Friday, April 24, 2015

#4: Ghost Ship

Season: 3

Synopsis in 3 sentences or less:
MacGyver is in Alaska on an expedition to map out a natural preserve when he stumbles upon what appears to be an abandoned ship.  He boards the ship and encounters the legendary Sasquatch, and he narrowly escapes the boat with a young Russian stowaway.  Then they discover that thieves are stealing oil from a nearby pipeline, and MacGyver has one final encounter with the Sasquatch.  

Memorable Quote:
One of my biggest problems is I can never leave a puzzle alone.  And this ship sure qualified.  ~MacGyver

The entire scene on the ship from the time MacGyver spots it to the time that he leaves it is as suspenseful and dramatic as anything that has ever been on television.  Just the concept of being on a boat by yourself with Big Foot is as creatively simple and compelling a story line as there is. I talked to writer and producer Calvin Clements Jr. recently, and he echoed the point about this plot as being effective because it was so simple.  He also said that it was a real freighter that they brought to this bay in the middle of nowhere, as opposed to using a miniature or stock footage. I'm thankful that they went the extra mile because it is an incredible scene. 


Best MacGyverism:
Not too many to choose from.  I'll go with putting a piece of tarp over a long stick to create an oar.

Other thoughts, observations, and questions I didn’t ask when I was in fourth grade:
  • We're at the point now where all the episodes that are left (including this one at #4) are better than the best episode of any other show in tv history.  Big time stuff going on here.  
  • Slightly contrived opening as MacGyver and Pete talk about the program in such a way that it's clear that the only purpose of the conversation is to give the audience some background.  But I'm in no mood to pick nits on this legendary hour of television, so let's just move on!  
  • Speaking of the program, it's described by MacGyver as a "Phoenix Foundation Save the Wilderness Mapping Expedition" where his objective is to hike for a few days in the Alaskan wilderness and plant electronic markers (which look like tent stakes), and these markers will send a signal to a satellite and create a map for the creation of a national preserve.  If anyone were to ever ask me, "What is your dream job?" I would tell them about this program here.  I would cut off my left arm with a swiss army knife to be part of a program like this.  What's really appealing is the hiking and outdoor adventure combined with a higher purpose (in this case, following a route, planting markers, and mapping out a national preserve).  Going off on a hike of my own to the Appalachian Trail, let's say, would certainly be fun, but there would be no sense of purpose beyond my own enrichment and so it wouldn't feel nearly the same.  But this Phoenix expedition? This would be an ultimate dream.  If anyone from the Department of the Interior is reading this ever needs help with hiking and planting markers in the wilderness, call me!
  • The station where Pete is working from says "Akwe Lake."  I looked it up on Google Maps and it's a real lake in the Alaskan Panhandle.  In fact, if you look at the map and go a little bit north of the lake, you see the Russell Fiord, and this topography matches the map in the station where we see the planted markers lighting up.  I love maps.    
  • The Interior Department lady is super annoying, but that's not a criticism because she's supposed to get under our skin with her constant badgering of Pete and her wondering why MacGyver is laying his markers so slowly.
  • Fantastic moment as MacGyver sees the ship in the inlet for the first time and is puzzled by its presence and the lack of activity around it.  "Now where did you come from and what are you doing here?" he says to himself right as the suspenseful music starts to play. And then he finds the old rowboat and makes himself an oar out of a stick and a tarp, and he sails out to board the ship and utters the quote mentioned earlier about never being able to leave a puzzle alone. I love that he's willing to put aside his mission in order to follow his intuition about something seeming wrong with the scene in front of him. 
  • Then we see a shot of "something" looking out the port window at MacGyver approaching, and then the something gives a growl.  Whoa!  
  • 10:44 - classic shot from the opening credits of MacGyver hurriedly opening the door hatch which had previously closed on him.
  • Amusing moment as MacGyver takes a whiff of a fur strand he finds and then wrinkles his face as a result of the odiferous smell. A bit later he runs down these same stairs (another shot from the opening credits, as is his jump off the boat). 
  • Even though I can remember exactly what moment the creature strikes, it still scares the crap out of me every time.  There's not a person alive who would not have been frightened at that moment when watching it for the first time. If anybody says that they weren't startled, then they are either lying or are actually a robot. And imagine what it must have felt like to be MacGyver. Maybe going through so many life and death situations helps him to control his adrenaline, but I would have had a very hard time being on that boat by myself.
  • And really great acting from RDA during this boat scene - he seems legitimately terrified.
  • The actress who plays Karin reappears in Season 4 as Stone's daughter in Collision Course. She does a great job in this episode as the shell-shocked Russian girl.  
  • Awesome Ken Harrison music as MacGyver taps the plant to create a spring.  This was Harrison's first episode and a perfect venue for him to launch his darker, more minor-key style.
  • I like how MacGyver tries out many different languages on the girl before finding the right one - very cool. And then a fun moment when he realizes that she speaks English.
  • Absolutely LOVE the campfire scene where the Native Alaskan trappers approach MacGyver and Karin.  They begin talking about the Sasquatch, and the old uncle starts speaking in a native language while the younger man translates.  This picturesque moment is like something out of a legend, and it resonates with me to my core.  
  • Ugh, that Interior Department woman just makes my skin crawl!
  • A shake after punching out the big guy escorting Karin to the ship.  Pretty impressive that he was able to tie the fishing line at the exact height so that it would be taller than Karin but low enough for the guy to walk into it with his face.
  • Great use of the signals and the pipeline by MacGyver to warn Pete, and I like that he knows that Pete will interpret his message as a call for help.  And then an electrifying moment when he looks up and sees Big Foot bounding down the mountain.  The fight scene between them is excellent and extremely well done.  
  • Fun conversation after the climax:
    • "What is THAT?"  ~Pete  
    • "It's a long story, Pete."  ~MacGyver

