical score worthy of the intense camera action.

    Right off the bat the episode had me with Murphy "having it covered" by keeping Wyatt under the house to extract the bag of crack flushed down the toilet (I wonder if Downing ever encountered that during his police work). The dialogue with Murphy was fun and she was a great character, a tough police officer who's heart was in the right place but was stuck in her ways. Kim Zimmer was a first-rate actress and played the role of Zito's foil pitch perfectly. Her transformation over the assembling of the task force was compelling, and her long-term psychological trauma over seeing what Zito did was very believable.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah I never saw this as a derivative of Silence of the Lambs, and even if it was, what's the big deal? There are a lot of episodes where we can speculate that they were inspired by other movies (e.g. The Outsiders/Witness or Rock the Cradle/Three Men and a Baby), and even if they are it doesn't make the episodes any less good, because it's not like they're exact copies or anything.

      I don't remember how I felt watching this one as a kid. I don't think it bothered me too much though I still don't like seeing Sweeney getting axed in the chest, surely the most violent death in MacGyver history. I like the description of your uncle's face after watching the episode. You got your own education that night about Valhalla and Norse Mythology - who needs religious ed!

      Delete
    2. And regarding your point on the series going dark, perhaps this episode was well received to the point that they decided to go in a darker direction. Do you know where they were at in filming when the episode aired or how the ratings were?

      Delete
    3. Yeah everything is at least partially derivative of something so I completely agree that even if Zito was a thinly veiled Hannibal Lecter clone, which I never fully believed he was, I couldn't have cared less given how much I enjoyed the character and writing in the episodes he was in. I wonder what my religious ed teacher would have thought knowing I went from religious ed classes to watching "Deadly Dreams". Then again, she may have gone to do the same thing after class was over..lol. This episode was filmed in the dead of winter (yeah, December in Vancouver is not like December in Minnesota or Wisconsin but it's still cold) so my hypothesis has long been that the series decided the dank nature of a Vancouver winter lent itself to interior-based episodes, and that they would make up for the lack of outdoor adventure scenes with a darker and intense style.

      The very next episode after "Deadly Dreams" in production order was "Cleo Rocks", which was also dark so I don't think there would have been time to get audience feedback after "Deadly Dreams" before pressing forward with more thematically dark episodes. In fact, most episodes are in varying stages of preproduction months before they actually air, so dark season 4 episodes like "The Challenge", "Runners", and "Brainwashed" were probably in the works long before the audience got to respond to "Deadly Dreams". The ratings for "Deadly Dreams" were middle of the pack, but curiously, numbers started surging quickly after so it may well have been a springboard for better numbers fo come.

      Delete
    4. Regarding the comment on wondering whether the drugs down the toilet really happened, Stephen read it and sent this to me:

      One entry caught my attention, where the writer wondered if Murphy having the guy under the house, the toilet, had come from any of my experiences. The answer is YES. When I was a very young cop working bookmakers, we had one bookmaker who had a practice of flushing the evidence before we got through the door on search warrant services. So, the way we got around it, we crawled under the house prior to the raid, unhooked the sewer line and put a bucket under the flush, thus capturing the evidence that was put down the toilet. Getting the bookmakers was always a cat and mouse game - - and we played it well. It also worked well into the episode, although the hatch was a bit of a reach, but necessary to production concerns. $$$

      Delete
    5. Thanks for passing that one. I figured something as off the wall as that was probably just crazy enough that it was true.

      Delete
    6. Yeah I was thinking the exact same thing.

      Delete
  2. I could marvel for 10 paragraphs over every clever line of dialogue, every impressive plot revelation, every perfectly acted scene, every brilliant and haunting mythological allegory, the dark visuals and fiery ending given the episode an extra atmospheric flare, and MacGyver's epic takedown of Zito's master plan, one of the series' finest moments, but the interest of not exceeding the website's bandwidth I think it's best to just let the episode's wall-to-wall craftsmanship stand on its own. The closest thing I have to a criticism is that it took MacGyver a little too long to figure out Murphy was the intended target, but how can I complain since that allowed more screen time for Morgan Sheppard and MacGyver to have their first-rate cat and mouse. The epilogue was one of the series' best as well.

    I would have figured this would be an emotional favorite for you too so I'm a little surprised that there are quite a few others that hit you where you live more. Particularly in 1989, this was something quite unlike anything that had ever been on television and I still marvel at the darkness and intensity, even if it wasn't as intentional as I originally believed it to be. I rank this episode #8.

    Also intrigued at why you skipped your #19 for now. You kind of lied to us yesterday when you said coming up next was your #19 ranked episode. ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is an emotional favorite, it's just that there are 17 more which are slightly more of a favorite. :) There's no question that this episode is objectively better than many of the ones in my top 17, it's just that I'm a sucker for many of the nature/outdoorsy episodes for reasons I'll try and get into later, and given the choice I'll often prefer slightly lighter fare over darker fare. But I still love this episode (thus its lofty ranking at #18) along with some other dark episodes I haven't gotten to yet, and I love "24", so I can be down with some dark!

