I am writing this post as a way to work through some of the positions I took while responding to comments made on this blog. I also continue to read comments on Facebook and elsewhere and I find it vexing that so many fans of DM have registered their belief that S6 was meant to take Martin to rock bottom so that he would be able to come to grips with his personal problems and work on them. In the process, they believe, he will understand what happened in his childhood to make him withdrawn, unsmiling, anti-social, and oriented toward ritual. He will also learn how he can change his basic approach to life and family and become a better family person. I see this as an affront to the show in that it was created as a dramedy with a main character who is grouchy, anti-social, focused on his profession, and with traits that are integral to him regardless of how he got that way. I like it that way. The show gives us hints of both nature and nurture sources for his behavior, but deliberately keeps it all ambiguous — that is, it does not provide any final determination to these potential origins. I don’t think the show should make any serious moves toward trying to “fix” Martin. Furthermore, what troubled me about S6 was how it took the show too much in the direction of a drama and sucked all the life out of the character of Martin Ellingham. We saw bits and snatches of it, but overall he was a totally different type — brooding, withdrawn from Louisa, and disengaged from the community to a greater degree than ever. As the series continued, we lost the miscommunications, the interactions with the townspeople, his physical clumsiness, and his need to appeal to Louisa. Some viewers argued these changes made sense on a grand scale. I am hard pressed to find a good reason to have taken the show in this direction except as an effort to shake things up or perhaps because MC lost so much weight and their best solution was to make him more handicapped. One asset they magnified in this series is the ambiguity inherent in the stories and relationships. Most episodes introduced a great deal of ambiguity and I find that something to applaud. I am writing this post to assess the value of ambiguity and discuss it.
Ambiguity in works of literature or other arts enriches our experience of them. Much of our discussions about DM have been generated by the ambiguity perpetrated by the show. In academic circles it is said that ambiguity can intentionally (or unintentionally) increase the interest in a work of art by refusing to allow easy categorization and interpretation. And studying ambiguity and how we resolve it can give us insight into both thought and interpretation.
We can go back to Aristotle in our investigation into ambiguity. He and other philosophers brought up the issue of ambiguity in relation to how thought and language interacted. Aristotle identified various fallacies associated with ambiguity and amphiboly (ambiguous words or sentence structure). An in depth study of ambiguity would take us into all sorts of usage examples. There are many manifestations of linguistic ambiguity: lexical, syntactic, various forms of speech ambiguity, and collective-distributive ambiguity, amongst others. The English language can be particularly filled with ambiguities due to the frequency of words that look the same on the page but mean more than one thing. Context always helps but cannot always resolve the problem. There is also some difficulty with language not being specific enough. So, if Doc Martin tells a patient to suck on a lemon but doesn’t say for how long, it is up to the patient to realize he can stop as soon as the doctor has determined a possible diagnosis. Persevering with the behavior longer than necessary makes the ambiguity more apparent and amusingly absurd. Often it is ME who takes what people tell him too literally, and that is another example of speech ambiguity. (I went through some of this in my post on “What Makes DM so Appealing?.”) From the beginning of the first episode of the first series when Louisa says to Martin “You’ve got a problem,” we are in the arena of linguistic ambiguity. What does she mean by “problem?” Initially we consider it her reaction to being intensely examined by a strange man sitting across from her. Soon we realize that his problem is the haemophobia that has brought him to Portwenn, and soon after that we learn he has a host of other problems including the townspeople. Finally, we know that his problem is that he is in love with Louisa. I am confident we could find a myriad of examples of all of the above types of linguistic ambiguity throughout all the series of this show. And S6 starts out in that vein too. I like the Martin who in S6E1 answers Louisa’s tender remark “Whatever you say” with “I didn’t say anything.” I like the Louisa who tells Martin she told him she didn’t want a honeymoon because she didn’t think he would want one, which totally confuses him. I like the Martin who reacts to Louisa’s request to be more social by spontaneously inviting someone to dinner, for that night. Yes, use language ambiguously and have fun with it.
