THE UNMUTUAL PRISONER ARTICLE ARCHIVE
YESTERDAY AND NO TOMORROW:
A LOOK BACK AT RAFFERTY
By Tom Mayer
When admirers of Patrick McGoohan have completed viewing The Prisoner or Danger Man (Secret Agent in the U.S.), they may be inspired to delve further into his filmography. His appearances in Columbo, as well as in such notable films as Ice Station Zebra, Escape From Alcatraz and Braveheart, would inevitably be watched next. For those who dig deeper, additional surprises await, including Hell Drivers, All Night Long and Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. Yet, for the truly dedicated, one of the most intriguing curiosities of McGoohan's career eventually presents itself -- his third television series, the short-lived 1977 CBS medical drama Rafferty.
This program, like so many other TV obscurities from the past, has been impossible to see over the last few decades. It has never been rerun, nor has it ever been commercially released on VHS or DVD. Among McGoohan fans, much curiosity surrounds this show. It wasn't a success when it first aired, while its reputation in the years that followed has been largely negative. Summaries in books and websites are almost always critical, while the comments from McGoohan himself in later interviews are full of outright hatred. As a result, later generations of McGoohan fans who were curious about the program had little information to consult; and, most importantly, they were unable to view it. How was a discerning viewer able to get access to the show, 1) to watch it for entertainment, and 2) to analyze and evaluate it?
Today, thanks to DVDs and internet streaming, footage of just about everything from pop culture's shadowy past eventually surfaces online or on disc. Rafferty has been no exception. Copies of the series' thirteen episodes began circulating on the DVD collector's market a few years ago. This has provided McGoohan fans (and connoisseurs of obscure TV) with a long-awaited opportunity to finally see the program, as well as to make their own judgments about its quality. While many books, websites and years of study have been dedicated to The Prisoner and Secret Agent, comparatively little has been written about Rafferty. Apart from cast lists and episode summaries, detailed information on the show is still scarce. With September 2012 having marked the 35th anniversary of its U.S. premiere, perhaps the time is due for an in-depth look at the series, analyzing just what Rafferty was, and was not.
HISTORY AND PRODUCTION
In the spring of 1977, writer/producer James Lee came up with the idea for a medical series featuring a gruff, individualistic doctor. He pitched the idea to executive producer Jerry Thorpe who liked the premise enough to give Lee the go-ahead to put the series in production. By this time, the two men had a proven track record in television. Lee had been a producer and writer for the anthology series Omnibus in the fifties, the law drama The Defenders in the sixties, and the groundbreaking miniseries Roots which (along with Rafferty) aired in 1977. He later produced the successful miniseries Napoleon & Josephine: A Love Story in 1987. Thorpe (also an occasional director) had executive-produced many notable series over the years including The Untouchables, Kung Fu, and later, Falcon Crest. With solid TV experience between them, Rafferty looked as though it might be a hit.
Lee teamed up with Norman S. Powell and Robert Van Scoyk to produce the series. They sent out scripts and one found its way to McGoohan. "I don't like to read pilot scripts," he told TV Guide in 1977. "Too many pilots never sell. But my agent sent me this script. I liked this doctor guy." He added, "Doctors are important. But plumbers and garbage collectors are even more important. If [they] go on strike, that's when we need doctors." The Boston Globe quoted him around the same time: "The philosophy of the series is that doctors are angels of mercy, hospitals are sanctuaries, they're there to help us when we need."
With a lead of McGoohan's stature signed on, and medical series still popular in primetime, all the pieces were in place for success. By the summer, filming was underway on an initial order of thirteen episodes. Thorpe was happy with his choice for the series' lead, telling TV Guide that McGoohan "is a consummate performer. There's an enormous amount of spontaneity in his acting. He finds fresh ways of doing clichés." Yet, he acknowledged McGoohan's personality and the distance he kept from those around him: "If there's anything people find abrasive, it probably grows out of his shyness ... I like him personally, but we have not socialized. I don't think we will." Co-producer Norman Powell said positive things as well to the Ventura County Press Courier: "McGoohan is involved in every aspect of the creative process. He's a workaholic. He is very strongly involved in making this the best possible series."
