Wednesday, April 22, 2015

#5: The Survivors

Season: 4

Synopsis in 3 sentences or less:
MacGyver is leading a recertification program in the wilderness for Phoenix Foundation field operatives, and Pete is his final subject.  While Pete struggles to complete some of the courses, they find a downed Drug Enforcement Administration plane and then hike to the lake where some drug smugglers have a sea plane.  They are spotted by the smugglers and cornered in a cave where Pete now has to use all his skills just to survive.  

Memorable Quote:
Pete!  Suck it up.  Suck it up!  ~MacGyver

The truth is that this entire episode is one gigantic highlight, but the highest point for me is starting at the 15:32 mark where MacGyver and Pete look at the film from the downed plane.  It's a dramatic moment in the dark around a campfire, and it's matched by one of my favorite tracks: the ethereal, cosmic sounding theme music similar to what is heard in The Battle of Tommy Giordano and Gold Rush.  


Best MacGyverism:
Mixes battery acid, potassium bromide, bicarbonate, ammonia capsules, and orange juice which is then used to develop and view the film from the plane's camera.  

Other thoughts, observations, and questions I didn’t ask when I was in fourth grade:
  • I remember the tv guide description of this episode would start with, "Field retesting turns serious when..."  For whatever reason, that always stuck in my mind.  
  • From the opening with the helicopter, rockin' music, and remote wilderness outpost, we know we're gonna be in for a real treat.  The concept for the episode is brilliant, though the program itself seems a bit harsh, given that the previous subject breaks his leg on the course.  
  • We all know that MacGyver has elite wilderness survival skills, and he'd need them in order to be leading the certification of the Phoenix Foundation Field Ops team for two straight months. And how about Pete saying that he aced the program once upon a time?  Fun to think of Pete as a bad ass field operative back in the day.
  • "I call it an obstacle course.  Some of the others call it MacGyverland."  ~MacGyver
  • Some great conversation between Pete and MacGyver around the campfire.  Though when Pete talks about quitting if he fails the test, I have to wonder why that would be necessary.  It seems like most of the time he is behind a desk doing more management type things rather than being in the field directly, and just because he has trouble climbing a few ropes doesn't mean he couldn't keep doing what he is doing.
  • MacGyver's gray sweater/blue coat/black hat look is great.  If I ever had a wilderness adventure, I hope I'd look just as cool.
  • This episode guest stars two MacGyver veterans: Dale Wilson and Gerry Bean. Wilson was in 5 episodes, and I talked to him last month for this blog.  And Bean was in 4 episodes of his own.  Both Wilson and Bean happened to appear together as villains in Tough Boys.  
  • More fantastic music as MacGyver and Pete are going through the drugs.  Ken Harrison was incredible.  
  • Another instance of MacGyver's patented move of tasting a foreign substance by placing it on his finger followed by a gentle lick and then immediate recognition. But was it necessary for him to make such a mess?  And wouldn't it have been better if Pete was standing guard outside the cave to let him know if the bad guys were coming? All in all, this was not of MacGyver's better plans.  
  • "Pete! Suck it up!" was one of me and my mother's all time favorite lines from the series (along with "A trac-tor?" from Every Time She Smiles), and we still joke about it to this day.
  • I'd rate MacGyver's chances of throwing the hammer to the other side of the cave and catching it on the rock on the first try as somewhere between slim and none.
  • Very cool how the practice exercise of moving across the rope that MacGyver and Pete were doing earlier has reappeared as a very real necessity for survival.  Great writing here by Reed Moran.  And the whole scene in the cave is extremely well filmed and stunt coordinated.
  • Fun moment as MacGyver tosses the rope down to Pete while Bean's character approaches, but then Pete misses the rope.  And then after Bean leaves, Pete is talking way too loudly given that the bad guys clearly heard the sound of the hammer dinging the rock just a minute earlier.
  • 43:39 - a shake after punching out Bean. 
  • Oh no, Pete's been shot!  Time to update the shot chart.  Amazing how if Wilson's bullet was just an inch to the side, Pete would be dead and then so would MacGyver. Once again, not one of MacGyver's best plans, but fortunately lady luck was on his side.
  • I love the little cabin from the beginning and the end of the episode.  It seems like the perfect place to unwind after an adventure.  Could you imagine going through a few days of wilderness training and then coming back to a little cabin like that?  And if it had satellite tv and I could watch some sports, it would be paradise.  

