Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Doc Martin and redemption

As a result of suggestions made by you, Dear Readers, Valerie and I are watching the British TV series Doc Martin on Netflix.  We just finished the third episode of season 4, and don't want spoilers, thank you very much.

The premise of the series is that Dr. Martin Ellingham, accomplished surgeon, is suddenly seized by hematophobia. Accordingly, he leaves surgery (hard to do the slicing without some splashing), and ends up as the GP in a beautiful bayside town called Portwenn. The latter is played by Port Isaac in North Cornwall, England.

The basic format is that of a medical mystery / romantic comedy. Locals persist in calling Ellingham "Doc Martin," against his frequent but now-fading corrections. He is himself a surly, rude man, bereft of the least whiff of tact, and proud of it. He calls tact and sensitivity "rubbish" (which is a modern Britishism for "humbug"), and he'll have none of it.

But Ellingham is medically well-nigh brilliant, and eventually sees through everything sent his way. And while he virtually never shows the least bit of kindness or compassion per se, one of the most recurrent sites is of him running at full speed to some medical emergency.

As you're probably already thinking, it is impossible not to make comparisons to the American series House, MD, which started the same year. Both men are rude and churlish, both men have handicaps that irritate them, both men are medically brilliant, neither man rests until he figures out the medical mystery.

But there are major differences. One dissimilarity is that there's little real malice in Doc Martin. He's guileless. For the most part, Ellingham isn't trying to be mean; he just IS mean because he doesn't care what people think about him or what they make of what he says. Occasionally he effects a puzzled look indicating that doesn't seem to understand what others' problem is — if he even takes note of their reaction.

House, by contrast, was deliberately cruel, setting out to make fools and liars of people and expose their (assumed) hypocrisy. The least flicker of virtue in others constituted a glowing target for House, compelling him to search for a pathology of some sort.

And yet here also is a place where early House was superior to anything we've yet seen in Doc Martin. As I discussed elsewhere, in the early years Dr. House was longing and searching desperately for redemption. He knew he was a broken man, sometimes admitting his need for help; and he hated the horrid place the world was. House longed for something transcendent to cling to, something to give him hope; yet he had the settled conviction that there was no such thing. So House's compulsion to "expose" people who did have hope and transcendent values was driven by a bitter certainty that no real hope existed, a fury at that fact, impelled by a remaining flicker of hope that he'd find something he couldn't deconstruct.

There's nothing of that in Doc Martin. Ellingham's only discomfort is with his hematophobia, and that only because it keeps him in that dreary little village with those dreary little people. He neither longs nor searches for redemption of any sort. When he thinks of it at all, he thinks the rest of the world is off-kilter, addicted as it is to "rubbish" like tact and kindness and compassion. They should all be like him. Or not. He just doesn't care.

One's view of Ellingham is ameliorated a bit by glimpses of his upbringing. He alludes (admiringly) to severe and unloving discipline as a child. More becomes clear when we meet Ellingham's parents. Horrible people, sneering and loveless. Ellingham's father has few or no redeeming traits; and his ice-cold mother tells him, in so many words, that his birth and very existence ruined her life. She was happy before Ellingham as born; then, with his arrival, her life was rubbished. It hurts more to see Ellingham take abuse from both parents with no sign that he thinks them out of line, that he sees what a wretched, inexcusable cruelty it is. This is what has formed him.

Yet the humanist's version of redemption does nibble at Ellingham, in the form of a pretty little teacher named Louisa Glasson. For reasons which baffle and elude any viewer not schooled in abnormal psychology, Louisa is attracted to Ellingham early on, and he to her. Their conversations are really funny, in that every slight encounter turns into an argument. The first time they kiss, he instantly — without a pause — launches into speculation as to the medical causes of her bad breath. The second time they kiss, he speculates that a bad menstrual period explains her being over-emotional. Yes, it's that bad. He's that bad.


