Dr. Quinn: The Worst Show I Was Ever Forced to Watch

WTF is Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman?

While I’m pleased to say that I haven’t seen the whole series… I did watch a lot of it in syndication even after grade four. I couldn’t not watch it. It’s that powerful feeling you get when you see Bill O’Reilly or Jerry Falwell or anyone else you really hate on TV – you can’t look away! Unlike O’Reilly or Falwell, Dr. Quinn is extremely liberal in its politics – but I still want to punch it whenever it comes on the air. It’s uncanny. As far as I’m aware, this is what it’s about:

Dr. Quinn is a woman and a doctor and everyone hates that about her, so she moves to the frontier on the theory that the backwards people living there are so desperate for medical care that they will be forced to accept her. Once she arrives, she learns that, in ye olde West, the reward for good doctoring is that people pay you in chickens, and the punishment for letting someone die is that you have to look after all of their children forever.

One of the first things that happens is that the only person who likes Dr. Quinn does, indeed, die and makes Dr. Quinn promise to look after her three sucky kids. The oldest child, Matthew, is actually in his late teens and, by the standards of his culture, and the responsibilities he’s expected to carry, is basically an adult. So it’s kind of weird that she adopts him too, or that the town doesn’t just expect him to provide for his brother and sister, but whatever. Dr. Quinn gets stuck with three random kids.

Then she meets a white man who dresses in buckskin and lives in a lean-to in the woods because he hates everyone. His name is Sully and he’s an honorary Native American, which is kind of awkward, for obvious reasons, but he’s still kind of cool because he’s totally given up on the possibility that white culture can be saved and just wants to live in harmony with nature while everyone else dies of cholera and snake bites. Unfortunately for all of us, watching Dr. Quinn lecture people about tolerance rekindles his passion for social change, and they begin a long drawn-out love affair that’s punctuated by repeatedly jumping into the middle of an ongoing conflict between the American military and the Cheyenne (spoilers: it doesn’t end well for the Cheyenne, but I’ll get to that in a minute).

Most of the episodes follow a format where the townspeople do something backwards and prejudiced, and then Dr. Quinn tells them not to be such hosers (occasionally Sully tells them not to be such hosers instead, in order to make it feel less like Dr. Quinn is the only reasonable person in town). The townspeople ignore her and/or belittle her advice because she’s a) female, b) wealthy, or c) really pushy and judgemental about it. Then, the situation escalates while the audience learns a Valuable Lesson about the perils of judging people who are different. In the end, either everyone realises that Dr. Quinn was right, or they don’t, and we end on a tragic meditation about how sometimes you just can’t change people’s minds, even when those people act like morons.

The Best Character

Myra the saloon girl. Myra works for this douchey sometime-antagonist character named Hank who has long, stunning mermaid hair, and a saloon where he sells alcohol and women. There’s a story line early in the series where she falls in love with a dorky telegraph operator named Horace, and he wants to rescue her from her life of prostitution so that they can be husband and wife (that’s not the good part).

Hank has tender feelings for Myra even though he’s a chauvinist asshole, and he doesn’t want to let her go, but eventually she leaves the saloon behind for Horace… at which point she gradually discovers that she didn’t really love Horace so much as she loved the idea of not being a prostitute anymore. It turns out they don’t have a lot in common, and it’s hard for them to have a conversation about what their lives should be like when he’s experienced so much less of the world than she has.

Myra remains kind of friendly with Hank, even though she sees him for exactly what he is, because they connect on the level of being more worldly and pragmatic. Eventually she chooses to move to the city with her daughter and get a job, because she wants more out of life than being the wife of the telegraph guy. She divorces Horace and says goodbye to Hank, and goes off to live a life full of decisions that are hers. It’s hands-down the most interesting character development in the series.

The Worst Character

Brian. A thousand times Brian.

Brian is Dr. Quinn’s youngest adopted child and, especially later in the series, once the other kids have aged out, we spend a lot of time on Brian’s painfully earnest coming of age adventures. Brian has an awkward friendship with the grumpy general store owner, Mr. Bray! Shucks, golly, gee, Brian wants to be a real journalist one day! Gosh, ma, Brian wants to know why all kindsa folks can’t just get along! Fuck Brian.

