M*A*S*H (1972) – Chief Surgeon Who?, The Moose, and Yankee Doodle Doctor

Larry Gelbart who developed M*A*S*H for television pens Chief Surgeon, Who? which first aired on 8 October, 1972. The episode features the first appearance of Jamie Farr as Cpl. Klinger, a soldier intent on being sectioned out of Korea by dressing in women’s clothing. The character became so popular he shortly became a series regular.

As friction continues between Major Frank Burns (Larry Linville) and Hawkeye (Alan Alda) the major goes to Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) to complain, about the captain’s lack of respect, following military protocol, and his general behaviour. Henry decides that the unit needs a chief surgeon, and that may help control some of the problems that are arising.

Frank is ready for the job.

Henry gives it to Hawkeye.

Problems ensue.

Frank and Major Houlihan (Loretta Swit) reach out to General Barker (Sorrell Booke) who comes to investigate, and realises despite Hawkeye’s attitude and behaviours, he is the best surgeon in the camp, and is deserving of the position – something Frank grudgingly accepts.

Throughout there is great dialogue, gags, and Alan Alda modelling a behaviour a sought so hard to emulate as a child (without the drinking or carousing). Just his sense of attitude (‘what’s the worse that can happen? I’m already in a war.’) and his wit, man, I so wanted to be like him.

The episode also features a blink and you miss it appearance by an uncredited James Tolkan!

It’s pretty amazing, that so early in the series the episodes are sharp, well-written and performed, and everything feels like it just clicks.

The Moose was written by Laurence Marks and first aired on 15 October, 1972. This is the first episode that shows that the series can deal with issues, and not just sling jokes and martinis.

That being said. There’s still some laughs in this episode. The story follows the arrival of a bigoted sergeant, Baker (Paul Jenkins) in the camp, with his ‘moose’ a young Korean woman, Young Hi (Virginia Ann Lee) he’s bought as a servant.

Apparently, this actually happened, and the Army would stop those they found doing it, but didn’t go looking for it. It seems some families, who had no other means, would sell their children for money, just so that they could survive.

Hawkeye, Trapper (Wayne Rogers) and Jones (Timothy Brown) are determined to do something about it. But I think the writer missed a huge opportunity here, they should have made Jones the central character in the story, considering the fact that he’s African American, and would have been able to really bring a refined point to the episode.

Instead, it’s mainly left to Hawkeye, which is fine – even if he has to cheat at poker to do it- , as we know Baker will get his just desserts, but it’s not quite as satisfying as it could have been.

And after the poker game, how does Hawkeye convince Young Hi that she’s free, and can return home with honour even as she cleans up the Swamp and is determined to stay and work for Hawkeye.

So the entire camp works to educate her and teach her to be her own person, to grow, learn, and become a free person with all that means – but what does that mean for her perceived ‘duty’ to her family?

By episode’s end, she finds her own way, but what about the rest of the families that sell their own into servitude?

Yankee Doodle Doctor was also written by Marks and debuted on 22 October, 1972.

A Lt. Bricker (Ed Flanders) arrives in the camp with orders to make a promotional film about a M*A*S*H unit, with Burns providing narration, the film turns into a propaganda piece filled with false heroics, that doesn’t wash with Hawkeye and Trapper, so they decide to start again, and replace the army’s film with one they shoot themselves…

Let the zaniness begin!

With help from Radar (Gary Burghoff) and Cutler (Marica Strassman) the duo make a wonderful goofy film, with nods to the Marx Brothers, but will the upper echelons approve of their madcap offering?

The episode, while some enjoyable moments, also touches on the realities of war, and what the doctors do in the camp as Hawkeye reminds us in the movie’s coda.

It’s a great episode, and I cannot wait to dig into more of them next week, as I explore that treasure from my childhood… M*A*S*H.

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