3-2-1 Contact. March, 1989
By Renee Skelton
You're sitting down to watch a TV show. There's lots of action, but it looks like the hero is in big trouble. He's being chased by a gang of criminals. They have guns. He doesn't. The hero is trapped. He looks around desperately for a weapon. And there it is on the floor. As the bad guys close in, he quickly grabs his trusty ammonia and hydrochloric acid!
The hero mixes the chemicals to make a swirling white cloud. In the confusion, he makes a spectacular getaway. If this happens on the tube, you're probably watching MacGyver, the ABC-TV series in which science always saves the day.
MacGyver is a clever character who has lots of science know-how. He uses his brains to rescue people in trouble, solve problems and get the best of the bad guys.
When MacGyver is in a jam, he doesn't punch his way out with his fists. He doesn't blast his way out with a gun. He thinks his way out. As Richard Dean Anderson, the actor who plays MacGyver, says, "MacGyver uses brain cells not brawn cells."
Science to the Rescue
If you watch MacGyver, you get the feeling there's nothing he can't fix. There's no tight squeeze he can't slip out of. And whether he's hiking in the forest, or locked in a dungeon, all he uses are the everyday items around him.
On one show, MacGyver plugged up a sulfuric acid leak with chocolate bars. (The sugar forms a gooey paste when it reacts with acid.) In another episode, he uses metal shavings from a bicycle fender to make a torch. (Most powdered metals will burn.) He used the torch to cut through a thick door. He even brought an old car battery to life by filling it with wine. (Car batteries use stronger acids, but even wine or vinegar will carry a charge.)
All the neat science tricks, called "MacGyverisms," are there for a reason. Steve Downing is executive producer of the show. He says entertainment is the main goal. But there is a strong message mixed in with the fun. Sure there are fights, exploding bombs, and guns. But the show points out that there are smarter ways to solve problems.
"When MacGyver is in trouble, instead of doing a car chase or a shoot-out, we try to find some non-violent way out," says Downing. "We have him look around and think, 'What can I use here?' "
For example, in one show, MacGyver was kidnapped by a crooked sheriff. He and a friend were forced to go down into a mine. In other shows, the hero would probably tackle a guard and take the gun. Then he would have shot his way out. Not MacGyver. He started to think.
MacGyver got an idea from the mining helmets he and others were wearing. The helmets had lights. MacGyver knew the lights worked by burning calcium carbide. MacGyver gathered some of the helmets in an empty part of the mine. He removed the carbide. Then he dropped the pieces into water. The water started to bubble. It was letting off explosive gases like hydrogen and oxygen. He just needed a spark, and -- boom! No one was hurt. But in the confusion, he and his friend escaped.
A Real MacGyver
The show depends a lot on MacGyver's use of science. But the writers aren't scientists. They first try to write good stories. Then they turn to science to get the hero out of trouble. Sometimes they come up with a solution themselves. But most of the time, John Koivula gets a call.
Koivula is the show's science advisor. He's a gemologist -- a scientist who studies the structure of gems. To do that, he has to know lots of chemistry and physics.
"The writers will call up and say, 'MacGyver's in a basement,' " Koivula explains. "There are no doors, no windows. How do we get him out?"
Usually, Koivula comes up with a scientific solution right away. Sometimes he'll have to think about it. But he hasn't been stumped yet. One reason is that he's sort of the real-life MacGyver. He doesn't go around rescuing people. But, like MacGyver, he always carries a Swiss Army Knife. Koivula is a science wiz. He doesn't like guns. And he's always coming up with neat little science fixes for his own problems.
"Richard Dean Anderson does these things on screen. I do them off screen," Koivula told Contact
Of course the people who put the show together have to be very careful. Anderson says if MacGyver is making something dangerous or explosive, one ingredient will be left out in the TV formula. "So kids don't blow up the kitchen," the star explains.
And sometimes other events get exaggerated. "In the first show, I stopped an acid leak with a couple of candy bars. Well, there really is a compound in chocolate (sugar) that would stop sulfuric acid, But it would take about 40 pounds of chocolate to do it," Anderson says. "I had a couple of Hershey Bars on me. But the correct theory is there!"
The Perfect Man for the Job
Can Anderson fix acid leaks with candy bars in real life? Not exactly. In fact, Anderson admits that he's not a science genius. Growing up, his house was filled with art, music and books. He didn't think much about science. But now he says, "I'm fascinated by science."
Even though he's not a science wiz, Anderson and the character he plays do have some things in common. Anderson loves sports. And like MacGyver, he plays hockey whenever he can. He's got MacGyver's love of adventure. In fact, when he was 17, he rode his bike 6,000 miles across Canada.
Richard Dean Anderson thinks a lot like MacGyver, too. "I'm not a big fan of guns," he says. And that also goes for violence. In college biology, he didn't even like the idea of cutting up a dead frog.
That's why it's not surprising that one of the things he likes most about the show is the message it gives. Thinking your way out of a situation is better than fighting your way out. It seems that a lot of MacGyver's fans think that's a real neat message, too.
Skelton, Renee. "Science Saves the Day on MacGyver." 3-2-1 Contact. March, 1989: p.18-21.