Thorpe had every reason to be optimistic. He had recently produced the detective series Harry O, starring David Janssen, which ran from 1974-76. Janssen played sarcastic, world-weary private eye Harry Orwell, who lived in a beachside bungalow, rode the bus everywhere (due to his perennially broken-down car), and was quick with smart-aleck remarks to cops and crooks alike.
Here, the parallels between McGoohan and Janssen are worth noting. Both actors were born within three years of each other, in 1928 and 1931 respectively; and both achieved their greatest fame in the mid-1960s while in their mid-thirties: Janssen with The Fugitive (running 120 episodes from 1963-67); and McGoohan with Secret Agent and The Prisoner (64 episodes combined, running 1964-68). By the mid-1970s, after a slight fall-off in their careers, they both ended up in the title roles on shows produced by Jerry Thorpe, portraying gruff loners who did things their own way. Thorpe even directed the pilot episodes for both series. Yet, while Harry O had a successful run of two seasons, Rafferty (as we shall see) barely lasted a fraction of that time.
Rafferty was one of the first programs of the new season to debut (two weeks earlier than usual), airing on Monday, September 5th on CBS. Interestingly, it was the only medical drama on the air during the 1977-78 season. As a result, it garnered much attention from critics and those within the TV industry. However, the show had its work cut out for it ratings-wise: it aired at 10pm opposite ABC's Monday Night Football and the NBC Movie of the Week. McGoohan himself acknowledged this in TV Guide: "When O.J. [Simpson] is on, I'll be watchin' him. I'm not denigratin' my show. I never watch my show, except when I have directed it."
Dr. Sidney Rafferty, a widower, is an army doctor with 23 years of military service who has since retired. He is now on staff at City General Hospital in Los Angeles, where he diagnoses patients and performs surgery when needed. The rest of the time he runs a private practice, assisted by his receptionist, Nurse Vera Wales (Millie Slavin), and his young protégé, Dr. Daniel Gentry (John Getz). Rafferty is gruff, sarcastic and cantankerous with an individual streak. In an article by Don Freeman, McGoohan elaborated on the character: "We've got a real doctor here in Sid Rafferty. He is a doctor, one of the few, I must say, with a heart and a soul and a mind, and he is not just interested in sending out bills. Furthermore, he doesn't carry malpractice insurance and for a good reason -- he doesn't intend to malpractice. He won't be driving about in a fine car, either. It will be serviceable, although not as dilapidated as Columbo's."
Each episode sees him dealing with a medical crisis that usually brings him into conflict with patients, members of their family or any number of hospital staff. He does things his own way, and doesn't like bureaucratic red tape. In extreme situations, he takes matters into his own hands, such as performing emergency surgery (without permission) on a stabbing victim; to racing around town trying to find the cause of a botulism outbreak; to traveling to the scene of a wildfire to confirm the symptoms of a suspected plague. Being a product of 1970s television, there is no serialization or continuing plots between installments. Each story is self-contained, and the episodes can be watched in any order.
Rafferty's wardrobe is simple. He sports a light or dark blue dress shirt while in the hospital, and wears a grey blazer when going out. Occasionally, he wears a short-brimmed fedora. Whether this image was McGoohan's idea or the costume designer's is unknown, but Rafferty projects a unique appearance from the rest of the hospital staff. In one episode, a policewoman remarks, "He doesn't look like a doctor." A fellow physician replies, "And he is a disreputable character." Rafferty, within earshot, quietly responds, "Thank you."
With his puffy, 1970s hair and thick-rimmed glasses, McGoohan barely resembles the John Drake of 1965. Gone is the smooth, charming mid-Atlantic accent he spoke with in Secret Agent and The Prisoner. Instead, Rafferty's delivery is abrupt, clipped and sometimes high-pitched. He is often indifferent to (or sometimes annoyed with) everyone around him. He occasionally shows absent-mindedness, from losing notes and phone numbers in his office, to asking people to repeat themselves during conversations. These touches add to a true quirky character. Yet, Rafferty has a sensitive side as well. In scenes with sick children, or with co-workers during personal moments, it's obvious that he's a good guy with the requisite heart of gold. Regardless, McGoohan commands viewers' attention whenever he's onscreen.
