Saturday, June 4, 2016

MacGyver Script Analysis: Pilot

Last month I read the original script for the DOA MacGyver episode, and then I wrote about the differences between the script and the final episode.  Today I am doing the same thing for the Pilot episode.  I was really excited to get a hold of this script for several reasons:
  • It's the very first episode and obviously a very important one.
  • It's the only episode written by series creator Lee David Zlotoff, and it's nice to see the MacGyver character on the page in the way that Zlotoff envisioned.
  • It's a great episode! (and one that I severely underrated when I did my episode rankings)
  • With the reboot now officially kicking off this fall, it's good to step back and remember where and how it all began.
Just about everything that appears in the episode also appears in Zlotoff's script (which I should mention is a "Second Draft"), including the dialogue (which is mostly word for word) and the MacGyverisms (I'm impressed by Zlotoff's scientific/technical knowledge).  But not everything that was in the script appears in the episode -- the script is pretty long (98 pages) and much of it had to be cut to make a 48 minute pilot.  The part that was cut is the part that I'm most interested in and what I will be focusing on in this post. 

And if you want some more background on the Pilot, check out Zlotoff's recollection on writing the pilot and also my interview with director Jerry Freedman.  Jerry was very candid about the difficulties that arose when shooting the episode, which I appreciated.  One thing he said in particular is worth calling out:

A lot of what made the character work, besides the good writing, was Richard. He had good comic timing and brought a nice sense of irony and reality to the role. It could have been cartoonish and sitcomy, but he made it seem real.

I totally agree, and I also give credit to Zlotoff (and the subsequent episode writers) for giving him good material to work with.  One part in the Pilot that made me think of this is when Spencer says, "Don't tell me you know how to make a bomb out of a stick of chewing gum?" and then MacGyver causally responds, "Why, do you got some?" followed by a subtle roll of the eyes. Perfect.  I hope that Lucas Till and the new writers will be able to create a character in the same vein.

So without further ado, let's get into it!  The bolded, italic parts are taken from the script.