Then, in a careening plot line, Louisa finally shows some sense, and breaks up with Ellingham. He is utterly miserable. They happen to encounter each other, and he... proposes marriage. And she accepts! Yes, they literally have not put together two consecutive happy days together, let alone two consecutive happy hours, but they're about to marry.

But even that is doomed. They end up leaving each other at the altar.

In this sequence, both are revealed as selfish people, though Louisa less so. That is, they both primarily want to be made happy by someone. She doesn't want to take Ellingham on as a project, and I daresay anyone who cared a whit for her would agree. He won't make her happy, and she won't make him happy, so they leave each other.


Valerie and I continued watching because the locations are lovely. The cameraman only seemed to notice that fact with the beginning of the third season, and we started being treated to more artistic views. Also, the people are quaint and quirky, rather like the characters in the All Creatures Great and Small series.

Yet, as my dear wife has observed, it's only rather like. Something keeps the series from being fun. The writers seem to hold all their characters in contempt. The series has a negative attitude towards almost everyone in it. Every last person is unhappy and/or broken in some way. There are no exceptions.

And they're not "quirky-but." Some are insane, most are stupid and self-destructive and mean, none of them really seems to care for anyone other than himself, with the sole exceptions of Ellingham's aunt (who cares for him), a rotund father (who cares for his son), and a "chemist" (who adulterously lusts for Ellingham).

For instance, there's a ranger who's insane and has come close to killing several characters. Funny? Not a lot. Then there was the episode where a 15 year old girl was eager to lose her virginity, and overdosed on drugs because she was stung by her girlfriends' relentless ridicule over the size of her breasts. The happy ending? Ellingham gave her a placebo, and she viciously mocked one of those friends for the shape of her ears. She "won," you see, by getting the last hateful word in.

Like House, there's no redemption for Ellingham thus far. Unlike House, there's no longing for it. You watch a series like this, hoping for some epiphany to hit Ellingham, but so far none has so much as tugged on his sleeve. One religious character had an ongoing presence, yet his religion was shapeless and powerless, and both it and he were ultimately mocked and waved aside dismissively.

Only two even semi-hopes came by. One was a psychologist who immediately diagnosed Ellingham as having Asperger's, which at least would have explained his rudeness pathologically. The other hope of course is Louisa. Ellingham adopts a softer tone around her, and looks rather twitterpated. His voice becomes softer, and he looks like a big puppy, when she's around. Until they start arguing. Which they usually do.

But to date, they've not put themselves together, and in the real world (A) Louisa wouldn't even be available in the first place, and (B) this link-up never would have happened. Barring a sad, sad self-destructive pathology on Louisa's part.

And where does that leave Ellingham? He cared for Louisa as much as he cared for anyone other than himself and, to a lesser degree, his aunt. Nothing else calls to him but a return to his career as a surgeon, if he can just overcome this pesky phobia.

This is where modern screenwriters dip into a dry inkwell. How can they not? They live in a dry inkwell. All mankind is still banished from Eden, still longs for a way back, but still is unwilling to admit either the real cause of the problem or confront the real and only hope for a cure. So we wander on with Cain as strangers in the land of wanderers, complaining about the severity of our punishment but not owning up to our guilt. This is why all long for redemption, and this is why the best storytelling always contains an element of redemption.

But modern Brits, like modern Americans, have no redemption to offer. Amusement, anesthesia, diversion, yes. Mockery and derision of our supposed inferiors, yes.

Redemption, no.

So we watch broken characters like Dr. House and Doc Martin, longing to see them find the redemption we ourselves hope for. But the writers of House ran dry long before the series closed, and gave up all hope of the theme. So they resorted to the formula of House being monstrously cruel and hateful and brilliant. They had nothing more to offer. And so far, while their protagonist isn't the monster House become, neither do the writers of Doc Martin.

Because the only genuine hope for redemption is in the Redeemer... and facing up to that reality would entirely jostle their very world in a way which they are still denying and still fighting with all they've got.

Which is, ultimately, very sad.


