January 7, 2014

Medic, 1955 - the calm before the storm

Last night as we were watching an episode of Richard Boone's mid-50s medical drama Medic, I was struck once again by how much society has changed during the television era, and how helpful TV can be at seeing - if not understanding - those changes.

The episode in question, "A Time to Be Alive," was originally broadcast on January 31, 1955 on NBC. Medic has long been considered one of the first "realistic" medical dramas on television*, and so it's no surprise that this episode would deal with some fairly weighty subjects.  In this case, an 11-year-old hemophiliac boy lies in critical condition in the hospital, as doctors attempt to stop the bleeding from a fall and save his life.  Now, as far as television goes, there's only so much action you can wring out of doctors administering transfusions and hoping that the blood begins to clot, so the focus of the story quickly moves to the boy's family.

*No surprise, since its creator, James E. Moser, went on to create Ben Casey.

His mother blames herself for the boy's condition, since the hemophilia gene is passed through the female, and ever since he was diagnosed with the disease - in the first few weeks of his life - she has awakened every day in fear that something would happen to him.  His father talks of the difficulty of telling a young boy that he can't live the same active life as his classmates, and that he's so fragile you're afraid he might break when you hold him.

But it's the older sister's dilemma that is most interesting.  Contrary to what you might expect from a TV drama, she's not resentful of the attention her little brother gets; she doesn't feel left out or ignored, she loves him and worries about him.  No, there's something else at work here.  We learn that she's engaged to be married, and after witnessing her brother's latest medical crisis, and listening to the anguish it causes her parents, she's terrified that she, too, might pass the gene on to any children she has.  Moreover, she worries that her fiance will no longer want to marry her because of the possibility of giving birth to a hemophiliac.

Fortunately, her young man seems to be level-headed; he tells her that he loves her and wants to spend the rest of his life with her, no matter what the future may bring.  If that means running the risk of having a hemophiliac child, with its attendant burdens and fears, so be it.  That's part of being an adult - to face the world as it is, and to do so together.  Her brother comes through this medical crisis, and despite the uncertain future the family is prepared to move forward, with hopes that a cure for hemophilia will eventually be found.*

*Note: it hasn't yet, though more effective treatments have been developed.

Richard Boone as Dr. Konrad Styner in Medic
I was struck by several things in this episode, and the dramatic contrast they provide to our times.  First is the idea that a marriage without children is somehow incomplete, and thus undesirable.  There's no thought that children are inherently a burden, no suggestion that the young couple wouldn't want to have kids, and a real concern that the man might seek a different mate because of the uncertain future.  To the contemporary ear, the idea that a woman might be less attractive to a man because of this might sound completely foreign, but this episode treats the subject as a completely natural one, worthy of serious discussion.

There's also no talk about birth control, about simply choosing to not have children, and this marks "A Time to Be Alive" as an episode rooted in a very specific point in time.  The Pill is already in development and will be widely available within the decade.  We're only three years away from the Lambeth Conference in which the Anglican church called for "respect for the consciences of married couples who use birth control," and when Pope Paul VI issues Humanae Vitae in 1968, it will upset many who'd assumed the Catholic Church would accept birth control.

This isn't to say that "family planning" was a foreign idea at the time.  Many married couples, especially those just starting out and with limited means, would discuss the best time to start a family, and might well wait for marriage until they were financially able to take on children.  There were forms of "natural" family planning - condoms, the rhythm method, and other forms of birth control were around, and often appeared in popular fiction.  But we're not quite to the sexual revolution just yet. Were this episode to have been made even just a few years later, there would be an entirely different conversation being carried on, likely with completely different sensibilities expressed by the participants - probably on a show like Peyton Place.

The world we see in this episode of Medic shows us how radically the family has changed, as well as our own thoughts and values.  Were we to attempt to replicate that era in a contemporary program, a la Mad Men, it would suffer from our contemporary knowledge, and the inability to filter it out and restore an original context. Likewise, as Andrew Fielding points out in his book The Lucky Strike Papers (review to come shortly!), it is impossible for us to watch an episode like this today and view it through the context of its original setting, and how it was viewed by an audience that hadn't experienced the changes of the last 60 years.

Lacking that ability, to see Medic in the same way as the original viewers did, we are left with an original document, as it were, set within the context of a very different time.  I find something like that priceless, in the same way as the original coverage of the JFK assassination does something for us that no contemporary history can do.  It gives us something - if not complete realism (for we all know that dramas of the 50s and early 60s lacked the freedom to be completely "realistic" in certain areas), then at least something that in context would be accepted as plausible by the viewer, not asking for a suspension of disbelief.  And in its own way, that tells us much more about what things were like back then - what people thought, what they said, what they did.

It's one of the many reasons I appreciate classic television as a window to our world.  To a self-styled "cultural archaeologist," programs like these become artifacts which, when studied from the perspective of their "native habitats," provide us with a mirror of the times that may not have been ours and never will be, but which must be understood nonetheless.

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