With the state of the world as it is, we at PFR find ourselves more grateful than ever for the first responders and medical professionals that are on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also means that we’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what we look for in a doctor or other medical provider, and because we all speak in film and television more than anything else, that often comes back to characters. So, in honor of the many people worldwide fighting this virus, we wanted to take a few moments to reflect on some of our favorite fictional doctors who we wish could come and join the fight to help out everyone currently doing their part.
Dr. Abbey Bartlet – The West Wing (1999-2006)
When I reflect on what I want in a doctor I think of three traits above all else: a towering intellect, steadiness in crisis, and a bedside manner that is warm but with an edge. More than any other fictional doctor I have encountered out there Dr. Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing) of The West Wing (1999-2006) fits the bill. Dr. Bartlet survived two terms as First Lady of the United States during which her husband was shot at, her daughter was kidnapped, and her medical license was put under scrutiny for questionable reasons. Through all of it, she remained an immovable force to be reckoned with. Her mind is beyond reproach as a world-renowned physician who goes toe-to-toe with Nobel laureates and world leaders over seven seasons, and when you pair this with her ability to stay in control no matter the crisis she emerges as a model for all modern medicine. Plus, she’s never one to shy away from a withering quip or a tongue-in-cheek takedown, and we could all use a little humor right now. I have no doubt Dr. Bartlet would fit in nicely with Dr. Fauci, and would bring a welcome presence to the COVID-19 National Response Team. Plus, she’s already proved she can face down an unstable president, and that’s a skillset we could put to plenty of use right now.
Dr. Dana Scully – The X Files (1993-2018)
There is nothing out there that I wouldn’t trust Dr. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) of The X-Files to fix. Over ten-plus seasons as part of the best FBI duo ever to grace televisions and movie theaters alike, Scully developed into one of the most reliable protagonists on network television. A doctor who decided to follow her passion for public service, she displays a formidable mind in the face of every sort of twist and turn that could be thrown at her. What does she do when she’s targeted by a convicted serial killer who has premonitions of other crimes? She convinces him to help save others while battling her own doubts about the supernatural, but following the improbable to the truth. What about when she’s abducted by mysterious forces that may or may or may not be extraterrestrial in origin? She commits herself to taking down a globe-spanning organization that hopes to make her disappear but continuously underestimates her. And, possibly most vital to our current situation, what does she do when a mysterious virus sweeps through the population? She helps cure it of course. Faced with any number of natural and preternatural challenges, Scully pushes to the truth and solves crises most people would run screaming from. I think we could all use her on the front lines.
Dr. Patch Adams – Patch Adams (1998)
Sometimes when you’re staring down the void of fear and isolation, what you need above all else is comfort and security. Really I suppose that’s what we want all the time, but the yearning seems acutely present when the stability of our global reality is so tenuous. So, while I may call on Dr.’s Bartlet or Scully for most of the heavy-lifting by way of virology and global response, I also find myself drawn to the lovable antics and kind mind of Patch Adams (Robin Williams). A nontraditional man with an approach to medicine that is as much about sparking joy in the patient as it is finding a cure to send that same patient on their way, Adams should be the patron saint of pediatricians. Portrayed wonderfully by Robin Williams in a movie that is generally just fine, Williams’ performance jumps off the screen and out to be around you as he wears clown noses and makes plastic glove balloon animals to amuse those in pediatric wards and Hospice wings alike. Make no mistake, he is also a gifted doctor who applies his own struggles with mental health as a guidebook for how to comfort those in pain, and I have no doubt that the combination of his mind and sense of humor would make him an invaluable addition to any COVID-19 unit.
Dr. Richard Kimble – The Fugitive (1993)
To be honest, The Fugitive doesn’t give us a deep look into the extent of Dr. Richard Kimble’s (Harrison Ford) medical prowess besides a few scenes here and there, but the sum total of his character gives me the feeling that there are few fictional doctors better suited for crisis mode than this man. After being wrongly accused of murdering his wife, Kimble is sent to jail and only escapes due to a train crash during a prison exchange. Unrelated to the medical field, the know-how and on-his-feet thinking that Kimble displays while he is on the run as the eponymous fugitive bodes well for a pandemic where the situation is so fluid and chaotic. I’m not saying that the ability to successfully evade multiple criminal investigative agencies and successfully clearing your name translates to top-notch medicinal instincts, but I just feel a doctor that successful who can also pull off all the insanity he does would be a nice person to have around. Plus, as one of the most emotional scenes in the movie shows, even when he’s on the run he has no qualms about putting himself in jeopardy to jump in and help save the life of a young man in the hospital who otherwise might have died. Kimble is a guy with A+ instinct about survival and an admirable ethical code. It might just be me, but I think we could use him around.