Valerie and I have now finished watching the entire series. There is no need to revise anything I wrote above. We enjoyed many things about it. The actors are excellent, the writing is clever, the characters are sad. Bert Large runs his business deep into debt, takes money from a loan-shark, and then won't pay the interest. (Point: the loan-shark didn't specify the interest at the outset; Counterpoint: if Bert is so dim-witted as to think the money was a gift, it's hard to his credit.) His son helps him... by stealing from his aged employer, taking advantage of her trust and affection for him. Nice. All the more so because she's not much more a "people" person than Ellingham, but she likes Al... who takes advantage of her, and barely apologizes. (He had to, you see.)

The poor messed-up constable is fleetingly reconciled to the estranged wife he adores, and loses her, humiliating himself all over again. The poor adulterously love-struck chemist abuses drugs and has a psychotic break. Louisa's long-estranged mother returns, all coos and kisses, only to endanger Louisa's baby and continue the same appalling behavior that shattered her relationship with Louisa in the first place.

Life at Portwenn, in other words, continues as usual.

Meanwhile, Dr. Ellingham and Louisa come to live together, courteously. Martin tries to try to try, Louisa is very some ways. Ultimately, she has her fill of Ellingham being who he is, and leaves him. Again.

But at the end of the final episode, there's a sweet reunion that does give some horizontal hope to both of them. Ellingham tells Louisa that he loves her, and it looks as if they have a future. More hopefully, Ellingham says he's not going to be a father like his own wretched father, and he doesn't want their son to grow up to be like him. All viewers will cheer both resolutions.

Commenting on this paused story, then, such redemption as we now see serves to glorify God's greater redemption in Christ, by contrast.

Louisa is Martin's only horizontal hope. His aunt Joan, who tried feebly to be an influence, has died. Her death saddened Ellingham, but seemed to provoke no great reflection or introspection. Instead, he used the funeral to blame her for her own death and to lecture everyone about their obesity.

Only Louisa softens him, reaches him, touches him, humanizes him. His voice is always softer in talking to her (until they start arguing, which is usually the case), and his face always takes on a puppylike look.

At the same time, while she shows him a lot of patience, it is limited and aimless — except insofar as it is selfish. Louisa puts up with a lot from Martin... but not so that she can help him grow or change. Nor has he indicated (until the end of the last episode) that he feels the need for any change. Indeed, it is the world that should change. It should become more like him.

Louisa appears to want only to change Martin to make him into someone more suitable for her. And who could blame her? What is more, if he did learn to suit her better, Ellingham would probably become a better person in the bargain.

But Louisa shows no sign of knowing God, so she has no Christ-centered goal for herself or for Martin, and thus doesn't have any idea what either he or she should become. She doesn't have it, so she can't give it.

Christ, by contrast, is hard at work in the lives of His people to conform them to the image of their Creator (Col. 3:10; Titus 2:11-14). To do this, Jesus Christ must be the epitome of long-suffering patience in His dealing with us (1 Tim. 1:16). Unlike Louisa, He will never under any circumstances leave His people (Heb. 13:5-6), and will save us not just part-way, but all the way (Heb. 7:25), and will never, every put us out (Jn. 6:37). His love for His people is unfailing, sovereign, invincible (Rom. 8:35-39).

You see, that's real redemption. That's what it is to know God. It is a redemption that finds us as ruined and with nothing whatever to offer (Eph. 2:1ff.). It finds us not even as "fixer-uppers," but as hopeless wrecks. Yet there is hope for the hopeless, and that only because the Redeemer Himself brings it (Eph. 2:4-10). It is a redemption that begins with us in the very worst condition, and never rests in the good and joy and blessing and recovery that it brings us, not even to the endless ages of eternity.

Now, that is a redemption. Unfortunately, like Louisa, today's authors and screenwriters as a rule do not have that redemption themselves.

And so, like Louisa, they cannot offer what they do not possess.


Cathy M. said...

