Ambiguity Unbound

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 In the process, they believe, he will understand what happened in his childhood to make him withdrawn, unsmiling, anti-social, and oriented toward ritual.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 We saw bits and snatches of it, but overall he was a totally different type — brooding, withdrawn from Louisa, and disengaged from the community to a greater degree than ever.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.

56 thoughts on “Ambiguity Unbound

  1. Post author

    When I published this post the formatting changed. I will try to fix it ASAP. I was worried that might happen and now have to figure out how to correct it. So Sorry!

  2. Deborah

    Is he tearful in the bathroom because he saved his wife’s life or
    because he was able to perform surgery successfully again? Very interesting thought, however, I would hope he was overwhelmed that his wife has been saved from death. Otherwise, ME is much too self-absorbed to navigate his marriage and would leave this viewer without hope for or reason for successive episodes. Thank you for your insightful conversation regarding series six.

  3. Post author

    Good point! Still, the scene allows for more than one interpretation and it could be both too. Now it would be nice if Louisa got to see a little of that sense of relief. He’s capable of it. He’s told her before that he can’t bear to be without her, etc., etc.

  4. Santa Traugott

    I took that crying in the bathroom as an extremely good sign. I interpreted it this way: he is completely exhausted, emotionally, and all of his defenses are for once, down. He almost lost his wife to death; and still faces the possibility of losing his marriage to her. He has confronted some painful truths about his upbringing, which he has been in denial about. He has recognized that some of his old ways of being in the world, elaborated for his own defense, are dysfunctional in his marriage and he will have to go through the painful process of “change.” I think, at that moment in the bathroom, all his losses, past and potential, are before him, and he just cannot suppress his feelings any more. A cathartic moment, and a hopeful one, really.

  5. Post author

    Very thorough assessment! No argument here! I can only say that I’m fascinated that of the whole post we’re focusing on that scene. For one thing that shows how even one scene can provoke many reactions and analyses. Bravo!

  6. Santa Traugott

    I do want to respond to the whole post, but haven’t time this a.m. to think more about it. Meanwhile, love the “box” vs. “keyhole” analogy. I realize that I tend to see DM through a keyhole.

    Two random thoughts: remember the famous line in Winnie the Pooh ….”somewhere in the Enchanted forest, a little boy and his bear will always be playing…” (or words to that effect). A keyhole moment if ever there was one.

    And then: how do we code the infamous ending to the Sopranos — a complete blackout, as if to say – that’s all there is in the box! Frustrating to so many fans.

  7. Post author

    Love your thoughts and will enjoy reading more whenever you have time. So often good shows have a tough time knowing what to do for the final episode. Lost was one that made us go “huh?” Breaking Bad did a pretty good job but was ambiguous. There’s a slight chance that Walt wasn’t dead at the end. Hard decisions!!

  8. Linda

    I agree with your assessment Santa! It was a very cathartic moment. I hope it bodes well for a good beginning for the next series. His understanding has been a long time coming for sure.

  9. Post author

    I feel like a dunce when it comes to computer knowledge. A friend showed me the formatting palette and I was able to fix this post. I can even underline titles of books now! Hope the post is easier to read.

  10. Santa Traugott

    There is much to respond to in this thoughtful post. I will try to go at it seriatim.

    Karen, my view of S6 and “hitting bottom” is basically the same as yours, maybe a different slant. It feels to me like S1-S5 had a certain fairy-tale quality to them, even though the writers went to some lengths to poke fun at that idea. Yet one could feel that it was not quite real, something played out for our amusement in the delightful setting of Port Wenn. With S6, it felt like it suddenly switched into something closer to reality — as if someone said, well now in REAL life, if these two married, the honeymoon would be over pretty quickly. Because after all, Martin is inept at human relationships, and Louisa is not brilliant herself at them. And they’re very unlike in temperament and interests, etc., etc. And I quite agree — not only in “real life” would the whole scenario not have happened, but if they had by some miracle gotten together long enough to get married, it would disintegrate quickly. But, why switch gears so abruptly? It feels like someone said, well ITV is willing to pay us a small fortune to go on with S7, but what can we do that’s different and dramatic and continues the major tension of the series, which is Martin and Louisa. Oh, I know ….let’s show their marriage disintegrating because sfter all, that’s what would happen now we’re in the real world. And then of course, because we can’t end on that note, we’ll figure out how to put them back together.