  • A large man of 34 with the kind of simple, rugged face that might come from the Mid-West. I'm not sure if RDA's face would be considered simple or rugged, but he does come from the Mid-West, and he was 35 when the Pilot was filmed.
  • MacGyver quickly shifts their course as he fires back at the Soldiers.  The infamous "shot" fired by our hero.
  • Here's a deleted scene (in Czech) where MacGyver returns the missile device to a room full of generals.  This is in the script also.
  • "The Major and I rubbed elbows when I was Ranger a while back."  ~MacGyver. Based on how the series played out I think it's more likely that MacGyver was a Park Ranger rather than an Army Ranger.
  • The generals ask MacGyver what he wants as compensation for retrieving the missile device. MacGyver asks Taylor, the rescued pilot, how old the dead co-pilot's son is (in the script, there is a co-pilot who didn't survive the crash, and it was his chute that MacGyver used to jump off the mountain).  Taylor says the boy is 9 or 10.  
    • "In that case, gentlemen, I'd like you to get the boy a horse."  ~MacGyver
    • "A horse?"  ~Major Dennis
    • "A golden palamino to be exact.  About sixteen hands high should do it.  Say three years old?  And make sure it's got lot of spirit.  Any problems?"  ~MacGyver
    • "MacGyver, if it's not asking too much, why, of all things, a horse?"  ~General Relkwin
    • "Well, General, a boy learns to ride an animal like that, he just might realize there's nothing he can't do.  Thanks for the coffee."  ~MacGyver
    • I'm starting to see where MacGyver got his first season swagger from. And in case you didn't remember, the golden palamino is the horse that MacGyver reminisces about in the opening gambit's voiceover.
  • The apartment itself seems small for a penthouse and its decor equally confusing, being a mixture of sleek high-tech, cowboy sculpture and funky antiques.  Just wait until you hear where MacGyver's apartment is located (it's not in a planetarium as in the final episode, and there's no little brother in the opening).
  • From beneath a couch a massive bullfrog jumps into view.  MacGyver's on him in a flash with a shout.  "Do you realize he's been on the loose for the better part of a week?  You've never met Samuel before?"  ~MacGyver.  If there's one thing I want you to take away from this blog post, it's that MacGyver has a bullfrog named Samuel.
  • "You know, MacGyver, if you were still in the agency..."  ~Gantner.  Gantner is the head of operations for a U.S. intelligence agency.  Gantner appears in the episode as Michael Lerner's character.
  • With a smile MacGyver reaches back and hits a switch.  The wall behind him starts to slide open revealing that MacGyver's penthouse is in the stadium itself and the ballgame we've been hearing is coming from the field below.  As MacGyver and Gantner settle into chairs by the edge of the balcony:
    • "Should be a good game.  We're unbeaten so far this season."  ~MacGyver
    • "You know, I never did learn exactly how you got this place.  A bonus from some assignment you forgot to mention?"  ~Gantner
    • "Nobody wins the big games without taking a few chances, am I right?"  ~MacGyver
    • Hold on a minute, I have to get up from the floor after falling off my chair. MacGyver lives in a baseball stadium!!  I don't understand what that last line is getting at, but who cares?  MacGyver lives in a baseball stadium!!
  • Novaak is approached by a small delegation in lab coats led by Barbara Spender, an attractive woman in her early thirties.  Novaak's name was changed to Marlowe in the final episode.
  • There's a scene where MacGyver is doing some physical training with sensors (reminds me of what James Bond does in Skyfall).  MacGyver, comma, Stace, test sequence one seven nine six.  MacGyver's first name in the script is "Stace."  I know he doesn't like Angus but I'll bet he'd like it better than Stace.
  • There's a Dr. Colette Webster, a striking if somewhat restrained and haughty woman in her late thirties, monitoring the tests.  She tries to keep her attention focused on the monitors but can't help stealing glimpses of MacGyver's impressive physique as he pushes himself through the course.  MacGyver asks her out, and that night they go on top of the domed baseball stadium room to stargaze with his telescope (so the observatory/stargazing theme in the beginning of the episode was somewhat inspired by the script).  MacGyver says that based on his calculations there is something never before seen that will be appearing in the sky, either a new star or a planet.
    • "When I read your file, the list of assignments you've accepted, how can you do that?  Aren't you...?"  ~Webster
    • "Afraid I might die?"  ~MacGyver
    • "Well, yes."  ~Webster
    • "Everybody's afraid they're going to die, Webster.  I'm no different. But nobody lives forever either.  The jobs I take, well, most times there's no one else who will.  If my number does come up in one of least I'll know why."  ~MacGyver
    • And they move into a tentative kiss that grows more passionate with each moment until...a helicopter with Gantner lands on the stadium and totally kills the mood.
  • Colson himself is a beefy man in his late forties who is better with machines than with people. Colson is the lab operations chief played by Dana Elcar.
  • Mac's voice comes over the headsets softly singing an old sea shanty like "Go Down You Blood Red Roses, Go Down."  This is the part in the episode where MacGyver is crawling through the duct and whistling.  In the comments of my Pilot post, Al mentions "Penny Lane," and I think he's right -- it does sound a lot like Penny Lane.
  • The girder gives way and, with it, the ground beneath MacGyver as he goes tumbling ass-over-teakettle down the other side of the mound.  It's true -- when MacGyver does push through the debris using water from the fire hose, he does go ass-over-teakettle.  But in the script he's badly shaken, and the people who were trapped rush out through the hole he just created without helping him.  Everyone, that is, except for Spencer.
  • There are some minor differences between the script and the episode as they make their way to Dr. Steubens and Dr. Novaak on the fourth level (which is the third level in the episode).
    • Instead of climbing down the ladder, they fall onto some debris.
    • Spencer burns her hand on the hot door handle.
    • When the metal doors in the corridor are closing, they only make it through the last one because MacGyver kicks a book in its path and it stops just long enough for he and Spencer to squeeze through.
    • Spencer gets stuck between some debris and MacGyver has to give her mouth-to-mouth.
  • "Charlie, I found Mac in the Special Forces springing our boys from POW camps.  I brought him into intelligence.  I trained him myself.  The guy's got more lives than an alley full of cats.  If anyone can get through this souped up submarine of yours, it's MacGyver."  ~Gantner.  Despite this characterization and also the military experience described in Coutdown, I don't think of MacGyver as a soldier or military man.  The military theme was an element in the new pilot (which has now been scrapped), and I hope the revised pilot won't include this angle.
  • "Spencer!  I told you not to come in --" ~MacGyver.  I like "Spencer, gosh darn it, I told you to wait outside!" much better.
  • In the final episode, MacGyver says, "You told me Cendrix ordered a whole new series of experiments but that Steubens refused to accept the results."  This is a bit of a goof in the sense that we never saw the conversation that MacGyver is referring to. But in the script, it is there -- Spencer earlier tells MacGyver that Steubens ordered up some new experiments but didn't say much to anyone about what they were for.
  • As Steubens goes to shoot MacGyver, Spencer dives for the gun, catching the bullet in her side.  MacGyver swings the knapsack off his shoulder knocking the gun from Steubens' hand as he throws a flying kick into his chest.  The blow sends Steubens back into an open electrical panel in the wall.  A hail of sparks flash from his back as the voltage goes through him, twisting him like a rag doll before he drops to the floor.  "He's dead."  ~Novaak.  I'd say they made the right move by cutting this part.
  • While rewatching the episode I have to laugh at how the technician in the lab instantly realizes that the flickering lights are morse code.
  • The sliding wall is already open as MacGyver prepares to watch the game, readying popcorn, hot dogs, soda etc.  We're back in the baseball stadium!
  • This time, when MacGyver is asked what he wants for his compensation, he says one chalet in the Swiss Alps in the name of Barbara Spencer (earlier in the episode when Spencer was scared, MacGyver asks her to pretend she is somewhere else and she pretends she's in the Alps).
  • MacGyver tells Gantner he has a date.  But as he gets there [the elevator] the doors open to reveal, not a beautiful woman, but a small boy of eleven, one Anthony Francis Donnato, and as tough a piece of work from the street as you'd ever want to meet.  So the Big Brothers plot line does come into play, and they end up watching the baseball game together.
For both the Pilot and DOA MacGyver, I've found that closely reading the script and spending a lot of time immersed in the episode makes me enjoy and appreciate the episode even more.  And Zlotoff wrote one heck of a script here, and the quality shows in the episode itself (and thank goodness it did or else the series may not have been picked up).

