MDA: articles

Thorton and Blabey

Legal injection: Sigrid Thornton and Aaron Blabey.

Back in shape

MDA ’s makeover might be just what the doctor ordered.

The ABC’s medico-legal drama MDA comes back from the dead this week, different in style, if not substance. Jason Donovan has left the show, but Angie Milliken, Petra Yared, Angus Grant and Shane Bourne return in three self-contained miniseries.

This MDA is “a very different beast”, says Bourne, who’s been playing the ironically named “Happy” Henderson since the drama’s debut in July 2002. “In a way, it’s like doing another series, but with the same cast.”

There’s still a lot of dense medico-legal jargon flying between desks and across conference tables, but there’s more activity outside the Medical Defence Australia offices, with an effort to shoot more walking-and-talking scenes familiar to fans of The West Wing.

The new MDA was filmed in an old Boeing building in Melbourne, allowing for more of what producer Denny Lawrence calls “continuous camera” work, such as long hand-held shots and additional use of mobile dollies, which allow the camera to move fluidly between and around the characters.

“We’ve got more room and we’ve been able to do more long-lens stuff,” Lawrence says. “We’ve been able to layer it. The building gives us depth, down the hall and through the offices, and I put in rooms with glass so we can always see other things going on. It creates a more interesting visual picture.”

With the move to the new HQ, there’s been a concerted shift away from the desk-bound, talking-heads look. There has also been a push for more marketable guest stars. Among the actors featured in the coming 12 hours are Sigrid Thornton, Lisa McCune, Vince Colosimo, Erik Thompson and Wendy Hughes.

The first of the three stories is “Second Chance”, directed by Ken Cameron and Roger Hodgman and starring Thornton, Anita Hegh and Aaron Blabey. Thornton plays the ambitious Professor Robyn Masterson, a geneticist developing a potentially ground-breaking drug designed to stimulate depressed immune systems. She’s working to secure funding and medical-board approval to move to the human-trial stage of her research and comes to MDA seeking indemnity.

This episode will be followed by “Departure Lounge”, directed by Brendan Maher and Aarne Neeme and starring Colosimo, Hughes, Jane Allsop and Frank Gallacher. The final block, “A Human Cost”, directed by Daina Reid and Peter Sharp, stars McCune, Thomson, Paul Bishop and Louise Siversen.

The core of these stories remains the complicated realm of litigation related to medical malpractice. Colosimo’s story involves an anaesthetist forced to consider his career prospects when he becomes suspicious about the high infant mortality rate at his hospital. McCune plays an over-worked intern who must battle to clear her name when she’s accused of incompetence.

The ABC’s head of drama, Scott Meek, says the makeover was motivated by a desire to avoid repeition. “The decision was not to do another volume of short stories, but instead to do a series of novels featuring the same characters,” he says.

“Basically, what Medical Defence Australia does is limited: it defends doctors who are accused of something… Consequently, in many ways, all of the stories have similar elements. But where it works well is in the notion of the moral complexity of those cases… So this structure is about having deeper, richer and more complex stories that don’t have to be resolved in an hour.”

Lawrence, who produced the show’s second season in 2003, also sees its complexity and credibility as the strength of MDA. “One of the things we’ve always prided ourselves on is that it has authenticity,” he says. “Our medical and legal stuff is spot-on. We don’t fudge it. We don’t play fast and loose. On top of that, people appreciate that the characters have shades of grey, that they’re flawed… Our stories don’t necessarily have happy outcomes: people die, doctors get struck off, lawyers lose cases. That’s what happens in life.”

MDA returns at a time when the ABC’s dramatic stocks have never been lower. This year, local production has amounted to a lone telemovie, Hell Has Harbour Views, back in January. Beyond MDA, the only project that’s been announced is a three-hour telemovie, Answered by Fire, starring David Wenham.

This is one of the reasons Milliken believes MDA deserves support. “It’s an original idea and it’s a very good idea,” she says. “I think more credit needs to be given to that. It’s an idea that’s not happening on television in Australia or anywhere else.

“I don’t think MDA will grab the audience who are watching Lost, but the feedback I got from the last season was enough to know that there was a seriously committed audience, the sort of people who are looking for something else and who are prepared to sit down and go the distance, who want to be mentally challenged.

“I don’t think it necessarily has to do with the fact that it is Australian. It’s the content and the way it is approached. People got involved with the main characters but also got involved in the stories.”

MDA returns to the ABC tonight at 9.30pm.

By Debi Enker
June 30, 2005
Sydney Morning Herald