Millie Slavin does a good job as Vera. She has a world-weary tone and a droll sense of humor -- apparently she's seen it all during her career as a nurse and receptionist. She's also one of the few who isn't rattled by Rafferty's gruffness. She's knows he has a sensitive side, and he respects her as well. As a result, their onscreen rapport is one of the series' highlights. Slavin has appeared many films and TV shows including St. Elsewhere, Forever Young, The Truman Show and Collateral Damage.
The nature of Rafferty and Vera's relationship is hard to figure out. Most summaries of the show state that she is madly in unrequited love with him, yet several episodes hint that they’re in a relationship. They're seen eating dinner in his apartment in "The Narrow Thread"; attending a symphony in "The Cutting Edge"; and even leaving for a vacation together at the beginning of "No Yesterday and No Tomorrow." However, other episodes contradict this. In "The Price of Pain", Vera asks Rafferty out for a Mexican dinner, and he replies, "You never give up, do you?" And in "Will To Live", when Rafferty brings Vera home to treat her while she is sick, he remarks that it's the first time he's ever been in her apartment. Perhaps the writers wanted to keep the couple's relationship vague, allowing it to go either way in viewers' minds.
John Getz adequately fills the role of Dan Gentry that of the young, handsome sidekick to the older, leading man. He appears in most of the episodes, even taking the lead in one story when Rafferty is out of town. Getz performs with an easygoing, friendly air that makes him a good counterpoint to Rafferty's crustiness. The series came early in Getz's career, and he later carved out an impressive resume as a character actor. He's appeared in such diverse films as The Fly, Zodiac and The Social Network; and has guest-starred in many TV shows including Three's Company, Murphy Brown, The West Wing and Mad Men. In 1984, he played the lead role in the Coen Brothers' excellent directorial debut, Blood Simple.
The rest of the cast is filled out with recurring characters that appear throughout the series. They include Joan Pringle as Nurse Beryl Keynes, David Clennon as Dr. Calvin (Rafferty's main foil at City General), Michael C. Gwynne as Dr. Prud'homme, and Craig Wasson as the young resident, Dr. Furey. Also, in a clever casting touch, McGoohan's wife, Joan, "plays" Rafferty's wife. In a panning shot around his office in the pilot, the photos that we see on the wall of the late Mrs. Rafferty are really those of Joan McGoohan.
REVIEWS AND CANCELLATION
Two major entertainment magazines started things off well. The editors of TV Guide had positive words about the series the week it premiered, calling McGoohan "excellent in the title role." Yet their optimism for the program was misplaced, when they stated that while "Rafferty is one of the first new series to arrive this season, it's not likely to be the first to leave..." A review in Variety was upbeat as well: "McGoohan's medic is as brilliant as any of his film and TV predecessors," and "the show was aided by first-rate production values and crisp direction, which did a good deal to gloss over the weakness of the script and characterizations."
The major national newspapers included ads for the new CBS shows. The promo for Rafferty used a pensive close-up of McGoohan with the following over-the-top slogan: "Come hell or hospital foul-ups -- no one steps between Rafferty and his patients!" In smaller type below, the hype continued: "Disease and red tape are his enemies. Guts and dedication are his ammo. Patrick McGoohan is the rugged, outspoken doctor you want on (and at!) your side!"
Reviews in the national papers were mixed. If a writer was critical about the show however, they almost always praised McGoohan. In the New York Times, John J. O'Connor stated that Rafferty was "the same old medical-show song in a different key, [but] McGoohan's hard-edged performance may make this one worth listening to occasionally." In the Los Angeles Times, Cecil Smith observed that the show was "routine stuff made watchable primarily because of McGoohan. He is, as always, one of the most gifted actors in this windblown diversion and is a pleasure to watch. Though this is not The Prisoner, not by miles." After a summary of the pilot, he finished his review with a sigh, ironically stating, "It looks like a long season."
Carole Ashkinaze of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution listed Rafferty as a "best bet" in a preview of the new season. She admitted that the paper's writing staff "were Patrick McGoohan fans to begin with, and he's won us over with his portrayal of perhaps the first TV doctor with human failings." In the same paper two days later, critic Paul Jones dedicated several paragraphs of his column to the show, calling McGoohan "just right for the part ... a hard-nosed Irishman [who's] ... a fine actor, a good writer and a top director." He added, "[McGoohan's] own personality suggests that he is a man not far different from Rafferty -- a man who might confound, upset and overturn the world of medicine now and then."
