Diagnosing history
eBook - ePub

Diagnosing history

Medicine in television period drama

Katherine Byrne, Julie Anne Taddeo, James Leggott, Katherine Byrne, Julie Anne Taddeo, James Leggott

  1. 304 pagine
  2. English
  3. ePUB (disponibile sull'app)
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eBook - ePub

Diagnosing history

Medicine in television period drama

Katherine Byrne, Julie Anne Taddeo, James Leggott, Katherine Byrne, Julie Anne Taddeo, James Leggott

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Informazioni sul libro

This timely collection examines representations of medicine and medical practices in international period drama television. A preoccupation with medical plots and settings can be found across a range of important historical series, including Outlander, Poldark, The Knick, Call the Midwife, La Peste and A Place to Call Home. Such shows offer a critique of medical history while demonstrating how contemporary viewers access and understand the past. Topics covered in this collection include the innovations and horrors of surgery; the intersection of gender, class, race and medicine on the American frontier; psychiatry and the trauma of war; and the connections between past and present pandemics. Featuring original chapters on period television from the UK, the US, Spain and Australia, Diagnosing history offers an accessible, global and multidisciplinary contribution to both televisual and medical history.

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Part I

Early modern professions and disease

Golden rats and sick empires: portraying medicine, poverty, and the bubonic plague in La Peste

José Ragas, Patricia Palma, and Guillermo González-Donoso


Since the COVID-19 epidemic arrived in our countries, it has managed to transform our everyday lives, disrupting our established routines and introducing new habits. During the mandatory confinement enforced by national governments, television and online streaming platforms gained sudden prominence and installed binge-watching as a regular activity. In a similar manner to readers who turned frantically to Giovanni Boccacio’s Decameron (c. 1351) and Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947) to find solace during these anxious times, viewers looked for answers in online movies and series (Esteban, 2020). Not surprisingly, movies such as Outbreak (1995), Contagion (2011), World War Z (2013), and Netflix’s Pandemic (2020) rapidly jumped to the top of the most viewed worldwide. For instance, in Hong Kong Contagion remained in the top ten for several weeks while Plague Inc. was one of the most popular mobile phone games, allowing players to control a deadly pathogen (The Economic Times, 2020). As the journalist Heather Kelly (2020) observed, ‘the compulsion to watch these fictionalized, sometimes graphic versions of things that are unfolding in the real world can be a way of making sense of what’s happening when we are faced with uncertainty’.
The compulsory search for both films and TV series with an epidemic background has not been limited to the Global North. The lethal and dramatic impact of the epidemic in Spain and Latin America was accompanied by an increasing interest in science fiction and how diseases had affected the region in the past. Although it was released two years before the arrival of COVID-19 to Europe and the Americas, the TV series La Peste (2018–2020) portrayed a grim overview of a society ravaged by an epidemic in the sixteenth century. The series, like the movies mentioned above, enabled current viewers to observe and learn about diseases within the safe environment of their own households. Viewers were then exposed to topics such as quarantines, anti-science sentiments, the lack of vaccines, the role of physicians, and the harsh debate between the protection of the local economy versus the protection of human lives without knowing that a few months later they would be experiencing those issues in real life. Heather Kerry points out that the fascination with these types of movies and TV series confers on viewers a certain tranquillity even when they portray the worst scenarios, reassuring them that even lethal epidemics like the plague in La Peste will eventually disappear.
