Stephen Downing spent 20 years as a police officer, frequently handling crowd-control situations, before switching over to the entertainment industry and becoming a television producer. He had also traveled to China, spent time in Beijing and had a good deal of contact with the people there. So when Chinese students were massacred in Tian An Men Square last June, Downing was deeply affected.
"I had a real attachment to what was going on there. . . . I was very emotionally torn by what happened," said Downing, executive producer of ABC's series "MacGyver," which tonight will air an episode dealing with the Tian An Men Square massacre.
"This episode personalizes that kind of tragedy and gives the idea that individuals are truly involved with what happened there," Downing said. "It shows that freedom and democracy can truly burn brightly when you have young people that have hope. It deals with young people that have light and can see light at the end of the tunnel. The episode has taken what the student movement is and personalized it."
Titled "Children of Light," the episode focuses on a fictional character named Mei Jan (played by Michele B. Chan), a young survivor of the massacre who is among the dissidents being sought by the Chinese government. Mei Jan has come to the United States to establish a fax network for the students and to expose the massacre of three of her friends through a video tape she shot. She becomes involved with series star MacGyver (Richard Dean Anderson) when she pretends to be a Vietnamese foster child whom MacGyver has supported through the years.
The episode evolved after free-lance writer Rick Mittleman suggested doing an episode in which a Vietnamese orphan whom MacGyver had supported shows up unexpectedly on his doorstep.
"I said, 'What if she came from Tian An Men Square? What if she was a student who was escaping? What if she brought some evidence with her to re-establish that fax network?' " Downing recalled.
While Downing strongly advocates the side of the students in his views of the events in Beijing, writer Mittleman said that he made a conscientious effort to portray Chinese diplomats in the story fairly.
"I tried not to make stick-figure villains," Mittleman said. "These are characters who believe these young students were advocating anarchy. So, really, it's a conflict of ideology."
Mittleman also said that although "Children of Light" deals with a complex political issue, "MacGyver's" youthful audience should have no problem understanding the episode. (The show has a large following with children and young teen-agers; although it now airs at 10 p.m. on the West Coast because of "Monday Night Football," it is seen in much of the rest of the country at 8 p.m.
"The audience may be young, but not so young that they can't understand the meaning of freedom and democracy," Mittleman said. "I think the episode will heighten the sensitivity of people here as to what has already happened."
In the program, Mei Jan's videotape is actual news footage, shot during the events in Beijing. Downing said that the "MacGyver" crew had originally produced its own footage, depicting Mei Jan's three friends being gunned down, but that the ABC's broadcast standards department mandated that only actual news footage be used.
"The basis for the episode comes from a Chinese woman who was interviewed (after the massacre) and said that she saw three students shot down in Tian An Men Square in cold blood," said Downing, speaking from his office in Vancouver, Canada, where "MacGyver" is filmed. "So we established that the girl in our show had a video camera to record those events."
Downing said that documentation from Amnesty International provided the background for other aspects of the show, such as the attempts by students in America to establish an underground fax network and the threats by Chinese diplomats against relatives who are still living in China. In the episode, a student who is working with Mei Jan on the fax network is told that his mother in Beijing will not be harmed--but only if he cooperates and hands over the fax numbers.
"Our story is a fictional story, but it's a story that's based on what happened in Tian An Men Square and based on this lady's story and further backed up by documentation from Amnesty International," Downing said. "With all that I've seen, it is not far-fetched at all."
When filming the episode, the "MacGyver" crew created its own Chinese embassy on the streets of Vancouver. Downing said that Chinese diplomats in the city tried to hinder the filming by complaining to the Canadian police and to "MacGyver" officials.
"They as much as told me to go back to America," Downing said. "I told them, 'I'm glad that we're not in Beijing and that we're entitled to be here and use the streets for our location footage.' "