Prime-Time Nuclear Destruction

'Medic', 'A Flash of Darkness'

by Kit MacFarlane

22 October 2010


It'll Be Better Tomorrow

In fact, a certain level of ‘educational’ value may be especially important in genres like medical and legal shows, which present not only emotional dramas but also the workings of important public institutions; studies tend to show a high number of people whose medical and/or legal knowledge comes primarily from TV dramas (something that may feed back into the institutions themselves, such as the Law & Order-style ‘big case’ of the ‘Bali Nine’, which saw Australians facing execution in Bali rather than being arrested on smaller charges in Australia, or the terrifying high-ranking Republican fanbase for the odious 24). In a modern TV environment that seems to be unable to imagine any lead character who is not a quirkily-flawed always-right super-genius, Medic‘s calm directness about its subjects seems not only more honest, but also more naturally dramatic, than modern medical nonsense like House, which falls prey to all the same problems (a blinkered view of the medical profession and health care industry) without duplicating any of its strengths (actually being about something, y’know, relevant).

Most modern depictions of disaster, whether it’s armageddon or nuclear war, emphasise protagonists who are capable of action and exerting control over their immediate environment. Even when it all falls apart, we’re assured that there will still be survivors clinging to the values we cherish.

Most modern shows still avoid important peripheral issues related to medicine, such as pharmaceutical ties and health care costs. In an Infozine article by Diette Courrege, Karen Ignagni, president of the American Association of Health Plans, noted that of all the hospital shows of 2000-2001 (coming off a real boom period for the medical drama), ‘a relatively small percentage of the content focuses on the economics of health care… For these matters to not get representation is a very significant problem’. (“Hollywood Influences Public Opinion On Health Issues”, 17 July 2002) Similarly, depression in doctors seems to be a ongoing and vital issue, perhaps directly tied to the very superhuman and always-available images summoned in shows like Medic and continued ever since.

Mad Magazine gave Medic a bit of a roasting in its #28 July 1956 issue, noting how Medic ‘turns a common place sickness into a tense drama’ and contrasting ‘real life’ and Medic‘s ‘dramatic way’ (in a great ‘real life’ scene, a man’s sickness is just seen as a way to get out of work—as is his resulting death), but ultimately Medic is miles away from the sensationalism we’re used to today.

After establishing such a calm and sincere tone for the series, ‘A Flash of Darkness’ is all the more disruptive. Medical staff, including Boone’s Dr. Konrad Styner, gather at a suburban warehouse; what appears to be a drill (treated with mild irritation) turns out to be a nuclear attack on Los Angeles. The doctors are left to gather what survivors they can, and the episode simply shows the endless series of operations that both can and cannot be performed on the survivors. (‘A Flash of Darkness’ is in the public domain and can be downloaded for free from the Internet Archive, along with several other episodes of Medic.)

Director John Meredyth Lucas explained the concept in his book Eighty Odd Years in Hollywood: Memoir of a Career in Film and Television (p. 183):

“This was a period in the Cold War when the Russians has the A-Bomb, the early ‘50s, when everyone was building, or wanting to build bomb shelters stocked with survival rations, waiting for the Big Drop. I called it “Flash of Darkness.” We explained the necessity of triage—doctors working on those who might be helped, simply holding those exposed to too much radiation to live. We got a lot of reaction, much favorable and a lot claiming we were scaring the hell out of people.”

‘A Flash of Darkness’ doesn’t leave much to discuss; like most of Medic‘s best episodes, it strips away any unnecessary excess and narrows in entirely on the drama of the moment. There’s no attempt to draw some kind of action or personal drama from the scenario; there’s no rush to save trapped puppies or last-minute dashes for supplies. The doctors make tough decisions about who will live and who will die, suppressing their emotions and dealing with limited supplies while the radio gives snippets of information about the world collapsing outside (the attack is shown only by a flash of light). The music is stripped away, even the usual theme, ‘Blue Star’, isn’t heard (incidentally, The Shadows recorded a nice version in 1961, and The Ventures released a great one in 1964). Boone’s Dr Styner shows no emotion, but works robotically and mechanically.

The show’s representation of triage is honest and upsetting in this series that has aimed for a mix of optimism and sincerity, Styner quickly determines that children won’t be able to be saved and moves on to those who can. The show’s only real speech-making comes at a nurse’s shock at the ‘inhuman’ nature of denying morphine to a badly injured and suffering child. Styner knows it, but can’t do much about it:

‘You think I don’t know it? I’m not practicing the kind of medicine you learned in nurses’ aid class, I’m not practicing the kind of medicine I learned either. We’re out of supplies and we’re almost out of time. My job is to save the ones that can be saved. You call it inhuman, alright it is. But these aren’t our terms, they’re the terms that were handed to us.’

There’s no pretense at a dilemma—the child is dragged away groaning in agony and the operations continue. Using Boone in the lead for this episode is a perfect choice; as the host and only occasionally recurring character, we see him as a representative of all the show’s professed virtues. In another episode he drops by to visit a patient’s house; now he’s reduced to an emotionless mechanic of irradiated body parts.

As noted above, none of this can be easily dismissed as a mere remnant of the cold war, and the focus on outcome as opposed to constructing some kind of human narrative sets ‘A Flash of Darkness’ apart from most other representations of nuclear destruction of the era. ‘A Flash of Darkness’ remains relevant and vital through its focus on the victims, those who have no place in a ‘narrative’ of war, but only find themselves caught up in its results. Where a radio broadcast like ‘Tomorrow’ with Orson Welles (17 October 1956, based on a 1954 short story by Philip Wylie, available at the Internet Archive) presents a pretty bleak image, it nevertheless emphasises the importance of the Civil Defense program as a viable element of survival.

Most modern depictions of disaster, whether it’s armageddon or nuclear war, emphasise protagonists who are capable of action and exerting control over their immediate environment. Even when it all falls apart, we’re assured that there will still be survivors clinging to the values we cherish (my first exposure as a kid was the short story ‘Still Time’ by James Patrick Kelly in an Isaac Asimov audiobook); more likely, we’ll just be struggling to survive any way we can. For every Hollywood hero hopping determinedly through a warzone, there’s a million real people on both sides who never saw it coming, or who saw it coming and couldn’t do a damn thing about it. Real destruction and suffering isn’t usually much of a ‘story’.

In Bud Boetticher’s The Tall T (1957), Randolph Scott guns down Richard Boone (playing a villainous but sympathetic counterpart to Scott) and famously ends the film on a flimsy note of uncertain hope, muttering to the newly-widowed Maureen O’Sullivan: ‘Come on, now. It’s gonna be a nice day’. Here, two years earlier, Medic ends flatly with Boone telling a young boy, whose blinded brother has just died from radiation exposure and who still doesn’t know that his parents were killed in the blast: ‘It’ll be better tomorrow. It’ll be a lot better tomorrow’. Exactly what that means has changed to the point of incomprehensibility.

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//Mixed media