Television

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

When it comes to prime-time half-hour visions of nuclear destruction, there's none better than Medic episode, 'A Flash of Darkness' from Valentine's Day 1955, a surprisingly bleak eruption of nuclear despair.

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').

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