In addition to the ambiguity of language there is ambiguity of action. I have been arguing pretty strongly for viewers not to forget that we are being maneuvered/manipulated by the writers, et. al. of DM and should not project too much onto the characters and their behaviors. This is as it should be because whoever writes the story controls it. I argued quite vociferously that we can’t answer the question “Should Martin and Louisa stay together?” because it is not our place to determine that. My position is that whether or not their marriage would work in a real life setting, this show will never separate them because it’s a dramedy and not a tragedy, and dramedies don’t have sad endings, and because any final separation of Martin and Louisa ends the show, the show will not be “Doc Martin” anymore. Without Louisa, there is no show. I brought up the example of Gone With the Wind and said how ludicrous it would be to wonder whether Rhett should have married Scarlett. I’ve now become aware that there was a lot of turmoil about the end of the story when it was first published. According to an article by Brad Leithauser in “The New Yorker,” (Nov. 20, 2012), “People all over America asked: Did Rhett abandon Scarlett forever? Or did the two of them eventually reconcile?” As Brad goes on to say, “I’d long considered this whole debate deeply silly. Wasn’t it obvious? Rhett and Scarlett didn’t do anything after the last page. With the novel’s close, they ceased to exist… But, of course, it was obvious only if you were approaching the book as a box rather than a keyhole.” What he means is “I might have said that there’s a special readerly pleasure in approaching a book as you would a box. In its self-containment lies its ferocious magic; you can see everything it holds, and yet its meagre, often hackneyed contents have a way of engineering fresh, refined, resourceful patterns.” But [his niece] might have replied that “she comes to a book as to a keyhole: you observe some of the characters’ movements, you hear a little of their dialogue, but then they step outside your limited purview. They have a reality that outreaches the borders of the page.”
Those of us, like Brad and me, who teach literature (film) treat it as a box, but many readers (viewers) treat it as a keyhole. I think it’s important for any story to draw its readers/viewers in and that often takes the form of inviting personal investment in the story, including speculation about what would happen “if.” Another author, Celeste Ng, notes “you need to leave a few unmapped places so the characters can step beyond the boundaries you’ve sketched, a few strings untied so that the puppets can move freely without your hand. In other words, you need a little ambiguity: a space, however small, for the reader to fit into the piece. A story needs a little room for the reader to interpret, to bring in his or her own perceptions and conceptions.” Her argument is very similar to one Stephen King makes in his revealing book On Writing when he advises writers to not be too specific, to write descriptively but leave room for the reader to imagine the setting in his/her own way. The primary factor is leaving some uncertainty.
Since we’re talking about a television show, I thought I would mention that Robert McKee’s book Story, which provides a road map for writing good stories for the screen, also notes the use of ambiguity there. McKee emphasizes that one element of good story writing is the climax, and one form of climax is the “open ending.” In an open ending a question or two are left unanswered and some emotion is left unfulfilled. In other words, there is ambiguity. This type of ending is what is used many times in DM and it’s what has led to so much speculation and conjecture from so many of us. I don’t think we have to get caught up in the possibilities of how various relationships could be resolved or could have developed to enjoy the show, but I am aware that wanting to relate to these characters on a personal level is a key facet of what keeps viewers coming back to see more.
S6 was particularly prone to using the open ending climax and may have, therefore, stimulated more speculation than usual. Let’s look at the ending of each episode from S6.
E1: The episode ends with Martin and Louisa returning home covered with blood and dirt, Bert bringing the bag he forgot to give them and hoping to pin the mistake on Morwenna while also worrying about the condition of the lodge, a patient complaining of an eye problem that needs immediate attention, and the dog entering uninvited.
Ambiguity — Will they explain what happened? Will they review their wedding night and laugh about it? Will they give Bert an earful? What exactly happens after they get back? All open ended.
E2: The episode ends with Morwenna accepting Al as a lodger and Dennis being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Louisa has cut her forehead walking into a door and Martin questions whether she washes her hair enough and rinses it sufficiently.