  • The ending is perfect as MacGyver and the Interior Department lady hear Sasquatch calling, but then they realize that it is Pete playing an audio tape that was found.  They laugh about it, and just when we start to relax, they hear the noise again.  Brilliant writing from Stephen Kandel.

Final Analysis:
Words cannot adequately describe how much I love this episode.  It's "like a dream come true," as Dalton and Pete would say in Brainwashed.  The Alaskan wilderness setting is perfect, the debut effort from Ken Harrison is outstanding, and the plot is amazing.  Just like I said in the last review, I could watch it again and again and again (and I have).  I can hardly believe that it's not number 1, but it beats number 1 of any other show, that's for sure! 


  1. More frightening to me than the Sasquatch is the fear of where Mark's #97 episode lies.

    1. Looks like more terror lies ahead for you on another night that has nothing to do with beasts in the wilderness.

  2. I don't keep a list, but I can guarantee that this episode would be in my top 5 for sure. Somehow I had a feeling this might be your #1. Like you say, there is not a lowlight in this one, not even close. I vividly remember watching the episode for the first time, and I too almost had a heart attack when the creature punched through the window. I knew something must be coming, but there's no way to tell when. Writing, acting and musical score are all first class. If I had to choose one Harrison score to be released on CD, this would be the one. The entire score is phenomenal, but my favorite is when he prepares to flush the markers down the pipeline. I would pay very good money for this score, and I mean VERY good! I'm trying to think of an episode right now which I like better than this one, and honestly at this moment I can't think of one. Great review by the way.

    1. Think you might compile a list when Nick is done with his (or before for that matter!). I know I'd like to see how your episode list would stack up and I'm sure the rest of us would too. Out of curiosity, did you watch the episodes in reruns or were you around for the original run to watch this one--and others--during their original ABC broadcast?

    2. Thanks David, glad to hear you enjoyed the review, and that's awesome that this is at or near the very top of your list. It could have easily been #1 for me too.

      I remember you said you live in the Vancouver BC area. Given that you're such a fan of music and Harrison, you should consider contacting him and ask to see if he'd meet up, or who knows, maybe you could even help him with his music cataloguing project.

