Revisiting Kingdom Hospital – episode 1

Matt decides it's time to check out Kingdom Hospital again, having been rather hasty on his first go...

Kingdom Hospital was author Stephen King’s take on an earlier work by Danish director Lars Von Trier, and first aired in 2004. It was nominated for several awards and – something which made me smile – it won the award for “Outstanding Performance by an Animated Character in a Live Act on Broadcast Program” (for a digitalised ant-eater). When the series was first on television, I was only ever a casual viewer. I watched the first episode, then dipped in and out of the series for a few weeks before totally losing the plot and giving up. Recently, I decided to buy the series and give it another go, with the intention of dedicatedly giving a review of each episode. So, let’s get on with it.

The story revolves around the eponymous hospital in Lewiston, Maine, built on the site of a Civil War-era mill fire in which numerous children died. The first episode basically sets the scene and introduces us to the main characters. They are: the dedicated yet somewhat arrogant Dr. Hook (Andrew McCarthy); Sally Druse (Diane Ladd), a hypochondriac and psychic; Peter Rickman (Jack Coleman), a famous artist; the clearly repugnant and universally disliked Dr. Stegman (Bruce Davidson); the general hospital handyman and quite creepy Otto (Julian Richings); and Mary (Jodelle Ferland), a young girl who died in the mill fire and haunts the corridors of Kingdom Hospital tinkling a little bell.

Within the first half of this opener, Kingdom Hospital genuinely feels like something exciting, something that has the potential to be good, even great. The opening credits are beautifully done, with an atmospheric soundtrack and glittering visuals. Once the story of the mill fire has been explained, the action moves to Peter Rickman, a famous painter who clearly was never taught the green cross code. He goes jogging one morning along a deserted road, only to be smacked down by a careless driver who leaves him for dead. This is clearly a reference to a very similar incident that happened in Stephen King’s own life. I must say I’m not against writers using themselves and their own experiences in their art (that’s essentially a huge part of what creative writing is about). What bugs me and makes me roll my eyes a little is how obvious King is with his material. As soon as I’d read he’d been knocked down and left for dead, I could just see the dust jacket of a new book hanging in the distance.

So, while Rickman is lying paralysed on the side of the road, a great big CGI ant eater comes loping out of the undergrowth and drags him closer to the road so that somebody driving will see him and hopefully help him. At this point, it’s not exactly made clear why Rickman is able to hear the ant eater’s thoughts (and indeed, seemingly those of all wildlife around him), although it is a little jarring. Rickman is indeed found by an oncoming driver and taken to the hospital. On the way, he repeatedly has visions of a pale little girl holding a bell, in the back of the ambulance and the operating theatre, usually accompanied by the ant eater. “Watch out for Mary, watch out for her bell. It’s a death bell,” the ant eater warns.

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Peter Rickman isn’t the only one seeing ghosts, it transpires. The handyman, Otto, glimpses the face of a girl on the security monitor. We also witness an old-fashioned and clearly spooky ambulance pull into A&E before disappearing. Elsewhere, Sally Druse has just been admitted to Kingdom Hospital complaining of pins and needles, although it becomes clear she has an entirely different purpose at the hospital, telling one of the elderly patients she’s back and that a séance is going to be in order. During an elevator break-down, Druse hears the sound of a child crying and tells a nurse, although nobody believes her.

After surgery by Dr. Hook and his team, Peter Rickman is unconscious and has visions of himself in some dark and rundown place, where he glimpses a scary boy with fanged teeth lurking in the shadows. Snapping out of dreamland, Rickman later awakes and seems to have made a miraculous full recovery, even though the doctors had told his wife the chances of such an event would be infinitesimal. Something very strange is going on.

Oh, and throughout proceedings, there are numerous earthquakes which shake the hospital to its foundations, although whether this is normal or paranormal is not made clear (obviously paranormal).

And so ends the first episode of Kingdom Hospital. At around an hour and a half, there is a lot to take in, a lot of characters to remember, and I’m thinking ninety minutes is probably just too long for a single episode of any TV series. There are some scenes which attempt to be funny but fall flat, a few which are more successful, and some which could have been removed entirely without any damage done to the overall plot. But then again, this is the pilot episode, and so it’s tradition for it to run slightly longer than average. So far then, in spite of a few niggles, things are looking promising.