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At $2 million an episode, Combat Hospital, a new MASH-like war drama set in Afghanistan but made in Etobicoke, needs to find an audience fast

Combat Hospital’s 185,000-square-foot set, on the site of a former bottle factory, is one of the largest in Canada.

Combat Hospital’s 185,000-square-foot set, on the site of a former bottle factory, is one of the largest in Canada. (Image: Eamon Mac Mahon)

Over the 10 years of Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan, our film and television industry has, on more than one occasion, recreated that country for the purpose of entertainment. Mostly, these efforts have occurred on Canadian soil, no small feat given that Afghanistan is an anarchic, war-ravaged nation where summer temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius, and Canada is a country known for its cold-weather sports and niceness. Ingenuity, it seems, is key. When a production team attempted to build an Afghani village for the CBC series The Border, they did so in a gravel pit in Caledon, a popular film location that, owing to the magic of the lens, has also served as a tropical jungle (Amazon) and the high Arctic (Lives of the Saints). The Maritime producer Barrie Dunn, for his soon-to-be-released film Afghan Luke, used the British Columbia interior, specifically a small town near Kamloops called Cache Creek.

Now there’s Combat Hospital, an hour-long drama modelled on the Kandahar Multinational Medical Unit Role 3, a hospital that serviced soldiers wounded in the Afghanistan conflict until it was decommissioned last year. (The original facility was intended to be temporary; it has now been replaced, depressingly enough, with a permanent structure.) The idea for Combat Hospital, which debuts June 21, started with the Toronto-based writer and director Jinder Oujla-Chalmers, whose previous credits include a TV biopic of former Alberta premier Ralph Klein and episodes of the fat-fighting reality show X-Weighted. She took her idea—a MASH reprise set in Afghanistan—to Global, where the head of programming, Christine Shipton, was immediately besotted. Sienna Films, a production company perhaps best known in Canada for the 1999 film New Waterford Girl, agreed to develop the series.

Thus began the mad scramble that characterizes the launch of any television project. Sienna had to find funding partners and, depending on their location, decide where to recreate the Kandahar base. At one point, the producers considered working with a French company, which would have meant shooting the series in Morocco. Though the dust of north Africa easily doubles as the dust of central Asia, shooting there would have meant flying in cast and crew over seven months, enough time to shoot the first season. Too complicated. Instead, Sienna signed on a U.K.-based production team called Artists Studio as a partner and assembled a writing team that included Oujla-Chalmers and the venerable screenwriter Daniel Petrie Jr., who worked on Beverly Hills Cop and The Big Easy. As buzz about the show intensified, both ABC and the Sony Corporation invested in the project. Sienna eventually decided to build its set in Toronto, where it would require considerable trickery to imitate the look and feel of Kandahar.

The company had just nine weeks before shooting began, and required the help of 40 carpenters, 20 painters, 15 set dressers, one set decorator and an assortment of other trades to carry out the necessary welding, wiring and plumbing. The result, one of the largest sets ever built for a Canadian show, is a 185,000-square-foot replica of a military hospital. It exists in an Etobicoke factory that, in a previous life, was used to make Crown Royal bottles.

I visited on a brilliant morning in early May, driving north along a homely stretch of Kipling Avenue sided by grey single-storey office buildings. A publicist led me through a succession of gypsum board hallways toward the back of the factory. We then pushed through a pair of doors and stepped into the sun-bleached back lot. High above was an immense sign reading, “Welcome to Kandahar Airfield,” which looked blithely out of place against the cloudless Toronto sky.

The perimeter of the camp was defined on two sides by the bottle factory, which, in the show, represented the sides of old airplane hangars. The other two sides of the camp were the sand-filled safety barriers that surround any military encampment. Stacks of battered old shipping containers, purchased from a container dealer out by the airport, formed a second line of defence. There were the requisite plywood army barracks, a volleyball net, showers and, off in one corner, a forest-green medical evacuation helicopter, which had been purchased from an American collector of military vehicles. In the opposite corner was an imitation Afghani village used for scenes in which the doctors leave the compound, an ill-advised endeavour that, in the military, is referred to as going “outside the wire.” It all looked remarkably real, albeit in the way that movie sets tend to look real: you had to mentally subtract the cameras and lights strewn all over the set, and forget that the day’s extras, all 75 of whom were wearing army fatigues or Afghani robes, were standing around drinking bottled water while waiting for their cues.

The show follows the exploits of a civilian neurosurgeon with a questionable moral fabric, played by Luke Mably; the camp’s chief of nursing, played by Arnold Pinnock; and a pair of naively determined trauma surgeons, played by Michelle Borth and Terry Chen, whose arrival kick-starts the series. Deborah Kara Unger portrays an Australian psychiatrist, while Elias Koteas is cast as the hospital’s commanding officer, a hardened yet warm-hearted surgeon. There is also a whole roster of supporting characters, a “large world” being a recent hallmark of quality television—think of The Sopranos and its mob families, or the sheer volume of office drones employed by Sterling Cooper in Mad Men.