Can people change?

During the course of this series the question of whether people can change comes up several times. The first time occurs in season 3, episode 5, when Martin is talking to Aunt Joan after his date with Louisa ended badly. Joan considers Martin and Louisa to be “chalk and cheese,” or very different people. She tells him that people don’t change. Martin tells Joan that people can change and that he knows he can change. In this case he is mostly talking about being able to make small talk, but it’s really a much bigger question. By the end of season 5, we’ve seen Martin admit to being wrong on several occasions (most notably when he decided to leave Portwenn) and, in the last episode, he asserts to Louisa that he’s not going to be like his father and James Henry is not going to be like him. Martin has already been making a concerted effort to be different from his own father in many ways. In particular, he is not a phony and he preferences family over possessions.

The issue of whether people can change is pretty deep and involves the notion of free will. Philosophically free will is generally opposed to determinism, or the idea that humans are subject to fate and cannot control their lives. We could even say that scientifically speaking humans are governed by their genetic composition. I don’t want to get too involved in these philosophical questions even though I am fascinated by them, but I am making the leap to crediting the writers with including this important concern not only because Martin’s Asperger’s symptoms are making it hard for him to have a satisfactory relationship with Louisa or even with the village, but also because conquering a phobia requires a big commitment to change and Martin’s effort to overcome his hemaphobia is an ongoing issue in the show. In addition, there are several other characters who want to change and who are trying to make some changes. And then there are a few who have no interest in changing. Indeed, as I mentioned in a previous post, the fish seller in the last episode of series 5 tells Martin, “What’s for you, won’t go by you,” and that is a clear reference to fate. He may mean that if Martin and Louisa are fated to be with each other, it will happen, and if not, it won’t. Martin believes in his ability to change and he wants to have control, therefore, it’s appropriate that he expresses his deep love for Louisa at the end of the episode and wins her back, demonstrating an ability to institute change. So control over one’s life coupled with the ability to change one’s approach is a theme in this series and we should think about it.

By the beginning of season 6 Martin’s hemaphobia has abated but it returns in episode 3. Its recurrence is probably due to not having made a full commitment to address it, and his inability to keep it at bay is deeply troubling to him. I find it interesting that Martin’s fear of blood and the nausea that comes over him when he sees or smells blood is treated humorously in the first 5 seasons but becomes very disconcerting to him in season 6. He puts up with all sorts of teasing from townspeople and receptionists during most of the show, and never lets it become too much of an issue until he decides he wants to return to London and to being a surgeon. And it is funny that a doctor, especially a surgeon, has trouble handling blood or being around it. Maybe the writers think they’ve milked this condition long enough and want to put a new slant on it. But the fact that Martin is someone who likes to be in control, and this is something beyond his control, is a factor too. In season 4, Edith recommends a psychologist to Martin, but his visit there mainly shows his resistance to talking to anyone about it. He does listen to the CD the therapist sends him and tries to treat himself with some success, but self-treatment for phobias is very difficult and the success rate for self-exposure treatments is listed as 18%-33%. Failure is pretty common. When Martin talks to Ruth in season 6 about the recent reappearance of the hemaphobia, she tells him she knows a good psychiatrist in London that he should consult. Louisa wants him to see the psychiatrist and we’ll see how that goes. Martin’s life has changed in many ways since having a baby and getting married. Being the only doctor in the village is stressful too. Can he remain confident in his ability to change?

We also know that Martin’s childhood included an abusive environment with a mother who rejected him. He had no sense of control as a child and couldn’t control his bladder, was locked in confined spaces, and was sent away to school at an early age. He also follows his father and grandfather into medicine, fulfilling a family expectation. Therefore, it’s not surprising that he sought to control his life once he was in a position to do so. In fact, being the GP in Portwenn is actually a way to separate himself from his family background and Ruth may be acknowledging this when she tells him she’s proud of him for taking this step.