    3. Mark - I might create a list one of these days however it will be quite time consuming as there are many episodes I haven't watched in years. It would probably be possible to name my top 50 or so, I'll try to work on that.
      I started watching the show somewhere around 1991 I believe. I was living in Switzerland at the time and my sister and I were watching it now and then on a French channel, dubbed in French language. We got hooked pretty quick but with no internet at the time I had no idea how old the show was and whether the episodes were new, I probably never gave it any thought at the time. I guess we started watching around the time Strictly Business was filmed, just a guess. I believe when we started watching the run was in season 2, I recall Partners to be the first episode we ever watched. I watched my first episode in english language when I started downloading them from a filesharing site sometime in the late 90s. As soon as the DVDs came out I bought them. When I moved to Canada in 2005 I was shocked to find that MacGyver was not on TV anywhere, and hardly anyone I met here remembered the show well. In Europe it was on daily on French, Swiss and German channels, it felt like it was more popular there than it was in Canada.

    4. Nick - funny that you mention it, ever since I read your interview with Ken Harrison, this thought has been in my mind. No idea if he would be open to that but I would love to be involved in a project like this. I'm sure Ken is a very busy man, really so am I, but I think for a project like this I would take the time no matter what as the experience would be invaluable. Did you contact him through his website at the time?

    5. Yeah, that's what I did. Good luck - if it works out, let me know!

  3. I really loved this one as a boy and still thoroughly enjoy it. I'm a little surprised you like it so much though. You trashed "The Secret of Parker House" specifically because it was so creepy and said you didn't like that sort of thing, but I've always thought this one was at least as creepy if not creepier than "Parker House". Agreed that the setting here was one of the prime attractions and, outside of that motorcycle chase in Part 1 of "Lost Love", was the first time the series took advantage of the Vancouver wilderness, and tapping into the regional folklore of the Pacific Northwest in the process. This was indeed Ken Harrison's musical debut and he hit the ball out of the park, giving us our first sample of greatness right away when MacGyver bumped into the skeleton near the totem pole, with music that was clearly identifiable Harrison as MacGyver pounded that first survey marker into the ground. And I was hoping you'd mention how awful that Interior Department woman was in every single scene she was in, including her smug condescension in the epilogue. Writers and directors on this show were maestros (intentionally or not) when it came to introducing insufferable female characters, but this gal was right up there with Cindy Finnigan on dialing up the audience's misery factor.

    Without question, the best scenes of the episode were on the ship. Intense, well filmed, mysterious, and terrifying indeed even after a dozen viewings to see that Sasquatch bust through the window. The logistics on why the beast was kinda/sorta contained as MacGyver discovered Karin were a little fuzzy, but the escape was exciting with a feast for the eyes with all the colors between the lake and the Vancouver woods. You said there weren't a lot of MacGyverisms but I actually thought there were a few memorable ones, whether it was the tapping into the wild plants for a drink of water, using fishing line and his pole to whack the ship's crew member in the face, or using that pump to direct three of the survey markers into the river to let Pete know there was a problem.

    Now I did think the episode peaked on the ship but I still really enjoyed the rest of the episode. Hard to believe these Native American visitors had "trap lines" in the middle of this "100 miles of untapped wilderness" but it was great for building the legend, complete with the old man and his native tongue delivering a message ripped off almost word for word ("...and steal our children") from the Indian village head on "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom". The mystery grew with the flashing lights at night and I was very impressed with the storytelling here that both the ship in the middle of the boonies and the flashing lights were the product of oil bandits stealing from the Alaskan pipeline. But for all that impressive storytelling, I would have liked it better clarified what the Sasquatch's role here was. They said at the end that the Bigfoot noises were piped in over the ship's PA system to grow the legend, but was the "man in the monkey suit" himself part of the crew? Used to scare off would-be intruders who might interfere with the pipeline theft? I'm assuming that was the angle, but it was never clarified beyond a reasonable doubt for me. If so, excellent storytelling indeed from Kandel. This was also the directing debut from Mike Vejar. I'm not expert on what constitutes great TV directing, but the imagery and production values conveyed in episodes directed by Vejar qualifies him as my favorite director from the series on balance. I still really like this episode. It's not in my top tier but it was fiendishly clever and gave us a window into the direction the show was heading moving forward. I ranked it #39.

