The Flying Doctors: The Mini-Series Review

The Flying Doctors! It could have come from the pages of Marvel - supernaturally gifted medics soaring over some make-believe part of the Americas, healing the sick as they go - but, instead, arrived on our shores from those of Australia. Where we had Casualty and the likes of Charlie dressing wounds and voicing his dislike of Conservative reforms of the NHS, Australia gave us handsome doctors and attractive nurses attending to a lot of country folk too dim to question the contents of the large syringe being directed at them, all in an effort to cheer us up. And yet, not dissimilar to our own health service, albeit with added snakebites, heatstroke and a bit of a grizzling courtesy of some sheep.

Rather than the series that most of us will remember from daytime television, this is the original miniseries from 1985. It stars Andrew McFarlane as Dr Tom Callaghan, who arrives in the town of Cooper's Crossing to begin work as a doctor with the The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS). He is welcomed by Dr Harry Sinclair (Keith Eden) and nurse Kate Wellings (Lenore Smith) but before he even has time to unpack, he hops onboard the plane to answer an emergency call, that of two boys, one of whom is unconscious and who needs immediate treatment. Sinclair diagnoses the two boys quickly. One, though, is too unwell to fly to Cooper's Crossing and with Sinclair offering to drive him to the hospital, Callaghan flies with the other. But unknown to Callaghan, the boy he's accompanying has a ruptured liver and in spite of his mother's pleas for Callaghan to do something, the little boy dies before the plane even touches down. By the end of his first day, Callaghan hears nothing but the whispers of those who would rather he leave than to see another of their children die at his hands.

But the days pass. Callaghan calms down a little. He keeps his enthusiasm in check, allows Harry Sinclair to finish the occasional sentence and even talks to his patients as though they might actually understand him. It takes time but some even warm to him. It may be that his lips curl with a small amount of distaste at the places he's required to practice. No matter that Sinclair and pilot Andy McGregor tell him that the people of Jindawatha are extremely warm and friendly, Callaghan sees only bored-looking locals throwing stones at tin cans. However, in time, he comes to the aid of the newly crowned Miss Cooper's Crossing when she's threatened by a couple of drunken rednecks and saves a little girl, correctly diagnosing a hornet's bite when all around him are talking about snakes. Callaghan even becomes something of a local hero when he stands up to local businessman George Baxter (Bruce Barry), a man who's gotten rich on paying low wages to men working long hours in a rundown sheep farm. As Callaghan settles into Cooper's Crossing, Baxter sets his mind on getting rid of the new doctor, by fair means or foul.

Unfortunately, that summary of the plot does rather suggest that there's a good deal of political machinations at work in The Flying Doctors and that couldn't be farther from the truth. Rather than some JR Ewing of the outback, Baxter is more the Ian Beale, his business interests leaving him dabbling in this and that without ever seeming to turn much of a buck. However, he's there for the drama, as are an impressive, if expendable, cast of children who seem to fall victim to all of the nasties the outback has to offer. Not only do we have that poor child with the ruptured liver but still more are tripping over themselves to swat at hornets, play with snakes and challenge kangaroos at boxing. And just in case no one quite understands how Callaghan feels over the death of that child, locals pop up to say things like, "I wouldn't like to have a kid's life on my conscience!" It's a wonder they don't prod at his elbow as, armed with a clean needle, he attempts to inoculate the children of Wombat's Arse primary school and blame him for the outbreak of rabies that follows. Callaghan feels so guilty that you can practically wring it out of his shirt.

Should that make The Flying Doctors sound a touch grim, Callaghan finally gets to make one of his patient's smile. Come the hour mark, he tells a somewhat mature woman that she's pregnant and, why, she actually looks happy, even to asking Callaghan if he'll assist her through her pregnancy. Then, all the way from America comes Beth Drever (Vicki Hammond) and her daughter Liz (Lorna Patterson), who breezes in thinking that life in the outback is oh so quaint - the locals soon put that right! - before she and Callaghan fall for one another. Truth be told, they have little other than both being fish out of water but like two survivors clinging to one another in the midst of a shipwreck, romance blossoms between them. However, that's not before her mother almost dies after avoiding driving into a kangaroo, he skirts around the issue of explaining what the spleen is and why, contrary to what Liz might think, Harry Sinclair is not one-hundred-and-forty but, "...a legend who's saved more lives than you've had cocktail parties!"