Beyond his ability to control his hemaphobia is the question of control he has over his love for Louisa. Martin’s attraction to Louisa has been long standing and he really looks besotted in so many scenes. The only way he maintains control is to fall back on his medical knowledge and destroy any romantic moments (which is also funny). He also imposes control after they have the baby by making all the major decisions without consulting Louisa (again funny and also exasperating). Eventually his need for control leads to another breakup. It’s only once Mrs. Tishell’s actions challenge his sense of control that he finally looks to Louisa for help and realizes that he needs to expose his true feelings for her. Martin seems lost at this point and repeats almost everything Louisa prompts him to say while trying to get Mrs. Tishell to bring down the baby. What he tells Mrs. Tishell works and he gets JH back. Now Martin can reestablish control and dictate to Mrs. Tishell what she must do, and he asserts his desire to change to Louisa.

Martin continues to try to exert some control during the wedding (he doesn’t let the vicar finish his prologue or the ring ceremony) and afterwards, but he meets with Louisa’s sense of self and we see the first signs of his effort to follow through with his pledge to change. The next few episodes reveal continuing efforts on his part to change: he invites another couple over for dinner, he takes James to a gathering for children at the library, and he does his best to put up with the noise and disruption in his formerly quiet home. We have to admit that he should be given an “A” for effort. On the other hand, his hemaphobia rears its ugly head again and he becomes an insomniac, both forms of loss of control. So change is mixed and uncertain at this stage.

Louisa’s ability to change is at stake here too. In season 2, episode 8 Louisa tells Danny we make our own decisions and she certainly has. First she ends her relationship with Danny and takes charge of renewing her relationship with Martin. Naturally, the series includes many upheavals in their relationship and the final episode of season 3, when they decide not to marry, ends with Louisa walking away. The big change for her comes when she moves to London to get her head straight. Her stay in London is lonely and ends when she loses her job due to her decision to have the baby. She returns to Portwenn pregnant, and, like so many other women, Louisa’s life is upended by her decision to keep the baby. She has to start all over by applying to get a job at the school and she has to find a place to live. I would consider this dealing with control and change. The pregnancy is her choice but forces her to make some changes, including returning to Portwenn. A baby will certainly bring some changes to her normal routine and challenges any sense of control. Like most mothers, she’s tired by the delivery and the baby’s needs, and, because she ultimately resumes her relationship with Martin, there are other changes in store for her. She’s been living on her own for a long time and she now has to accommodate to having both a baby and a man in her life. She has been clear that she wants children, but they do change one’s life. She also gives up her residence to move in with Martin. She loves him and wants to be with him, but her identity is important to her. She no longer can arrange the house her way nor does she have her own office space.

Martin’s freewill leads him to do what he has to do to be with Louisa, while Louisa’s sense of control stems from knowing that she can always leave. She refuses to be a “kept” woman and needs to work to retain a sense of self. She feels an inclination to leave when she thinks Martin is usurping her freedom and not allowing her to participate in his life.

The up and down nature of their alliance is obviously good for the series and for most of us becomes the real draw to the show. From the hints at the storyline for the rest of season 6, it sounds like the theme of change and control over one’s life will remain integral.

Beyond Martin and Louisa, Al is an important figure for whom change has been difficult. Every time he wants to change his life, he gets knocked down. He wants to go to school to study computers, but that never materializes. He wants to marry Pauline, but she wants to have more experiences and leave Portwenn. He wants to demonstrate some independence, but gets robbed in Africa and has to work and “sleep rough” to get enough money to return to Portwenn. He wants to stop working with his father and live on his own, but his plans to meet someone new fall flat and he ends up having to share Penhale’s home. Al is resourceful and capable and Aunt Ruth takes him under her wing and does her best to help him find other sources of income, but he’s limited by his lack of vision and possibly the confines of Portwenn itself. He should probably make a change by moving to where Pauline is, or at least somewhere else in England. That doesn’t seem to be a likelihood for him, so we’ll hope he finds some success (and there is a good possibility he will). He’s really rather static.

