Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


V086-05_doc-martinDoc Martin, the BBC’s series about a London haemophobic surgeon who retreats to a small Cornwall coastal fishing village, Portwenn, as its sole general practitioner, can be enjoyed as simply another cozy, palatable British comedy of manners and mores or, with a bit of imagination, as a parable about professionalism and what I refer to as “managerial mentality” and its relationship to its clientele, even of the relationship between politics and administration. But first it is necessary to elaborate a bit on the series that is serialized on PBS, but also is available for binge viewing on Netflix.

Martin Ellingham (Martin Clunes) is a curmudgeonly, rigid, highly-principled, antisocial, but extremely-capable physician who seems almost a complete misfit in a gossipy small town populated by a citizenry that represents all of the normal array of neuroses, compulsions, passions, lack of self-control, and other behavioral characteristics that Doc Martin finds exasperating despite the fact that they are, of necessity, his stock in trade.

Martin characteristically seems to look past or through the patients he is treating as individuals—some of whom would like more from their physician them near clinical treatment—to the germs, diseases, and other maladies against which he militates. It is as though they are less people than disorders. Yet, when he considers that their maladies are often a result of their often unhealthful demeanors his inclination is to judge them as foolish and self-indulgently stupid. He has little patience for any patient that refuses the treatment or remedy that he prescribes; he often rudely dismisses them, sometimes saying they can go ahead and be sick and die, or continue to endure their pain. (Although not in the way Republican Congressman and Governors who oppose the affordable care act feel about the poor and uninsured who would be beneficiaries of it.) His clientele are people who pray, listen to rumor and gossip, have prejudices, suspicions, fantasies and engage in magical thinking, in short, all the human intellectual and cognitive failings that contrast with Doc Martin’s objective, fact-based, scientific analysis. With peremptory abruptness he informs them they are “wrong” when they bring these failings into his surgery. There is noting to be debated or discussed about such matters; he is the doctor, the professional and he has no need for amateur assistance.

Martin’s haemophobia can also be taken metaphorically; he is so bereft of passion and sometimes compassion, and emotionally challenged, that blood, that physiological component that is perhaps most associated with a range of human feelings and engenders in him a terror of falling prey to those emotive states. Blood causes him a visceral revulsion as does the prospect that he might allow his tightly reined in feelings and fear of sexual intimacy expression and escape. These are challenged because there is Louisa (Caroline Catz), the cute school mistress who, for reasons that can only be ascribed to the irrational and insistent ways if the heart, develops an affection for Martin that is gradually reciprocal, but goes unrequited owing to his cluelessness and lack of interpersonal manners (he remarks on their first kiss that her breath is a bit sour; at which she opens the door of the taxi they are riding in and asks him to leave.)*

Martin’s confident attitude about his own professionalism is often portrayed in circumstances where, and looking past a patient’s self-diagnosis, he reminds them that he is the Dr., and that he is examining their symptoms objectively and without their wishful feelings band fears, or sometimes homeopathic notions that are evidence of the contrast between their imperfect humanity and his dedication to the norms of scientific analysis.

Drama is, of course, about conflict, and Doc Martin is an example of the contrast between the scientifically trained physician from the big city,** and the culture of the small, rural community. His professionalism, or at least his need for respect—partly displayed in the fact that he is never clothed in anything but his fully buttoned up neat suit and tie and shined shoes. But his professional detachment is continuously frustrated by mangy dogs who insistently try to befriend him and invade his space, and a gaggle of teenage girls who mock him wherever they encounter him in the towns narrow lanes. These frustrations and only exacerbate his irascibility, antisocial demeanor, and lack of communication skills.

What does Doc Martin have to say about professionalism and political culture in America? I can’t help seeing the political drama of America (and no doubt Great Britain) being played out metaphorically in the microcosm of this small Cornish town, especially in the contrast between Doc Martin from the big city and the rusticated local dramatic personael; blue state versus red state?

If we place Martin in the role of “government,” particularly with its laws, rules and regulations and taxes that are abhorrent to libertarians and the Tea Party right, we can see that he is both detested and needed (“Keep government out of my Medicare”). Doc Martin also represents the secularist side of the cultural rift with religion in America. Martin has no truck with diagnosis and/or prescription based upon unsubstantiated beliefs, or with the denial of sensate evidence (facts). In several episodes Martin revises his preliminary diagnosis as new facts present themselves or are uncovered. Conservative political strategy in America too often not only ignores facts (particularly in the realm of economics), but also invents faux facts where its governing philosophy of “the end justifies the means” obtains. Among a host of appropriate examples would be the alleged justification for expanded voter ID laws by Republicans that voter fraud is rampant when in fact it is all but non-existent, or the counterfactual claim that same-sex marriage will cause a breakdown in traditional marriage.

Yet, while Martin is governed primarily by what we would refer to as the norms of rationality his is not a reasoned rationality. His rigid professionalism allows him full authority within the boundaries of his medical discipline, but is dismissive of any complications that might be the result of social or emotional causes. (He was, after all, trained as a surgeon, a specialty that anesthetically-insulated him from having to deal with a conscious patient.) In somewhat the same manner, strictly rational public policy can fail to account for then irrationalities of people’s failings and beliefs and treating them only as negative externalities. In part, the political war over the Affordable Care Act, with the political right’s unsupportable allegation that it is “one size fits all socialism” (as it was for Social Security and Medicare) is illustrative.

Of course, in the end the relationship between government and the public is neither as simplified or individualized as that between doctor and patient, and this is where the therapeutic model of public policy can bring counterintuitive consequences. Nevertheless, if you want to imagine American political culture being played out on a smaller stage, or just enjoy it an entertaining British drama, tune into Doc Martin. One thing is different for certain: it does not have the depressing, meanspirited, divisive cultural warfare of the real thing. Doc Martin is into its fifth season; it might outlast America.

© 2013, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 11.20.2013)

*In a later episode they almost marry, but mutually call it off because love has done little to alter Martin’s brusque manner. She leaves town for a while, but returns in a few months, pregnant from their encounter, but determined to raise the child on her own.
**There is some backstory that is revealed in various episodes that Martin as a young boy spent summers with his aunt Joan who lives on a farm nearby Portwenn. She fully recognizes his social drawbacks, and he has difficulty even expressing any filial emotion toward her, especially when she reminds him that he was a bedwetter as a boy.