W. Reed Moran wrote this episode along with Mask of the Wolf and Blow Out.  All 3 episodes in my top 30 and 2 in my top 5 is not too shabby at all!  He offered to talk to me by phone, and it was a lot of fun talking to him and I'm very thankful for his time.  On this episode and on writing in general, he said:

WRM: In general, my belief in writing is that Plot never matters. Theme and Character are what matters. Who are the characters?  What is the theme of the episode?  MacGyver was an odd character in some ways in that there was a lot that we didn’t know about him, and I tried to provide a life lesson that is believable and worth talking about.  In "Blow Out," I wanted to humanize him, so I gave him the flu.      

On "The Survivors," it was about the characters learning to trust their own will and surviving. Camraderie and brotherhood.  The story isn't rooted in chasing people through the woods with a gun.   Originally, it wasn’t supposed to be about Pete.  MacGyver was taking out a middle aged female into the woods and puts her through the paces.  She finds the inner strength to carry on but learns her limitations.  The rest was run and jump.  Downing took that character out and replaced her with Pete.  I was not happy about the change at the time, but I told myself that it’s not Shakespeare.  Still, I thought the story was doomed.   Turns out, the MacGyver/Pete relationship actually centered the story and made it better.  It was a good lesson for me in humility and to know that I didn't know everything.

Mr. Moran currently teaches in the film department at California State University Long Beach, and he's written a book called "Why Plot Never Matters: Telling the Screen Stories in your Heart."

Final Analysis:
Like all the episodes in my top 5, this one has nary a flaw, and I could watch it again and again and again.  The wooded pine forest setting is a dream, the music is out of this world, and the MacGyver/Pete buddy relationship is as good as it gets.  Love it, love it, love it!

And with that, we bid a fond farewell to Season 4, the season of dark and the season of Mark.  A tremendous season - it will be missed!  And now we have 4 episodes left: 2 from season 3 and 2 from season 1 squaring off!  Which one will be crowned champion?  Wait and see!  


  1. It's an early bird special for Mark, so he can be well rested and ready for work tomorrow!

  2. Thanks for the early bird to help us seniors get to bed on time! I didn't have quite the connection you did with this one but I always really liked it. Very interesting that the story morphed so dramatically during production but I think Moran was correct that the story ended up much better centered around the relationship with MacGyver and Pete than introducing yet another woman into MacGyver's life. The whole concept of Pete needing to be reinstated as a field operative at this strenuous training course was a great hook, although I'll point out the plothole that even though MacGyver and Pete were supposedly out of radio contact with now way of communicating with the outside world at this spot, MacGyver was still somehow able to get a helicopter to the scene for Bill Foy when he broke his leg after the first day.

    Other than that though, this one was rock solid. It was funny watching Pete grunt his way through "MacGyverland" and his bonding scene with MacGyver in the evening was generally good, but for my taste drug on a bit too long. Whatever the case, the very cool MacGyverism involving using juice from one of his oranges to develop film was a very worthwhile payoff from the bonding scene. I liked the music in the scene when MacGyver dug the wallet out of the plane of the dead pilot and looked at the picture of his family....not sure if that was the specific composition you were talking about and it may not be given that I don't remember that from "Gold Rush" or "Tommy Giordano". Whatever the case, the episode had a great sense of humor all around and Pete's exhaustion during the lengthy hike through the woods and climbing inside the cave raised the stakes of the amusement. I already mentioned how I thought the cave setting was probably the same set design later used in "Cleo Rocks" and the "sea plane" also turned up again for third time, first in "The Endangered" and then in "On a Wing and a Prayer" before it became the smugglers' aircraft of choice. Speaking of the sea plane, the visuals were well captured throughout this episode but really dazzled with the footage of the sea plane on the open water with the smugglers making one of their coke runs.

    Agreed that MacGyver made some questionable tactical moves throughout and I also marveled at the spectacular convenience of his makeshift grappling hook always managing to find something to hook onto. It was fun though, and very exciting particularly when they were swinging on the tree roots while ascending the cave. Quite an exciting run of action to wrap up the hour and then Pete getting frisky with his nurse. Much as I liked the dark episodes of season 4, it was great that they made room for some more traditional adventure-themed episodes, and managed to progress MacGyver and Pete's bond to another level in the process. Rated in my top half at #67.

    1. I agree that having Pete in the show was the right move. We'll never know how the other version would have ended up, but it would have been hard pressed to be better than the way it turned out, in my eyes anyway. I like the sea plane delivery on the open water scene also - helps add context to the episode and was a great visual as you suggested.

