Change! What is It Good For?

Now that S7 is over, we have to revisit the theme of change. There is no other theme that has been as prominent in this show as this one, and what we find at the conclusion of S7 is not what might have been expected. The show had continually asserted by means of various characters that people can change. But by the closing scene, that conviction is very much in question.

I have taken some time rereading my previous posts on the topic of change (and there are several), and also done more thinking about how the show has weighted their stance in favor of people being capable of change and being impacted by certain significant experiences such that they involuntarily change. I have now developed a more fully reasoned perspective on this subject and decided that we need to divide it into two parts. There are core changes that take place following major events in our lives, and there are more superficial changes that we can institute by using our free will. What is depicted in Doc Martin encompasses both. By the end of S7 we still don’t have a clear picture of where this show lands on this subject, and that gives us some reason for disillusionment. They have left us with a very confused conclusion about whether change is possible or constructive, and all I can surmise is that they don’t have an answer to this premise or don’t want to provide one.

In my view some of the instigators of core changes in people originate in family and childhood. Not only does becoming a parent change us in fundamental ways, but also how our parents treat us throughout childhood is extremely momentous. Furthermore, a loss of a parent, either through death or departure, significantly affects us and can vitally change us. In Doc Martin we have all of these events and they are given substantial clout.

By the end of S6, Martin has suffered through an incredible amount of parental damage, and it has to have changed him in essential ways. We’ve heard from Ruth that Martin changed from being a vulnerable and sensitive child at age 4 to being quiet and withdrawn by age 6, and she places the blame squarely on his parents’ treatment of him. We are privy to a flashback from Martin’s boyhood when his father yelled at him for simply entering his study without knocking, and we know that he has been at the receiving end of physical and emotional abuse and neglect. When Martin’s mother arrives at his doorstep in S6, she immediately mentions that his father has died. But, really, his father disappeared from his life years before and only made a brief appearance in S2 with the unfortunate result of embarrassing Martin in front of Joan. When Christopher leaves Portwenn then, Martin tells him not to come back. He tells his mother the same in the last episode of S6. With her departure, any contact with his parents ends.

Louisa, too, has dealt with the loss of her parents. In her case, both of her parents cared less for her than for their own selfish desires and she has come to believe that she didn’t really need them after the age of 12. When her mother shows up in S5, we hear Louisa have trouble explaining why she wrote her about being pregnant. She tells Martin it wasn’t rational, which means she had a compulsion to tell her mother despite their long term separation. As in most cases, the child in Louisa still wants to believe her mother will be different this time and be interested in her.

We have other cases of parental loss with significant damage in this show. Al’s mother first left and then died; the Flint boys’ mother abandoned them and their father became psychotic as a result; and Erica Holbrook and her daughter Bernie have been deserted by the man of the house. In every example, the children have been deeply affected.

Another form of core change in one’s life is the birth of a baby. As Roger Fenn says to Martin in S2, it can clarify what it means to love someone. His remark cuts Martin because he has just been soundly deflated by his parents’ lack of love for him, but we can clearly see how the birth of a son causes Martin to respond to the world differently. He makes room in his life for the baby and has a renewed commitment to Louisa.

Two other ways in which circumstances are likely to change us at our core are through becoming terminally ill or by being sent into battle. This show gives us several scares regarding potentially fatal illnesses and two cases of sudden death. Roger Fenn contends with throat cancer and resorts to caustic remarks, while Jim Winton turns into a bedridden man whose wife becomes obsessed with finding a cure for him. I doubt she ever would have abducted a doctor at gunpoint under any other circumstances. Helen Pratt’s death turns her husband Phil into an angry, vengeful person; Jim Selkirk’s demise leads to his wife hallucinating. Stewart returns from Bosnia a delusional man who is afraid to mingle with the community, and Mike Pruddy has become burdened by excessive OCD and is running from the military authorities. He’s an extremely capable man whose afflictions keep him from creating a solid future for himself.

Other examples of occasions when people recount important changes in their lives include Martin being unable to perform surgery due to the onset of haemophobia. This phobia leads to a total departure from his immediate life. Margaret tells Martin his birth changed how Christopher looked at her and behaved towards her. She blames the deterioration of their marriage on that event, and at this point she plans to leave Christopher for another man.

