Doctor Stranger: Episode 1
There’s a new doctor in the house with Doctor Stranger, whose solid and compelling premiere still makes my heart race. And no, I’m not just talking about Lee Jong-seok’s abs, which I admit is a pretty big draw. I’m speaking to the great visuals, a gripping story, and characters who tug your emotions from the very first hug to the very last minute.
I should probably warn you that this show isn’t for the squeamish, as the medical aspect of this show doesn’t hold out. The show also maneuvers the meaty topic of North-South relations rather well, and while the overall tone is serious, there are notable shifts which suggests the show doesn’t always take itself too seriously. Yet I find that the show keeps my attention glued to the screen for the full hour. Always a good sign, methinks.
Ratings-wise, the Monday-Tuesday dramas between the Big Three all hit the 8% range on Monday. Leading the pack was MBC’s Triangle (8.9%), then Doctor Stranger (8.6%), and finally KBS’s Big Man (8.0%).
SONG OF THE DAY
100% – “심장이 뛴다 (Beat)” [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
1994, Seoul. A young boy changes the channel from a newscast about the heightened North-South tension surrounding the North’s withdrawal to the Non-proliferation Treaty, along with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung’s recent lack of public appearances, in favor of a kid’s show. We can go ahead and identify him as our hero, PARK HOON (later portrayed by Lee Jong-seok).
A document lying on the table piques his curiosity, but when Hoon asks his father what a “lawsuit” is, Dad silently snatches it out of his hands. He pouts, but tries to get Dad’s attention again before he heads off to school. Judging from his dejected sigh, he’s used to being ignored.
A man at the door asks for Doctor Park Chul (Kim Sang-joong), who is none other than the boy’s father. Their guest, JANG SUK-JOO (Chun Ho-jin) is an assemblyman who works for the National Defense Committee, which prompts the doctor to remark that he didn’t think the National Assembly would try to stop a petty medical malpractice suit.
But he’s told that trial has been postponed for a more pressing matter of national importance: their latest intel suggests that the U.S. is preparing for an attack on the North, specifically the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Should that happen, the North would likely retaliate, which would lead to war.
Asked why the government would disclose such highly classified information to a thoracic surgeon at Myungwoo Hospital, Assemblyman Jang replies, “Because you can stop this war.”
Despite the frenzied response outside, young Hoon is still too wee to comprehend the gravity of the present situation. He marvels at the military tanks and helicopters passing by and offers a lollipop to the bodyguard standing outside the house.
He grows excited at the possibility of having lunch with Dad, but when he’s told to fend for himself tonight, he points towards their practically empty fridge. It’s sad how that also shows how much time Dad actually spends at home.
Watching the customers’ hysteria over the threat of war on the news, Hoon asks if they can’t go to the States if war does break out—that way, he could see Mom, too. Aw, kid. Dad says wars don’t happen that easily, but his expression darkens to see a political debate on the topic on TV.
Somewhere off the coast, a pair of soldiers gapes from their lookout to see a seaplane barge (the same one Assemblyman Jang mentioned that would be used in an attack on the North) roll along the sea.
Later that evening, Dad informs Assemblyman Jang that the x-ray indicates that the patient won’t last a month. At the mention that saving the heart in question will halt the threat of war, Dad proposes bringing the patient to the hospital. Problem is, the patient is in the North. Oh, it’s Kim Il-sung’s heart, isn’t it?
It is, which means that Dad would have to travel there to treat the patient. It’s imperative that they save the North Korean leader lest his death throws the country into a tizzy, which is also when the U.S. plans to strike.
Back at home, Hoon hesitantly picks up the phone to call Mom, only to overhear his parents arguing over who should look after him. Mom refuses, saying that she’s getting re-married soon and that she already cut ties with her past. Dad hears another click after she hangs up, letting him know that his son was listening in.
The following morning, Dad tells his son that someone will look after him and Mom will come for him then. But Hoon says he wants to be with his father. A tear falls from his eyes as he adds that Mom doesn’t want him anyway.