    So then the story line becomes necessary that he has to hit bottom, etc., because only in that way can he a) drive Louisa away and then b) redeem himself enough to win Louisa back — b/c after all, without major change on his part, why would any woman, even Louisa, take him back for the umteenth time?

    So I don’t blame those who interpret the story line now as one of Martin and how he changes in order to be a better husband, because I basically think that’s the story line the writers want us to buy — and I just don’t like that they went down that road. I think it’s the writers who did violence to the basic show premise — not those who interpret it.

    I do think that the last episode, after Martin’s conversation with Ruth, there were a couple of hints dropped that change is already decided upon and in process — e.g., when he goes back and apologizes to the aging hippy guitar player, and more important, when he finally confronts his mother.

    I realize, after reading your post, that one of the reasons that I find fan-fiction to largely fall flat, is that it lacks ambiguity. I think that is because the writers spend a lot of time in Martin (or Louisa’s) head, laying out for us what they are thinking, and why they are doing what they are doing — and very frequently, presenting elaborate explanations for things that have happened on-screen.

    Yet I wonder if it is not that very ambiguity, which is so skillfully demonstrated throughout the series, that compels us through the keyhole, or, in my way of putting us, leads to “narrative transportation” — we’re caught up in the story, we need to make sense of it, so we continue telling ourselves stories until it comes out right, in a more satisfying way. Usually ending on a triumphant chord, in a major key. But you’re quite right to note that a lot of the endings of the episodes, and even seasons, are not quite finally resolved, or hint at trouble ahead. The ending of S4 is a good example of that.

    I’ll have to play some more with the keyhole versus box analogy. As absorbing as Jane Austen is, her characters and scenes don’t live on in my mind. She has created a whole world, which I can easily imagine in a box. Or the Patrick O’Brien sea novels — the Wooden World — which are complete in themselves. Somehow, Doc Martin is not that way for me, and I suspect, for most of us. Why? I think it is the ambiguity, but is the drama form, inherently more ambiguous than totally text based forms, as the novel? I don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about.

    I know I’ve missed something, but this is already long enough.

  11. Linda

    I agree with what you have said Santa. You have such a good vision about all of this. I find that fan fiction is often way off base with regard to the real story. Much of what is said or done by Martin and Louisa is pure fantasy or “wishful thinking” and bears no resemblance to what they WOULD say or do. There is no ambiguity and they would just not behave that way! I appreciate the effort that goes into fan fiction but wish it was more realistic, given what we know of Martin and Louisa.

  12. Post author

    Thank you for always having such great responses and for continuing to be such a wonderful follower of the blog.

    You and I both have that cynical side that can’t help thinking when the group got together to figure out a story arc for S6 they knew the show has been popular, that ITV would be happy to keep it going, and possibly they could do almost anything and still have good numbers of viewers. I saw where some viewers were so horrified at Louisa fairly graphically getting hit by a car they were less willing to watch, and I think their decision to go darker and with more realism might have hurt to some degree. But they have reached a point where the show has its sizable core audience that will watch and make lemonade out of lemons. There’s also a part of me that wonders if they wanted to show MC’s dramatic ability so they could pursue programs like Arthur and George without ITV questioning whether it would be too risky. It’s amazing how cautious studios can be.

