Friday, September 5, 2014

#104: Hell Week

Season: 3

Synopsis in 3 sentences or less:
MacGyver is at his alma mater, Western Tech, to judge a barricade competition between the physics students.  David (a student) is constantly belittled by his father (the professor), and David wants to prove his worth by winning the competition.  After losing when one of the other students cheats, David goes on a drug binge and builds a bomb in the lab that threatens the entire college. 

Memorable Quote:
Pressure turns coal into diamonds, is that it?   ~MacGyver
Well that's a physical fact, MacGyver.   ~Professor Ryman
It can also crush it to dust!   ~MacGyver

The after-competition party where MacGyver accuses Geoffrey of cheating.  MacGyver has a strong suspicion but not proof, and fortunately Geoffrey folds like a deck of cards under the pressure.  If there was a Douchebagastan, Geoffrey would be their king, so it's great to see him get his just deserts.

Who is the more insufferable character?  Is it Geoffrey who says things like:
  • I heard my name mentioned.
  • I take pride in my creativity.
  • There is (a way), one just has to be bright enough to find it.  
Or is it the Professor:
  • I continue to be a little disappointed [when] those who show a shred of promise leave the fold. 
  • Come and see the next generation in action.  You can be depressed along with me.   
  • Think for a change...Nothing worse than a physicist stupefied by the obvious. 
A challenging decision.  At least the Professor shows some remorse in the end, so we'll make Geoffrey the lowlight.  

Best MacGyverism:
Uses elevator wires to heat mercury to a gaseous state in the nick of time. 

Other thoughts, observations, and questions I didn’t ask when I was in fourth grade:
  • Ah, Western Tech, MacGyver's old stomping ground!  We even see a good picture of old MacGyver/RDA with long hair and moustache as the 1973 winner of the barricade contest.
  • Speaking of the barricade contest, the idea is to create a barricade that can be solved/broken down by ingenuity and not just by brute force.  Whoever breaks through the other barricades before their own gets solved is the winner of the contest.   Fortunately all 4 finalists had dorm rooms right next to each other. 
  • Apparently this contest is a big deal, like a really big deal.  David thinks that winning it will get his picture on the wall and justify his existence to his Nobel Prize-winning father.  But why is David even at Western Tech in the first place?  If you had an overbearing, hypercritical, demeaning father who taught at College A, wouldn't you go to any other college just to get away?  Or if not, at least major in a different subject other than the one he teaches. 
  • "I didn't forget.  Happy birthday," says David as he pulls out a rose.  "Thanks, it was yesterday," responds a crestfallen Janet.  The first of many times poor David gets kicked in the teeth. 
  • In David's barricade, the door is open the whole time and "the solution creates the barricade."  Not sure that's really a good idea.  If I was trying to solve the barricade, probably the first thing I'd do is jiggle the doorknob just to get a feel for the lock, and then I'd win because the door was open. 
  • Professor Ryman tells David there is plutonium in the nuclear research lab above them and that his bomb could contaminate the whole area.  Huh?  Western Tech has a nuclear research lab with plutonium?  And how was David not aware of this?
  • The Professor has one job as they are moving the bomb out of the lab, and that was not to hit the dustpan that was holding the elevator open.  He fails at his job, and MacGyver is left to defuse the bomb with 55 seconds left.  "I can't even begin to think under this kind of pressure," the Professor says, which stimulates MacGyver's brain and gets him to think of a solution.  Somehow MacGyver heats the mercury "to a gaseous state" while the glass shatters, all in a span of 1 second.  
Leonard Mlodinow, episode writer

NS: How did you first get involved with "MacGyver"?
LM: I don't recall!

NS: "Hell Week" has several story credits including you and Scott Rubenstein as writers and Michael Berlin, Eric Estrin, and Rick Drew as story editors.  What was that arrangement like and what was your role specifically?
LM: Scott and I wrote the script. The episode aired with only our names on the credits. The others were story editors.