Hoon follows his father out to the car, and when it’s clear that Dad won’t say goodbye, Hoon says it for the both of them, saying in a breaking voice, “I’m off to school,” and walks away.
And while Dad might be distanced, he isn’t cold-hearted because the next thing we know, he runs back to embrace his son. Aww, daddy-child relationships make me go weak in the knees.
Dad secretly travels to the North via a silent exchange that takes place late at night somewhere in sea. Assemblyman Jang briefs the South Korean officials on current events, and the men balk at the one-man mission to prevent an all-out war.
In the event that Kim Il-sung passes away, the U.S. will take the opportunity to strike the North, who will retaliate with a counter-attack on both the U.S. military and more importantly, a South Korean nuclear facility. Even if war were to break out, the resulting radiation levels from the nuclear attack alone would render one-third of the nation unlivable for the next 200 years.
Up in the North, Dad prepares for surgery. Nothing like a firing squad at the ready to remind him (and us) that this life-or-death scenario isn’t just about the one lying on the operating table.
Then all the phones in the South Korean war room start ringing at once. Uh oh, that can’t be good news. It isn’t—the U.S. has signed off on a strike against the North.
Back in the operating room, we see the patient go into cardiac arrest, and Dad immediately starts CPR. One of the officers standing by sends a signal, and then Dad’s eyes widen to see little Hoon led into the room. With a gun pointed at his head. Holy crap.
But despite the tense situation, Dad keeps his cool as he proceeds, reaching inside the patient to massage the heart manually. Before he does, he takes one more look at his son, who gives him an assured nod.
The announcement of an imminent strike causes an uproar among the political leaders and the public, as the latter protests in front of the U.S. Embassy. Assemblyman Jang breaks through the crowd and marches into the building to confront the ambassador about the countless lives at stake.
Assemblyman Jang is interrupted so that the ambassador can finish his call, then they’re told that the operation has stopped, to their confusion…
…and then we see the heart start to beat on its own again. Ohthankgod. Dad prepares to wrap up the surgery, and fearless Hoon looks on with a proud smile.
Assemblyman Jang watches the newscast about the U.S. and North Korean armistice with amazement at how one man saved the entire world. The South Korean officials praise him for his efforts, and Jang’s bodyguard discovers the lollipop still in his pocket.
Turning to the TV, the bodyguard spots a pair of children. The boy on screen is none other than Hoon, who we see fiddle with a few loose strands to mimic the stitches his father performed in surgery.
He affirms to the little girl sitting with him that he’d like to become a doctor when he grows up because he finds saving lives is a magnificent idea. He’s initially taken aback by her beauty (aw), and she introduces herself as SONG JAE-HEE (later Jin Se-yeon).
Dad comes to collect him, and Hoon stops to wrap the stitched red bracelet around her wrist. “My name is Park Hoon,” he tells her.
In the car, Hoon notices that they’re being followed, and they soon find themselves surrounded by a firing squad. While entering a country might have been easy, leaving it is an entirely different matter, and Hoon asks if they aren’t going home. Dad replies, “I don’t think we can.”
Dad hold him close and covers his son’s eyes before shutting his own. They brace themselves for the inevitable, and the firing squad shoots.
Then we see Assemblyman Jang give a little smirk before stepping out to greet the media: “There’s no need for another hero in South Korea other than me, Jang Suk-joo.”
But in the cheering crowd of supporters, a woman demands to know what happened to her son. It’s Mom, who’s briskly pulled away, and the assemblyman drinks in the praise.
And then we cut back to the abandoned farmhouse, where Dad and Hoon find themselves unscathed, to their surprise. The same military officer from the operating room appears to tsk over how cruel the South Koreans are to abandon their own.
From this moment on, their South Korean identities have died and are henceforth North Korean, referring to Dad as “comrade.” Then the officer starts to applaud in what I think is a hearty welcome.
Some years later, an older Hoon (Lee Jong-seok) entertains a group of students by dancing to the Wonder Girls’ “Tell Me.” Pfft, is your deal going around and selling bootlegged Kpop tapes? Now I have the image of Lee Jong-seok dancing to a girl group forever etched in my memory.
