[3 August 2009]
Part James Herriot and part Northern Exposure but less formulaic than this summer’s Royal Pains, ITV’s Doc Martin is about a big city doctor who gets transferred to a sleepy coastal town full of charming eccentrics. Martin Clunes stars as the titular Dr. Martin Ellingham, an ornery sort whose thriving career as a London surgeon gets drawn to a halt when he develops a severe phobia of blood.
Martin relocates to Portwenn, a closely-knit village in Cornwall, where he spent several summers during his youth visiting his Aunt Joan (Stephanie Cole). Martin inherits the position of local GP but refuses to learn an acceptable form of bedside manner.
The townsfolk don’t seem too bothered by his standoffishness and welcome him into the community with open arms, constantly forcing him to take part in local events. Martin does his best to maintain a brusque, no-nonsense persona but quickly reveals signs of affection – albeit in minimal servings – to Louisa (Caroline Catz), a sweet and sensible schoolteacher.
Series 2 of Doc Martin, which originally aired between November 2005 and January 2006, finds Martin in the midst of a love triangle as Louisa’s former flame Danny (Tristan Sturrock), a successful London architect, returns to Portwenn to care for his aging mother. Meanwhile, Martin’s former secretary Elaine has pushed off to Pompeii and in her place is her marginally more competent cousin Pauline (Katherine Parkinson). Also in the fray is the village’s chief of police Mark Mylow (Stewart Wright) and his budding romance with an alluring new resident (Angeline Ball).
In addition to those overarching plot threads, each episode generally contains two medical cases which make the show appetizing for individual consumption as well as season-long devotion. The cases are usually structured to reveal a surprise symptom – occasionally even of the kinky variety (the S&M sub-plot in this season’s episode “Old Dogs”, an outbreak of increased male mammary glands in series 1).
But the odd sub-plot aside, Doc Martin is a fairly safe show. In fact, it could be described as reassuringly British in its calm, composed and even-keeled presentation. Emotions are reserved, characters are modest and the countryside locations are stunning.
Filmed in the picturesque Port Isaac, the fictional Portwenn is a major component of the show’s appeal. In addition to the open sea and rolling hills, Portwenn offers the lovely prospect of a village untouched by time; a fantasy land unburdened by the Internet, iPods or reliable public transportation.
One of the predominant themes is the issue of Work in the pre-capitalist sense of the word. Almost all the residents of Portwenn are self-autonomous workers whose livelihoods are dependent upon their health and wellbeing. When Doc Martin orders a patient to bed rest, the response is invariably, “I can’t rest, the job won’t get done” or “I can’t cancel, it’s a local tradition.”
The wellbeing of the community as a whole is often top priority, but unlike the community represented in League of Gentlemen outsiders are welcomed with open arms. Doc Martin is repeatedly being taken to task for focusing solely on the diagnosis rather than embracing his additional pastoral duty. An ongoing tension throughout is whether or not healthcare should be the only requirement for a village GP.
Or should the position also entail the nurturing of community relations? The show leaves the question hanging as we alternate between disapproval of Martin’s gruffness and commiseration with his frustrations.
For a show as recognizably structured as Doc Martin, the plots aren’t always tied up as neatly or pleasantly as one might expect. The bittersweet resolution to an old boy’s odor problem in episode 4: “Aromatherapy” is quietly devastating and the conclusion to episode 7: “Out of the Woods” extends the possibly fatal resolution for a surprisingly long time.
Similarly, the supporting characters aren’t as pat as their colorful introductions would lead you to believe. As the show progresses, the townsfolk are in turns: endearing and pathetic, humorous and annoying, saintly and dislikeable. The show’s most plaguing weakness is that it frequently allows a supporting member of the ensemble to dominate an entire episode.
In episode 4, the unpleasant character of the local radio host seemingly receives more screen time than the good doctor himself. While it’s important to develop a rich back stock of characters, their presence becomes a crutch, as character development for the dour Doc Martin gets the short shrift, leaving him perilously close to becoming one-dimensional.
Also included in this 3-disc set is the 90-minute Christmas Special that aired on Christmas day in 2006. This sort of extended, specially commissioned episode is a staple of British television that’s reserved for the exceedingly popular shows like The Office and Gavin & Stacey.
The Doc Martin special entitled “Over the Edge” is not in fact Christmas themed but it is clearly an event episode as it sees the return of Louisa’s estranged father, a visit from a medical liaison investigating complaints lodged against Martin, and the nesting of a rare bird species along the cliffs of Portwenn. The only other extra included is a very brief photo gallery that’s barely worth mentioning.
But extras are beside the point. Fans of British television – and British scenery – should be perfectly satiated by the 464-minutes of Doc Martin contained in this package. Like a good doctor, it’s dependable, easily accessible and comfortingly familiar.