The Savage Destruction and Incarceration of a Once-Free People and the Man Who Abandoned Their Cause as Soon as it Suited Him

So, the Cheyenne. I honestly don’t remember all the plot twists in the story with the Cheyenne. What I do remember is that there’s one guy named Cloud Dancing who’s kind of their spokesperson for most of the series, and he’s supposed to be Sully’s best friend. And then, once Sully gets married, he kind of stops giving a shit about the fact that the people he’s supposed to be an honorary brother to are getting shipped off to a reservation.

There’s this horrible thing that happens to Sully at one point where he has to follow Dr. Quinn to Boston and put on a tuxedo and comb his hair and act like a “civilised man” in order to win her love. It’s supposed to show how the two of them both have to grow and change in order to meet somewhere in the middle – she’s been running around in the woods with him this whole time; he’s got to go to the ballroom. On paper it kind of makes sense. But, in practice, once they get married, Mr. Lean-to is suddenly like, “I’m gonna take a government job and fight the system from the inside, man!” and he starts wearing clean shirts and building a big house for his family and sleeping indoors and stuff.

Just as the Cheyenne nation is being destroyed, he slips comfortably into the role that’s expected of a white man in his culture and starts saying all this bullshit stuff about being patient and keeping the peace, even as he’s saying it through a barbed-wire fence to his supposed best friend. As much as Sully likes to pretend to be Native American, because it makes him counter-culture or whatever, he still has the option of just settling down in the town and having a house and a family and not getting shot by the military. That’s not an option his Native “brothers” have, and he essentially abandons their fight as soon as he has a chance to reclaim the white, middle-class life he thought he was excluded from.

While I think that’s probably an accurate portrait of what someone would do in that situation – because people are very selfish – and while I certainly don’t expect the show to change history by saying that Sully miraculously found a way to give Native lands back to the Cheyenne or something, the show seems to believe that Sully is giving this his best effort and that’s it’s just an unfortunate circumstance that his best effort doesn’t pan out.

That sucks because the show has an opportunity to say something interesting about the complex social circumstances that lead people to either take up or abandon a fight against injustice that doesn’t effect them personally – it’s an opportunity to learn an actual lesson from history or something – but instead, the show is just like, “Fuck, I’m tired of that story. We should have more episodes about how happy Sully and Dr. Quinn are to have a baby together! Let’s talk about how the baby was conceived without ever saying the word ‘sex’!”


Other Memorable Episodes

  • The one where Dr. Quinn’s begrudgingly adopted daughter, Colleen, gets her period and thinks she will DIE.
  • The one where Colleen suddenly thinks she loves Sully and lures him into an abandoned mine because she thinks that’s what people do when they want to get it on. (This is blamed on romance novels, but I’m pretty sure she learned it from watching Dr. Quinn).
  • The one where Dr. Quinn tries to start a library and the townsfolk burn it down, and then Dr. Quinn lectures us that the townsfolk aren’t “stupid” but “ignorant.” I guess because they can’t read.
  • Oh! The one where Hank can’t read, and he gets this woman named Dorothy to teach him, and her boyfriend thinks Hank’s putting the moves on her and it’s a comical misunderstanding.
  • The one where they hang someone and Dr. Quinn is randomly okay with that, because it’s Sully’s week to be the only empathetic person in Colorado Springs.
  • The one where Mr. Bray and Brian dress up like clowns for some reason.
  • The one where Matthew is supposed to get some eggs so that he can be a man, but he totally half-asses it and gets broken eggs and then he’s all pissed off when that doesn’t count.
  • The one where Colleen has clearly been replaced by a completely different person and nobody notices or says anything about it (this one is scary).
  • The one where some dude claims to have invented a refrigerator and everyone’s like, “That’s preposterous! Who’s ever heard of a box that keeps things cold?!”
  • The one where Dr. Quinn tells Colleen that, when she was Colleen’s age, she didn’t have any friends because she wore the wrong accessories or styled her hair the wrong way or constantly lectured all the other kids on why they were backwards and ignorant or something, so she’s not really qualified to help Colleen with social problems.
  • The one where Dr. Quinn’s sister has sex with Mr. Bray and then tells him she doesn’t want to marry him.
  • The one where Sully feels emasculated because he can’t afford to buy windows.

And so many other ones! So many other ones.

WTF is so bad about any of that?

I wish I could explain it to you! Watching Dr. Quinn gives me the same feeling I get when I see someone congratulate themselves for doing their part to end hunger by spreading awareness. It’s so fucking pleased with itself for doing absolutely nothing that you just want to punch it in the throat.