Apparently these reviews were based just on the pilot, which was a good effort, and probably the only episode available for critics to sample. Yet not every review was positive this early. Charles Witbeck, in a syndicated article lamented, "the new medical hour [brings] yawns because it's so predictable. Kids could ad-lib the dialogue, and tell what was coming next since we've seen it all before." Jay Sharbutt of the Youngstown Vindicator prophetically stated, "McGoohan has a cult following from his fine Secret Agent and The Prisoner series, but even this and his superior acting need a real miracle -- better writing -- to keep Rafferty alive past December."
As the weeks wore on, the few later reviews that appeared were hardly positive once the weaknesses of the series became apparent. By far, the most negative (yet funniest) comments came from an article by Jim Tripodi of the Beaver County (Pennsylvania) Times. Here are some highlights:
"Rafferty is the greatest doctor in the world. If you don't believe it, just ask him. The guy can diagnose disease faster than a speeding bullet and can perform medical miracles in 60 minutes or less."
"The series is a drama, or attempts to be a drama. The continual crisis that plagues the good doctor in just one hour makes the show laughable."
"His bedside manners are that of a two-car accident."
"It would seem Rafferty is ... a one-man crusader against everything from acne to cancer. If it were up to [him], he would be the hospital administrator, chief surgeon, consultant, scrub nurse, dietician and chief of security."
"Once a smooth operator on "Secret Agent" and "The Prisoner", McGoohan has taken on a different method of delivery; like a guy trying to squeeze out words between bouts with heartburn. His slow, choppy speaking urges the viewer to switch [to "Monday Night Football"] to the soothing voice of Howard Cosell."
Indeed, Rafferty ended up being a huge step down from the high quality of McGoohan's previous two series. The show was best summed up years later by McGoohan biographer Rupert Booth in 2011: "[The] storylines were predictable and the format largely uninspired, saved only from mediocrity by the lead performance."
It was obvious that the series was stuck in a tired formula, with lackluster writing and direction. The conflict for most episodes involved Rafferty trying to convince a stubborn patient that they needed a certain medical treatment, which they, in turn, refused for any number of reasons. On cue, this would bring Rafferty into a series of arguments with everyone from the patient's family to fellow hospital staff to judges, the police, and anyone else in range of the good doctor's crusty demeanor. The disease-of-the-week was usually explained in a scene of expositional dialog, acting as "painless" medical education for the viewer (or maybe just to prove that the writers did actual medical research).
Looking at what Rafferty dealt with over the course of the series, the episodes could have been titled with the name of that week's ailment, and no one would have been the wiser:
"Brothers and Sons" (Kidney Transplant)
"A Point Of View" (Hysterical Blindness)
"The Cutting Edge" (Brain Tumor)
"The Narrow Thread" (Deafness)
"The Epidemic" (Botulism)
"The Wild Child" (Tourette's Syndrome)
"Will To Live" (Viral Infection)
"Walking Wounded" (Anorexia Nervosa)
"No Yesterday and No Tomorrow" (Brain Aneurysm)
"The Price of Pain" (Drug Addiction/Coma)
"The Burning Man" (Pneumonic Plague)
"Death Out Of a Blue Sky" (Medical Cause of a Plane Crash)
At this rate, if the show hadn't been cancelled, the writers probably would have run out of diseases to focus on.
In the end, death came, not out of a blue sky, but rather from the office of the network president. Having run just under three months, with soft ratings, mixed reviews, and an unhappy star (as we shall see), there was little protest when show was quietly cancelled -- one of the first to go from the new season. Three episodes remained unaired, due to the series having been preempted on October 10th, 24th and November 21st. Little was said in the papers at the time (unlike today, when the slightest change to every show makes news online and in print). TV Guide included the phrase "Last show of the series" after the summary of the November 28th episode. It also announced that the Robert Wagner detective show Switch would take over Rafferty's timeslot the following week (ironically Switch would be cancelled by the end of the season anyway).
