Thursday, March 19, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 70: Mercy Point (1998-1999)

Created by Trey Callaway, Milo Frank and David Simkin, the futuristic science fiction medical-drama Mercy Point was basically Star Trek meets M*A*S*H, a sci-fi narrative concerning surgeons with hands like Gods...but feet of clay.

These surgeons and physicians of the far-flung year 2249 AD, much like the wartime emergency medics of the Korean War era 4077, also had to contend with their unconventional location: in this case, a space station near Jericho Colony (population: 50,000) and lodged inside the mysterious realm of outer space called The Sahartic Divide.

Mercy Point -- a deep space medical facility -- was sometimes known as "the first stop for anything coming into the [solar] system and the last stop for anything leaving."

Mercy Point Hospital was governed by the interfering, bureaucratic ISC (Inter-Species Council), and administrated by chief-of-staff De Milla (Joe Spano). But the talk of the sector was talented alien physiologist Grote Maxwell (Joe Morton), a brilliant doctor whose ingenuity and inventive solutions to problems made him a local legend. Maxwell was born to poor gas miners, and his mother died of lunar pneumonia when he was just fifteen years old. Maxwell had not talked to his father and siblings for years, as the series began, and in fact, was searching the sector to locate them and repair the breach.

The lovely and committed Dr. Haylen Breslauer (Maria Del Mar) served as Mercy Point's no-nonsense director of medicine. Lonely but caring, Haylen began to develop romantic inclinations towards Grote Maxwell as the series developed. She also had to contend with her half-sister, Dru (Alexandra Wilson), who was assigned to the facility as a Mercy Point resident in the first episode of the series, "New Arrivals." Haylen had spent much of her adult life bailing the irresponsible Dru out of problems, so she wasn't exactly pleased to see her little sister arrive on the front-lines of the final frontier. She was one tough boss too...

Meanwhile, Dru had a lot to prove, both to to herself and to her big sister. As an irresponsible youth, Dru Breslauer had bottomed out on 'Crobes (an insidious, addictive microbial symbiotic life-form known for granting humans a "high" before causing cramps, dementia and eventually death...). After a friend died during a 'Crobes overdose experience, Dru turned her life around, got into medical school and turned her life around. She also developed a relationship with another Mercy Point doctor...

...C.J. Jurado (Brian McNamara), the adventurous, womanizing director of "extra-vehicular medicine" on the station, which meant that he would often take jaunts to damaged spaceships in futuristic ambulances called "med crafts." As the series opened, C.J. was dating a by-the-book military officer, Kim Salisar (Salli Richardson), but the unexpected arrival of Dru Breslauer threw the relationship into chaos. C.J. seemed to be a character always headed for trouble. In the unaired, 25-minute pilot, for instance, he was decapitated while searching for a shuttle's black box and had to be "re-capitated" by Grote. In the actual series, C.J. combated a murderous alien in an airlock in "No Mercy," and was wounded and nearly killed. In "Battle Scars," those wounds nearly led C.J.'s brain to sink into his spine, but he was saved by an experimental procedure at the last minute.

Mercy Point's resident alien was Dr. Batung (Jordan Lund), a lizard-like alien constrained to a kind of wheel-chair device since the gravity on his home world was vastly different. Batung -- a tailed, tentacled creature -- did not understand human beings well and was known for being haughty and difficult. As Mercy Point's Spock, Maya or Worf, Batung would sometimes offer inscrutable Shenn wisdom. One such nugget was "the greatest of competition is always within ourselves," from "Last Resort."

The last major character on UPN's short-lived series was ANI (Android Nursing Interface), a gorgeous nurse and "Simbot" played by the gorgeous Julia Pennington. The other nurses were jealous of the perfect ANI, but she didn't seem to mind, as her programming didn't allow her to recognize sarcasm, jealousy or other negative emotions. In the first episode, "New Arrivals," it was ANI who held the key to curing a deadly computer virus that had leapt out of computers and begun to infect human brains.

Recurring characters included Dr. Rema Cook (Gay Thomas), a psychologist who undergoes a brief bout of on-screen horniness with a much-younger paramedic (not that there's anything wrong with that...) and Nagnam (Haig Sutherland), a friendly alien orderly who is utilized mostly as comic-relief.

Mercy Point
ran for just seven hour-long episodes in 1998-1999, and the various stories involved, by and large, diseases and cures that involved the integration of alien and human communities. Dru had to detox a teenage 'Crobe addict (called a 'skeezer') without parental consent in "Battle Scars." A dying alien historian named Jeel shared an experimental blood transfusion with a sick human boy named Clayton Kelly (suffering from "Thalanemia") in "Last Resort," and so forth.