Ambiguity — How will Morwenna like Al as a lodger and how will it change their interaction? Will Dennis forgive Louisa’s criticisms? Will Martin’s comments about her dandruff once again cause a rift in their relationship? (Louisa never likes it when Martin comments on her personal hygiene
E3: The ending of this episode is when ambiguity gets much more meaningful. Martin is struggling to treat his slashed hand without vomiting and covers the gash when Louisa enters the room. She is somewhat concerned about him, but rather callously reads him Becky’s newspaper article criticizing him. He tries to be polite but is really just doing his best to hide his recurring battle with his haemophobia. The camera dollys back as Martin continues to fight his nausea and the shot magnifies his circumscribed world.
Ambiguity — How will Martin handle the return of his haemophobia: he can continue to claim he’s fine and try to ignore it or he can decide to seek help. Will Martin keep the recurrence of his phobia from Louisa? What about his isolation? What does his serious demeanor mean for his future and for them as a couple?
The other prominent ambiguity is what kind of show is DM becoming? We have now begun to see the symptoms of nausea due to his haemophobia treated as a serious issue rather than something that makes us laugh. The initial premise of a doctor who is phobic about blood was established as utterly inapt. This time, with some subtlety, they have shown Martin hiding his inclination to vomit at the sight of blood. Several of the following episodes will continue that difference in approach from previous series. Whereas Martin’s tendency to vomit whenever there is a bloody patient or he must draw blood has been well-known by the community and a source of humor, and they all took this reaction in stride, now he appears markedly humiliated by it.
E4: This episode was of a somewhat lighter nature with Martin more his usual self, telling off patients and calling them idiots. He also manages to sit through the music circle with James and actually impress the women by diagnosing a problem with one of the babies. The ending, however, shows him struggling to deal with the commotion created by a wife and child. This time Louisa is making dinner and he finds it hard to not participate. She asks him to feed James and in the last moment he gets a dose of James’ food on his face and suit.
Ambiguity — I find this ending much more typical of the show as a whole. Every ending has some ambiguity based on the mere fact that we don’t know what happens next. Martin could explode from being overwhelmed by the noise and activity level or he could manage to keep his emotions hidden.
But the kind of notable ambiguity is not so evident here.
E5: It’s during this episode that the series takes a serious turn. Not only does Louisa find out that Martin has been withholding the return of his “blood sensitivity” from her but the final scene takes place at nearly five in the morning with Louisa sleeping while Martin sits at his desk in semi-darkness. His clock and tool kit sit in front of him but he cannot engage in that as a comfort this time. His face looks troubled.
Ambiguity — This ending is very ambiguous. We can tell Martin is highly disconcerted. Why?
The possibilities include the return of his phobia, his insomnia, depression (which could be
the product of both the phobia and/or the insomnia), concerns about his compatibility with
marriage and family life, the return of Mrs. Tishell, all of the above. Prior to this last
scene Joe has rescued Al from sleeping on the beach and we seem headed for a fairly heartening conclusion. But all of that is undercut when they bring us back to the Ellingham household for the concluding scene. We are compelled to revisit the internal stresses in Martin.
E6: This is a pivotal episode when Martin’s mother appears and further shakes up their home life. It’s not enough that the blood phobia has returned, that Martin can’t sleep, that he and Louisa are having trouble relating to each other with Louisa beginning to wonder if she’s the reason for his unrest and whether the house is too small, but now we have to add another person in the small space and someone who is unwelcome. Isn’t this called stacking the deck?
Ambiguity — Throughout the episode Martin looks disturbed whenever he sees his mother with James. When we see him standing over the crib in the middle of the night about midway through the episode, we can imagine he might want to protect James from his mother’s injurious influence. The final scene has her entering Martin’s office carrying James, something Martin is immediately unhappy with. She tries to make a bid for a new start with Martin, but he’s not having it. He’s quite unreceptive to her and she leaves sadly disappointed. At the close of the scene Martin holds James and looks thoughtful. Is he pondering whether his father regretted anything? Is he suspicious of his mother’s motives? Is he confused about his feelings and conflicted about how he just spoke to her? Does he think he should warn Louisa not to trust his mother with James?
[Martin Clunes’ ability to stare into space with a troubled/thoughtful look on his face is
abundantly employed throughout S6.]