La Peste combines historical accuracy and fictional drama of the bubonic plague that affected Spain in the late sixteenth century, portraying everyday life during the pandemic. This chapter analyses how La Peste marks a milestone for Spanish television, as a series that accounts for global disasters in local settings with high doses of realism. The series portrays how political and medical authorities, and especially the larger population, tried to escape or overcome the consequences of the epidemic. La Peste’s release coincided with the centennial of the epidemic, commonly known as the Spanish flu, that killed twenty to fifty million people around the globe (Spinney, 2018). Like its twentieth-century counterpart, the early modern plague inflicted significant damage on Spanish society during the peak of Spanish dominance in the Atlantic World. The show presents a dark and sombre portrayal of how the disease corroded the social tissue of Seville and its residents. In placing a massive epidemic like the bubonic plague at the core of the narrative, La Peste unveils the multiple yet contradictory ways people from various social groups and backgrounds reacted to the pandemic, whether to save their own lives, to procure a cure for others, or just to profit from the sanitary crisis. Such complex scenarios of power, economic growth, and personal dilemmas are the ones chosen by the creators of La Peste, the most expensive and successful show produced by Spanish television to date (Arroyo, 2018).
In its first season, La Peste follows Mateo Núñez’s efforts to fulfil a promise made to his old friend Germán Larrea, a veteran from the Eighty Years War, to find his son in Seville, a city infested by the plague. The series shows a variety of distinct forces including a powerful merchant guild, transnational commerce to the New World, and the everyday poverty and dirtiness that made the inhabitants of Seville and Europe generally vulnerable to epidemics. The main storyline follows Mateo risking his life to return to Seville, the city he abandoned after being accused by the Holy Office of printing banned books, to find Larrea’s son, Valerio. Once Mateo manages to find Valerio, who makes a living by selling clothing from the victims of the plague, he is betrayed by the latter and delivered to the authorities. Celso de Guevara, the Grand Inquisitor, offers Mateo an official pardon in exchange for finding a serial killer who has committed several crimes in the city. While the murder mystery plotline is the centre of the series, the plague is used as a historical backdrop and as a metaphor for the corrupt city. As Mateo chases the clues left by the murderer, the epidemic threatens the city and its inhabitants. In this way, we can see various social actors – such as civil authorities, merchants, and the impoverished – living with the plague.
In this chapter, we aim to highlight what makes La Peste a relevant case study for those interested in the history of medicine and the analysis of popular culture through the lens of a television series. As a result of a carefully designed campaign to promote the release of the show, La Peste constitutes a fascinating example of the possibilities offered by TV shows as vehicles for disseminating historical medical knowledge to a vast audience. Rather than just adding to nostalgia for a time when Spain dominated the globe, the show confronts viewers with the picture of an emergent empire coexisting with the daily misery lived on the streets and on every corner of urban spaces (Martínez Shaw, 2019). To assess how an early modern epidemic provided the major backdrop to such an ambitious production, we start by placing the medical narrative in the genealogy of Spanish TV dramas and note the early influence of American medical shows that aired before Spanish producers developed their own medical productions. We then turn to the story of the epidemic, its dissemination, and the end of the disease. We also present the tension between fiction and reality that the show aims to resolve by examining the character of Monardes, an actual physician who lived in sixteenth-century Seville. In the final section, we analyse the strategies deployed by producers to build an audience through its interaction with historical content and an unexpected character: rats.