By the end of the year, McGoohan was in Canada filming Kings and Desperate Men written and directed by his Prisoner co-star, Alexis Kanner. By 1978 and '79, he secured high-profile roles in Brass Target and Escape from Alcatraz, so his career was not hurting in any way after the cancellation of Rafferty. Without a doubt, he was glad to put it behind him and move on.
CRITIQUE OF SERIES
Of all the words said about Rafferty, both positive and negative, the most damning comments came from the star himself. During a resurgence in his career in 1985, while he was appearing in Pack of Lies on Broadway, McGoohan was the subject of two major interviews in which he discussed his career. Talking to Bill King for Anglofile magazine, McGoohan said flat-out that Rafferty was "a disaster ... the most miserable job I've ever done in my life ... a total frustration from start to finish." To Ed Siegel of The Boston Globe, he called Rafferty a "horrendous experience ... the antithesis of having the artistic freedom of The Prisoner." With seven years of hindsight, McGoohan was probably happy to finally explain what happened back in 1977.
How did this show that seemed to have the ingredients of a hit, that had a star and producers with vast TV experience, fail in such a short time? Upon analysis, several reasons present themselves (supported by McGoohan's comments from the King and Siegel interviews).
The first problem was weak scripts. Apparently, a stable of writers churned out stories that could have played unchanged on any other medical drama. "The scripts [were] monstrous pieces of garbage, [with] no time to rewrite them," McGoohan recalled. "I couldn't get any decent scripts, and I remember saying to one gentleman who was supposedly in charge -- this is when I had a script delivered and couldn't believe what I had read -- 'I will give half my salary to anyone who can find a writer.' But that would be setting a precedent you know, this sort of attitude. So we were all delighted to part company." At the very least, McGoohan recognized the importance of good stories, without which, makes it difficult to keep an audience or to ensure a program’s survival.
Second, was tension behind the scenes. Trouble apparently hit right from the start, as McGoohan's plans for the character differed from what the producers wanted. "... I had been promised all sorts of things that were going to happen to make it an original series. And they didn't transpire," he explained. "I wanted him to be a roving doctor. And they promised me this would happen. And instead of that, I was spending all my time walking up and down fucking hospital corridors! I said, 'Get me out of this fucking hospital!' Because it's been done to death. There's nothing new to say about that."
Interestingly, the producers themselves alluded to this conflict at the time. Jerry Thorpe said in TV Guide, "[McGoohan's] difficult on a script. He is very critical. If something doesn't appear to be in character, he lets you know ... His standards are inordinately high." Norman Powell said to the Press Courier, "[McGoohan] doesn't like to think he is in TV. He sees it as making a lot of little features which creates some conflict, since Warner Brothers thinks it is making a TV series." With Lee in charge of stories and scripts, and Powell in charge of casting and production details, there was little left for McGoohan to oversee.
He explained this Hollywood mindset: "[Producers will] say, 'We'll let you do what you want,' but then they realize the individual wants to do something individualistic, as opposed to en masse and according to an ordinary pattern that they're conditioned to ... well that's when, you see, the individual goes out the window. Because it's done on a conveyor belt, and you're making sausages of a certain shape and size." Authority on the show wasn't delegated well, either. "There were too many people in charge and all passing the buck," McGoohan recalled. "I counted them. There were 11 people who thought that they were the 'creators' of this load of garbage. But you couldn't find one to take responsibility [when it failed]."
McGoohan was a perfectionist who thrived on having major input in the productions he starred in. Although he began as "just" the lead role in Secret Agent, he soon increased his input in the program, from having say in the development of his character, to eventually directing episodes. This experience, of course, led to The Prisoner where he had total control as executive producer, as well as the help of a seasoned and talented crew to back him up. Rafferty was none of these things. Thorpe, Lee, Powell, etc. called the shots by hiring writers, directors and crew. Scripts were churned out with little time to analyze or rewrite them. With McGoohan stuck in the middle, something was bound to suffer -- namely, the quality of the show. Once caught in this situation, it was no wonder he was "miserable." Factor in his dislike of the series, along with a tough timeslot, and it became a poisonous combination. There was no way the series could have lasted longer than it did.