From the time when Martin asserts to Joan in S3 that he can change if he wants, we watch Martin try to make that a reality. He tries to be nice to Holly and a few other patients; he tries to treat his haemophobia in S4; and he tells Louisa in the last scene of S5 he plans to change and not be like his father. In S6 Martin changes, but not for the better. He goes into a major depression due to the recurrence of his haemophobia as well as the upheaval in his home life and the appearance of his mother. Then he tries to change again by deciding to follow Louisa to Spain and next by telling her he wants to be a better husband. In S7, Martin has returned to someone who can take his haemophobia in stride. He tries to change for Louisa by doing everything he can think of to demonstrate his devotion to her. (So there is a chance that the remark he makes to Louisa at the end of S7 that he’s tried and it’s only made things worse refers to all the above efforts to change.)

Another huge change is the disappearance of his beloved clocks. What happened to them? We have to conclude that they no longer fill the void they once did.

Other times when the notion of change is promoted include when Louisa tells Danny that we make our own decisions, and when she tells Ruth that people can change if they want to; when Ruth tells Al we are the authors of our lives and we can change them if we want to; and when Morwenna becomes more assertive in S7. Ruth also tells Martin he has to change if he wants Louisa to stay with him. (As I’ve said before, Ruth should be convinced that people can change because she is a psychiatrist. As such she believes she can help people change.)

But the show also gives us several arguments against people’s ability to change. We see that despite therapy, Sally Tishell’s obsession with Martin has not changed, although she has decided to return to her marriage with Clive. We see that Bert and Al have not changed and are back in business together. We have also heard Joan tell Martin in S3 that “we are what we are” and can’t change (which is echoed in S7 by the same message written on the board by Erica Holbrook) and Louisa tell Martin in S3 that he can’t just act nice, he has to want to. We’ve also heard Ruth curiously telling Louisa in S5 that people don’t change and Louisa realizing that her mother hasn’t changed; Margaret telling Louisa at the airport in S6 that Martin is not going to change; and ultimately, Louisa telling Martin in the final scene of S7 that she doesn’t want him to change how he feels about her. In that final scene, Louisa reaches the conclusion that everyone is unusual and we are left to decipher what the final message about change is.

By the end of S6 I wrote that I thought the position the show was taking was “regardless of our life experiences, each of us has the power to change our lives and turn them into something close to what we want. We should stop wishing things were different, stop finding excuses, and do what we can to transform them.” Now I’m not so sure, and maybe the “deciders” on the show aren’t sure either.

Personally, I think change is good for us and inevitable as we grow older. We don’t want to stagnate; we want to remain curious and experimental. We want to become more sympathetic to others and more caring to our family. We want to grow as human beings and never stop growing. We want the acceptance of society.

George Takei, an actor and a Japanese American who was interned during WWII recently wrote to the mayor of Roanoke Virginia: “Mayor Bowers, one of the reasons I am telling our story on Broadway eight times a week in Allegiance is because of people like you. You who hold a position of authority and power, but you demonstrably have failed to learn the most basic of American civics or history lessons. So Mayor Bowers, I am officially inviting you to come see our show, as my personal guest. Perhaps you, too, will come away with more compassion and understanding.” Changing hearts and minds is a never ending struggle, yet must be tried through every means possible.

Life is filled with change, both internal and exogenous.



Originally posted 2016-05-22 14:50:15.

16 thoughts on “Change! What is It Good For?

  1. MARJE

    When we meet someone and are attracted to them for various reasons, do we then see what we consider to be faults and try to change them? The answer is yes. Unfortunately we think since we love them and they feel the same everything will magically fall into place. When it doesn’t, we either give up and leave or stay and hope in time they will change.
    Ruth is in the business of helping people change and should believe it can happen. Why then does she tell Louisa “people don’t change”?
    Martin never wanted to change for the right reason. That being his own desire to be more polite, friendly, etc. He asked WHY in one of the episodes and that spoke volumes. He really could not see the necessity of being “nice”.
    Having such awful parents, Martin has to be given a great deal of credit in how he made room in his life for his son. Louisa never seemed to voice this to him.
    We are authors of our lives and we can change them if we want to. This statement makes change seem so easy. Even if you think this means work hard on changes every day, it still seems it can be done. If that is so, at the end of this season Louisa would not be heard saying “everyone is unusual” . I took this to mean she finally has decided to accept him as he is.
    Change for the better is always a good thing, however when it is forced by others it cannot be good at all.

  2. Paul

    The above post recounts Martin feelings about his parent when they came to visit him in series 2. When reading about about this I remember a scene where Louisa tries to reach out to Martin regarding his difficulty when them. She gives a kind offer for him to talk, if it would help. Martin rudely tells her to shut up. I never understood why he needed to be this offensive, unless I missed the context of their dialogue. He could have said thanks, but no thanks, or that won’t be necessary. I never found that scene to be funny in the least. I think later in the same episode, Louisa tells Martin to shut up, but in that case, she had some justification.