La Peste and the Spanish (television) Golden Age

With a budget of €10 million, 130 locations, and with 400 extras on set, La Peste’s first season is a six-episode TV show produced by the Spanish communication conglomerate Movistar. It became the most ambitious production in Spanish television and an overnight sensation among viewers and critics (Martínez, 2018). Yet, La Peste’s success did not occur in a vacuum, nor was it a sudden phenomenon.2 It was the result of a combined effort on the part of producers, broadcasters, and the audience that supported ambitious projects during the transition from conventional TV shows to global digital platforms. Within the constellation of TV series, medical TV shows occupy a special place in the genealogy of Spanish TV. We can relate the origins of medical series to the spread of television since the mid-twentieth century. Spain was not absent from this phenomenon. Avid watchers of American and European series, Spaniards closely followed productions where medical drama was the dominant plotline. Due to the global expansion of Spanish TV as a result of the collective work of producers, digital platforms, and screenwriters in addition to the rise of digital television, Spanish series themselves started to incorporate medical topics within the last decade.
Translation into different languages along with subtitled versions contributed to the further expansion and prestige of medical TV shows outside the English-speaking audience. Besides cable and local stations, TV shows were consumed by a growing audience through illegal cable connections, online pirate platforms, and locally manufactured DVDs (Aunión, 2019; Rivas Moreno, 2018). Televisión Española (TVE), the Spanish broadcasting station created in 1956, started to broadcast American medical series in the 1960s and 1970s when the country was still under the authoritarian regime of General Francisco Franco. In the following decades, private stations got exclusive rights to popular shows, making people familiar with this particular genre. In the 1990s, pharmacists, doctors, and nurses gained prominence in local series productions. However, it would not be until the 2000s that the first regional productions such as Hospital Central (2000–2012) and MIR (2007–2009) positioned medical dramas among Spanish series. Inspired by the American medical drama ER (1994–2009), Hospital Central is one of the most successful shows in the history of Spanish television with 6.5 million viewers across its eight seasons (‘Record de audiencia’, 2005).
As American, British, and Spanish medical shows garnered more viewers, concerns surrounding the potential negative effects of (hyper)realistic narratives on audiences loomed among professional medical organisations. Attempting to increase their audiences while trying to obtain approval from the medical community, TV producers did not hesitate to stress realism in episodes by including actual physicians on their production teams. In turn, medical organisations urged Spanish medical TV shows to disseminate positive health habits to increase disease prevention.
In 2008, the Spanish Medical Colleges Organization (Organización Médica Colegial de España), the national entity responsible for organising and regulating the medical profession in the country, published a report which warned of the ‘risk’ of misinformation that the public may receive by watching these series. Some of the outcomes from such exposure were already taking shape in hospitals and health centres, where doctors reported that the number of people attending medical consultations had suddenly increased, with patients demanding unnecessary treatments, searching for experimental therapies, and harbouring ideas of unrealistic recoveries (Lacalle, 2008). In a particular incident, several women rushed to health centres requesting breast cancer tests after the Venezuelan soap opera Cristal (1985–1986) aired an episode where the main character, Inocencia, was diagnosed with the illness.3 Despite numerous recommendations to be cautious, the audience continued to grow, creating a direct and problematic pipeline from living rooms – where people gathered to watch these TV shows – to hospitals. Producers are caught between keeping realistic medical representations and increasing drama by distorting medical procedures (and recoveries) that usually take weeks and months in order to format them for television. ‘If TV shows depict exactly what happens in a hospital, they will be extremely boring’, said Juan Algarra, a physician and screenwriter for Hospital Central (Benito, 2008).
The advent of digital platforms like Netflix and Movistar+ provided the necessary boost to reach a global audience for Spanish TV shows rather than just importing foreign medical series or limiting their national productions to local viewers. Both digital platforms invested in producing and financing historical series, where doctors and diseases played an important role. In 2015, TVE premiered El Ministerio del Tiempo (2015–2020), which is currently broadcast in more than 190 countries. The series follows the activities of a secret Spanish Ministry in charge of guarding several doors that provide access to various eras of Spanish history to keep the past as it is and to prevent any disruption of the present. During the first two seasons, the patrol responsible for carrying out secret missions in the past was formed by Alonso de Entrerríos (Nacho Fresneda), a sixteenth-century soldier and a veteran of the Eighty Years War; Amelia Foch (Aura Garrido), one of the first Spanish women to attend university at the end of the nineteenth century; and Julián Martínez (Rodolfo Sancho), a paramedic from the present who accidentally discovers the gates while rescuing a person from a burning building and is invited to join the Ministry.
In some cases, the disease was the main protagonist of the drama. For instance, in the episode ‘Un virus de otro tiempo’ (‘A virus from another time’) the show revolves around the early twentieth-century Spanish flu epidemic, two years before the centennial of the pandemic that claimed the lives of millions of people around the world. During a mission in 1918 to witness the birth of the famous Spanish Flamenco dancer (bailaora) Carmen Amaya, a member of the ‘time patrol’ (Irene Larra) catches the flu and develops its first symptoms. Against the protocol, the newly appointed sub-secretary orders Irene back to the twenty-first century to cure her. In doing so, the flu rapidly spreads throughout the Ministry, provoking the contagion and subsequent death of its personnel.
In a similar manner to El Ministerio del Tiempo, La Peste was a remarkable television success. La Peste has had considerable diffusion throughout Latin America through the Movistar+ platform, and in the coming months of writing this chapter, due to its popularity, the series will reach the English-speaking world with the purchase of the transmission rights by the BBC...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Half-Title
  3. Title
  4. Copyright
  5. Dedication
  6. Contents
  7. List of figures
  8. List of contributors
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. Introduction
  11. Part I: Early modern professions and disease
  12. Part II: Pioneers, heroes, and villains
  13. Part III: Dissecting the body
  14. Part IV: ‘Treating’ the mind
  15. Afterword
  16. Index