Doc Martin, a series focusing on a London doctor who moves to the small coastal village of Portwenn, is in many ways a classic fish out of water story, but with a twist. It is the title character, Martin Ellingham (Martin Clunes), which sets the series apart. He is rude, socially inept, and unapologetically unemotional. While the series sometimes walks a fine line in making him a likable or relatable character, Clunes manages to keep that balance from tipping too far to one side throughout the series.
Martin’s reason for moving to Portwenn isn’t immediately obvious, but it’s soon revealed that he has developed a phobia of blood, making his career as a surgeon impossible. Rather than give up his career entirely, he chooses a small town in which to practice general medicine, while unknowingly becoming part of the most accident-prone community he’s ever come in contact with.
The citizens of Portwenn are in many ways predictable small town characters in all their quirky glory. There’s the smitten-with-Martin town pharmacist, Mrs. Sally Tishell (Selina Cadell); father and son plumbers/entrepreneurs, Bert (Ian McNeice) and Al Large (Joe Absolom); two somewhat naive and bumbling police officers, PC Mark Mylow (Stewart Wright) and PC Joe Penhale (John Marquez); Martin’s various receptionists, Elaine (Lucy Punch), Pauline (Katherine Parkinson), and Morwenna (Jessica Ransom); his no nonsense Aunt Joan (Stephanie Cole); and schoolteacher and Martin’s love interest, Louisa Glasson (Caroline Catz). The large and sometimes shifting cast makes for a great deal of story opportunities, most of which require Martin’s medical expertise at some point.
The series mainly revolves around the various citizens of Portwenn and their usually mundane medical problems, at least at first glance. Martin frequently uncovers some larger issue that has a more personal effect on his patients. In turn, the episodes also focus on the lives of these same townspeople. Their personal entanglements, rivalries, and problems play a role in the series, both with and without Martin’s diagnoses. For example, Bert and Al struggle with their relationship as Al tries to forge his own way and Louisa grapples with her own complicated relationship with her often absent mother.
While the characters are often entertaining, they can also sometimes be grating. Martin’s first receptionist, Elaine, was infuriatingly bad at her job and often mean to patients, yet also inexplicably beloved in Portwenn. The introduction of her cousin, Pauline, to take over her position in the office served as a much needed change that also led to more growth on Martin’s part. As Pauline showed more interest in the medical practice and eventually became certified as a phlebotomist, she also provided the series with a way around Martin’s blood phobia in routine medical testing and more incentive for him to work through it.
Martin’s romance with Louisa is at times sweet and funny, and other times, just plain irritating and baffling. Martin’s behavior can be so extreme that it’s often unfathomable why Louisa would be interested in him. His disdain for any polite or friendly interactions, his inability to show much empathy, and his overall brusque nature makes him a fairly unappealing character on paper. It’s to Clunes’ credit that Martin does still have his moments of vulnerability that in turn, make him more than a one-dimensional boor.
Additionally, Martin’s Aunt Joan – and later, his Aunt Ruth (Eileen Atkins) – bring out another side of Martin. His love and affection for his Aunt Joan, in particular, is clear from the very beginning. She’s as unaffected by his manner as he is by others, but she recognizes their bond from when he was a boy. Aunt Joan serves as a welcome and necessary way to humanize Martin, especially when more about his childhood is revealed.
Doc Martin has certainly grown as a series in its five seasons – with a sixth forthcoming – but it’s Martin’s growth as a character, incremental though it may be, that makes the show as watchable and entertaining as it is. Were it not for Clunes and the rest of the cast, most notably Catz, Cole, and Atkins as the mainstay women in his life, that make Martin interesting, rather than just plain annoying. His social ineptitude and crankiness could tire easily, but Portwenn and its residents offer a balance that works well.
The series was preceded by two movies, Doc Martin and Doc Martin and the Legend of the Cloutie. The movies are a jarring precursor to the series in that they bear only a passing resemblance to the TV show. They focus on Dr. Martin Bamford living in Port Isaac and he is friendly, outgoing, and wholly unrecognizable as the Doc Martin from the series. In fact, they are probably better enjoyed as completely separate. In addition to the two movies, the DVD set includes some featurettes that center on location, character development, acting, and directing. They are a nice addition, but fairly light and straightforward.