In Defense of Doc Martin

Martin Clunes as Doc Martin, standing in the midst of the stunning Cornish scenery that provides the backdrop for the show. (Photograph by Neil Genower; image is the copyright of ITV).

Have you seen the television series Doc Martin? I love this show. It’s a British series that stars Martin Clunes as a brilliant doctor. He was a top London surgeon until he developed a blood phobia, resulting in his relocation to a quirky seaside village in Cornwall to work instead as a general practitioner. Louisa Glasson, a vivacious schoolteacher who is on the board that approved him for his job, is one of the first villagers he meets. As the seasons progress (nine so far, with a tenth and final one planned), they fall in love but often clash, making their relationship a rocky one.

This is a charming show with smart writing, excellent performances by the whole cast, and spectacular Cornish scenery. (It’s filmed in Port Isaac, which stands in for the fictional Portwenn.) There are many fans — it’s particularly popular here in the U.S. — but I often hear from would-be viewers who refuse to watch it because they say Clunes’s character, Dr. Martin Ellingham, is a mean person. I disagree.

Much of the show’s humor comes from Doc Martin’s inability to read people, to make small talk, or to tell a “little white lie.” He just does not understand that it is not always acceptable to say what is in your head. To him, that is lying; he doesn’t know why people don’t want him to tell the truth. Without a strong filter between his brain and his mouth, he is that guy who will say the things you’re thinking too but would never dream of uttering out loud. A little girl is a patient in his office. Her mother discusses her symptoms with the doctor while the child keeps wandering around and playing with his things, ignoring his instructions not to touch anything. When the worried mum asks, “What’s wrong with her?” Doc Martin replies, “She’s very annoying.”

He has no tact. But I wouldn’t say he’s mean; he at times has shown himself capable of great kindness, especially toward those who are being bullied or mistreated, as he was growing up. Mostly he is bewildered. He struggles to get along in a world where he truly does not understand why people find him obnoxious. And he’s not even sure if he should care that they do. The scripts have strongly implied that Martin has Asperger’s Syndrome, on the autism spectrum, which makes it difficult for him to read social cues and to understand the nuances of when it is and isn’t acceptable to say exactly what he’s thinking.

His cognitive differences are compounded by emotional scars inflicted by his horrible parents. He was raised by a cruel, selfish couple who never showed him love, so he has no model for how loving people behave. The only love he knew as a child came from his Auntie Joan, whom he visited in the summer at her farm in the Cornish village of Portwenn, until his parents put an end to those trips. When he is forced out of his position at a London hospital, an opening for a GP in Portwenn seems ideal; it’s the only place he remembers feeling accepted.

But Portwenn poses a long list of new challenges. When he was a celebrated big-city surgeon, his brusque, condescending demeanor was acceptable. Now that he is a small-town GP, he is expected to develop long-term relationships with his patients. He doesn’t understand why: Isn’t his job just to treat their illnesses? And he has no idea how to develop those relationships — just as he has no idea how to cultivate his relationship with Louisa, though he loves her deeply. He’s not a nasty person, though he often seems to be. His intentions are always good. But he is struggling to learn how to behave in a place that makes no sense to him, and he is just not equipped with the tools to do so.

Martin is a brilliant, highly educated man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. And now he lives in a place where that is definitely not the norm. The people of Portwenn are eccentric, at best. He just doesn’t get them, and would prefer to live as an island. But he finds that he can’t. They’re a friendly lot, and persistent. No matter how brusquely he treats them, some of them insist on considering him a friend. They are especially willing to forgive because he has a habit of coming up with the remarkable diagnosis or difficult medical intervention that saves someone’s life — even while he has to battle his own nausea and dizziness as his blood phobia threatens to get the best of him. Louisa is strongly attracted to the heroic side of his character. Often she is fed up with being in a relationship with a man who finds it difficult to pay a compliment or take part in the simplest social interaction. But then she watches him save a life, and she remembers why she loves him.

Doc Martin is a fish out of water. That’s one of the things that makes him a fascinating character. The character is so well written, and Clunes’s portrayal is so real, that I can see why Louisa finds him loveable, albeit infuriating.

Someday I’m going to travel to Cornwall and see Portwenn (well, Port Isaac) in person. In fact, the building that portrays the doctor’s surgery is a guest house that can be rented when it’s not being used for filming. So I know exactly where I want to stay.

2 thoughts on “In Defense of Doc Martin

    1. Yes, I’d love to read it! We were supposed to go to Cornwall last summer, but had to cancel because of the pandemic. We’re now thinking we might be able to travel there in 2022.

      Liked by 1 person

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