Television shows about doctors usually force audiences to wonder if the cases they see are actual medical drama or just, well, drama. How many people a day really get hit by lightning, abducted by aliens or stabbed by a tree? Perhaps not that many, but of course watching doctors treat common colds, migraines or belly aches might not make for good television.
What to do then, when the cases aren’t particularly the reason why you want people watching your show? Well, then you must create a doctor that makes up for it.
Doc Martin is just the case, the series follows the title character played by Martin Clunes as he leaves behind a promising career in London to become general practitioner of the small coast town of Portwenn. During most of the first season, the townspeople wonder why someone from the big city would leave behind a top surgeon job to take care of a small village.
With his rude demeanor and lack of sympathy for others, Doctor Martin Ellington makes it clear that he’s not there for the love of it, something else must be going on. Soon we learn that the good doctor has developed a severe case of haemophobia (fear of blood) and his stay in Portwenn is a vacation of sorts, compared to the stress he was going through in London.
In the first season we meet the local people, most of whom become recurring characters for the next four seasons. There’s plumber Bert (Ian McNeice) and his Daphne de Maurier-quoting son Al (Joe Absolom) who dreams of leaving the village, dim witted police officer Mark (Stewart Wright) who thinks his penis size is stopping him from finding love. There’s also radio personality Caroline Bosman (Felicity Montagu) and Martin’s aunt Joan (Stephanie Cole) who owns a farm in the area.
All of them, among with random cases, will make Martin’s life quite peculiar episode after episode. Sometimes you end up wondering how many people actually live in this small town, after realizing that Martin rarely repeats patients.
The most important patient of all is schoolteacher Louisa Glasson (a perfect Caroline Catz) with whom Martin begins a love/hate relationship that leads all the way to a possible marriage. It becomes almost traditional for Martin and Louisa to make it and then split up when each season finally arrives (they’re like the Ross and Rachel of British TV). Their relationship sometimes drags, but the actors are so charming that they get away with the repetitive nature of their arcs.
Truth be told, it’s the performances that truly elevate Doc Martin from a silly comedic soap opera into miniature character studies. When, on season two, Auntie Joan gets a visit from an old love, Cole’s performance is so magnificent that we are able to see beyond the melodramatic strokes the writers fill the episode with. Instead we find ourselves watching a woman who, in the middle of a hectic life, finally finds the time to look back and evaluate her entire life. “We all have our idiosyncrasies” she says to her nephew.
The characters that populate Portwenn are played by incredibly talented actors, most memorable of all are the actresses who play Doc Martin’s assistants. During the first season it’s the underrated Lucy Punch, whose Elaine is a delightfully irresponsible young woman who manages to get one of the funniest compliments from Martin who tells her “You’re looking efficient”.
In latter seasons Elaine’s cousin Pauline takes over the assistant duties as played by the hilarious Katherine Parkinson. The doctor’s chemistry with these two is incomparable to any other of his relationships and their scenes together flow with delicious screwball touches.
Of course it’s Clunes himself who owns the show, scene after scene. With his strange face and sad puppy eyes, we wonder how long the actor will manage to hold his serious expression in the presence of such strange characters. Clunes is able to go past “country and city mouse” dynamics, instead making his doctor an anthropologist of sorts who studies these people and their lives in order to get a better grasp on the world they must share.
Even when the writers try to take attention away from the doctor and concoct strange cases a la ER and Grey’s Anatomy (which usually fail because the “twists” can be seen miles before they arrive) Clunes masterfully and effortlessly brings the attention back to Dr. Ellingham.
This boxset includes all 30 episodes of the series (including a Christmas special called On the Edge) and throughout one is still unable to crack the essence of Doc Martin. Perhaps the writers and Clunes haven’t reached that place yet, perhaps this doctor goes beyond facile Freudian diagnoses or perhaps there simply isn’t more to him than meets the eye. Whatever the reason, Doc Martin makes for truly entertaining television.