    1. I didn't mean to "trash" Parker House - it's a well done episode but it is a little too creepy for my tastes. This one is creepy too but I like the locale much better which I think is the primary difference. But don't try to figure out my "logic" too much - my wife will tell you that that's a losing battle!

      Good call on the Temple of Doom reference - I love that entire scene in the village where the old man is talking about "Shankara." I think you're right on the money with the purpose of the Big Foot as part of the crew and there to scare away intruders and provide some security for the oil thieves. All in all it's a really clever plan on their part.

    2. Mainly giving you a hard time about "Parker House". I liked that one but didn't love it. "Ghost Ship" was much better done. And I hear you on logical hair-splitting as I'm guilty of it myself, even on "MacGyver", such as when I talked about how much I love when we got to see a darker view of MacGyver yet grumbled about how long he was feeling sorry for himself after Mike's death on "The Widowmaker".

      Did you agree with my Interior Department lady/Cindy Finnigan analogy?

    3. Yes, the interior department lady (who I just looked up and her name in the show is Joanna) fits right in with Cindy Finnegan, Rachel the Fire Chief, and Agent Montana in the annoying female sidekick hall of fame.

      And did you spot Urkel on H50 tonight?

    4. I did. Noticed Urkel and Pauly Shore right away. And I got a Chris Farley vibe from the third guy....and sure enough he was listed in the credits as Kevin Farley, presumably Chris's brother. I thought it was gonna be a silly episode early on but I ended up kind of liking it. I don't do spring break but the whole "middle-aged guy hitting on college girls" unfortunately hit a little too close to home!

    5. Yeah I got the same Chris Farley vibe and looked him up and he is Chris's brother. The family is originally from Madison.

  4. Another great association I had with this episode. My Minnesota Twins were kicking ass and taking names in the 1987 World Series the week this aired.....and the World Series was on ABC that year no less so I got to see previews for an episode I knew I'd love during the World Series.

  5. I've always liked this episode. The Bigfoot angle is fun and the scenes on the ship are really impressive.

    And the Dept lady - Joanna - she doesn't bug me nearly as much as Finnegan does.

    I'll talk more about this one when I get to it in my countdown (which I'm behind on again). =)

