Film and lit crit about disability

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On sci-fi shows and doctors
Beech leaves
elettaria wrote in crip_crit
Why is it that so many sci-fi shows are so obsessed with doctors? You know, where the head (or only) doctor is a core cast member, and everyone gets shipped off to sickbay on a regular basis, and it's the source for many plots, not to mention romances. It's never quite at realistic levels - otherwise everyone in the core cast would be off work with PTSD by halfway through Season 1 - but it's pretty noticeable. I'm generally thinking of spaceship- or space station-focused sci-fi here, I don't know what the others tend towards. Farscape is less keen on the idea, but then Farscape has a very small core cast, and it does make sure there's always at least one scientist on board who will occasionally give some medical aid. BSG also gives a relatively small place to the doctor, though he does pop up from time to time, and certain medical stuff becomes key to the odd plot. Star Trek (at least the series I've seen), B5 and Stargate are thoroughly into it, on the other hand.

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(Deleted comment)
Doctor Who is still sci-fi, though! But it has a *really* small core cast, and that seems to be a feature. They certainly do get into enough scrapes to need medical attention, but I think the show tends to gloss over it or use a form of magic to get around it. It's curious that the lead character is called the Doctor, now you mention it, especially since it's relatively low on actual medical stuff, at least for its genre.

What are the other three you mention like?

Yes, you wouldn't want to exist without access to medical care, but that doesn't mean they need to focus on it to that extent. Some shows have the doctor or other medical stuff happening in pretty much every episode, and others only mention the subject about once per season. Similarly, food is pretty essential, but some sci-fi is interested in it, and builds up all sorts of cultural stuff around it, while other sci-fi barely acknowledges its existence.

Edited at 2012-03-23 07:56 pm (UTC)


I'm leaving out Doctor Who, as the Doctor isn't a medical doctor.

I'm pretty sure that when asked, the Fourth Doctor claimed to be "a doctor of everything".

I think he said he was a medical doctor in new Who, too. He doesn't really do doctor-y stuff, though.


Probably! But yeah, he doesn't do "MD-type" stuff.

(Deleted comment)
Interesting question. Maybe to help humanize the series (if that's the right word when the cast can include aliens), or because letting the main characters be seriously injured makes the situation more dramatic.

The five-year sci-fi series Babylon 5 also included the doctor (Stephen Franklin) as a main cast member, though he is less central than on Star Trek.

Oops, yes, that's what I meant by B5, I was being lazy. He was still reasonably central, and we still got to know the Medlab quite well. There did seem to be this fascination with aliens medically, you've made me realise.

*looks at your icon* And we should probably have another post on DQMW too, now you mention it.

Whoops! I see now you listed B5, but for some reason, my eye skipped right past it the first time.

Yeah, it can be a fascinating way to add world-building details. As when a certain alien has a heart attack, and his aide anxiously asks, "Which one?" (Being deliberately vague to avoid spoilers)

DQMW?

Star Trek is based on a large spaceship or space station and people frequently get injured or sick, so I'm not surprised they have doctors as major characters - at least most of the Star Treks have nurses, too! Doctors are also high-ranking officials in the US Navy, which the Star Fleet ranking system is based on, so I suppose familiarity comes into it as well.

I have to say I liked the patient-focused Dr Phlox from "Enterprise" best of all of them, though - the others seemed awfully focused on getting people back on duty ASAP.

The reasonably large self-contained community thing seems to be a part of it, yes. Actually, we keep joking that the medical services provided seem to be far too small for the number of people they're meant to serve, especially on the space station show. But then these shows often have a security bdoy of about five people too, so it's not necessarily well proportioned in an obvious way.

Interesting point about the navy. Stargate is based on the US air force, does the same apply there?

I still think there's an unusually high focus on medical stuff. Any adventure-based show is going to have people needing medical attention after their adventures, but they may or may not choose to show it. True Blood has people being thrown about all over the place, but they don't live at the doctor's office.

There's also a fondness for medical-based plotlines, which again wasn't necessary. Patching someone up after an encounter with Klingons, fair enough, although we don't necessarily need to see it (and often don't). But there is a huge focus on biological warfare, evil viruses and the like. So it does seem to be a particular preoccupation with sci-fi.

I will go and ponder this further, but I am about to vanish for a day or so, so I'm not sure when I'll get back to this post. Keep it warm for me!

we keep joking that the medical services provided seem to be far too small for the number of people they're meant to serve, especially on the space station show.