During this frustrating experience, one wonders what McGoohan was like on the set, and how he treated the cast and crew. A clue comes in a 1981 interview with actress Morgan Fairchild who guest-starred in the episode "A Point Of View." She told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Two weeks after I got [to Hollywood], I was working in a Rafferty. Patrick McGoohan was a doll, very encouraging. I was playing a blind Peace Corps worker, and finding it difficult. I'd never played anyone blind." Although McGoohan might have been unhappy, he apparently kept a professional, friendly demeanor toward his colleagues.
A third point to consider for the series' failure is the character of Rafferty himself. With his gruff crustiness and McGoohan's idiosyncratic performance, Rafferty was, at times, a hard person to warm up to. Sure, he had his friendly, sympathetic moments, but his clipped, high-pitched delivery, and frequent conflicts with other characters might have been a turn-off for casual viewers. In 1977, the viewing public probably wasn't ready for such a quirky, sarcastic character for a series lead. Viewers were still getting used to acerbic personalities such as Archie Bunker from All in the Family and the title character from its spin-off Maude (which aired just before Rafferty on Monday nights). Also, it would have been doubly difficult to accept a character like Rafferty in a medical drama, while the soothing, nostalgic memories of Dr. Kildare and Marcus Welby, M.D. were still fresh in viewers' minds.
Yet things would change within the next few years, beginning with J.R. Ewing and Alexis Carrington -- the over-the-top villains of Dallas and Dynasty. While they were larger-than-life characters meant to be disliked, little by little, ambiguity, realism and human failings began to define mainstream television characters more and more. By the 1980s, Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere broke down the last barriers for gritty realism in characters. Today, we expect these characteristics in our series' leads. Consider the incredible success of the most popular programs of the past decade -- The Sopranos, The Wire, Lost, Deadwood and Breaking Bad to name a few. All feature flawed antiheros in lead roles that were unthinkable twenty or thirty years ago. Next to them, Sid Rafferty looks tame by comparison. In his own quirky and obscure way, he was ahead of his time.
Finally, one can bluntly state that it was low ratings that killed the show. Rafferty couldn't stand up against the Movie of the Week and Monday Night Football. If the series' star himself was watching the game with everyone else, then what chance did the show have?
However, upon viewing Rafferty decades later, one can see that it wasn't a complete disaster -- it's actually not as bad as its reputation has led people to believe. While McGoohan was justified in hating the worst episodes, he may have been unfairly harsh toward the better stories. The Pilot, "The Cutting Edge" and "Walking Wounded" are all acceptable, entertaining hours of television. Interestingly, the better episodes always seemed to contain McGoohan's best performances -- coincidence? Plus, several stories actually got Rafferty out of the hospital, with varying degrees of success ("The Wild Child", "Death Out Of a Blue Sky"). Obviously, some attention was paid to his requests for a "roving doctor" premise.
As for the bad episodes, many had decent premises that could have been salvaged with better writing and directing. Probably the biggest mistake on the part of the writers, was not taking advantage more of the unique character of Rafferty. His past as an army doctor, along with his vast medical experience and non-conformist demeanor should have been enough to provide several good storylines (or to at least accent any mediocre scripts). One wonders how (or if) the series could have improved if McGoohan had more control over the production.
Regardless, Rafferty was simply ordinary, middle-of-the-road, network television -- everything Patrick McGoohan (and his career) was not.
LEGACY AND HOUSE
In an effort to make more money out of the failed show, Warner Brothers sold the program to other countries. It aired in Sydney, Australia in the summer of 1978; while Thames Television in the U.K. broadcast the series later that year into early-1979. Apparently, these screenings were the only times the series was ever rerun.
As the years went on, Rafferty still garnered the occasional negative comment, when it wasn't the answer to a trivia question or listed as a footnote to McGoohan's career. In a 1987 article, columnist Ron Miller of the San Jose Mercury News, was looking back on his first decade as a television critic. He recalled that Rafferty was the first show he reviewed in his first column from September 1977. He repeated the amusing comments he made at the time, saying that the program "insulted the intelligence of anybody who'd ever been to a doctor," and that, "accident victims in Rafferty's town should carry cards advising ambulance attendants to leave them lying in the street rather than take them to Rafferty."
