Jane Seymour, the star of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, back in 1988

Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman
as Moral Fiction

by Ken Sanes

One of the most important genres of traditional American fiction has been the Western, which tells the story of the taming of the Old West in the 1800s. Like all forms of popular fiction it is based on a formula: it shows us men and women who have to fight to tame an uncivilized land, and villains who exist outside the law. Not infrequently, it depicts a sheriff or some other hero who has to take a stand in the face of overwhelming dangers. If he fails, what there is of civilization will fail also and be replaced by barbarism.

Although Westerns aren't much in favor these days, they have spawned some interesting variations. In the movie, Outland, for example, Sean Connery plays a lawman who has to establish the rule of law on a space mining colony instead of an old Western town. In The Shootist, an aging John Wayne portrays an old gunfighter dying of cancer in time when the old West is itself dying and being replaced by a more civilized society.

One of the most interesting variations on the Western is the television series, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, which reshapes the Western so it conveys contemporary liberal themes of multiculturalism, diversity and social justice. In place of a hard but civilized Sheriff or male hero fighting superior numbers with guns and courage, it shows us a courageous woman physician and social reformer, Dr. Michaela Quinn (Jane Seymour), who takes it on herself to teach a semi-civilized society about tolerance and social responsibility. In place of some of the stereotyped characters of Westerns, it tells the story of those who have largely been left out of the history books, until recently.

The series takes place in Colorado Springs in the 1860s and 1870s. Dr. Quinn, who has moved to the town from an affluent and comfortable life in the east, is a physician and liberal crusader in a time when there are few woman professionals or leaders. Her role is to defend those who are victims of intolerance and abuse and who are left out of the larger society, including Jews, blacks and women, and especially the Indians, who are being exterminated by white society. She is the physician as a doctor to the human condition who heals souls and society in addition to bodies.

Fortunately, she often finds allies in her efforts to help the rejected and bring about social justice. She is aided by the media, for example, in the form of the editor of the town newspaper, Dorothy Jennings (played by Barbara Babcock).
She also finds support from a black couple, Grace and Robert E, who know what it is like to be persecuted. And of course she is supported by her main flame and, later, her husband, Byron Sully (played by Joe Lando), a romantic eco-hero in the tradition of Tarzan, who identifies with the Indians.

All of this, of course, is a way of depicting the Old West in terms of contemporary liberal ideas on tolerance, environmentalism and social justice. To some degree, that means Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman tries to understand the West in terms of the enlarged understanding of history we have today. But mostly it means the series projects contemporary issues back onto the Old West, which becomes a vehicle to tell a story about present-day society.

Thus, we frequently see Dr. Quinn trying to convince illiberal townsfolk to accept her positions by appealing to their compassion and inherent sense of what is right, which is precisely the position liberalism has been in during the Postwar era. In one episode, based on this idea, she convinces the town of the right of the state to intervene in families to protect children. She gets the skeptical town council to take a neglected girl away from her caretaker, who is mistreating her. In another, she tries to protect a man who is feared by the town because he is different and considered insane.

As Dr. Quinn engages in these efforts, her enemies are ignorance, prejudice, panic, the mob mentality, and peopleís desire to destroy what they donít understand. One of her most important techniques for overcoming these evils is to appeal to the rationality and conscience of the townspeople and others who oppose her. These characters are depicted, not as simple villains, but as complicated personalities who play her opponents on one occasion and become her allies the next, as they try to deal with difficult situations that challenge their fears and cultural conditioning.

But Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman doesn't only depict compassion and efforts to bring about social justice. It also tries to evoke compassionate and tolerant responses in the audience. It does so by inviting us to identify with Dr. Quinn and her unique combination of gentleness and resolve, and by inviting us to identify with various characters as they overcome their own prejudice and ignorance. In effect, the series tries to reform present-day society in the direction of liberal ideals by depicting Dr. Quinn successfully reforming the Old West.

Unfortunately, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman was cancelled after six seasons, so it ended up running from 1993 to 1998. In the last episode, it tried to resolve the conflicts it had depicted in an emotionally satisfying way by portraying a Colorado Springs that had become a kind of idealized multicultural paradise. A black couple (Grace and Robert E); a White-Indian and Anglo-Mexican couple; and the woman doctor and her eco-hero all dance together at the wedding celebration for Dr. Quinn's adopted daughter, along with the rest of the townsfolk.

Despite its idealized qualities, this scene is far from simplistic since it is tinged with the knowledge of what has been lost, in the mass destruction of a people. The message of this last idyllic scene is not that we can create a utopia but that the engine of hate and violence, which has driven so much of history, creates an imperative that we live together and live fully, and celebrate what we have.

Although this theme of loss and moral progress was at the center of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, it should be noted that it was itself embedded in a still larger theme which is that, despite dark moments, the history of the West -- and America -- is a story of modernization. Thus, the achievement of social justice and tolerance are depicted as part of a larger story of progress that also includes the creation of modern institutions, such as wilderness parks, and the expansion of science and technology, as seen in railroads and the advance of medicine. In effect, what the series depicts is the founding of the modern world, which becomes a story about moral heroes and people of vision who reform society so it becomes more ethical and rational.

To some degree, all of this makes Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman an obvious form of ideology that offers characters and situations intended to convey a political message. Despite (and because of) that, and despite the tendency to overdo the melodrama in an effort to evoke pathos in the audience, the series is a significant work of moral fiction. It's central message -- that the individual has an obligation to try to re-create the world in the image of his or her conscience -- needs to be heard. When compared to the cynical and vacuous programming found on much of the dial, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman stands out as a worthy effort to re-create society -- or at least one corner of television -- in the image of our better selves.


Image is of Jane Seymour at the 1988 Emmies,
via Wikimedia.

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