“Doctor.” “Doctor.” Reviews on TV Medicine: A Young Doctor’s Notebook, And Other Stories

[This is a reworked repost on TV medicine from my old site, Everywhere and Here, whose URL my boyfriend told me in no uncertain terms that no one would ever remember. And it’s true: Call Me Watson is much snappier.

In any case, I love TV, and watch rather too much of it. Here, I’ll review shows depicting medicine on TV as to its relationship to reality, and proximity to entertainment. Enjoy!]



Those four words alone should pique your interest, if not promise a certain level of quality. Also, the letters BBC. And the names Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm. And in fact, it delivers.


What you wouldn’t be able to tell from the above is that this is set in snowy Russia, and is based on the notebooks of Mikhail Bulgakov, a doctor in the 1900s during the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil wars. He went on to abandon his trade for that of a writer’s (a man after my own heart indeed), most famously writing the masterpiece, “The Master and Margarita.”


This BBC miniseries follows a new medical school graduate (played by Radcliffe), who aces all his medical examinations and therefore – this being Russia – is rewarded by being promptly carted off to the middle-of-nowhere (more specifically, Muryevo) to run a rural hospital by himself. Jon Hamm plays his future self, recently released from a mental institution for an unknown reason, both recollecting his story through his notebooks and interacting with his younger self. It’s surprisingly hilarious while being surprisingly dark, which makes sense, since it is produced by the British.

Should you watch?
Most definitely, yes.
If you’re not watching for the gross medical stories that humans are somehow programmed to absolutely loving while cringing (in that car crash/trainwreck kind of way), then you watch to:
  • see opposite worlds collide as the Harry Potter/Daniel Radcliffe tries valiently to cling onto the back of Don Draper/Jon Hamm during a fight with his future self, being thrown back and forth as though on a mechanical bull


  • laugh at the idea of the strapping Jon Hamm as the future version of the slight but adorable post-pubescent Daniel Radcliffe. (I’m pretty sure voice deepening and growth spurts do NOT happen in your late twenties, but hey…)
  • watch Jon Hamm tear pages out of a textbook and start stuffing them in his mouth
  • muse on why all Russians speak with an English accent (or in Jon Hamm’s case, almost an English accent)
  • their obsession with the voluminous, luxurious beard of the previous, older physician who ran the hospital before Radcliffe, and Radcliffe’s lack thereof.


Is the medicine sound? A
Granted, I’m not incredibly familiar with medicine at the turn of the 20th century, having been trained in the medical knowledge of the 21st.
However, the operating theatre and the dispensary sets are convincingly vintage, resembling such things that I’ve seen in museums (ahem), the Internet, and The Knick (which will be another post of its own!)
Depressingly, the operating room lights don’t seem incredibly improved in design or concussion avoidance.


or lights copy

Black ointment, otherwise known as unguentum hydrargyri, were mercury-based ointments often used (up until 1955!) to treat syphilis, which JMVH hilariously notes was generally named after whatever enemy a country was fighting:
The French called it the ‘Neapolitan disease’, the ‘disease of Naples’  or the ‘Spanish disease’, and later grande verole or grosse verole, the ‘ great pox’, the English and Italians called it the ‘French disease’, the ‘Gallic disease’, the ‘morbus Gallicus’, or the ‘French pox’, the Germans called it the ‘French evil’, the Scottish called it the ‘grandgore‘, the Russians called it the ‘Polish disease’, the Polish and the Persians called it the ‘Turkish disease’, the Turkish called it the ‘Christian disease’, the Tahitians called it the ‘British disease’, in India it was called the ‘Portuguese disease’, in Japan it was called the ‘Chinese pox’, and there are some references to it being called the ‘Persian fire’.
But the show’s treatment of obstetric emergencies such as:
  • internal podalic version for abnormal fetal lie (though we’d most likely perform a cesarean now)
  • the checking of a weak pulse at the carotid
  • the absolute lack of gloves (oy, it’s hard to look at)

that seems pretty on par for the period.

But even more true to life, the show has a surprising sensitivity to the unique combination of overwhelming emotions that immediately swarm doctors the minute we emerge from the hallowed halls of medical school – appropriately starry-eyed, fully textbook-formed, and totally unprepared.
This is universal to all medicine, from past to present:
  • the fear, the helplessness
  • the book knowledge that isn’t enough to help the patient lying in front of you
  • the frustration with self-destructive patients, lethargic staff, and your own inadequacies
  • the surprisingly rapidity with which cynicism floods and drowns any remaining youthful idealist
  • the desire to take up a tobacco habit or gastrointestinal condition, if only to have an excuse to desperately sprint to the bookshelf or a computer look up something you forgot
  • the hopelessness that can drive some to addiction.
If only to remind us of who we are when we started our journey into the field of medicine – and the fears and highs and lows that have never truly left us alone since – The Young Doctor’s Notebook is a great watch.
Also: It’s only a very British four episodes per season, and two seasons total, so you basically have no excuse not to watch.


Entertainment: A
Medical accuracy: A
Conclusion: A total gunner of a TV show (must see!).
Available to stream on Netflix.
cheers /c
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