    I think there was no need to go down that path and, for what my 2 cents (pence) is worth, I don’t find it hard to imagine that this couple could make a go of marriage even in real life. They’re both getting married for the first time later in life, they’ve both had other relationships that haven’t worked out, Louisa still wants a family and has been attracted to Martin for quite a while, Martin finds Louisa beautiful and is immediately drawn to her. I know some couples somewhat similar to that. Then Louisa gets pregnant and they both are shown to be excited about the baby, even if Martin hides his excitement to a certain degree.

    I think it’s appropriate to spread the blame around. The people who decided to use this story arc certainly have to own it. Nevertheless, we viewers shouldn’t go overboard in our desire to accept it. I haven’t read too much of the fan fiction, but the little I’ve seen often is sort of wish fulfillment. They want to see more affection between the characters, so they put them together more; they want to see Martin act differently, so they write him like that. I get that it’s fan fiction and that allows for anything anyone wants to do, but if I were to write some fan fiction, I would keep the characters the way they are and just fill in the time gaps or something like that.

    I think both literature and film (TV) can be equally ambiguous. Try Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” for example and see what you think. It’s a very short story and you can find it online. Or Flannery O’Connor, or so many others. Ambiguity is a great literary tool for all sorts of mediums.

  13. Mary F.

    What interesting and thoughtful commentary! You have given us much to chew Karen….I do think that the show’s ambiguity is a major reason it has such a hold on so many viewers. I’m definitely one of the “keyhole” crowd… always trying to figure out whats going on beyond what is shown. But fan fiction mostly falls flat for me also, because it attempts to explain every detail, every thought process, there is no tease of ambiguity. I also agree that it was too dark a turn to take Martin apart and make Louisa something of a shrew in Series 6. The beginning was a good mix of dramedy, but it got to the point where I was feeling a bit leery of watching and thinking oh no, this is going to ruin my day! I’ve never felt that way about a drama before and sure hoped I wouldn’t have to with this, but there it was. A downer if ever there was one in spite of some bittersweet moments at the end. Still, I hope there continues to be some mystery and ambiguity in the next series, its what makes the show fascinating to watch and because that is what life is really like, even though the romantic in me craves a cozy ending.

  14. Linda


    Great comments Mary F.! I too look through that keyhole when watching and spend a lot of time trying to figure out what motivates the characters and storyline. I really don’t want it all explained! In fact, as you say so well, it is the ambiguity that keeps us watching and wondering and this sets this show apart from so many others. I wonder if that has something to do with the limited number of episodes they are able to shoot by-annually? We really do have a lot of time to think, re-watch, and discuss episodes and I can’t remember doing that with many other shows except for really DUMB reality shows. I think the writers may find themselves against a wall as a series draws to a close – realizing that they have continuity problems and loose ends that can’t be resolved because they have run out of time. I think that is why some storylines EXASPERATE us and leave us annoyed. We can deal with ambiguity but often the path they choose for the characters is hard to fathom. Fan fiction has it’s place, I suppose, and for sure many people love to write and read it. I just think they stray away from the essence of the characters and fill in too many gaps. Your comments, as always were wonderful Mary!

  15. Joan

    The comments and replies explain why we focus on different parts of the stories and give them different interpretations. For example I was not too concerned about why Dr. E had a tear flowing down his cheek I was just glad to see it. It meant that he had come closer to expressing his feelings than he had when all we saw was his eyes watering several times before. He showed progress when he apologized to the musician which seemed difficult for him to do but refused the invitation to hear the song about it and rudely walked away. Finally, he showed progress during the final scene in the hospital room when he agreed they needed to change the way they related to each other. Louisa stuck her neck out and thanked him for coming for her. He said “you’re my patient ” (progress? or just his Doc speak) then turned his back to her and said “and you’re my wife” (progress but still a way to go. ) I won’t say anything about the scene with his mother because I’m not a fan of blaming parents especially mothers. If we have to blame a parent I’d say Christopher was to blame for his rejection of Margaret. Anyway. all ambiguous scenes.