Ruth has already made a big change in her life by moving out of London to Portwenn. She’s managed to write a book and seems to find satisfaction in being a resource for her relatives and some townspeople, notably Al and Penhale. She’s become the bulwark of the community and a welcome cynic for the show. As a psychiatrist, she must be convinced that people can change and she can facilitate that.

Mike Pruddy does not appear to want to change. Of course, people with OCD have a hard time changing and often are convinced they don’t need to change. I suppose facing the problems with the military may force him to make some adjustments. We may never know what happens to him. Bert, too, is not one to change. He’s tried to start a new business, which has had some ups and downs, but he’s generally someone who will continue to take advantage of the odd money-making ventures he comes across and keep living his pedestrian life. He finds Portwenn has everything he wants and needs. Finally, Margaret, Martin’s mother, is not making any effort to change if all she came back to Portwenn for was to get money from Martin and she puts on an act of caring about JH. She remains a despicable woman/mother who appears to have few regrets about how she treated her son.

Do we have free will, and can we fundamentally change? I tend to agree with Martin, et. al. and think so. Change is very much something we all must deal with. To have a family, requires constant change as the children grow and their lives impact ours. Moreover, as we age, we inevitably change. If we’re lucky, we do so with some insight and love for our spouses that helps us adapt to the changes. We all want to maintain a sense of self while making some compromises to retain harmony. If we want to badly enough, we can make it happen.

Originally posted 2016-05-22 14:43:31.

7 thoughts on “Can people change?

  1. Santa Traugott

    I think one of the oddest things on this topic, is the psychiatrist, Aunt Ruth, telling Louisa that people don’t change. I guess we have to put this down to her experience at Broadmoor. But I’m with Louisa — people CAN change, if they want to. More generally, as a social psychologist once put it — “self is a verb” by which she meant to say that we have multiple selves, or aspects of ourselves, which can be elicited in different situations, and also that self is remarkably plastic. Cognitive-behavioral therapy seems to me to be all about the idea that people can change, by being willing to examine and confront various unrealistic ideas they hold about themselves and the world, as is much other therapy. Also, it is intriguing to me that this show should be about change in a main character – and I think it is — which in so many ways parallels the experience of the lead actor himself, which changed his own behavior and seemingly, world view, very radically.

  2. Carol

    I love this post because this theme is so much of what the appeal is to this show, I think. I write fanfiction for Doc Martin and in almost every story, this theme is what drives the story. In my own stories, for instance, the tricky part has been to allow the Doc and Louisa to change but to keep the change slow enough to be realistic. I agree that people can, and do, change. I think it is very hard, and during stress we certainly tend to use our “old” methods, but if we work hard, we can change. I have heard Martin Clunes say that they have always tried not to “fix” the Doc. I can understand this on one hand because his idiosyncrasies have been their bread and butter, but my push back is, if you are writing a drama, don’t you want people to change a bit just to make things realistic? He has changed, as you say in your post, but I don’t think they have changed him quite enough. Martin made promises at that castle and he takes promises seriously. I believe him and I would love to see these great writers let him make good on his promises. Having a wife and baby would change anyone. At the very least, can we see him interact with JH when he holds him? A little kiss? A hug? Very few people can be around a baby for long without showing some affection. I don’t want the Doc to change completely, but I would like a bit more realism, and I don’t think people will stop watching if they see it.