Zlotoff clearly intended for MacGyver to have a good deal of confidence.  I've often written about MacGyver's "first season swagger" and how his character evolved to be more humble as the years went on (and then downright crotchety in Season 7).  It will be interesting to see how Lucas plays the role.  I like MacGyver's humility, but his early swagger is kind of fun too (and Lucas's character is a younger MacGyver), so I think he should play him with whatever feels natural.  One thing's for sure -- I'm looking forward to soon having a new MacGyver pilot to watch!

One last comment -- the music in the Pilot is incredible.  If you've read this blog before you know I can't stop gushing over the music and especially Randy Edelman.  I believe that the score quality makes a big difference in the success of a show and that it has a subconscious effect even on people who aren't as aware of the music as I am.  If I'm in charge of the new pilot, I'm calling Randy Edelman and saying, "Hey Randy, name your price.  How much do you want? What's that?  Ten million?  Done!"  


  1. The apt in the baseball stadium is definitely an interesting idea. I'd wager figuring out the set for that was complex at best, hence the change to the observatory.

    I don't remember right off where I ranked the pilot episode in my listings, but it's probably in the middle somewhere. (I'm terribly behind on posting my countdown. /o\)

    As for the new, reboot of MacGyver... I'm standing on the side of cautiously-anxious. I've seen too many reboots go really badly. And the initial 'here's what we're doing with MacGyver' article from a few weeks back wasn't remotely promising. I'll probably watch the new pilot, at least. And I'll reserve official judgment until then.

    1. I can imagine the producers reading about the baseball stadium in the script (and the game going on with 50,000 people) and then saying, "How about the Griffith Park Obseravtory?!"

    2. Possibly also deciding it was a little ostentatious for their brainy hero.

      Now, had it been a hockey arena... that might have been a different story. =)

  2. The tune MacGyver whistles is called "The Streets Of Laredo".



    1. Great call, you're right -- I just listened to it again and it is Streets of Laredo. I can hear elements of Penny Lane though too -- I wonder if the Beatles were influenced by Streets of Laredo at all...

    2. I mentioned in my later comment on the Pilot post that I'd read that people have said its 'Streets of Laredo' but I just don't hear it as that. Its not quite 'Penny Lane' either because it dips down a couple of notes at the end.

    3. I mapped it out and he sings 11 notes. The first 9 are the same between Laredo and Penny Lane, but it's the last 2 that make it Laredo. But the rhythm he sings it in does sound more like Penny Lane. If I ever get a hold of him I'll ask him if he remembers!

    4. If you don't get hold of him, remind me closer to September and I'll try to get a chance to ask him at Gatecon. =)

    5. I was just kidding, I don't think there's any chance of my getting a hold of him. If you did see him at Gatecon, there are other questions I'd be much more interested in -- one that comes to mind is what I have called his "shakes" (shaking his hand after throwing a punch). I've always been curious to know the origin of that, like if someone told him to do that or if he came up with it himself (and if so, where did it come from)? If you could ask him that'd be awesome!

