“The Iron Doctor” is an astute and thought-
provoking 50 minutes of television. When viewed for the first time some four decades after its original transmission one is initially struck by the subjectively negative artefacts of the legacy technology used in its production (though these are easily overlooked) but latterly also by the realisation that it was made in an era when modulation content was clearly of higher value than transmission capacity. Times have certainly changed!
The narrative is set in an experimental "computer therapeutic unit" of a fictional hospital where a new "2090MD" model mainframe computer actively maintains a physiological data-
set of every patient on the ward. Though initially installed as a collective "life- support" aid for terminally ill patients; the new machine also runs a "survival index experiment" - an AI routine for "theoretical" evaluation and treatment.
The drama arises from the conflict between the show's two guest antagonists -
James Maxwell's Whittaker (project administrator; surgeon and programmer who is a proponent of the machine) and Barry Foster's Carson (duty ward doctor who believes in established medical practice). Though both characters are motivated by the same goal (healing the sick) their diametrically opposed methods clash when the computer acts independently and discontinues active treatment - effectively killing off the patients.
From a technologist's perspective the "2090MD" is something of an enigma. The average audience in 1971 (being largely unfamiliar with the capabilities of real mainframe technology) might have accepted the machine’s capacity for independent volition and ability to develop its own defence mechanisms just as much as simultaneously maintaining the entire ward’s electrocardiography; electroencephalography
and biochemistry requirements (though the required interface probes are all strangely absent on screen).
Viewing the show in this manner certainly heightens its dramatic poignancy -
though no doubt such a sensibility will be lost on the contemporary viewer. We know the first microprocessor only arrived on the market later that year; that the 8- bit byte was only just becoming the de- facto standard and that at the time of the show’s transmission, the embryonic precursor to the internet (arpanet) had just fourteen nodes in operation. Despite these facts, modern viewers do benefit in other ways - Brian Hayles’ script focuses on the moral consequences of a fictional science and keeps real technical detail to a minimum.
If “The Iron Doctor” was re-
made for a modern audience; other than an accelerated pace and more polished production values; little, if anything would be achieved. Though it has the twin virtues of interesting characterisation and believable performances it also maintains a relevant premise. The warning it contains is still valid - today’s technology is little closer to reality than the scenario presented here. By these measures it has withstood the test of time admirably and comes highly recommended.