  3. CL

    Your post gets to some core issues that I’ve been thinking a lot about. (Thank you for your wonderful blog- it has sustained me through the years between seasons!). For me the word “change” is problematic and probably used intentionally by the writers because it drives the tension and action in the show. I really enjoyed your summary of all of the main instances throughout the show, where change is the theme.

    I think what we’re actually seeing through the course of S7, is the characters growing…a word that implies a deepening of understanding about the dynamics of our lives and learning how to live with but not be at the mercy of the past. The writer’s this season have gone to great lengths to show a Martin who is growing. He was stuck and his efforts to address the reasons have allowed him to have a richer, more communicative relationship with Louisa. Has he “changed”? Not really. I feel the same is true for Louisa. She was very girlish in the earlier seasons. Much has been said about her hair and dress but even her speech patterns have deepened and matured. She is more adult now (has grown) but is essentially Louisa: quick to react, romantic, instinctual, loves the village, etc…. The writers are telling us that even though we don’t change, (we can’t erase the past), we can grow by learning to understand the past and not be victimized by it.

    The scene where Martin is yelling at Louisa to hurry up or they’ll be late for their appointment and Louisa shouts back at him, is a clear glimpse, I think, into their future married life!

  4. Oliver

    Sally Tishell has a clear understanding of herself. She acknowledges that she is still in love with Martin. She tells him that he is still her soulmate but it’s not meant to be in this lifetime. Then, she chooses to stop acting on her feelings/fantasies and decides to live in the lifetime she is in right now.

    I have found that if I want to make a change, I can’t wait around until I feel like making it. Because that time will invariably never come. I have to act against my natural feelings to facilitate the change I want to make. Over time it gets a little easier to not act on those feelings. Sally is making that kind of conscious change because she knows the right thing to do is to let the Doc go and try to make her marriage work.

    Louisa tells Martin that it’s not enough to be more polite but that he must want to change. Martin can be polite, he can make that change. But she cannot count on him ever wanting to be polite.

    Louisa’s change is a recognition about herself. My thought is that she has a set of beliefs about the world and more importantly about herself. I think she believed that she couldn’t love Martin unless he changed. She didn’t see that she has the inner capacity to love him the way he is. Through the therapy she learned that believing in normal kept her from believing in herself. In that way, I think her change goes much deeper than deciding to accept Martin the way he is. She is also accepting herself for who she is. She will no longer try to force herself into becoming her definition of normal. She has let that go. She can also let go of trying to make Martin normal as well. She knows she’s capable of loving him the way he is.

    I believe Louisa’s change is a feminist perspective on the subject. It’s quite complex and I have a hunch that Caroline Catz had a substantial role in determining this discovery the character makes about herself. I believe Caroline is a feminist. It wasn’t going to be enough for Louisa to simply realize she can’t change Martin and accept him. It had to be about Louisa understanding herself, and growing stronger as a person when she lets go of her beliefs about her capacities and abilities.

  5. Santa Traugott

    Oliver, would you go so far as to say that Louisa couldn’t accept Martin as he is, and give up the effort to shape him into something she considers more normal, until she could accept herself as she is? I think that’s a great point.

  6. Oliver

    I’m not sure it was as conscious as that for Louisa. I don’t think she recognized what was happening. Her denial about who she was and how she was affected b her childhood was pretty much running her life. She also had the belief that her childhood was as “normal as you like”. The therapy helped her to recognize her childhood trauma. Her belief system collapsed. At that point she is able to see what was going on with her. Until that point she was pretty much reacting to life based on how she coped as a young girl. It worked well for her to pretend that everything was normal, and that she didn’t need her parents. It was a very good coping mechanism for an adolescent. It doesn’t work as an adult, and keeps her from changing – or growing as another poster wrote.

    Ruth’s obstacle was her unwillingness to accept the lifestyle changes that her health condition required her to make. With time she eventually was able to replace her denial about her health condition with acceptance of her new reality.

  7. Abby

    It is my impression that, in the scene where Martin tells Louisa to shut up, he is struggling to hold it together. He needs to get away from her because it would leave him feeing too exposed if she sees him break down. He can’t allow that to happen, because he fears he would appear weak in her eyes. Remember, all of his rude and off-putting behaviors are meant to keep people at a distance so that they don’t see the sensitive, vulnerable person inside. That sensitive, vulnerable person was repeatedly abused and told he was weak his entire young life. So, as an adult it is way too risky to expose that inner self.