    6. He'll have at least 1 Q&A panel, maybe 2. And I never have good questions to ask, so yeah - remind me at the end of August (b/c I will ttly forget before then) and I'll take a couple questions with me to ask him.

  3. I wasn't sure what your elusive "second script" was but figured it would be one of your top episodes. I didn't really consider that it would be the "Pilot". I like that it was the second draft that came closer to the final product than my recent purchase of the script from "Nightmares" which was as rudimentary and unformed as you can imagine, with less than half the scenes of the episode in the rough cut.

    The original pilot was 90 minutes so if they had to cut a full third of it out it's no surprise some context was snuffed out along the way, including the "Cendrix ordering a series of tests" bit from the ending. I had seen the European version of the pilot (Czech???) that included MacGyver and Captain Taylor going to the Pentagon but it was in a foreign language with no subtitles so I didn't know what they were saying. Cool that it was a follow-up to the palomino story, because that follow-up was needed to make the opening gambit narration make sense.

    Definitely interesting to imagine MacGyver living in a baseball stadium. I'm sure they could fake the logistics of it with stock footage of a baseball game in a stadium but the observatory made more sense for MacGyver' "man of science" credentials.

    Without having seen the performance of "Webster", the gal MacGyver apparently dates, I feel like Barbara Spencer served the role of romantic teaser sufficiently and am glad the Webster character was cut.

    Dana Elcar was 57 when the pilot was filmed so they must have taken advantage of the opportunity to get Elcar in the guest role rather than adhere strictly to the "late 40s" description in the script.

    I would have preferred the script's version of "Spencer! I told you not to come in". The "gosh darn it" line in the episode seemed disproportionately folksy given the gravity of the situation. From a coolness standpoint I would have enjoyed seeing Steubens get the "Quayle" treatment, fried in the loose spaghetti wires, but taking out the old man less violently was probably more acceptable for the intended audience of the show.

    I'm assuming you listened to the "Phoenix Foundation" interview with Shavar Ross who played the "big brother" in the pilot. Early on, ABC planned to have Ross's character going with MacGyver on his adventures, and both RDA and Ross were attending promotional meetings for the show together in 1985 before ABC reconsidered and decided to dump the kid. That had to have been a bummer for Shavar Ross, especially losing the opportunity to work on a show as cool as "MacGyver". From a narrative standpoint though, I'm very glad they went the direction of MacGyver working solo rather than lugging around his own version of "Short Round" from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" week after week.

    I anticipate Lucas Till's version of "MacGyver" will have some sass and swagger. I'm okay with that to an extent if they maintain the tone of the original as closely as possible, but I'm not holding expectations too high. I suspect the music will be more consistent with other modern action series than the sophisticated science-techy arrangements the composers of the original put forward. To me the music is gravy on a quality product so I won't be quite as distraught as you if the music isn't Edelman-worthy week to week, but I'd obviously be thrilled if it was.

    Thanks for your comparison. How many pages was the "DOA: MacGyver" script for comparison to this 98-pager?

    1. The DOA MacGyver script was 54 pages. With today's CGI they could at least make a baseball stadium with 50 thousand people on the cheap (though I still am not a big CGI fan). As for Steubens, despite the fact he was holding a gun it wouldn't have looked good for MacGyver to give him a flying kick considering he was already wounded from the blast, 70 years old, and 4 and a half feet tall.

    2. Were you aware of the Shavar Ross interview I mentioned on Phoenix Foundation, where he indicated he and Richard Dean Anderson were traveling together promoting the series expecting them to be a pair?

    3. I listened to that a while back but had forgotten that detail until you mentioned it. As you said, bummer for the kid but they made the right choice.

  4. I agree; its better that Steubens didn't meet a violent end and, like Mark I'd seen and failed to understand the Czech outtake which makes so much more sense of the Palomino story. There are a few episodes where MacGyver uses his bonus to treat the other characters (the bike at the end of DOA MAcGYver for one) and its interesting that this was obviously flagged up as one of his traits at the conception of the character. I also agree that Spencer was fine as the possible romantic interest rather than the Dr Webster scenario which would have made the character too macho and Bond-ish but I would have liked to see the conversation about MacGYver's motivation and acceptance of death and danger, which adds depth. Like Nick, I prefer the 'gosh darn it' line. All interesting stuff for MacGyver geeks, thanks Nick!