  6. I’ll go along with Nick on this one. Truly inspired and an amazing setting like the ‘Minnesota backwoods’ for MacGyver.
    I noticed the rather clumsy explanation for the whole venture too and also wondered why the Ministry woman left the explanation about the equipment until they were in the helicopter but these, as you say, are minor points. Although I agree, one is tempted to think ‘how dare she’ as she doubts MacGyver’s competence, I actually quite enjoyed her sceptism as a vehicle for Pete to build up MacGyver’s brilliance ; ‘I hope he’s up to it? ‘What makes him so special? ‘ He just always comes through no matter what’ and ‘He’s in good shape –plays a lot of hockey’ and later, ‘the man’s an experienced woodsman’ in rebuke to her accusing MacGyver of going off fishing. Meanwhile the eeriness is building up with the looming totem pole, the skeleton and the weird noises but at this stage MacGyver’s only temporarily spooked and is brought back to reality by his scientific tasks.
    The ship scenes are as good as Nick says; more amazing build-up as MacGyver tries to appear nonchalant as he walks around but the bloody hand prints and the smelly fur ratchet up the tension until the brilliant moment when MacGyver picks up the coffee cup and all hell breaks loose. Like Nick, I know it’s coming but last time I couldn’t remember exactly when and the crashing glass is genuinely , brilliantly startling every time! I’m with you, great acting from RDA; he looks totally petrified and unnerved. It’s a great moment too as he finds the girl and swings back the pipe he’s grabbed as a weapon only to stop just in time. Similarly at the camp, he grips a big stick when he hears the locals coming; no time for complicated MacGyverisms just an elemental reaction to grab the nearest thing to defend yourself. The camp scenes are also eerie with the Native Alaskans appearing out of nowhere, the flickering light, the legendary tales and the fact they’re gone in the morning.
    I thought the early shots of the 'monster' were pretty realistic; especially when it crosses the water and we see a muscly foot going ashore –the photography angles from the ‘creature’s’ viewpoint and the fleeting shots are excellent ways of both keeping it real and making it more terrifying.
    I liked MacGyver attempting various different languages too; good job he didn’t have to say much in German! He’s such a gentleman; in the morning Karen has the warm sleeping bag and he’s got the tarp and is happy to admit how scared he was too to make her feel better; ‘I hit the water running’
    Like Nick and Mark I thought the part of the story that doesn’t hang together quite so well is why the monster is on the ship and why it killed Alex there. Surely there’s the possibility that instead of just scaring the locals away on shore, it might bring lots of people wanting to investigate? But never mind all that.
    Enjoyed the simple taking out the bad guy with fishing line and rod and the equally simple, yet brilliant, signalling ruse which Pete immediately picks up on. How does MacGyver instinctively know which pipe goes where? The battle with the ‘creature’ is truly exciting; MacGyver has no hesitation in rushing at the creature with an ‘Oh Boy’, armed only with his rucksack and similarly leaps on ’its’ back to protect the girl. I would have just legged it. As Pete finally flies in to the rescue, the two are emotionally and physically drained by their experience. I agree, the ending with its very unscientific possibility leaves us with an open question hanging in the air.
    Brilliant stuff; it’s actually. as of today, my joint Number One (if that’s allowed) with To Be a Man, a very different Season-one style episode.

    1. Awesome that it's your joint number one! Between you, me, David and another reader from the RDAnderson site who has it in her top 5, this is clearly a landmark episode. I also liked Pete's responses, and the one where he says "MacGyver is an experienced woodsman" always stuck with me for some reason.

    2. This was one of the last episodes I got on tape back on USA curiously. My aunt was taping the ones I didn't have in 1992 but there were a couple of instances of either miscommunication or when USA scheduled one out of sequence and screwed me up. This left three remaining episodes I had to wait till 1993 to get. The other two were "Renegade" and the final episode I got recorded, "Bushmaster", on April 25, 1993, coincidentally one year to the day after the series finale aired.

    3. And while you're right that the vast majority of fans put this episode in their top tier, I distinctly remember chatting with a few fans (including DVD reviewer David Johnson) who rated this one amongst their least favorites, largely because they thought the Bigfoot legend wasn't befitting a show like "MacGyver" or else thought the "guy in the monkey suit" bit was really dopey. Just goes to show that even among fans who feel passionately about this show, there's almost no consensus on individual episodes.

    4. Do you still have your tape collection? I think I still might at my parents' house.

      I know you can't please everyone so there's always bound to be those who don't agree, even if it's hard for me to see how this was in any way dopey!

    5. Yes I still have the VHS collection at my parents' house. The tapes have somehow held up after a quarter century with pretty significant viewings. Couple their fragile state with the poor quality of newer VCRs and I check out those tapes very gingerly. I like to revisit them on occasion though as some of the advertisements during those original ABC broadcasts in particular take me back to the place and time of my youth and the origins of a particular episode more than the DVDs do.

    6. Yeah, that's a good call on the commercials taking you back - I should try rewatching them sometime too. That would be fun.

      I remember my Dad making a labeling system for them and a corresponding printout that had all the episodes listed, so Tape A had 5 or 6 episodes, and then it went to Tape B, etc.

    7. I had all my episodes labeled too. I had some nervous moments in high school as a number of friends asked me to borrow tapes. While most of these exchanges went smoothly, there were a couple of instances where the tape was "lost" or where the friend insisted he got the tape back to me when he didn't. In both cases, the tapes were ultimately found and returned, but my days of sharing my beloved "MacGyver" tapes ended after that scare senior year.