NS: What inspired the idea for the story?
LM: I came up with the idea, inspired by my time at Caltech, and my relationship with Richard Feynman. Western Tech and the contest were modeled after a real competition that takes place at Caltech each year, and Ryman was very loosely based on Feynman— his fame and adoration was based on Feynman, but not his personality or the relationship with his son.

NS: Any other memories or interesting stories related to the episode?
LM: It was a sad time for me, because I was in Vancouver helping with the production when my father had a stroke in Chicago. I got there shortly before he died.

NS: Any current books or projects that you're working on?

Final Analysis:
Interesting episode here.  It's creative and a good change of pace from the usual episode format. Also the acting performances are excellent, especially the actor who plays David.  His scenes near the end where he is drunk and talking to his father are really well-acted.  And of course the actors playing Geoffrey and the Professor are great (the actor playing the Professor also appears as Karsoff in A Prisoner of Conscience).  We've definitely been getting into better episodes lately!  


  1. Whoa! Only #104 for this one, an episode so beloved by fans that ABC bowed to the fan pressure to rerun it a third time, two years after its original airing? While I'm not among those who rate this one at the top of the MacGyver episode list, it was an episode custom-built for this show and this show alone, once again displaying the range of stories and tone this series was capable of that kept it interesting far longer than other action-adventure shows. The whole episode was great, but the science nerd first half fascinated me most with the truly imaginative barricades and solutions. The bomb defusal in the second half was suspenseful and well-handled, but one of this show's most grating recurring themes was the "kid who turned into a monster because daddy didn't love him enough". While the discourse between David and his father was generally strong, I guess I'd have preferred if the message by writers didn't seem as condoning of David's violent petulance.

    My personal association with this episode extends to high school physics class where I conned my teacher into giving me extra credit for showing the episode in class. She was reluctant at first, but loved the episode so much she made a second copy on VHS to show to future classes. I rank this episode #35 overall.

  2. Okay I have to call out some of your other readers and commenters here! How is it possible I'm the only one who has commented on this episode?!?! I've talked to many people who consider this the best episode of all, so it's a bizarre anomaly that it's been so universally snubbed on your site!

    1. Yeah that it is interesting that no one else has commented on it. I just updated the post with a brief conversation with Leonard Mlodinow. I had his email in my inbox for a while and had been meaning to update the post, and your comment spurred me on.

  3. This is the only McGyver episode I remember well. It made a huge impression on me when I watched it with my family all those years ago. Today, I left the TV on a channel I never go to and it just came on. When I heard the boy say "barricade" at the beginning, I actually held my breath. I've never caught a single McGyver rerun and the first one I see had to be this one. I remember so much of the dialogue. And... I kept waiting for the kid to say "endo-barricade" but it turns out I didn't understand that part when I was a kid.

    Plus, I realized today why Kevin Bacon always looks so familiar...

  4. I recently got the box set for about $25 and have been making my way through the seasons. MacGyver was one of my favorite shows as a kid, but there was a point probably around 1988 at which my interest leveled off. I'm near at the end of the third season, and this is the only episode I remember in its entirety. All the scenes are familiar, the only episode that comes close is the one with the ants, and I didn't even remember half of that. So I wonder what it is about this episode that I remember it so well (could it be I saw all three airings?) it might that it thematically coincided with that movie The Manhattan Project in 1986, which I also quite liked.

  5. I don't quite understand why this is a fan favourite. It is relatively well filmed, and there are some tense moments, especially during the excellent bomb disposal scene near the end, but I'm just not a fan of the family repair plotlines, which I'll probably see a lot more of as the series progresses. MacGyver and Janet say the same thing about David over and over again to his father, and he basically replies in the same way each time, until he finally accepts it at the end. It just seems monotonous.

    BTW Mr Mlodinow didn't seem particularly helpful in your interview. :)