E7: During this episode life in the Ellingham house becomes extremely strained. Louisa can’t find a way to break through Martin’s defenses and Martin has become totally unyielding. He grudgingly attends Sports Day but wants to leave from the moment he arrives. It’s only after Louisa gets hit by a car and is taken to the hospital that Martin realizes his multiple blunders and tries to redeem himself by berating the doctor in charge of Louisa’s care. All that does is cement Louisa’s disenchantment with him and their marriage. If we can find a bright spot it is that their talk in the hospital is the first time in a while when they’ve actually spoken to each other for any length of time. The talk includes a few linguistic ambiguities, e.g. Louisa saying she’s not coming home because she needs a break and Martin unaware that she means a break from him. The open ended climax is when they return home only to find Margaret who promptly insults Louisa and only makes matters worse.
Ambiguity — Once again Martin stares after Louisa in total distress. He has the baby to deal with and his mother at hand. What will he do? Will he apologize to Louisa? Will he tell off his mother once again? Will he appeal to Louisa’s sense of loyalty? Will Louisa leave and not return? (You know that I think that would never happen, but the question must be asked.)
E8: Obviously the final episode should bring the series to some sort of conclusion. This last episode is more like the last episode of S3 — they both end with more questions than answers. Louisa is on the plane expecting to depart for Spain when Martin enters the plane in order to take her off because he’s discovered she has an AVM. Unbeknownst to Louisa, he had been making arrangements to come after her anyway but now there’s even more urgency. Once again we have an already trying situation between these two augmented by a medical emergency. And once again we are treated to a tender conversation between them under very
difficult circumstances. After Martin completes the operation, during which he vomits when he sees her blood and she rolls her eyes for humorous effect, he finds privacy in a bathroom stall where he is tearful. Soon after, we see Louisa in a hospital bed and asking for her husband. Martin appears and they talk. They agree that the operation doesn’t change how they’ve been interacting at home and they can’t continue as if nothing is wrong. He leaves without so much as a warm tap or comment, although he looks sympathetic. She watches him leave with a sad, but affectionate face.
Ambiguity — Where do we start? Martin tells Ruth he wants to be with Louisa and he tells Louisa he needs her help to be a better husband, but despite all of the signs that he’s ready to do what it takes to stay married to Louisa, in the end he’s back to being unable to express himself to her
directly. Will she go home when she leaves the hospital? Will he demonstrate his desire to make
her happier in the marriage? Is he tearful in the bathroom because he saved his wife’s life or
because he was able to perform surgery successfully again? Or Both? How difficult will it be for Louisa to go back home and try to work on their marriage?
Will we have the show we have come to love and admire back again? Can they find a satisfactory way to return the characters to their previous personas?
One thing that is unambiguous is that Margaret will not be back!
This exercise has been lengthy and time consuming, but has helped me look at the many ways that ambiguity can both enhance the humor in a show as well as stimulate greater viewer participation. Ambiguity demonstrates the versatility of language and, as The Handbook to Literature states: it is “a literary tool of great usefulness in suggesting various orders and ranges of meanings and enriching by holding out multiple possibilities.” Many of the greatest books in literature use ambiguity. The fact that great films and television shows use it too enhances their quality as well. What I am saying is that I like ambiguity and open ended climaxes to stories because they are more representative of life and because they make me think. Nevertheless, I will always think of works of literature, and excellent shows and films, as complete. Too much speculation beyond the scope of what’s on the page or the screen corrupts it. I cannot remember any occasion when a student has wondered how the ending to a classic book could have been different. We examine the text for the beauty of its contents and how it’s written. It’s a work of art and should be admired just the way it is.
[Post Script: I recently looked at my copy of Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse and found this note from the author: “Of course, I neither can nor intend to tell my readers how they ought to understand my tale. May everyone find in it what strikes a chord in him and is of some use to him! But I would be happy if many of them were to realize that the story of the Steppenwolf pictures a disease and crisis — but not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary: to healing.” Hesse realized that his own message was being subverted by readers’ misinterpretation. He was so unhappy about it that he felt the need to add a note of caution. Ambiguity creates its own hazards while leaving a space for readers to relate on a personal level.]
Originally posted 2014-09-12 21:27:33.