Overall, the approach was serious and somber, but not saccharine. Although the series waded into the emotional conventions of life-and-death medical dramas, it was also "true," in a sense, because a last-minute cure was not always found. A teenage gymnast had to deal with the (permanent) loss of her legs in one episode. A teenage boy who dreamed of being a writer died of his disease in another story. Another episode saw a threatened fetus removed from a pregnant mother (with a weak heart...) and transferred for the duration of the pregnancy into an exterior, artificial womb device. In one tale, a pilot died after a magnetic storm on her ship, and her husband was able to relive her final moments through a memory sub-plot involving a young paramedic who was plagued by a perpetual erection after sexual intercourse with an illegal pleasurebot.

Where Mercy Point also succeeded was in taking the conventions and ideas of the medical drama and transferring them to deep space, with a futuristic bent. For instance, the station was equipped with a talking computer named Hip (after Hippocrates...), who could verbalize a patient prognosis after a quick scan (and holographic display of internal organs.) The doctors "scrubbed" in sonic decontaminators, utilized laser scalpels and could put patients in cryo-stasis while they puzzled after a cure. When the situation warranted it, the doctors would operate in Zero-Gravity surgical theatres, replace broken limbs with "bio-prosthetics" and even perform "mem-prints," memory downloads from dying patients. In some situations, holographic technology was utilized to bring in family members for consults and last goodbyes with patients on the space station. One story even involved a parasitic alien who was a "viral bomb." If surgery was not successful, "pyro-cleansing" would occur, meaning that the alien -- and the doctor (Dru) - would be incinerated to prevent contamination.

During its short time on the air, Mercy Point even featured a mini-story arc of sorts. Over the course of three episodes ("Second Chances," "No Mercy" and "Battle Scars"), someone was murdering alien patients on the station, and Dr. Maxwell was framed and investigated for the crimes. During the emergency, the station was segregated into human and alien sections, and the "great experiment" of Mercy Point nearly came to an end. The real culprit was an alien who was upset with the idea of human influence on his species and the notion of integration. Since Mercy Point represented the "integration of humans with aliens," and since Maxwell represented Mercy Point, the plan was to discredit him.

The sci-fi series also featured some nice attempts at continuity. Dru's history with the 'Crobes came up in episode four, "Second Chances," and the de-tox of the future-goth kid happened two episodes later. Also, a disease called HSS (Home Sickness Syndrome) reared its head in several episodes ("Last Resort" and "Battle Scars".) Series creators were clearly attempting to build a new but detailed universe from the ground-up, and on some fronts, were rather successful in doing so.

In one episode, Mercy Point Hospital is described as a "fish bowl," and that's good shorthand for the areas where the series tends to fail. Sometimes, you feel like you're watching a fishbowl. The sets are claustrophobic and you never really get a chance to visit with these doctors during their off-duty hours to get a more thorough sense of who they are outside the job. Space is vast, but Mercy Point had the tendency to feel cooped up. Even additional establishing shots of the station, visiting ships or speeding med crafts would alleviate this problem, but all the effects shots on the show are oddly truncated. You never even get a really good, prolonged look at the exterior of the facility. Footage from Starship Troopers (1997) is utilized in the unaired pilot, which also featured John De Lancie in the Joe Spano role.

Some critics also complained about the "soap opera plotting" of Mercy Point in 1998 yet - oddly - the same critics today laud Battlestar Galactica (2005-2009) for the inclusion of the same soap opera elements (like substance abuse, family rivalries, and inter-crew romances/break-ups...). Others worried that the show was in danger of becoming "The Disease of the Space," a complaint which may have had some legitimacy, especially if the series had continued longer.

Mercy Point wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but the short-lived series deserves some credit for the breadth of its ambition (not to mention the good performances by Morton, Del Mar and others...). I mean, this is an outer space series airing in the Age of Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Babylon 5 and there is not an honorable warrior race or space battle to be found anywhere. There's little by way of tiresome Empire-building/politicking sub-plots either. Taken as simply M*A*S*H in Space, Mercy Point was certainly a unique and intriguing experiment. It's far less insular and therefore far more approachable than 1990s era Star Trek. Which means, at times, Mercy Point is just what the doctor ordered...

The series in not currently available on DVD.

1 comment:

  1. John:

    I remember enjoying Mercy Point when it aired. So what if it was "disease of the space"? I think it deserved a chance. Too bad it was killed off without at least one season under its belt.

    Probably will never see DVD, sadly.