      The music throughout was amazing including the moment where he looks at the picture of the family members of the dead pilot as you said. The part that I was referring to as similar to Gold Rush and Tommy G was when they were looking at the film itself by the fire. It's probably not exactly the same score, but it has the same type of sound - kind of a high-pitched, cosmic, laserlike, futuristic vibe is the best way I can describe it. And I absolutely love it. If only there was a CD with all this stuff, I would listen to it non stop.

      I always found their rope maneuver interesting and am curious to know if it is something that I could do. I'd like to think I could but am not sure - maybe there's a place somewhere where I could try and where it's not too high off the ground. :) I also wonder if it'd be feasible to crawl on top of the rope instead of hanging below it. I'd think if you did it slowly enough it would be possible and also easier, but I suppose you could slide off it too if the rope was too thin.

    2. At least in elementary school gym class I was good at climbing the rope to the ceiling and ringing the bell. That was close to 30 years ago though and not the same maneuver as what Pete had to do so I'm not sure I could pull it off now. Seems like Pete would have needed to train himself for this course at least some degree before just dropping out of the helicopter and tackling MacGyverland.

      And am I missing something or did I blow a hole through the plot pointing out that Bill Foy was able to be airlifted out of there at the end of his first day despite no radio contact yet that wasn't an option for MacGyver and Pete?

    3. When the episode opens, Foy and the helicopter are at the base cabin area where I assume there's a radio, so I think it's conceivable that the stage at MacGyverland where he broke his leg was close enough to the base that MacGyver could have taken him back somehow or else left him there and gone back and radioed for help from the base. Though if that's true, then once they discovered the sea plane I suppose they could have decided to go back to the base which probably wouldn't have been too much farther than the 6 hours to Crystal Lake. But maybe they wanted a shot at the bad guys in addition to radioing from the plane.

  3. I agree it’s a good one . MacGyver should be in his element in the great outdoors, and he is, yet the writing is more sophisticated than just that; even MacGyver’s had enough, is tired, unsure whether he should be judging others and as apprehensive at having to judge Pete as Pete is to be judged himself. Clever stuff and I totally agree, its much better as a vehicle for MacGyver and Pete bonding than with an unknown ‘executive’. I think Pete has sent himself on the course because he doesn’t want to send operatives into situations that he himself is not fit enough to handle.
    Loved the idea of ‘MacGyverland’ and MacGyver’s encouraging words ‘Actually this is where he (Bill Foley) broke his leg’. The downed plane gives us loads of MacGyver knowledge; he can tell the plane crashed 10-12 hours ago from the bodies, and he immediately guesses its been hit by a heat-seeking missile. I’m with you, the film developing is genius but I did worry that they’d destroyed the evidence by developing it there as MacGyver says the pictures won’t last more than a few seconds and I would have thought that he might be able to rig up a radio (but that would have made it all too easy). The 6hr hike is a great vehicle for some bickering with MacGyver walking in long easy strides and, as poor Pete says , not even breathless whilst he’s struggling and stumbling along. Like Nick I‘m a fan of MacGyver tasting things and immediately knowing what they are but I agree, it wasn’t very professional to make their discovery so obvious and be caught in the cave. Likewise, later on , when MacGyver, having heard the shot, just walks up to the plane in the open. I like the ‘suck it up!’ too.
    The escape scenes are well thought out, I agree. but felt that Pete’s struggling almost crosses the line into comedic on occasions. I’m not sure I would have trusted the grappling hook and rope either; MacGyver seems to just stuff it behind a rock and he seems to forget his own fear of heights here. I like the ‘Oh Man’ from him at the thought of Pete having to climb up. Great trademark MacGyver leap from on high onto the bad guy.
    The final scenes contain the great line ‘You just saved the teacher’s life, of course you passed’ and the touching , ‘All the years I’ve looked up to you’. ’You never told me that’. Great stuff. I’ve ranked it at no 57 but something about their incompetence at times and maybe some overkill on the bonding theme, prevents it from being higher.

  4. What a beautiful episode about bonding, friendship and fairness!! I've always wondered if RDA is the same way in real life. Based on the interviews I've seen I would think that he is somebody who really likes to help others, someone who is there when needed. But at the same time, his character in Stargate SG 1 is so different, irreverent, sarcastic, which is also part of RDA own personality, that it's amazing to think that one person can be so contradictory. Truth is that I have not seen or read anything about somebody saying something negative about RDA, now or in the middle of his stardom, and that's something I really admire.

    The scene where they find part of the plane, and right before they find the plane and the body, along with the music is amazing, and for some reason (don't ask me why), reminds me of ET. 😊 Another one that I love!!