      Rewatching this episode again today, I was struck by the cleverness that you alluded to, from the plastic flap on the library book to the "32 seconds" reference coming up at the end to the plan conceived by Dr. Zito. The Norse mythology stuff with all the drawings is brilliant and its execution is flawless.

      Haha, I guess I did lie last time about #19, didn't I? Just goes to show that you never know what's coming next at The MacGyver Project!

      Delete
    2. Yeah I had picked up on the fact that you really liked the outdoorsy episodes as there are so many ahead. My friend is like that as well and his top-20 would have a lot of episodes similar to the ones you chose. Kind of shocking to me that you rated "Final Approach" so poorly as that was as outdoorsy of an episode as there ever was.

      I've alluded to the fact before that I like the dark stuff so long as it's done in good taste and dark "MacGyver" episodes were. Stuff like this gets my adrenaline going and that's a difficult feat to pull off for someone who's watched as much television as I have in 37 years. Zito's "are you gonna have them take away my library card?" punchline was my personal favorite line of zippy dialogue for the hour but there were so many treasures to choose from. The fact that an episode like this can come and go without a single nod of appreciation from the TV industry too busy marveling about "Cheers" and "L.A. Law" at the time still kind of makes me nauseous. And even now, those who watch and admire the episode still retroactively dismiss it as a ripoff of "Silence of the Lambs". There's just no justice in the world! A strong case could be made for this being the series best episode, but I guess I'm a little guilty of the same thing you are....connecting to other episodes just a tad more even if they might not be as perfectly constructed as this one.

      Delete
    3. You're right, I'm definitely not a big Final Approach fan. Later I'll try and pin down what it is about the remaining "nature" episodes that gets me going.

      I remember liking the "my my my" and "aren't we perceptive" lines from Zito; in fact, I distinctly remember saying to my sister once "my my my, aren't we perceptive" and getting reprimanded from my mom for my sassy tone. That is too bad that the tv industry couldn't give this episode its due along with some of the other great episodes, but it gets an Emmy in my book! And I totally agree that a strong case could be made for this as the series best episode.

      Delete
    4. I've been known to randomly quote scenes from "MacGyver" years later, often in a sassy, smartass way but other times just to be funny because I thought the context fit the quote. "My, my, my aren't we perceptive" was probably one that came up once or twice. I think most of my friends knew I was pulling "MacGyver" quotes but it usually got a laugh or a smile. Some teachers were less than amused at some over the years though.

      Delete
  3. This is a really strong episode of the show - and definitely drops itself in the 'creepy' column... in the way really good thrillers are creepy. And Zito is an intriguing bad guy. Smart and clever - a good match for MacGyver.

    If you're a fan of Supernatural or Dr. Who (or a dozen other shows), you'll have seen W. Morgan's son Mark. I met Mark at Dragon*Con a few years back, but had a brainfart and ttly didn't realize he was W. Morgan's son at the time, so that never came up, but he was really nice and funny and didn't mind my friend and I snapping not-so-sneaky photos of him from a distance. I think the main reason he didn't get annoyed at us was b/c we didn't take photos while he was trying to have lunch. =)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Haven't seen more than a few moments of either Supernatural or Dr. Who so I probably haven't seen Mark Sheppard. Sounds like you had a good experience with him. Would you put his acting skills/stage presence on the same plane as his father's? I always wondered if W. Morgan Sheppard was at all related to writer John Sheppard since they came on the show around the same time.

      Delete
    2. Like his dad - he has a tendency toward the 'bad guys', and he's good at them. He was fantastic in the ep of Dr. Who he was on - where he played the younger version of his father's character (they were both in the ep - it was kinda epic!). Having not met his father, I can't compare the two 'off-screen', but Mark's fairly laid back in a convention setting.

      Another bit of trivia - Michael des Barres played a serial killer, psychological-thriller type bad-guy on the Pretender, sort of in a similar vein to Zito. It was head-trippy.

      Delete
    3. Really? "The Pretender" with Michael Weiss? I watched that show regularly during its four seasons and don't remember Des Barres let alone Jeff Kober as villains on there. I haven't seen the show since 2000 but wouldn't have figured I'd have been so out of it to have missed Des Barres. Yikes!

      Delete
    4. Yup! It was s03e03 - "Once in a Blue Moon". Jarod was working as an FBI profiler. Kober was in s02e20 - where Jarod and Miss Parker are locked inna bank during a heist. I wanna say they touted the Des Barres ep pretty hard, but I'm not sure. After a while, I stopped paying attention to all the 'next time on...' bits.

      Delete
    5. I remember him as a villain in 24 Season 5 - did a great job. That's cool that you got to meet him. Sounds like these conventions are loaded with people I'd recognize - I may have to check one out sometime!