      When I first heard about shows coming out on DVD with the original, unedited versions of the episodes, I was excited thinking that original commercials came with them. I still kind of wish they would have. I found the commercials back in the 80s and 90s, for better or for worse, more memorable than the commercials today. At the very least those dorky jingles got inside your head.

  7. Hi, Nick and all. I totally agree with you on picking Ghost Ship as one of your top 5 MacGyver episodes. The spookiness and all you highlighted make it an absolute favorite. Thanks for all the information.

  8. Isn't this an awesome episode?!? Glad to see the fanfare.

  9. Isn't this an awesome episode?!? Glad to see the fanfare.

  10. I dont have good memories of this as anything sensational, but Ill have to rewatch it. Its one of the ones Ive only seen once or twice. Maybe I shouldve done an old ranking and a new ranking. Birth Day went up a few notches in my opinion after just watching it.

  11. Well I just watched it again after I think I watched it when I did that last comment. This is one of those that my memory of it always seems mediocre, but then it ends up better.

    In the opening, I heard some music that I felt explained why you love the music so much. Me, I like the music when I notice it, but I rarely ever do. I focus on the action. You said you have perfect pitch, so maybe that attunes you to the music more. I cant tell any of the composers apart and I dont know how the tunes here are all minor key. I do know a bit about keys and chords, and that majors tend to be more upbeat while minors tend to be more humdrum, but beyond that.

    This really is a solid episode from top to bottom, but I cant see it too high on my list. It just isnt one I get excited to go back to, even tho its really good. I was just sitting in bed waiting for the hand I KNEW was going to bash the window. A lot of great details and setup on board the ship I wonder what ship it was and how much it cost to bring there.

    The closed captions say the old Alaskan guy was speaking Salish, which is the name of a family of languages in the Northwest there. The word for Sasquatch does come from there, and the actor (who also played Two Eagles grandfather in Mask of the Wolf) appears to have been from the area. I always like when nonEnglish speakers arent speaking English. I would rather more of that with subtitles or interpreters than the suspension of disbelief we are forced into with Central Americans and Germans and Afghan villagers speaking fluent English.

    Mark is right that this show has a notorious bunch of "insufferable female characters". This woman certainly is one of them, but she isnt as bad as some of the other shrieks like that one in Obsessed (who is in a couple shows I love).

    I remember me and other people here being confused by the purpose of the markers, but the episode does clarify it a bit. I think they were being used to get a topographical map, so they could correct the elevation measurements. It seems kind of contrived, but fun.

    1. One of the frustrating things about this show was how they would shoe-horn in some random person who just couldn't believe MacGyver's skills and Pete would always shriek about how 'You don't know Mac/MacGyver!' - and they still wouldn't believe him. Then, even sometimes after Mac had proved some of his skills they *still* didn't believe it and there'd be more Mac-proof before they admitted Mac knew what was up. And if the disbeliever was female, they'd have to write her as some sort of shrieking banshee - which, not cool.

  12. I thought I had made a comment about this episode, but apparently I thought about it and didn't write anything. Maybe I was tired.

    Anyway, when I saw this episode the first time in Netflix, I didn't like it. It was too creepy for me, I am not a fan of thriller movies and I hate mistery movies, so, I just put it aside and skipped every time when I had been on the mood of watching a MacGyver episode.

    Now, during this project, I read all the comments first and then watched the episode, and it definitely helped to have a different perspective of the episode, and I have to say, I just love it!!

    So Ghost Ship has won a spot among my favorites episodes thanks to The MacGyver Project! Way to go!!! 😉

  13. One of the best if not the best episode ever.

  14. Just saw this one now. Absolutely brilliant. I jumped when MacGyver first encountered "Bigfoot" on the boat. This one almost rivals The Gauntlet as my favourite episode so far - it's just not as much fun. But what an episode!