  8. Santa Traugott

    No, I don’t think it was conscious. But it seems like her own better understanding of the ways in which she herself was unusual, was linked to her being able to accept Martin with all his quirks.

    Those life scripts are pretty powerful.

  9. Post author

    It’s always nice to hear from another reader of this blog. Thank you so much for reading it and for making a comment.

    Your suggestion that the characters have grown rather than changed adds dimension to this subject. Growing can still have many meanings. It’s important to move beyond the past that may have been traumatizing and often that’s where therapy can really help. I agree that we see a more adult Louisa, and that she had to mature. In fact, one thing that happens to us as women once we have children is that we now have another life as a responsibility, and that tends to force us to have a more settled approach to life. It may even be a factor in why Louisa comes around to being more receptive to accepting Martin for who he is. He’s been a good father to JH and she’s proud that JH will grow up having Martin as a father.

    Both Martin and Louisa have changed to a great degree IMO. Martin may still be clumsy and rude and hard on patients, but he’s come to realize that his love for Louisa requires compromise and a greater investment of time. Louisa has continued to be quick tempered, dedicated to her job, and devoted to JH, but she’s reached a deeper understanding of what it means to be married and in a committed relationship. She has a fuller concept of what love is and how it can be expressed in various forms. To me those are core modifications.

    I thought that scene you mention was a great example of the two of them as a married couple too. It’s a vignette of how they would relate to each other under everyday circumstances and I was impressed that it was included. Throughout S7 there were little hints and instances of Martin and Louisa working as a couple and I considered that an indication that the series was headed toward a reconciliation.

  10. ED

    This post addresses change, but it’s more about how the actors have changed over the years, specifically, the way in which some of the actors have aged more than others. This is not meant to be critical, but merely an observation. It is striking how Martin Clunes, Joe Absolom (Al), and Tristan Sturrock (Danny) have aged over the years. There are scenes with Martin Clunes and Caroline Catz where he looks more like her father than her husband. Ian McNeice (Bert) and Selina Cadell (Mrs. Tishell), have aged but it’s not that noticeable.

    The one actor, which seems to have defied the aging process, is Caroline Catz. It’s striking how little she has changed in the past 10 years. Looking at her in series 2 and in series 7, she looks nearly the same! I’m not sure if this is due to skillful use of makeup, or facial surgery, or is it just genetics? It would be interesting to know her secrete.

  11. Steve

    This is one issue that leads one to wonder whether they’ll actually go for another series. The ratings were evidently good, if down. Supposedly Buffalo will go ahead only if they have a commission from ITV, and if they can develop a good story line. Well, ME and LE seem to be at least reasonably settled down, and the other characters are not enough to carry the show; it’s their relationship, as others have said as well as myself, that has driven the show for the past 5 series. MC and CC are simply getting too old to be creditable parents of an infant, and if the show goes ahead then they’ll need to wrangle toddlers rather than babes-in-arms — a very difficult proposition. It would be sad to see Doc jump the shark, but it may happen. Or perhaps Buffalo will be completely wrapped up in new projects plus foreign versions of Doc, including the US. With the “happy ending” of series 7, perhaps that will be the best way for the show to end.

  12. Linda D.

    I’m kind of embracing the idea of growth instead of change although I think they are closely related. The characters in the finale episode all exhibited growth. Martin mellowed a lot and certainly tried hard to find ways to please Louisa and to be more attentive to her and to James. Clearly, he understood that their reunification depended on him finding ways to show a softer side and a willingness to meet their needs. The fact that he accepted therapy and embraced it surely shows growth. He was willing to go and willing to try Dr. Timoney’s suggestions instead of dismissing them out of hand as he might have in earlier days. He seemed to respect Dr. Timoney and was willing to see things through to the end.

    Louisa took a long time to exhibit growth and moreover, to recognize the ways in which Martin was trying to change. Coming to terms with her own abysmal childhood and the resulting attitudes, defenses, and protective measures, surely, was evidence of growth. At last, she sees that she has pretended to be someone she was not, all her life. She tried to control people and things so that she came out looking good and “normal”. Her need to be noticed and respected, caused her to treat Martin badly because she needed to feel superior and to blame him for their troubles. He sat there and took her barrages during therapy because he didn’t want to cause a further rift. She was awful to him. At last, she understands that there is no “normal” and accepts that she has to quit trying to change him and just love him as he is. She accepts her part in the problems. I am curious to think of how this new understanding would play out between them. They will always argue but will they become better listeners and be more patient and kind to one another? Will they begin to enjoy each other instead of always walking on egg shells and worrying about reactions? I think with their new skills of communication, they could be much happier, providing they put the past in the past, and give up on the petty things that seemed to bother them so much. And, as I have said dozens of times, they need to learn each other’s back stories and accept that crucial information with empathy. That’s growth.