He has to hastily pack up shop when he’s alerted that the teachers are coming (though he seems more amused than annoyed, hee) and runs through campus to avoid his pursuers.
He drops his goods before trying to escape into the gymnasium, only to find the door locked. To his luck, someone pulls him inside: Jae-hee (Jin Se-yeon). Holding her hand, he brings his face close to hers, and smiles. Aww.
Jae-hee tells him to keep quiet until his pursuers are gone, but Hoon says he can feel her pulse. Drawing his face near hers again, Hoon tells her that a person’s heartbeat is individually different, just like how people’s faces differs from one another. Then he pulls her into an embrace, letting her hear his: “Listen, but see how ours is the same.”
They stand there like that for a few lingering moments until Hoon pulls away and says that’s why they’re destined for each other. “I’ve decided something,” he starts, but Jae-hee drags him away by the ear. LOL.
Hoon asks if she’s really going to treat her destined match this way, to which she scoffs, amused. But then he scoops her into his arms and takes her up to the roof, where he proposes with a ring.
Hoon tells her that he understands that her parents don’t approve of him, but they’re destined for one another. “Will you marry me?”
He freely admits that he went around illegally selling pop music to get the money to buy the ring, and Jae-hee balks at the idea of him constantly putting his neck on the line like that. She initially stalks off (just to mess with him, ha), then doubles back for the ring.
He says that means she said yes, and she concedes, “I’ll marry you I suppose… in a hundred years.” HA.
As they chase each other inside, they run into Dad, who chides his son for skipping rounds. Dad watches on as the loving couple is all smiles over Jae-hee’s new engagement ring, but when Hoon stretches his arms out for a hug, Jae-hee pushes him, all, Your dad’s watching, doofus.
The newly betrothed couple go out for a bike ride, and Jae-hee asks what Hoon will do if she ever disappeared. “What do you mean? I’d search the entire world to find you,” he answers. Hoon breaks into a smile to hear that her father wants to meet him, not at all perturbed to hear that he’s a scary man. Then he does this adorable victory pump when she’s not looking.
He suits up at home, but frowns when Dad says they’re scheduled to medically treat the local community. As they ride over, Hoon hopes there won’t be that many patients like last time.
Cut to: an endlessly long line out the barnhouse door. HA. Turns out Dad and Hoon volunteer their time as a father-son doctor team. At one point, Dad hands his son the syringe, and when Hoon speaks up that inserting the needle incorrectly could be problematic, Dad encourages him to go by touch and imagine the area in his head.
So Hoon does as he’s told, and successfully draws out the build-up like a pro. After they send the patient away, Dad hands him a bouquet of flowers and sends Hoon off to go and meet his potential father-in-law while he’ll handle the other patients. Aw, these two.
But when Hoon gets to Jae-hee’s place, the light flickers and the door is unlocked. He walks in to find the place completely ransacked. Oh no.
Hoon runs outside, following her voice, and if this couldn’t get any worse, it just did because it starts to thunder and rain. Suddenly someone comes running up to him—it’s Jae-hee, who cries that she’s scared.
He holds her tight, asking her what’s wrong, but that’s when they see a group of soldiers approach. Realizing that she’s running out of time, Jae-hee gets up on her toes and kisses him.
They’re broken apart, and as Jae-hee is dragged away by the guards, she cries that he can’t forget about her. Hoon tries to resist the soldiers holding him back, but gets knocked over the head by the rifle’s butt.
Hoon eventually comes to at home, where he learns that Jae-hee’s father was convicted for a political crime, and as such, the entire family was also subject to punishment. Dad holds his son back from taking off to save Jae-hee, because doing so will only endanger himself.
Hoon marches off anyway, but there are men waiting outside to take him away. He’s led to the Kumsusun Palace of the Sun (otherwise known as Kim Il-sung’s official palatial residence) kicking and yelling the entire way there.
Another man is dragged and shot in front of Hoon. Bad timing or a reminder of who’s in charge? The military officer wielding the gun recognizes our hero—ah, he’s the same man who saved Dad and Hoon all those years ago, otherwise known as Agent CHA JIN-SOO.