It's soapier than the Imperial Leather factory and in spite of how hard it tries to be dramatic, it's as frothy as a milkshake. So as not to make its audience feel uncomfortable, The Flying Doctors sets about following a series of stories acceptable in a soap. No matter that Callaghan describes him as a legend, Harry Sinclair's days are clearly numbered. He looks as troubled as anyone with a heart condition does, albeit, as a doctor, he should know better than to skip on the appointments he makes with his cardiologist. "Harry...there's something wrong, isn't there?" is what his wife correctly concludes but it's not hard given that he's a skipped heartbeat away from falling to the ground complaining of chest pain. All matter of minor dramas come and go, from a near fatality in a horse race, the flying doctors service in Cooper's Crossing being threatened with closure, Liz not getting served in the Cooper's Crossing bar - "We don't serve women here!" "Good job I didn't order one then!" - and to Doug (Stefan Dennis) completing something of a hat trick in medical soap operas, breaking his arm, getting his girlfriend pregnant and being tossed out of her father's house.

Love runs truer for Tom and Liz. In spite of the Northern Exposure-style six month residency that he must complete as part of his training and his not actually being in Cooper's Crossing for so very long, he promises Liz that he'll follow her home to New York. Why they even have a weekend away in Sydney to celebrate their love although with this being a primetime soap, the bedroom shenanigans go no further than their feet, his still in his socks, winding around each other and a glimpse of his bare bum. Still, all that happens with yet another hour to go, leaving problems with a mysterious message that comes in on the emergency channel, Doug and Diana running off together and Callaghan finding himself with a female admirer who'll do anything to get her man, only that she doesn't take kindly to being rebuked.

It isn't any good but, like the cesarean section Callaghan and Sinclair perform late in the show, it does at least move quickly along. It all builds up to an accident that Casualty might look upon with envy, with a car stuck underneath a leaking oil tanker and the flying doctors taking care where they land in case their engines set the outback ablaze. Callaghan sets about drilling through one victim's head with a power drill to ease the pressure on his brain and, as the whole shebang blows up, Sinclair collapses with his hand clutching at this heart, saying, "It's only angina!" Even the soundtrack loses its grip for a moment and wobbles as surely as does Sinclair's heartbeat. It's daft but when every ten minutes brings yet another crisis, it's very easy to stick with The Flying Doctors just to see what comes next. It doesn't even know how to end with dignity, throwing in yet another death before we've recovered from the explosion. Those with fond memories of this will enjoy it all over again while those who have never heard of it but cannot be tempted away from the lunchtime one-two of Neighbours and Doctors could do worse.

The first ten minutes of The Flying Doctors may actually be the worst DVD presentation that this viewer has ever seen. And in case you think I'm being somewhat picky having seen some quite stunning discs here at DVD Times, might I remind you that I've also seen (and watched) The Quiet Man on R2. So I know bad and these early minutes are bad. Perhaps someone watched the start of it many times over and never got past Tom Callaghan's arrival in Cooper's Crossing. It may be that they'd seen all that they needed to...bad acting, some sheep and various Australians that will have you asking yourself, "Weren't they in...Neighbours? Muriel's Wedding?" (The answers are yes in the case of Joe Mangle and Paul Robinson from the former and Muriel's dad from the latter!) There's probably someone in there from A Country Practice as well but it's been a long time since I've watched it and my memory isn't what it once was.

But the problem with this comes from the producers of this DVD cramming over two-hundred-and-four minutes of The Flying Doctors onto one disc not to mention six minutes of extras. It's the picture that suffers. Even on a small television, on which I watched most of this, it's obvious that The Flying Doctors has a rotten transfer. On a larger television, and we're still very far from looking at the larger flatscreen televisions or projectors, it's blocky and colours blend together no easier than they had they been drawn in felt-tip pens. Watch it on a large screen and the picture is just plain terrible. There are also plenty of white spots and scratches on the print, thereby needing only the most forgiving of fans to look past this to the drama therein.

Without any subtitles, one has to depend on the dual-channel soundtrack and while there are times when the Australian accent is a touch too thick, it's audible more often than it isn't. That the music is often fairly overpowering, in the manner of cheap aftershave, doesn't help matters particularly during those times when Tom and Liz reveal their feelings for one another or in the minutes following a successful operation when even the birds join in the racket. Otherwise, it carries the action well enough with only a little background noise to disrupt matters.


The only bonus material on this disc is a Blooper Reel (2m28s), the Original Promo (2m05s) and a Stills Gallery (1m18s).

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