      Delete
    6. For the price vs sheer # of celebs who show up, Dragon*Con is the way to go. Fair warning? It's like moving a small city into downtown Atlanta for a weekend PLUS all the other ppl in town for one of the bowl games. (D*C happens Labor Day weekend.) I don't know that *I* would go again (20k ppl is a LOT), but in the 2 times I did go, I met James Marsters, Avery Brooks, Mark Sheppard and LeVar Burton. I also chatted w/ John de Lancie again (had met him at Gatecon the year before). And I would definitely rec D*C over anything put on by Creation - fan-fun cons are almost always better and a bit more laid back b/c they're less concerned with the profit margin than w/ ppl having a good time. However - Creation is doing something in MN and another in Chicago, I think if you wanted to try one out. Though - Creation can get really expensive depending on what you want to do (the #1 reason I don't go to their events).

      Delete
    7. Why does Blogspot not have an edit feature for comments? ugh...

      Others I met at D*C: Kevin Sorbo (again, he was at Gatecon one yr too), Marc Singer - who we had to 'bump' into for him to acknowledge we were standing there, which was kind of annoying, but has turned into a pretty good story since my friend who did the 'bumping' made it look absolutely accidental and it was EPIC. =)

      Delete
    8. Now I'm gonna have to forage through my VHS tapes for 24 Season 1 to see if I can find Mark Sheppard on there.

      Delete
    9. It's season 5, not season 1. And thanks Highlander for the con info.

      Delete
    10. Yeah I saw that it was season 5. You wouldn't think I'd have messed up a one-sentence post but I managed. I actually have 24 Season 1 on DVD but Season 5 is only on VHS.

      Delete
  4. Coming at this one as a tail end commentator again. Stephen Downing’s background to the episode is really fascinating along with the extra info that the toilet flushing interception really happened – you wouldn’t want to be the cop at the end of the drain.
    The episode opens with an urban feel and the following scenes are an excellent vehicle for displaying how gritty, violent and difficult the cops’ work is. As we might expect, MacGyver rushes in too and gets to experience it first-hand. The tension between MacGyver, representing the new technology, and the cops, who rather gang up on him, is well written and acted. I’m with you, Murphy is an excellent character. It’s great how for once, MacGyver’s technology doesn’t work and his crankiness over that adds to the general atmosphere of bad tempered mistrust and suspicion. Although it is MacGyver who is determined to make the relationship happen and who spots the hard-nosed Murphy’s distress. There are subtle moments; they start getting on quite well until he mentions Cross and her reaction changes the atmosphere again.
    Zito and his psychological taunting is excellent (another smooth English psychopath!). MacGyver is genuinely spooked that Zito knows his name and the line ’ You’ll have to be intellectually superior, exceptionally persistent and possess an abundance of ingenuity’ describes MacGyver perfectly; we know they are going to be worthy opponents. There are some great moments of shared knowledge of chemistry and Jungian dream analysis as well as the mythology in the intense scenes in the cells – you couldn’t say that of many tv ‘action’ shows. Its MacGyver’s mind working its best. Even then we still get the treat of a simple MacGyverism of de-frosting the glass with motor oil from the bin.
    I thought Sweeney’s killing was very brutal especially after we’ve heard him on the phone talking to his wife about the kids; that kind of detail always brings home the savagery of the death of any character and adds to the intensity and darkness in this episode. Its brilliant that MacGyver’s invention works this time, to save Murphy. And I agree the line ‘ Murphy’s gonna be just fine’ is an excellent ending.
    You have to admire the amazing range of subject matter over the series and this off- the- wall, intense episode is great stuff and stands up to numerous viewings. I’ve just made way for it at no 12 by moving something else out. This is the trouble with trying to rank the episodes; I’ve simply got too many contenders for the top spots.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like your line about the "another smooth English psychopath!"

      Delete
  5. There are just too many similarities between Silence of the Lambs and this episode to overlook. However, I can come up with no explanation how this is possible, since the movie came out two years later. I just watched this for the first time, and got a really creepy feeling seeing Mac talking with Zito (a serial killer doctor with a British accent!) in the jail. There's another serial killer or the loose, and they need the doctor's help to stop him? I almost expected the Doc to say to Mac, "Quid pro quo"!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Silence of the Lambs" is also a novel, which was out before MacGyver. One of the writers had probably read it. :)

      Delete
    2. Oh, yes, I am well aware of the book, and have read it. What I'm getting at are the visual similarities between the TV show and the movie, which to me seemed as if the well-known film debut of Hannibal Lecter was modeled after a MacGyver episode.

      Delete
  6. These Dr. Ziti episodes are creepy. I like them, but not watch them constantly.

    That room in the warehouse where Lt. Murphy is tied and the fire starts to develop reminds me of the Room of Requirements in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2, particularly in that scene where the Room starts getting in fire. Obviously, In MacGyver the room is considerably smaller, but for some reason, that scene reminds me of the scene in HP.

    I think that RDA had another favorite shirt back then. This is probably the second time I see him wearing that black and white horizontal stripes shirt. Budget was limited, I gues. 😊

    ReplyDelete
  7. Morgan Sheppard did a fantastic job - very much like Anthony Hopkins. One of the best characters in the series.

    ReplyDelete