  3. Post author

    It’s so nice to have you reading my blog and conversing with me! I’d love to read what you’ve written so please tell me how to do that. In terms of the theme of change…I think this theme continues into season 6 based on what I’ve seen so far, especially in the most recent episode (#6). Ruth tells Al that he is the only one who can make decisions that will determine the direction of his life. I almost think they’ve changed the Doc too much. Although his demeanor has always been serious and without a sense of humor, he used to stomp off in a huff or trip or hit his head or something that we could laugh at. Now he’s gotten so somber and so many of the episodes have him sitting/standing in the dark. I think he shows a great deal of attachment to James even if he doesn’t kiss him. It really wouldn’t be like Martin to hug and kiss, but he dresses him, holds him, almost always touches him when he sees him, and I think we know how much he cares about him. His pledge was to not be like his father, by which I suppose he means too disciplinarian and too distant. So far I think we are seeing Martin much more engaged with James than many fathers are. I can say that I don’t know too many men of my generation (or even the next) who would take their baby son to work with them or to a music class. My husband almost never changed our children’s diapers. Martin has read to James even if it was a medical journal, but that’s better than nothing! I’m also seeing a little bit of change in Louisa insofar as she’s being more affectionate toward Martin. It’s not easy for her because he’s not very responsive to it, but she’s trying. I’d like to see the writers allow the couple to sit on the couch at times or do more of the talking in the bedroom that they used to do in season 5. They are newlyweds after all and Martin has been wishing for Louisa to be in his life for a long time. Now that she’s committed to him, why doesn’t he look more enthused? Ok, his blood phobia is back and he struggles with interactions, but he’s tended to be able to talk to Louisa before. From what I can tell, we fans would all like to see the Ellinghams stop having these tense moments during which the question of them staying together hangs in the air. After all these seasons and finally a marriage, we should be able to assume their marriage will last. Let’s get past that question and start having them deal with child raising concerns and other things that would typically come up when two people live together after living on their own for so long.

  4. Carol

    You can find some wonderful Doc Martin fan fiction at Look under tv shows, D in the alphabet and then click on Doc Martin. To find my first story, change the filter to M for Mature. The name is Martin and Louisa at the Font. I write under the name reallybodmin. I am working on a sequel called Sing Together. There are lots of wonderful stories on the site, many that are very long. A lot of the writers and reviewers have become a family of sorts for each other. It is a very encouraging group which I think says a lot about the type of show this is. It tends to draw those types of viewers. I am so glad for this blog because I really do love this show on so many levels – it’s hilarious for one thing. The scenery is so stunning and the music so unusually wonderful that they are almost characters in and of themselves. And of course the cast – what a wonderful group to flesh out some terrific writing. I look forward to hearing from more and more people!

  5. Veronica

    I agree with you that Martin has changed but not in a good way. I also agree that he loves James. In Series 6 he actually shows more affection to James than to Louisa. Do you have any idea if what is wrong with Martin that would cause their marriage to deteriorate so quickly? It reminds me of Silda Spitzer’s first marriage that ended in 30 days, and she then married Eliot Spitzer quickly on the rebound.
    How can a marriage fail so fast?

    If Louisa and Martin were not getting along during the presumably 4 month period between the castle walk and their wedding, they wouldn’t have wed. At the wedding they seemed okay, but two weeks later things began to unravel when Martin retreated to his clock

    He showed classic signs of depression but what triggered it?

  6. Veronica

    Carol. You should modify your comments to say that the Doc Martin fan fiction writers and reviewers are nice as long as you stick with the canon. Stray into more interesting stories outside the canon and the Squirrel Busters come after you with nasty PMs and unsigned reviews. Some of the fan fiction stories are good but most of them are unimaginative regurgitations of the show. The fan fic site was begun by English writers who possess the cultural references to write about English characters. Now the mostly American writers create Americanized versions of Doc and Louisa with the trappings of American culture.

  7. Amy

    One thing jumped out at me about the possibility of change was in the episode when Mike Proddy returns to the military after Martin convinces him that the army can help him overcome his OCD. Martin seemed to be talking about himself when asking Mike if he wanted to change, and Mike’s almost hesitant statement that he did want to change although he liked who he was seemed to be lines that could have been spoken by Martin.

    I think the writers do believe people can change—Mike’s situation is an example of that, as are the situations with other characters who have exhibited either changes in their situations—all those who left Portwenn (Elaine, Pauline, Mark, and so on) or a willingness to be treated for their psychological problems (endless number of patients). But they can’t allow Martin to change too much or the show would lose the tension created by the two principal characters.

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