    I enjoy knowing about storytelling techniques that enhance a story. I’m sure the Buffalo Pictures folks know many other techniques. That’s why I don’t think they need to end the show. After all Martin Clunes has spent decades in the field of storytelling including performing in “loads” of Shakespeare. He’s got to have an endless supply of ideas. He probably wants to move on to other things but it might be hard to give up the millions of pounds Doc Martin is making for him, his family, and his farm.

  16. Mary F.

    Thank you Linda for being so kind, although I have to hand it over to Karen’s powers of perception (and Santa’s) as to how ambiguity is used to add depth and richness to the story. They always seem to be able to put their finger on the pulse of an issue or thought. Without them this blog might be far less interesting….although I think everyone has added wonderful insight at one time or another. Its really nice to find a group of people as intrigued by this show as I am.

  17. Post author

    I thank you and everyone who reads this blog for giving me such good feedback, making my enjoyment of writing about all sorts of topics that excite me so much more fun. I am amazed that we are still finding a lot to discuss a year after S6 began airing. I want to keep the blog going through S7 and only hope I can figure out a way to come up with ideas that sustain your interest. It won’t be easy!

  18. Post author

    Good comments Joan. I think you’re right that they intend to show progress but not a total change since change is supposed to be hard. He’s supposed to be making an effort to change, but it’s the old one step forward, two steps back game.

    I don’t know how much Shakespeare MC has done, but there’s a world of difference between acting in various plays and shows and writing them (or having story ideas). I do agree that it’s hard to walk away from the money that comes with a successful show, but a show runs its course at some point. Breaking Bad ended because Vince Gilligan, its creator, decided he wanted it to end a certain way. He was offered many millions to keep it going and refused. It happens. We have at least one more season to go and I hope they make every episode as strong as possible.

  19. Santa Traugott

    I have an additional thought here, and I don’t know how sensible it is or even if I can articulate it clearly.

    Sometimes, in a drama, the underlying “meaning” is presented more or less indirectly: that is, you are meant to infer what the creators have in mind by piecing together multiple elements — dialogue, acting, camera shot selection, set design, wardrobe, overlapping and complementary plot lines. I would argue that precisely because it requires more work on the part of viewers, a more active role in meaning-making, a much more intense commitment to the narrative results. I think this is what we mean when we call something “complex” or “layered.”

    But I think this is actually different than the deliberate creating of ambiguity, where no matter how it is parsed, it remains unclear what the creators have in mind, because they actually don’t want you to arrive at a pat answer. The example of this in Doc Martin is Asperger’s — we will never know whether he is or he isn’t, because the writers are determined to give us something to think about but not to resolve it. And the example more important to me is the final scene of S6 — are they about to agree to try again to find a way to live together, presumably with increased insight, or is Louisa going to insist on a trial separation while they work things through? It is ambiguous here, and therefore suspenseful, and that also contributes to “hooking” the viewer.

    But I am now thinking that ambiguity and indirection are different. What do others think?

  20. Post author

    My reaction to what you say is that I have always much preferred the films or shows that ask us to think and figure out for ourselves what is going on beyond the surface story. Some TV shows have a theme that is employed from different angles and I watch with that in mind. I’ll immediately want to figure out what is the theme for this episode. I think it’s great when the writer(s) use that method. You can watch for the events that take place and/or you can watch for the ways the action also reaches into deeper levels. Ambiguity is involved in this, but is just one way that a plot can proceed.

    When I first read your comment, I thought about the serialization of literature which began in the early 1800s in England and Europe. To me this form of storytelling more closely mirrors what we see on TV when we have a show that has a continuous storyline. When authors published their work in magazines, they developed the method of ending each episode with some sort of suspense because that would keep readers coming back to find out what happened. It sold magazines and today it sells TV shows. So it’s an age old means of attracting an audience. Writers can use this technique in novels too, of course. That’s what makes a book a page turner. In the case of this show, my impression is they tend to use ambiguity interchangeably with suspense.