In 1989, Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik included an entry on Rafferty in their excellent reference book, Harry & Wally's Favorite TV Shows. They observed the character of Rafferty as "a tight-lipped enigma" who "might explode at any moment in an argument (usually over some matter of principle)." They called the stories "equally puzzling, reflecting an obvious desire to break from the boundaries of the hospital corridors, but not all certain where to go." They concluded their write-up with McGoohan's 1985 "miserable job" comment, adding that "afterward, he kept his distance from U.S. television productions."
The series lay forgotten for another decade or so, until a new medical show inspired viewers to reconsider the premise of Rafferty in an updated context. In November 2004, a U.K.-based actor speaking with an American accent, who had relocated to Los Angeles, premiered in the title role of a sarcastic, gruff, individualistic doctor at odds with his patients and staff in a new medical series. Sound familiar? No, McGoohan didn't revive Rafferty after 27 years. Instead, the show was House, MD, starring Oxford-born Hugh Laurie as the cantankerous title character, Dr. Gregory House. Each episode saw him and his staff racing to treat that week's patient who was suffering from mysterious life-threatening symptoms. Along the way, House would come into conflict with everyone from his hospital administrator to his diagnostic team to the patients themselves. Everything was served with a healthy dose of insults and rule-breaking, just before a cure was found in time for the closing credits.
The similarities between the shows are notable, to the point where most online descriptions of Rafferty have since been reduced to the simple phrase of "a precursor to House." Both programs even had episodes directed by their star actors! Yet, there are marked differences as well. While Rafferty lasted barely half a season, House would go on for an astounding eight years and 177 episodes. At one point (after it was in syndication), it was the most-watched TV series in the world. How was it able to hang on for so long? Evidently, House got right several points that Rafferty got wrong.
First, House had a diagnostic team to explain his motivations to (as well as to insult). They were a "cushion" between him and everyone else, so at least he wasn't insulting patients directly. Rafferty was a lone-wolf who had only Vera and Dan to explain his reasoning to (if at all). Apart from them, he dealt directly with patients and staff who saw his gruffness up-close. Also, the motivation for Rafferty's behavior was never fully explained. His regimented military background, or residual grief over his late wife, could be possible reasons. House, on the other hand, was the victim of a failed leg operation that left him with a painful limp and an addiction to Vicodin. His bitterness over this handicap at least explained his gruffness, and made his meanness a bit more "acceptable."
House also succeeded by properly focusing on its title character. The stories were based around him and how he fit in to that week's crisis. Viewers didn't tune in for diseases and cures, they watched for House's opinions, expertise and sarcasm that was unique to him. Rafferty merely filled a token doctor role, simply reacting to what was happening around him, with little in the way of character development. Again, the Rafferty writers didn't know how much potential they had in their lead character.
Finally, Rafferty had uninspired, self-contained episodes in a more conservative time. The show was poised on a crucial cusp in the evolution of the medical drama. Gone were the years of Dr. Kildare and Marcus Welby, idealistic doctors who worked in conditions with hardly a trace of blood. Ahead lay the era of St. Elsewhere and ER -- gritty medical shows that focused on everything that was wrong with the doctors as well as the patients. It was in this period of transition that Rafferty found itself, with an undeveloped, idiosyncratic lead, reacting his way through not-quite-yet unconventional storylines.
By the mid-2000s, House was able to succeed in a more accepting time -- that of the post-Sopranos era, with gritty, serialized stories and characters sporting ironic, sarcastic attitudes. It was perfectly acceptable for House to be an outright jerk, whereas Rafferty required the stereotypical heart of gold. House, popping his Vicodin, was a drug addict as well -- something McGoohan wouldn't have allowed on his show (or Rafferty in his hospital, for that matter). Even if Rafferty had been perfect on all counts, it still took another three decades until the viewing public was ready for such a doctor.
Another interesting link between the two shows deserves a mention. The Laughing Prisoner was a 1987 UK special written by and starring Stephen Fry and Jools Holland. It's mainly an extended comedy skit, involving Holland being abducted to the Village with Fry as the No.2 character. There are song interludes from bands of the time (including XTC and Siouxie & The Banshees) performing on location in the Village. McGoohan, as No.6, appears via archive footage from the original series. Interestingly, in a small role, is Stephen Fry's long-time friend and comedy partner, Hugh Laurie.