Agent Cha gives Hoon and the group a guided tour around the medical research facility, which serves to protect Leader Kim’s health. Upon entrance, one can never leave, lest one wishes to face capital punishment. Neither is their entry their own personal choice—the government decides that.
When one person asks if there’s a chance they could serve as Leader Kim’s personal doctor one day, they’re told that they can either become that prestigious doctor… or end up as one of his research subjects. Eeek.
And then to illustrate the horrible reality of that statement, Hoon’s eyes widen at the frightening sight of sick medical personnel, a pool of blood leading to a darkened operating room that looks like it came straight out from a horror movie. Welcome to hell, indeed.
Five Years Later. Hoon is now a thoracic surgeon at the research facility and gets scolded for leaving the premises without permission again, though the dangling threat of being shot to death hardly scares him. He’s surprised to see Dad, who already knows that his son has been sneaking out at night.
Hoon doesn’t deny it, explaining that he’s been searching through each and every detention camp in hopes to find Jae-hee. Moreover, he couldn’t care less about endangering himself if it meant finding the love of his life.
Agent Cha leads a group through the facility to observe Hoon’s coronary bypass surgery, which faces a hiccup when the power suddenly goes out. Hoon is ordered to stop, arguing that he can’t even see in the darkness, but Hoon is confident in his abilities, and all but rolls his eyes saying that he’s done this procedure countless times before.
We see Hoon tap into his geeenniiuuss ability to picture the problem area, then expertly suture the heart with apparent ease. He jokes with Agent Cha about how the DPRK’s finest research facility could experience a blackout, and I’ll be honest—his breezy tone makes me uneasy for his safety, genius doctor or not.
Agent Cha presents Hoon with another case: the male patient hails from a secret concentration camp, and the order is to take a viable organ from the daughter to save his life.
Hoon refuses, astounded at the idea of killing one person to save the other, but Agent Cha counters that showing off that “big nose” of his to their foreign guests will lead to more funding.
When Hoon still refuses, Agent Cha pins him against the wall, telling him to get off his moral high horse, especially when he’s done much worse here. But Hoon stands by his decision.
He walks past the patients being wheeled in, but something makes him turn back… then a hand drops from the gurney and he sees the red bracelet on her wrist. Oh crap, it’s Jae-hee. He staggers in shock.
It takes all of Hoon’s willpower to hold back his tears looking at Jae-hee’s bruised and battered state lying on the hospital bed. He turns when a hand reaches out to him, and Jae-hee’s father desperately pleads, “Please, please save my Jae-hee.”
Dad notes that the daughter is in worse shape, but there lies some hope to save the father. Hoon asks what might happen if they transplant the father’s kidney to the daughter, only to be told that they’d both die.
Hoon is determined to save the daughter’s life, but Dad reminds him that that isn’t what a doctor does. Hoon tosses the question back at his father, describing the terrifying things he had to do these past five years. What’s the point in being a doctor when he can’t save someone who’s dying?
Then Hoon finally breaks, hollering that it’s his Jae-hee who’s dying right now. In a world where doctor kills people, what’s so wrong about his desire to save his girl?
We see Hoon come out of another surgery in his bloodied scrubs with a jaded expression. Holy crap, did you actually take Jae-hee’s father’s kidney? He lets out a horrified scream in the shower (and I know this is a heart-wrenching scene, but abs!) and then preps for his next surgery. Oh, so you ARE going to try to give Jae-hee his kidney!
But before he can make the first incision, Agent Cha comes to crash the party, and Dad swoops in to say that their foreign guests have agreed to provide research funding. There’s a condition, though: their guests wish to display Hoon’s remarkable skills to the world.
However Hoon refuses to go to Budapest just to make the research facility happy. He then checks in on Jae-hee lying in bed, and promises, “Don’t worry, I won’t lose you again.”