I watched the entire series. I really loved the setting and the characters of Burt, the plumber, and the first really bad receptionist. I tend to appreciate British humor, so my daughter suggested this series. When your children grow up, they feel like they need to censor the world for you. She said, "Now Mama, you'd better skip episone #, you won't like that one." So funny... they do the same thing with movies.

If the character of Doc. Martin were transported to ANY American village, he would be punched in the face daily, and probably shot. And, he would NEVER be considered attractive by anyone, let alone a cute young teacher.

Still... loved the show.

FX Turk said...

Oh, shoot: we almost agree.

There are no morally-good characters? Not even Al, Bert's son? Not even Mark Mylow?

I think there is a very serious case of existential angst in this series, and the right-sized love of the absurd found in the best in class of the type, but I think it turns out that it's not just the wee people of Portwenn that the writers put in the dock for grilling: the people from the city are no better. Think of the young fellow who comes to find Doc Ellingham in Season 2 and spills the beans about his blood problem -- he's a plain representative of Martin's old life. Martin's parents are an indication of life outside Portwenn, as are Louisa's parents as the series runs on.

But in all that, Martin sees himself as having a duty to these people and society -- and, in the end, a duty to Louisa because of who she is and what she means to him. No spoilers for the episodes you haven't seen yet, but it's enough to say that Martin knows he's a man who needs to be more than he is.

I have more to say on this, but I am booked the rest of the day. Hope to come back to it later.

DJP said...

Right, I mention Ellingham's parents. I don't single out the writers' treatment of the Portwennians as if it excludes folks in other places, but because that's the usual focus of the series.

And I didn't actually say there were no "morally-good" characters. What I said was:

"The series has a negative attitude towards almost everyone in it. Every last person is unhappy and/or broken in some way. There are no exceptions."

The father you mention is one of the more lovable charcacters — and he's a nearly talentless blowhard. He breaks everything he tries to fix, over and over again. He's a plumber who mostly talks (shoving it all off on his son) and can't actually repair anything, is something of a hypochondriac, and then on a whim he's a restaurateur who hasn't a clue what he's doing, botches the wedding, and on and on.

Mizz Harpy said...

Dan, your critique of this series and House are pretty much why I gave up watching tv altogether a few years ago. I've even almost completely stopped watching movies for the same reason. None of it is real, none of it grabs me and for some reason none of it is amusing anymore and I used to enjoy a few programs. Most every show and movie I've recently seen reminds me of the 'under the sun' passages in Ecclesiastes having nil of the 'under heaven' passages. Yet I'll waste an evening gaining a sense of accomplishment solving Sodoku puzzles....

Valerie should drive you to the doctor if you develop an addiction to Sodoku.

Oh yes, thanks for twitterpated.

FX Turk said...

I'm not sure it would be funny if they were all clever and competant.

DJP said...

Don't you think it goes beyond that, though? Have you seen "All Creatures Great and Small," or (better still) read it? There's at least often an affection for the characters that I don't so much get here.

Susie S said...

I suggest you really need to re-watch Doc Martin with the captions on, and eyes glued to the TV so you can begin to really take in everything that is there on the screen in this show.

It reminds me of how I started watching DM while crocheting and missing some dialogue because of accent issues and missing tons of information that you only get visually. Finally my crochet project was done and I watched with my whole attention on the screen and realized what I'd been missing. Then I rewatched with a hearing-impaired person with captions on, and realized I still had missed some very funny or important bits.

From my viewpoint, I see a ton of redemptive stuff in this show and have designed multiple "_______ Relationships 101" classes in my mind from watching it.

Dare I say, the whole show may ultimately be about the redemption of the Doc, and Louisa, and..., and..., and... -- need I go on?

I challenge you to watch it again. Some of your examples are not even accurate to the story.

DJP said...

Please feel free to expand.

Susie S said...

Just one example of inaccuracy:

"For instance, there's a ranger who's insane and has come close to killing several characters."

Yes, there were a couple of gunshots--one at a squirrel, another while out in the forest looking for the lost groom and best man. But that was hardly the point to be attended to.

