A slightly glossier and sexier version of Thompson is the setting for a new CBC drama that focuses on the personal and professional lives of medevac pilots and other medical personnel.
SkyMed, which premiered on CBC July 10 and can also be streamed via CBC Gem, is the brainchild of Toronto-based TV writer and series showrunner Julie Puckrin, who first got the idea from experiences her sister and brother-in-law went through while living in the real Thompson.
Her sister is both a nurse and a commercial pilot, says Puckrin, noting that she is the only member of her family who doesn’t have a pilot’s licence.
“She moved up to Thompson to fly air ambulances,” Puckrin told the Thompson Citizen in a phone interview a few days after the first episode of the series aired. “When she was there, she met my brother-in-law, they met and fell in love. He was a pilot, flying air ambulances. I spent a lot of time hearing their stories about the kind of adventures they were getting up to at work and the kind of things they were doing when they were not working.”
The SkyMed Thompson, just like the real one, is a place where young pilots go to build up their flying hours and various professionals spend time in to gain experience before moving on to bigger places.
“So many of these pilots and nurses that are doing this job are also not from Thompson,” Puckrin said. “That creates some really interesting character stories. I always though that it would make a really great TV show.”
Puckrin accompanied her sister to Thompson when she moved here and remembers being struck by how remote it was and how much more remote places could get.
“You kind of slowly become aware of how big the country is and how far north you’re going,” she recalled. “That always really stuck with me, that feeling of just how far north you are and realizing that it’s just the beginning of the North.”
Inspired though it was by Thompson, the series takes creative liberties that are basically a must when it comes to making TV.
“We call it aspirational Thompson,” Puckrin explains. “Because it’s a TV show about sexy, young people, we sort of did a sexy, young version of Thompson. We were trying to be faithful to the spirit of Thompson and the spirit of the North and trying to reflect those experiences of what it feels like to live in a place like Thompson, but the bar they go to on the show is probably a little bit more maybe than some of the bars that you have in Thompson. It’s just the slightly glossier version of Thompson.”
When it comes to the medical and aviation aspects of the show however, SkyMed aims to be as realistic as possible, even if was filmed mostly within a few hundred kilometres of Winnipeg rather than near Thompson itself, which is simply too small and remote to support a large-scale film production without a lot of added expenses.
The cast went through an “aviation boot camp” to learn to act like pilots.
“We took them up for a flight as well, so they would feel what it’s like to be in a King Air and, for many of them, it was their first time in a plane that small,” Puckrin says.
The series also relied on the expertise of the two people who inspired it to make sure it rang true for those with experience in northern medicine and aviation.
“[My sister and brother-in-law] were actually really involved,” Puckrin said. “They were giving feedback on everything from what the flight seats would look like, and what the inside of the plane would look like. And they were teaching the actors how to do all of the aviation stuff.”
Now that she has reached the stage of having a completed season of SkyMed airing, Puckrin says it the series sort of took on a life of its own that she didn’t initially envision.
“You always have an idea in your head of what you think the show will look like and feel like. And the finished product is, I would say, different in some ways, but I'm very proud of it. And I feel like there are moments in it that are better than anything I could have imagined.”
Particularly transformative is watching actors turn the characters from descriptions on a page into living, breathing beings.
“It’s hard for me now to remember how I imagined those characters when I was writing them versus how they actually turned out because they really did come to life with the cast. And in my mind, now the characters have become those actors.”
Puckrin says she hopes the series exposes people to a world that many never knew existed.
“It just felt like a part of the country that a lot of Canadians don’t really know a lot about,” she says, thinking back to her first glimpse of Thompson. “There was certainly something about that feeling when you come out of the trees and you arrive in Thompson that excited my imagination and that stuck with me. There’s this feeling of adventure in the north. It can be really hard in the north because you don’t have the resources that you might have in the south or in a bigger city but there’s also a certain amount of freedom and adventure and excitement to that and so we tried to capture that feeling in the show.”