    In regard to “Doc Martin” we have a show that takes a 2 year hiatus between series. It’s quite stunning that it has maintained its audience, although some other shows are playing around with breaks of differing lengths too. To some degree, even the break can heighten the suspense. But what really makes people come back is leaving the story with all sorts of questions. “Doc Martin” made the most of this at the end of S3 and S6. Will Louisa come back, and under what circumstances? Louisa is the person around whom the most conflict takes place. For a plot to be worth anything, there must be conflict, especially conflict that matters. As Robert McKee writes: “Here’s a simple test to apply to any story. Ask: What is the risk? What does the protagonist stand to lose if he does not get what he wants? More specifically, what’s the worst thing that will happen to the protagonist if he does not achieve his desire?…Life teaches that the measure of the value of any human desire is in direct proportion to the risk involved in its pursuit…The Protagonist’s first action has aroused forces of antagonism that block his desire and spring open a gap between anticipation and result…True action is physical, vocal, or mental movement that opens gaps in expectation and creates significant change.”

    What we have in the conflict between Martin and Louisa is exactly that sort of risk taking. Both characters take risks with their relationship that open them up to potential emotional harm, that creates gaps that soon lead to some changes. They’ve gone through numerous of these conflicts followed by gaps and we’re in one again now. Whether Louisa decides to return to their home to work things through or lives elsewhere for a while, they will open themselves up to more risk and make some changes. That’s all we can say now. We have to wait another year to find out how they will manage this situation, and that’s what keeps us watching.

  21. Carol

    Hey Karen and all. First of all I have to say that I like what the post has to say about ambiguity. It is something that I guess I have realized, but subconsciously. But I have to say that I agree with the loads of others who think this season was a necessary though painful one. (The ones you disagree with Karen.)

    I don’t think the writers took MC’s illness into account at all, because he did not fall ill until they had already started filming, to my knowledge. The writing was done. I do think that they know that the audience wants these two together and that if that is to happen in any meaningful way, Martin will have to change. And in order for someone like him to change, he will have to hit a rock bottom. That’s just life. I think everyone involved knew that they would likely have another season beyond this one and so they deliberately took him apart. Just my take on things.

    It will be interesting to see how they “put him back together” because I don’t think anyone, especially MC, has any intent for him to make large changes. I do think that there will have to be some changes, however, if he is to stay with Louisa. But he can change in his ways of communicating with her without a huge change in his dealings with others. At least on a TV show he can.

    As to the fan fiction, being one of the writers, I have to say that most of the serious writers try very hard to have the characters match their personalities from the show. They then try to develop ways that the story might then go if certain different characters are introduced, counseling occurs, certain pivotal events happen, etc. There are some of us that have watched every episode of this show so many times to get things right that it is incredible. A lot of us can recite the dialogue, which is how we bring it into our stories Some of the writers are newer, not as familiar with every storyline, and therefore make the changes happen very quickly. When I wrote my last story, I deliberately made it one in which M and L do a lot of thinking and reflecting and through that, some changing. Part of that was because I had watched the show a lot more by then and felt I had a better grasp of who they were, and part was from watching the darkness of S6. if a person doesn’t care to have happy endings, I guess fan fiction isn’t for them. But know that some of the stories have ambiguous endings as well. It’s just that some of us like to play around with what would happen if… and that is the whole meaning of fan fiction. In fact, you will find those words in many of the stories’ descriptions. I for one am waiting in suspense to see if any of the directions that the fan fiction writers have taken are actually used in the show, even in snippets. Do any of us think like Jack Lothian? Who knows? I don’t mean that I think they would use our ideas. I just mean I wonder if there will be any coincidences between what has been written in the fandom and what the actual writers will do.

    Thanks again for a great place to discuss a wonderful show. And one more word on the fan fiction. If you want to read a wonderful story that is often quite ambiguous, I would suggest Resolutions by DeClanS. It is almost finished and is a wonderful book actually about an entirely different direction the show might have gone by a masterful writer.