  13. Santa Traugott

    I was rewatching S3E5 (Holly Bears a Prickle) today while passing the time on my Nu-Step exerciser, and I was struck by how it foreshadowed themes of S7.

    There’s a scene in the kitchen between Martin and Aunt Joan, where they are talking about the possibility of him changing and AJ says: “we are what we are.” This is the lesson that Bernie the art teacher was teaching. Wasn’t it on the board in her classroom?

    Then Martin goes through some burlesque of efforts to change, and on the way out the door, Louisa confronts him about this. He gets angry and asks her, “why are you always so critical?” and “I don’t think you know WHAT you want.” It’s at that point she tells him that he has to WANT to change.

    That’s a little scene largely played for laughs, but it seems, looking back, to be at the heart of the issues between them — she IS often critical of the ways he doesn’t measure up to her ideas of proper behavior, and in fact, she really doesn’t know what she wants – Martin the man that she loves, or some idealized version of him.

    NO big point here really — just interested to see this theme plays out, and in some ways, it seems to me that from that point to the end of S7 could be seen as variations on trying to resolve this dilemma, with Martin winding up accepting that he is not going to change fundamentally, and that’s OK, and Louisa finally deciding what it is that she really wants.

  14. Post author

    I would like to think that this theme appears to have been carried through because they gave that some thought. (Somewhere in my recollection I seem to remember someone mentioning that “we are what we are” was a sentiment AJ expressed early on.) The idea that Louisa doesn’t know what she wants is one that they emphasize quite a bit, although it seems true that Martin is very uncertain as well.

    I don’t mean to diminish your observation at all, but to a great extent what you’re saying refers to the issue of change that we’ve often argued occupies a major place throughout this show, and their difficulty figuring out what they want is what keeps them constantly going through that on and off relationship. So maybe what you are saying is just that: the show has these threads running through it beginning early on.

  15. Santa Traugott

    I actually don’t think it was planned in advance — that is, the whole story arc, or if it was, only very broadly. I think the similarity in the way the theme plays out across the series has a lot to do with the continuity of the series’ creative powers that be, and I include Phillippa and Jack Lothian and, I suspect in spite of his denials, it also includes Martin. . This is how they think about human nature, and that more or less is the constant factor in how the plot develops. I’m just struck by the fact that the exact words are used in that episode and at close to the end of S6 — in the end, “we are what we are.,” It’s also interesting to me that at this point in the series, we tend to discount Martin’s angry words about her criticism of him, but that by the end of S7, I think we’re meant to see that he was justified.

    It’s actually not a particularly original thought — that self-acceptance and tolerance are key in relationships. And it’s an optimistic message as well, because the denouement is basically that, given those attributes, even the most incompatible of couples can figure out how to be together. (Unless and until something changes in S8!)

  16. Post author

    From what I can gather, they couldn’t have planned any theme that would have taken them through seven or more series because they claim to have never been sure that the show would be renewed until the final episode of each series. They also claim to have been willing to end the show with the conclusion of each series if it had not been renewed. With that in mind, they couldn’t have planned to end series seven with the same words as series three until they found themselves with a series seven.

    However, I would not be surprised that they might have reminded themselves of some of the previously expressed positions throughout the show and resurrected them. And perhaps those that saw new life are the ones that more closely represent their views of human nature, as you say.

    I agree that they were going for an optimistic message at the conclusion of S7. The fact that it seems a little too facile at that point is probably because they didn’t give themselves enough time to make those deductions arise from enough reflection on the part of Martin and Louisa. Perhaps Louisa could be said to have had a little time to think things through, but Martin had much less. Then again, he’s not one to practice much introspection. Once again we have to project ourselves into their thought processes, which we could consider a gap, or a leap.

    If they follow their usual methodology, we will have a series 8 that will start with them in harmony and end with them in conflict (not on the verge of breaking up, hopefully, but not in agreement either). Then they will have series 9 to bring the show to a harmonious ending. I would be very surprised if the final series doesn’t leave them in a happy place.

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