Not necessarily! I live in a town of 800 people with a catchment area of about 3500 more on farms, and we have 2.5 doctors (ever) and 8 nurses (on duty at any time) running a small hospital. There's visiting specialists like a dentist, podiatrist, physiotherapist, therapist and diabetes educator about once a fortnight, but no specialist doctors or really advanced equipment. We're pretty isolated (less now that there's a rescue helicopter about 60km away) so that's pretty much it for medical attention in the first 2-3 hours after an accident or illness. And that's unusually good service for rural Australia!

I think a lot of the medical-based plotlines are a handy way to bring together "science" and "characters" - if Plotline X happens to a tree on some planet, the viewers are assumed to care less than if it happens to Riker.

And True Blood has magical healing - pretend there's a doctor there every time there's vampire-to-human blood exchange and you'd have a medical drama!

You'd have a doctors-seriously-in-breach-of-medical-ethics drama!

I'm just rewatching the first season at the moment. I'd forgotten how much a naked Jason Stackhouse was its principle feature.

I think the suggestion that the emotive value of drama is heightened when characters get sick or injured is a plausible one, but I also wonder if it has to do with the level of trust and respect invested in doctors in real life.

A space-station or ship is a community, but one without many of the traditionally respected figures of real-life communities, because space explorers tend to be military people (and in the case of B5, the principals were a mix of military types, black (psi) ops types and interplanetary diplomats) rather than communities made up of families and people of different ages. So you don't get religious leaders much (or if you do, they tend to be guest characters where religion is an Issue), or teachers, but doctors fit into that military context well.

I was telling my boyfriend about this and he mentioned how the doctors always seem to be all-purpose doctors, capable of everything from treating pneumonia to delivering a baby to heart surgery to addiction counselling. That's definitely something I've noticed too... on the one hand it makes sense that you can't bring an entire hospital with you (though on a station the size of B5 a small hospital would not seem at all unreasonable) and doctors would have to be "good all-rounders"; on the other it seems to reflect the idea of the doctor-as-wise-counsellor and the medical setting as a convenient way to draw out emotionally laden plotlines.

B5 is meant to be 250,000 people (all alone in the night), isn't it? I live in a city of 500,000, and when I rang the hospital switchboard this morning they mentioned that there are eight hospitals. I'm not sure if that's for Edinburgh alone or outlying bits, but still. The Medlab seems to be the equivalent of a large GP's surgery. It's obviously all compressed, because in this sort of show, people are always having adventures and needing far more medical care than your average, say, accountant. I suppose it's a form of stylisation.

Generalists - is there anyone from a small town/remote area who would care to compare? I've always lived in cities myself, but I gather things are quite different if you're in, say, a small town in the Highlands.

Yeah it's about 250,000 people. Franklin isn't the only doctor - although he is the cheif medical officer, and if I recall correctly there are at least five MedLabs. Add to that the fact that you can only use these facilities if you (or your employer/govt) can afford to pay, which the majority couldn't, hence the underground surgeries Franklin ended up running... it seems a little more realistic than on first glance, to me anyway.

/gets off B5 soapbox

In remote areas (and some not so remote areas) now there are doctors who do most of those things. In the US, family practioners treat pneumonia, do at least some addiction counseling and some do deliver babies. Not the surgery so much but I'm willing to hand-wave that in 500 years, surgery will be mostly robotic and automated and require less specialized training. Also with machines doing more of the diagnostics, there would be time freed up in medical training to learn to do more things.

A few years ago I was working at a big hospital and we had a child transferred to us from a rural emergency room several hours away. That ER had been staffed by a Physician Assistant, with no doctors at all.

Also there is currently a field called "travel medicine" which includes training in what people are likely to catch in different parts of the world. Perhaps the doctors on star ships and space stations specialized in interplanetary travel medicine?

Admittedly, I'm mostly a Star Trek Next Gener, with some grounding in the rest of Trek and in Bab5, but I can think of several specific times in Next Gen when medical specialists were called in. One could argue that was to prolong tension and act as a plot device, but I think it helped.

I think because Epidemic Of The Week adds variety to a plot that might otherwise alternate between Enemy Invasion Of The Week and Anomaly Threatening To Blow Us Up Of The Week. And because people grapling with enemies and interstellar anomolies are often in need of being patched up. Although your point is well taken that we don't really need to see the patching up on screen in most cases.

I enjoy having medical characters and medical plotlines, but I agree it strains credulity to have the doctor at all those staff meetings that don't concern community health.

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