I think you probably could make a really interesting show set in the old west that’s all about the different ways that people are prejudiced and hostile to one another and that benefits from the hotbed of conflict on the frontier – a really complex, difficult show that uses the uncomfortably blatant hatred expressed by the characters as a mirror to reflect the conflicts in our own society and frame them in a thought-provoking way. Dr. Quinn is not in any way that show.

Dr. Quinn is based on the idea that the title character will serve as a surrogate for the audience. She’s an unusually progressive and forward-thinking person with late twentieth-century social values who spends a considerable amount of her time being shocked and appalled by the behaviour of the townsfolk. Other than the fact that she can’t say the word “sex” she could have travelled back through time – this could be like A Spaceman in King Arthur’s Court, but with a doctor and the wild west. And that’s annoying, because it fails to acknowledge the complexity of the situation by instead setting up a fantasy in which there’s someone who’s just prescient enough to instinctively know better about every single thing her culture does.

It’s also annoying because it doesn’t really challenge the audience. Ninety-nine percent of the people watching this show will already agree with whatever Dr. Quinn has to say (except in the rare episodes where she is deliberately set up to be wrong about something, in which case we get to agree with Sully), because the townsfolk are just kind of mindlessly and pointlessly suspicious of everything they encounter. Native people, Chinese people, black people, female people, books… the show is set up so that the townspeople randomly hate all of those things, and so that Dr. Quinn’s entire argument against them is, “Well, obviously that’s really closed-minded.” Which it is! But it’s so obviously and stupidly closed-minded that there’s no real conflict about it. It’s just watching people do something dumb while the only smart character tries to talk them out of it in an exasperated voice.

My favourite moment in the series – like, my sincere favourite, for real – is this episode where the stupid, backwards townspeople think the world is going to end, and Colleen goes off with her stupid friends to light fireworks or something, and Dr. Quinn is like, “Stupid Colleen, the world isn’t going to end. That’s just a backwards idea that everyone has. You have no cause to act out or feel stressed right now.” And Colleen screams at her, all, “JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT SCARED DOESN’T MEAN I’M NOT!” and Dr. Quinn actually kind of learns for a minute that she should treat someone else’s feelings as real, even if she doesn’t understand them and they seem stupid to her.

Dr. Quinn immediately forgets that lesson next time someone else has feelings, but it’s my favourite moment because it acknowledges that Colleen has a stake in this besides serving as a straw man for Dr. Quinn to lecture. We see that Colleen actually experiences the world differently from Dr. Quinn and is making decisions that seem sensible to her based on what she believes to be true – the fact that Dr. Quinn doesn’t believe the same thing doesn’t magically erase Colleen’s fears or change her view of the situation – it just antagonises her by invalidating what are, from her perspective, very real concerns.

That’s not to say that Colleen is right that the world is going to end – just that the way to approach someone isn’t to say, “Well, you’re just wrong so get over it.”

In fact, the only person who would say, “Well, you’re just wrong so get over it” is someone who stands completely outside the culture, as Dr. Quinn does, because she’s a time-traveller from the future. People inside a culture tend to understand why the majority believes as it does, even if they themselves disagree, and they approach the issue differently when the speak about it. It’s only an outsider who’s taken aback and says, “What shocking, primitive ways you have,” and it’s not an outsider’s job to fix someone else’s culture. Partly because outsiders can’t relate to the thought process that led to the dominant ideologies in the first place, can’t pick up on the nuances, and don’t have the right words to speak about what’s happening in a way that gets traction with people inside the culture.

Dr. Quinn is annoying because it invites us to feel smug about an outsider, who stands in for us, telling a group of people who seem primitive and backwards to us how to live. There’s no attempt to engage with the discomfort of trying to understand why someone’s racist (or misogynist, or hates books or whatever); there’s just a lot of telling the person not to be that way, as though that’s an effective solution. The show takes extremely complex social situations and boils them down into clear contrasts between right and wrong in which doing the right thing is always as simple and costless as keeping your hands to yourself. It makes you wonder why all kindsa folks can’t just get along and stuff.

The worst part is that I agree with the message “don’t be hateful” that’s drilled into us with every passing episode, but watching someone make a facile, unconvincing argument for something I believe in bums me out. And that’s what I said during circle time in grade four.

Image: Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman; CBS | August 30, 2013