  22. Post author

    Thanks for your comments Carol. It’s so nice to hear from you again.

    I am with you on the writing schedule and that much of the story had been determined prior to the time of shooting. There is always room for making some changes, however, and they have spoken of having to do that during shooting before. No matter…I have to assume they decided to go down the darker path all along. What I don’t think they had to do is take it to the depth of despair and anguish they chose to put him in. We’ve had other times when he’s been struck down before, e.g. after Louisa told him she didn’t want to see him anymore. He spent the night awake, couldn’t concentrate while examining a patient, then left his practice precipitously. The next thing we know he’s running down the road to talk to Louisa, knocks on her door, can’t go through with it and runs to hide behind a van parked nearby. He’s quite upset and troubled, but there’s still room for humor. Another example in that same episode occurs when he’s talking to Aunt Joan and tells her he can change then shows up at Louisa’s to check on her friend and demonstrate some concern. He’s trying to show Louisa he can be caring, but she sees right through it and they argue at the door. We get the conflict, the emotional upheaval, and leave the humor in place. He can hit bottom without becoming morose. I remain unconvinced they had to make him so humorless to convey his emotional state. But it is what it is and now they have to bring back the humor somehow.

    I really don’t feel qualified to judge the fan fiction because I haven’t read enough of it. I don’t doubt that you and other writers have watched the show many times over. I’ve done that too so I can write my posts! I have so much to read I honestly don’t know where to begin sometimes. There aren’t enough hours in the day. I wonder how much the show writers check out the fan fiction and whether anyone takes cues from the fans in any way. They realize fans want Martin and Louisa to stay together, but they also know this relationship is the heart of the story. They’ve built the show on it and it’s too late to change that now. Besides, it’s been great as a fulcrum for the show and they wouldn’t want to take that away.

  23. Joan

    Martin used the word “loads” in answer to Mrs. Merton’s question about how much Shakespeare he had done. This was when he was still doing Men Behaving Badly and before he went on stage for awhile when he did at least one more Shakespeare play. It seems as though if he could come up with the Tango idea for Doc Martin he can come up with other ideas since he apparently understands storytelling.

  24. Post author

    Could be. Do you know of anything he has written? Or would he just be the idea man and leave it to others to flesh out?

  25. Maria

    Great comments, Carol! (And everyone. This is such a great discussion. I’ve been thinking about all these ideas for days). I’ve been trying to articulate what I wanted to say about fan fiction and you expressed my thoughts perfectly.

    I appreciate the box approach to literary analysis and of course it was the norm in it in the literature classes I took. In everyday non-academic life, though, I’m definitely in the keyhole camp. I think of it as the characters having a life outside the limited interaction we have with them and enjoy speculating about what could or could have happened in the parts of their lives that we don’t happen to witness. As far as fan fiction goes, as with everything, the quality varies. Some is clearly written solely as wish fulfillment, neither the characters nor the story is particularly profound, and there is no ambiguity. It is simply a feel-good story. Not my thing, but then no one is forcing me to read it. On the other hand, I have read some stories that demonstrate deep psychological insight both into human motivations in general and the characters specifically,is completely in keeping with the characters as we have come to know them, combined with evocative writing, strong plotting, and excellent pacing. Carol mentioned DeclanS’s story Resolutions, which I found nothing short of amazing in all these aspects. Carol is too modest to say so, but her stories also demonstrate deep knowledge of the dynamic between Martin and Louisa and take them in directions that are completely in character based on how we have come to know them.

    On a lighter note, in one story I read, the undertaker handling Aunt Joan’s funeral is William Shawcross, the character Martin Clunes played in William and Mary. It took some doing for me to wrap my head around that!