Dr. Leonard McCoy
Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-69) https://youtu.be/3qYxnLC9P-o
Star Trek (2009) https://youtu.be/RlphfLO3MYA
We probably all have one doctor who is conjured up whenever we hear the word. Maybe this is the first doctor we saw on-screen or the one who saved a character we cared about, but this is the doctor. For me, that doctor is Star Trek’s Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. Certainly the first image that comes to mind is DeForest Kelley (in a blue shirt) from Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-69) and the Star Trek motion pictures, but I’ll also give Karl Urban some credit for his portrayal in Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) – although Star Trek Beyond (2017) is barely worth mentioning. Growing up, I may not have always understood all of Kelley’s sarcastic snips, but I loved them just the same. Between his “He’s dead, Jim” and “I’m a doctor, not a….,” McCoy often has the best lines in the show. A particular favorite of mine is shown in the first video above (from “The Corbomite Maneuver”): “What am I, a doctor or a moon shuttle conductor? If I jumped every time a light came on around here, I’d end up talking to myself.” Moreover, there’s something reassuring about McCoy’s presence. Of sci-fi doctors, he might not always be the most prepared for what’s out there, but he’s probably the one I would be most likely to trust in a pandemic. After all, he has a lot of experience operating under duress.
Dr. Benjamin McKenna – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Jimmy Stewart’s character from this Hitchcock classic is an American physician who, while stopping through Morocco after a medical convention in Europe, gets mixed up in a mysterious conspiracy that threatens his family. Being a physician isn’t quite essential to the overarching plot, other than giving McKenna and his family a reason to be in Marrakesh in the first place and opening a few social doors, but I’d argue that he deserves a spot for the uniqueness of his position and his ability to put his intelligence to good use in a crisis. Stars of similar thrillers generally tend to be detectives, writers, or journalists (see virtually any noir and every other Hitchcock film), but McKenna – like Devin’s pick Dr Kimble – is able (with a great deal of help from his wife) to think on his feet and put a stop to a major assassination attempt. Again, like McCoy, this is the kind of doctor you need in a crisis.
Dr Sean Maguire – Good Will Hunting (1997)
He may not be a medical doctor, but I don’t think this list would be complete without Dr Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) from Good Will Hunting (1997). Given the intense isolation during quarantine and collective anxiety of mass panic, not to mention the possibilities of trauma or death, it’s clear that we need therapists now more than ever. Maguire represents the best of the bunch, being somehow able to navigate the short- and long-term effects of therapy on his patient, the precocious math genius Will Hunting (Matt Damon), while also reaching out to the young man on his own terms and connecting over loss and grief. What emerges is one of the most powerful scenes in cinema history, a lasting testament to the impact of a good counselor, and a reminder that mental scars can often last longer than the physical ones.
The Literal Doctor – Arrested Development
Not all doctors know what they’re doing. Maybe the bad ones make you appreciate the good ones, but there are several TV doctors that I wouldn’t want anywhere near me. The bungling doctor is a staple in several shows, perhaps best demonstrated in Arrested Development (2003-). Credited only as the “Literal Doctor,” Ian Roberts plays a doctor who leaves his clients hanging on his every word for more information after a series of linguistic blunders, like when he tells the Bluth family that their son will be “all right” (which in this case means he won’t have a left hand anymore). Honorable mention goes to two doctors from the animated show Archer (2009-): first, there’s the credentially dubious “Doktor” Krieger (Lucky Yates), whose medical skills (and tools) seem a bit rusty; second, we get Dr Speltz (Charles Napier, in his final credit), who despite only appearing in one memorable episode, manages to botch his results so much that he (a) erroneously informs a character that he’s cancer-free, (b) calls up during a celebration to correct that information, and (c) repeats the first steps…twice. Danny DeVito’s character Dr Wexler in The Kominsky Method (2018-) is another variation: that guy has some problems.