In my last post, I talked about the importance of TV shows that make being smart aspirational, that inspire interest in subjects like science and engineering. Well, to honour the birthday of Richard Dean Anderson, here’s a tribute to one of those shows.
MacGyver has become iconic because of a simple but fundamentally cool premise – the idea that a secret agent could carry out his duties not through guns and violence but by being incredibly well versed in physics and chemistry. An agent picking a lock with a skeleton key is routine; when MacGyver escapes a cell using a lightbulb it becomes cool.
That’s why the show is remembered – Anderson’s likeable, easy-going performance of a guy who can turn pinecones into hand grenades. It would be easy to turn a character like that into an arrogant Schwartzenegger type, using junk to rain down vengeance on his enemies, but Anderson plays against that – MacGyver genuinely loves science and engineering and hates guns because of the destruction they cause. He’s a builder, a creator, a scientist, not a killer, not someone who exists only to tear things down. The world may be a better place because James Bond is around; communities are better places for MacGyver’s presence.
Of course, the question that always comes up is whether or not any of MacGyver’s improvisations would actually work. Well, another fantastic show, Mythbusters (which, in a perfect geek coincidence, was also born on January 23rd), checked this out, finding that the smaller scale stuff worked (like fixing a broken wire with chewing gum foil), while bigger tricks (making a glider out of wood and an old car engine) would be… Well, impossible.
And yet that doesn’t matter, because the important thing about MacGyver wasn’t that we thought his tricks were possible (we hoped, of course, but deep down we all know there’s such a thing as artistic licence) but that it promoted a way of thinking – watching the show, you immediately turn to the person next to you and start arguing about whether or not you could stop leaking acid with chocolate. And that’s a basis for scientific inquiry – asking questions, applying knowledge, figuring stuff out and using your imagination. It doesn’t matter whether or not you can plug a leaky car radiator with egg yolk – it matters that you’re asking the question.
So happy birthday, Mr. Anderson, and thanks for MacGyver, a show that demonstrated the coolness of science, engineering and Swiss Army Knives. You were also great in Stargate: SG1, but that’s a post for another day…