Prime-Time Nuclear Destruction: ‘Medic’, ‘A Flash of Darkness’

[22 October 2010]

By Kit MacFarlane

Medic, ‘A Flash of Darkness’, February 14, 1955

At this year’s annual Michael Hintze Lecture in International Security at the University of Sydney, the University of Chicago’s Professor John Mearsheimer gave a none-too-subtle reminder of the potential for war between the US and China. ‘To put it bluntly’, said Mearsheimer, ‘China cannot rise peacefully’—not because China is inherently aiming for war, but simply because China will most likely replicate the US approach of developing and maintaining global power by aiming to contain and weaken potential competitors: ‘why should we expect China to act any differently than the United States has over the course of its history? Are they more principled than Americans are? More ethical? Are they less nationalistic than Americans? Less concerned about their survival? They are none of these things.’

It’s a grim and depressingly familiar outlook; stripped of its region-specific politics (Mearsheimer’s lecture assumes—probably fairly, although few would like to admit it—that US hegemony will be most desirable for his audience), it essentially asserts that there’s no end-point to power, and any dominant state will have to continually assert and re-assert its power in a never-ending loop of self-bolstering and regional-control to guarantee its ongoing stability.

So, what to do about it? In a realm of naturalised and inextinguishable power struggles, where every ‘defensive’ measure by one power can only be interpreted as an ‘offensive’ measure by another, Mearsheimer offered the old stand-off deadlock of mutual nuclear destruction as the only viable safeguard against all-out war. His ‘tragedy of great power politics’ (the title of his recent book) is that avoiding such escalations and self-fulfilling prophecies of hegemonic determination is ‘intuitively attractive’ but is still struggling to find a logical process; fear of mutual assured destruction (M.A.D.) still remains the only coherent safeguard.

This is, of course, all old news, whether you endorse the outlook or not; but it’s worth mentioning simply as a reminder that such ideas aren’t merely consigned to an increasingly distant cold war past, nor can we simply accept the common assumption that the threat of nuclear war (or any kind of war) comes only from outside, and then only from terrorists and rogue states that threaten the otherwise neutral order of the world. While politics and the media have us running around looking for misplaced weapons here and there, we can’t afford to forget that the struggles for supremacy and control also takes place in entirely above-board manners, even when we’ve been trained to look the other way.

Of course, rather than trying to solve the problem of nuclear escalation in the unavoidable pursuit of hegemonic security, Retro Remote would rather talk about old TV shows. When it comes to prime-time half-hour visions of nuclear destruction, there probably none better than Medic episode, ‘A Flash of Darkness’ from Valentine’s Day 1955, a surprisingly bleak eruption of nuclear despair.

Created by James E. Moser (best known for his writing work on Dragnet), Medic (running from 1954-1956) was a key series (though not the first) in the medical genre at a time when the medical profession was undergoing rapid advances in treatments and technology. Instead of a soap-opera approach, Medic would present realistic hospital-based stories involving precise and informative depictions of medical procedures, problems, and the struggles of those who sought treatment.

At a glance, this is exactly what Medic achieves; its stories are simple and serious, generally chronicling a medical illness or problem that may not be well-understood by the public, and then examining how this is dealt with on a medical level. Drama arises from public misunderstanding about the nature of the problem and the real-world requirements of the treatments rather than relying on storylines that stray into unrelated plotlines or the endless personal/emotional dramas we’re stuck with today. When personal problems do emerge, they’re always in relation to the medical problem at hand: when a doctor finds his marriage in trouble in ‘General Practitioner’, it’s to directly portray the real-world difficulties of busy medical practitioners rather then revel in some sordid tabloid details. Aside from host and occasional star Richard Boone (of Have Gun—Will Travel fame) as Dr. Konrad Styner, there are no recurring characters, so each episode hones in on its topic directly with careful detail and a planned lack of sensationalism.

In a sense, a substantial part of Medic is clear propaganda. The production of the show, as with the medical shows that followed it for years to come, was heavily reliant on access to hospitals and medical professionals; as Joseph Turrow’s ‘James Dean in a Surgical Gown’ explains in The Revolution Wasn’t Televised: Sixties Television and Social Conflict, Medic gained input, locations and the benefit of endorsement from the Los Angeles County Medical Association in exchange for ‘control over the medical accuracy of every Medic script’. This control wasn’t limited solely to ‘medical’ issues: how the medical profession was portrayed as a whole was as important as the details of any individual operation, and Medic‘s world is that of highly skilled and compassionate experts working with modern and continually improving equipment and methods.

Sometimes it would delve into the past, presenting real-life stories of medical discovery and experiment—in ‘Who Search For Truth’ (27 February 1956), the ‘father of gastric physiology’, William Beaumont, is lauded for his research work on the digestive system, but his human guinea pig Alexis St. Martin (an awkward role played not too well by the usually reliable Charles Bronson), is presented as little more than an irritating oaf with a convenient hole in his stomach (Guinea Pig Zero provides an intriguing summary of St. Martin’s life and status as a ‘servant’ of his ‘learned manipulator’). Non-institutional remedies were downplayed—in ‘Never Come Sunday’ (23 May 1955) a visit to a ‘doctor of nature’ is a futile waste of time for the desperate, and is quietly dismissed as a dopey decision.

Turrow summarises: ‘Under the guidance of doctors, who as part of their bid for credibility enforced the overwhelmingly male and white complexion of their profession, the United States built a medical research and clinical establishment that dwarfed anything that had come before it’.

Within the ideological confines of the LACMA’s involvement, Medic‘s charm lies in its straightforward sincerity, and its slightly patronizing, but generally reasonable, representation of scared patients feeling their way through unfamiliar medical circumstances can be authentically moving in its simplicity. Medic may have sought to cement a precise cultural image of the medical profession, but it’s clear that establishing a sense of honest education and empathy was also a clear part of this mission. Many of Boone’s calm and consoling summaries of the medical conditions in question still seem relevant today, placing emphasis on patients trusting the long-term natures of the procedures, understanding their conditions, and seeking early diagnosis.

Just as importantly, the show stresses the need for public understanding and support of patients who have been through various conditions that may not be well understood; the importance of support for those who suffer from mental health problems, as in ‘Break Through the Bars’ (14 March 1955) with Lee J. Cobb (‘but he is insane, isn’t he?’), still remains exceedingly important today. (That’s not to say that all the information is up-to-date; the lauding of electro-shock treatment in this episode is a little less comforting. Take a look at Robyn Dawes’ House of Cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth for some disturbing insights into the the ‘treatment’).

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.

Kit MacFarlane has a PhD in English Literature, Film and Popular Culture, and teaches film and media as a freelance academic. He writes cultural criticism, commentary and relentless tirades, and has published regular cultural and higher education commentary in Australian media. He writes monthly-ish column Retro Remote at PopMatters. A full list of his writing can be found on his very ugly webpage. Why not follow him on Twitter? Off-the-clock, he shouts at the TV incessantly.

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