When people think of small-town doctors the usual image that comes to mind is of a kindly old gentleman who has known most of the people in the vicinity since he helped usher them into the world. He always has a friendly word of encouragement for the young person with the broken arm, can be counted on to make house calls in the worst of weather, and is generally considered to be one of the pillars of wisdom in the community. While it’s a lovely image, the person probably never really existed outside of the minds of screenwriters and other Hollywood types.
If for some reason you’ve been hanging on to that image, a surefire cure for it is now available through Acorn Media in the form of the nine-DVD box set Doc Martin Collection: Series 1 – 4. Doc Martin (Martin Clunes) is the antithesis of the genial country doctor. A former London surgeon, he was forced to give up his practice when he developed a phobia which would cause him to vomit and feel faint at the site of blood – a decided weakness in somebody performing surgery. Not wanting to give up medicine entirely, he applies to take over the practice in the village of Portwenn, Cornwall, the same village he used to summer in as a child.
Neither the good folk of Portwenn nor Doctor Martin Ellingham are quite prepared for each other. Ellingham is used to the highly impersonal world of a big time surgeon where patients are usually unconscious and a bed side manner is something you leave to the underlings and nurses. Portwenn’s inhabitants, on the other hand, are used to a doctor, who, while he might not have been quite the stereotype described earlier, came pretty darn close to living up to it. He’d known most of those in the town and surrounding area since birth and leavened his health care practice with his knowledge of the individuals in question. In his time the doctor’s surgery (In England a doctor’s office is referred to as a surgery) was not just a place to go when you were feeling sick, it was also a social event with tea, cookies and chat on offer.
To say that Doc Martin has a few issues when it comes to interpersonal relationships is putting it mildly. He’s rude, blunt, intolerant of those he considers fools (most of Portwenn) and is completely useless at small talk. These deficiencies are compounded by his stubbornness, the absolute belief in the fact he is always right and the fact that he’s emotionally repressed to the point of being crippled. While he’s obviously a brilliant doctor and over qualified for the work required of him as a General Practitioner in a small town, after only a few days in Portwenn he just about manages to alienate the entire town with his behaviour.
Now if this were your typical sitcom or even drama series you could predict what would happen. Eventually the town would come to love Ol’ Doc. Martin and learn to see the soft-hearted man hidden beneath the crusty exterior. In his turn the Doc would learn to appreciate the spirit of small-town life and come to respect the inherent wisdom of his neighbours. Well don’t hold your breath waiting because over the course of the four years of the series so far the Doc is just as patronizing and condescending as he was on the day he arrived and would no more look to his neighbours for advice than he would the fish so many of them catch. For their part the villagers do come to appreciate the fact they have a top notch doctor, but don’t go looking to him for the milk of human kindness or a sympathetic ear.
How is it than that as viewers we can stand watching the doctor in action? Wouldn’t one season of watching him bully his clients and generally being an arrogant prick, let alone four, be a little too much to bear? It would if it weren’t for the fact there is more to Martin Ellingham than what he shows the world. Thankfully the writers are smart enough to ensure we see far more of the Doc than just his attitude towards the fools surrounding him and also gradually fill us in on his history. We learn why and how he developed into the person he is sufficiently to appreciate his character more and more as the series develops. There’s also the fact that a good deal of the time the people he treats are as big as fools as he thinks they are and we can’t help but sympathizing with him for having to put up with people who wonder why they are sick after living on a diet of roadkill.
Of course the series wouldn’t be complete if there wasn’t some sort of romantic interest. In this case its provided by the local school’s headmistress Louisa Glasson (Caroline Catz) There on again off again romance not only keeps the locals wondering, but the viewing audience as well. While for the villagers it might be what the hell does she see in him mixed with will they ever get together, for us at home its wondering whether Doc will ever find the courage to overcome a lifetime of repression and fear to tell her how he feels. Their relationship is marked by his mishandling of any moments of intimacy that do happen. Instead of allowing himself to experience and enjoy them he barricades himself behind a wall of medical professionalism that allows him to ask her about her dental hygiene after a particularly passionate kiss.
Her natural reaction of storming away – actually chucking him out of the cab they’re sharing at the time – is completely understandable to everybody except poor Martin. Yet neither of them can deny they are attracted to each other. Like magnets who keep switching their polarity they push each other away periodically only to feel the pull of attraction to the other just as strongly, if not more so, as before, and come back together again. The best thing about their relationship though is how while there are moments that are genuinely funny, the writers of the series never play it for laughs. We want them to succeed and end up as a couple, but we can also understand why they just might not ever manage to.
It’s this adherence to reality that makes the series so effective. It would have been easy to populate the village with types with stock phrases guaranteed to fetch laughs or write episodes which ended with warm hearted feel good moments that unite the town and the doctor. However the people who live in Portwenn have to work for their living and while they may come up with inventive ways to hurt themselves and illnesses that are occasionally off the beaten track, they are true to their environment and real people. Which means that while they may be grateful to Doc for saving somebody’s life or figuring out why a person is sick, that doesn’t mean they have to like him any better than they did before.
The myth of the small-town doctor has been perpetuated to the point of nausea in films and television. Doc Martin is not only the perfect antidote to all that saccharine, it’s funny, thoughtful, and a pleasure to watch. It doesn’t hurt that the series was shot on location in Cornwall so the scenery serving as the backdrop for the stories is breathtaking. The new nine-disc set containing all four seasons, Doc Martin The Complete Collection: Series 1 – 4 (a fifth series is currently being filmed), might not keep the doctor away but it will make you very happy. The special features include some behind the scenes footage and written cast biographies. The discs are set up for 5.1 surround sound and subtitles for the hearing impaired or those who trouble with some of the thicker regional accents in England.