In the first episode with Stewart, the ranger, we find out Stewart was a soldier in a conflict that took a bullet in friendly fire and has been affected by that whole experience. Ultimately, Doc gets to know him, gets an understanding from the townspeople of their attitude toward Stewart, and gets him on the road to the treatment he needs, in a very humane and respectful way.

In the later episode where Stewart appears, we see him as someone who is still part of the community and counted on, still fragile, but working on it.

I'll leave it at that. Trying to boil the Doc Martin show down in even a long long article cannot begin to show the humanity in it, not to mention all of its other admirable qualities, in writing, acting, directing, etc.

DJP said...

I was hoping you'd expound what you find redemptive in the series. Yes, the actors are wonderful, the scenery is wonderful, the writing is clever or we'd not be bothering with it. But there is nothing redemptive, as I tried to develop at some length.

In the series 2 episode 7 titled "Out of the Woods," Stewart points his shotgun directly at Doc, who has to shout "Stewart, don't shoot me!" Then when he steps into a trap seconds later, he does indeed shoot his firearm. Thankfully, he wasn't aiming at Doc, or it'd have been a much shorter series.

I don't think that's the only incident, but I think it's enough.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I became mesmerized by the "damaged" Doc Martin and the delightfully strange inhabitants of Portwenn. We have purchased all 5 series, although only she has completed watching them. Thanks for sharing your insights on these two Doctors and our own "apolutrosis."

kelvington said...

Yeah, I started watching as well, and got the same feeling that you so eloquently stated. And honestly, as much as I like the show, and was hoping this was more than just another House, I would rather spend my time doing something more profitable.
Thanks for sparing me alot of time hoping for something that would never come....there really are no good shows for Christians to watch!

DJP said...

Well, don't hear me at all as dismissing the series. We haven't finished this season, and there are more to come.

This is of the nature of an interim report.

But yes, it does raise to me the thought that it's a nice opportunity for a Christian to come up with a really complex character such as Ellingham or (more so) House, and actually craft a credible story that ends with redemption.

Now, there's something *like* that in at least the earlier Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Donaldson. Covenant starts as a fairly despicable character, but he does grow and change.

Susie S said...

So I'll be happy to check in with you again after all 5 series.

And I'm patiently waiting for series 6 filming this spring.

DJP said...


FX Turk said...

I'm completely willing to concede that there's nothing "redemptive" about the series in the sense that (for example) The Lord of the Rings is chock-full of redemptive themes.

However, I'm not willing to write off Martin and Louisa quite yet because the series is a comedy, or at worst a dramedy -- it's not really intended to explore the redemption of man the way more serious literature will. It is intent on exploring the foibles of the species.

In that sense, it is getting something right: man's depravity. But the point, of course, is not that no one is wonderful: the point is that Martin is just like Bert, just like Mrs. Tishell, just like Pauline, just like Mark Mylow -- and cannot accept it. The on-going question as it relates to his redemption is simple: can he accept that? That is: can he accept that he's a fallen man, a man with issues, a man who himself needs reform (or a savior)(!), or will he continue to be like all the people whose flaws he can see so vividly and fail to (ironically) never get better?

This is comedy and not tragedy or epic literature. The point is to make light of faults in order to expose them and resolve them (if possible).

DJP said...

Deep. Well, except for the "Only I get to write deep thoughts about popular media" part.


Robert said...

There is going to be a sixth season starting at the end of the maybe there is hope after all...

John said...

Land Rover SUV's have the separate window on their lift backs.

(You're quite welcome.)

DJP said...

Sure, I'm going to have off-topic comments.

But why you, John? WHYYYY YOUUUUU???

John said...

Just testing out my gmail account...and remembered a tweet of yours awhile back and thought you were probably giving up the Hyundai...and somehow that made me think of your blog...and then - well forgive me but it spun out of control. Church Cumerdegone or whatever he is had me laughing so hard...and a thousand points of light hit and there you have it.