Apart from the Australia and U.K. screenings, Rafferty has not been seen since its original U.S. airing. In the years that followed, new generations of McGoohan fans would inevitably learn about the series' existence, but were unable to see it. Today, comments regarding the show online always include questions about its availability. As of this writing (September 2012), it has yet to be officially released on DVD. However, it is available if one is curious enough to search it out. An early VCR owner in the U.K. recorded all thirteen episodes from the Thames screening. It is from this source that the show has been burned to DVD, and sold through collectors' websites over the past few years. We are fortunate that this has happened, since the show would be impossible to see otherwise.
However, if any readers are interested in acquiring these DVDs, a word of warning: the picture quality is extremely poor, bordering on unwatchable. At times, it seems the original VHS tape was getting chewed in the machine as it was being transferred to DVD. In many places, the image is completely scrambled, making for a difficult viewing experience. The rest of the time, the quality is acceptable (suffering only from faded color), but it's still a chore to get through. All copies currently for sale online appear to be from this source. There is always the slim chance of better VHS copies resurfacing, but until that happens (or if there is an official release), this is the only way to view the show.
Yet, we should be grateful that even these copies exist. This isn't the case for many other forgotten failures, such as Hot L Baltimore, Norman Lear's short-lived 1975 sitcom. Another thirteen-episode obscurity, this program hasn't turned up anywhere in recent years, apart from a 30-second promo online. Unofficial copies have not surfaced, apparently because no one taped the original broadcast in 1975. Internet searches for this series also bring up the inevitable questions about its availability. Thankfully, Rafferty is around in some form for us to view today!
Potential viewers should also keep in mind that Rafferty is not some forgotten gem awaiting rediscovery. It is not a treasure trove of brilliant stories or famous guest stars. It is simply an average TV show that died a quick death, and nothing more. Once someone sees it for themselves, they can finally agree, "Yes, it not that good. I understand now why it didn't last." As a result, it will be a tough sell for the home video market. The obvious selling points are McGoohan's presence and the similarities to House, but that might not be enough to reel in potential buyers today.
Still, if several thousand McGoohan fans showed an interest somehow, it might cause the studio to consider a release. A small hope is that the show is owned by Warner Brothers who specialize in the Warner Archive Collection. This consists of MOD (Manufacture-On-Demand) DVDs that are pressed in small quantities according to how many orders are placed. The previously-mentioned David Janssen series, Harry O (which is also owned by Warner), was finally released on DVD through the Archive in July 2012. Viewing this set, it's apparent that the series has not undergone any significant remastering. Occasional dirt or graininess is present throughout the episodes, but overall, the picture quality is very good. At least an effort was made to get the best prints from the vaults, and transfer them to DVD to finally make the show available.
Rafferty would be an excellent candidate for this program. A prospective release wouldn't need to be very elaborate with extras or deluxe packaging. Most fans would simply be happy with good-quality copies of the thirteen episodes in a three or four-disc set. Anything would be an improvement over the unofficial copies that are floating around. Most importantly, an official release would provide McGoohan fans with a nice opportunity to see him in something "new."
So with Rafferty virtually forgotten by the general public, and the episodes sitting in the vaults with little chance of a future release, the current state of the show's existence can truly be described as one of "no yesterday and no tomorrow." However, that scenario might change with news of an official release (it would be fantastic to update this article one day with such an announcement). In the meantime, the unofficial copies are out there for the truly dedicated to find their way to. Many facets of pop culture are rediscovered and reevaluated through the tenacity of fans, and this obscure footnote to a great actor's career is no exception. For audiences and critics of the time, Rafferty was forgettable; but for admirers of Patrick McGoohan today, it remains essential viewing.
Many thanks to Rick Davy, Lara Dent and Bill King for their assistance during the writing of this article.
(Part Two, an in-depth episode guide to Rafferty, can be found HERE.)
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www.imdb.com/title/tt0075562 (Internet Movie Database entry on Rafferty)
http://ctva.biz/US/Medical/Rafferty.htm (Classic TV Archive entry on Rafferty)
www.tvrage.com/shows/id-12678 (TV Rage entry on Rafferty)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_MD (Wikipedia entry on House)
(This article © 2012 by Tom Mayer.)
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