Doctor Doctor follows the story of a heart surgeon forced to work in his regional home town of Whyhope as a GP
One of 2016’s best television surprises, Doctor Doctor completely eschews expectations of it being little more than The Flying Doctors meets Seachange. Instead, the Nine series is a contemporary regional medical drama with a genuinely complex set of characters at its core.
Doctor Doctor’s lead character, Hugh Knight, is a heart surgeon who is bounced from his job following a number of incidents and forced to work in his regional home town of Whyhope as a GP. Knight, portrayed by Rodger Corser, is a charming but brash egotist who only has his own self-interests in mind.
Series writer and co-creator Tony McNamara told Mediaweek that despite the hard-edged nature of the series lead character, Nine was not concerned. Dr Knight isn’t the sort of loveable character that a lot of viewers are looking for in an Australian drama.
“Nine was fine with it. They wanted something compelling,” McNamara explained. “They recognise that TV has changed in the last five years with the massive explosion of cable shows and protagonists being more flawed and complex than they used to be. They were cool, backing us in our approach.”
A hard-edged drama was what the creative team behind Doctor Doctor had in mind from the beginning. NcNamara revealed, “We always had the idea that he [Dr Hugh Knight] was quite a flawed person and that, within the boundaries of a commercial network TV show, we would try to have a dark edge about it. I think it’s a more surprising show than the basic setup is. There’s a trope of the guy going home to the country, to his family, but we wanted to mess with that a little bit. Make it more surprising than you would expect.”
Produced by Essential Media, the show has been shepherded by McNamara, Ian Collie, and Claudia Karvan. The idea began with McNamara and Collie wanting to work together, discussing what they would like to do with a country medical show. The desire, McNamara said, was to create a series that “was a bit fresh and had a new take, more contemporary than older shows. I grew up in the country, so I wanted to do a show set in the country. I wrote the script and then Claudia came on board and we all developed it from there.”
Inspiration for Doctor Doctor came through discussions that McNamara had with lawyers who mentioned to him the Impaired Registrants Program. The Medical Council of New South Wales operates the scheme, which seeks to ensure that medical practitioners are fit to practise, maintaining impaired doctors in practice only when it is safe to do so. The program manages doctors and medical students who are suffering from psychiatric illness, self-administration of drugs, alcohol abuse, and physical illness.
“We wanted a doctor who had been a high-flying doctor who came a cropper. Then we did some talking to lawyers and we found the system in Australia is that that if they are privately found to have a drug problem or have a complaint made against them, they’re often stripped of certain duties, but they’re still allowed to practise as doctors. You are just monitored by another doctor. The people you treat don’t know you’re on the list.
“We thought that was an interesting way to go, that he’d been a heart surgeon who had to be a GP, going from something highly specialised and then have to go back to something very general, hands-on, working with people. Rather than destroy their career in a stroke, the board keeps them alive as doctors, but does things that it feels protect patients while the doctors try to get their shit together. It’s been running a long time, but it’s not publicly well-known. The public wouldn’t understand the basis of it,” McNamara explained.
Within the show, the lead character Dr Hugh Knight is being monitored by a doctor at a regional clinic he is sent to work at. He is given one year to turn his behaviour around. While that time limit provides Knight with motivation, propelling the series narrative forward, it has the potential to be a stumbling block for later seasons of the show in believably keeping Knight in the town.
McNamara laughed off concerns about this, brushing them aside as not an immediate concern: “I think I’ve worked on enough shows that you don’t worry about it too much. There’s always a way to get around certain story things. I thought the year was important and that it would carry us at least one or two seasons, should we be lucky enough to get two seasons. There are lots of ways to do things. You try to create creative problems for yourself so you can solve them in interesting ways.”
The regional setting for the series has proven to be a benefit for narrative and practical production reasons. While all of the hospital scenes were filmed in a hospital in the Sydney inner-city suburb of Rozelle, exterior shooting took place in Mudgee, with filming of Knight’s home was shot in Camden. In addition to $100,000 worth of support from the Regional Filming Fund, the regional setting delivers a unique authenticity to the series that it would otherwise lack.
“TV has to have production values and a real atmosphere. Claudia and I wanted a location that had a genuine look to it and would feel like you are somewhere, rather than you are in a homestead with some paddocks around it. We did think a lot about making sure the landscapes look interesting enough and that they help sell the town in a way,” McNamara said.
McNamara’s own experience of living in a regional town and revisiting it later in life helped inform the authenticity of the approach he took when creating the world of the show.
“We built it into the story that his brother has built a microbrewery to help his farm along. So much of regional Australia is tourism areas. Mudgee is that, so why not have that in the show? And we wanted the characters to not be like they didn’t know the city existed. We didn’t want the feeling that the contemporary world hadn’t hit the country. There are these microbreweries. People do have social media. That was important to me because we didn’t have that growing up, but I know going back to the country that it’s a different sort of country now. It’s much more connected,” he said.
Hospital-set series have always made great TV fodder, delivering a lot of drama in a workplace environment. Locally produced medical dramas have, however, fallen out of fashion in recent years, particularly series with a regional setting. “No one had really done it in a while, so we were looking for a way to do it differently,” McNamara said. In drawing from one of his own inspirations, McNamara added “M*A*S*H was a show that the writers on this show hear me talk about a little too much. That’s my favourite doctors show”