The research facility’s power goes out again, and Hoon returns to his room to find his father waiting for him. Hoon tries to usher Dad out before he’s caught, but Dad urges him to go to Hungary—he has a contact there, and it’ll be Hoon’s last opportunity to escape.
Hoon apologizes, saying that he can’t leave Jae-hee behind. But Dad says that she’ll be going with him; he knows how much his son cares for her. Sending his best wishes for the couple to live happily, he adds that this will be the last time they see each other.
Hoon follows his father to the hallway and says he still won’t go. He won’t leave his father behind, and he’ll figure out a way to protect Jae-hee. He points out the secret passageway he frequently uses to his father, who urges him to reconsider.
Momentarily placing a hand over his father’s, Hoon bids goodbye to Dad and walks off. But then the power comes back on, and Hoon doubles back. Sure enough, we see Dad standing in the courtyard as the spotlights swerve around him. Oh god, did he lock the gate to protect Hoon, too?
Hoon screams repeatedly for his father, who turns back towards his son and sends him a warm smile. And one brief yet excruciating moment later, a shot rings out and Dad falls to the ground, breathing his final few breaths.
A fantastic start for Doctor Stranger with an emotionally driven and narratively strong premiere. Even in its first ten minutes, I was still apprehensive about the show, given how North-South relations is no easy subject matter, especially in a turbulent time in history (I suppose history is a spoiler that tells us Kim Il-sung passed away in 1994).
In that sense, I feel that Doctor has exceed my expectations in doing a fairly solid job of setting the tone of the political tension between the two Koreas in its opening hour. I could feel the pressure of leaving the fate of the world to one surgeon’s hands on a visceral level—how one wrong move could annihilate the Korean peninsula. Furthermore, I appreciated how the premiere spent a majority of its time exploring what life would look like in the world’s most isolated nation, giving us a full spectrum of both the good and the bad without being overt about any of it. We see it in giving medical treatment to the poor, the Kpop tapes, the frequent blackouts, the looming threat of death, and so on. It’s the execution of this particular element I’m most impressed about, since it would only be too easy to resort to displaying negative stereotypes.
And yet, the story already seems to favor our characters more than the politics (which I’m sure we’ll see more of in this show), something I’m happy to see. I love how the show draws out the emotional tension between its characters at any given moment, be it in the war room or operating room. Already we see the corrupt politician in Assemblyman Jang, who would gamble the lives of his fellow citizens to receive prestige and praise. I wouldn’t call him necessarily evil or villainous at this point, but he isn’t an upstanding pillar of morality either. Then there’s the wonderful father-son relationship, which honestly brought me to tears at times. I suppose you shouldn’t expect any less when you cast someone fantastic as Kim Sang-joong who brings such depth and makes a short appearance so memorable.
I wasn’t altogether sold on the geniiiuuus doctor hero introduction before the show premiered, since it’s an archetype we’ve seen in practically every medical drama ever. So it was up to both the writers and Lee Jong-seok to sell me on our hero, and I can say that I’m relieved and pleased by Hoon’s journey already. Hoon is fearless, rebellious, and even a little cocky because he knows just how good he is. Like I said before, there are times where I’m torn between being impressed and fearful to watch him defy authority even if he’s managed to survive a Frankenstein-y research facility for five years. But we also see that Hoon is also incredibly loyal because he wouldn’t take the chance to escape while leaving his loved ones behind.
Which leads us to the epic romance between Hoon and Jae-hee, whose adorable and loving relationship sometimes reminded me of The King 2 Hearts aka that other recent-ish drama with lovers crossing the 38th parallel. We can see just how in love he is and how much they care for each other, which helps us understand his desperation to save her.
On a different note, I was a bit confused on our timeline starting from when we made our initial time jump. There were historical markers that helped ground us back in 1994, but then two fast-forwards made the years in-between practically arbitrary. I don’t always expect a show to anchor us in a certain year, but when you’re also dealing with bits of history, having those markers is quite helpful. Even with a gennniiuuuss doctor, this is the kind of medical drama I love: the ones with heart (hur) and an emotionally steady beat. Fingers crossed that this one doesn’t flatline anytime soon.
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