    I wonder if any of you have happened to read Life After Life, a recent novel by Kate Akinson. It occurs to me that it takes a keyhole approach within the box. A simplistic way of putting it is to say it’s one long “what if” story. A child is born in 1910, and throughout the book dies in various ways. Each time she dies, the story starts over right before her death. but with a different ending, in which she lives. Then the story continues until again, she dies; again, in an alternative ending, she lives, and again, her life continues. It is basically a story about the randomness of events, how each small instance in a person’s life takes them down one path and not innumerable other ones and how these small instances determine the course of history. This superficial description really doesn’t do the book justice, and is veering off topic here anyway, but the connection is that the personality of the character stays the same throughout, as the author puts her into a variety of scenarios, all equally believable. After reading the discussion here, it suddenly seemed very ‘keyhole’ to me.

  26. Joan

    I have no idea. I’ve thought about that question because I wondered how things worked. Martin has said that when they are not in production Buffalo Pictures was just he and Philippa and a phone and a desk. Then Phillipa said in an interview that when they weren’t in filming in Cornwall they were at home writing. From that I guessed that Martin and Philippa write a draft and then give it to the writers to turn it into a script with some power to change things as needed. Martin has also said he comes late to the script because he is so opinionated and they decided to show it to him after all the bugs are worked out. So maybe Phillipa writes it. I don’t really know but I think they like ambiguity in their interviews too. I just feel the bulk of the story belong to Martin and Phillipa.

  27. Post author

    I don’t know either. Neither of them ever gets a writing credit on the show. They may come up with the story arc, possibly with the help of others like Mark Crowdy. Even the directors and the writers may have some input into the story arc. The way it often works here is that the creator of the show gives the show its bones and even writes some episodes, then they gather together a group of writers and brainstorm. After that each writer is given an episode(s) to work on. After the writers have come up with a script, they all huddle again and go over them, making final decisions. When Minghella wrote the original script for the show, he did a lot of the episode writing too. Now I don’t know the exact procedure. I’m sure MC and PB are involved to a great extent, but I do wonder why they never get a writing credit.

  28. Post author

    The book you describe sounds a lot like “Ground Hog Day.” There’s also an 18th C French author, Diderot, who was probably the originator of the idea. It’s a way for the author to make clear that the story could be written in many ways and authorial control can belong to the reader. I think your point is that taking characters in various directions does not have to damage the characters. It sounds like some fan fiction writers do a fabulous job of keeping the characters consistent. My position is that we have to acknowledge that the writers are in control of the story and the characters even when they give us outcome alternatives. Life is filled with random events that are beyond our control and impact us in many significant ways. Writers can reflect that or they can exercise their prerogative to have the characters function however they choose. I admire the writers and their abilities to arrive at stories we want to read and put words on paper that make us feel something personal. Great writing demonstrates a love of language and a facility with words. After a Flaubert, for example, takes 5 years to perfect a novel, I want to savor it. I’m loathe to do anything to alter it. There’s no one right way to read or watch, and I wanted to say that I understand that.

  29. Santa Traugott

    I’m pretty sure that the credited writers — Jack Lothian, Richard Stoneman, et al., do the actual writing, and the multiple drafts that MC so often speaks of are submitted to the production company and reviewed, and then sent back for rewrites. I don’t think this works like a typical American series, where there may be a showrunner who is both the story arc developer and the writer. My guess is that here Philippa, Martin and Mark Crowdy, possibly with the input of the major director (Ben Bolt or lately, Nigel Cole) figure out what the major plot line is to be and then commission episodes from their stable of writers. I also have read Martin saying that he has very little input into scripts but I cannot imagine that they do not run the major story line by him before it is tentatively decided on. I also think he has a well-developed sense of what works for him and what doesn’t, and longer term writers have a pretty good idea of that by now. At this point, they probably also make sure that Caroline Catz is on board with the idea for the series development. I continue to think that Philippa is the unsung hero of the creative process. She and Martin own the production company, and it seems to me that nothing is going to happen that doesn’t go through them — more likely her, since Martin seems to focus on the acting (and farming). Interestingly, her brother Simon is a screenwriter, but we’ve never heard of Phillipa writing anything. In fact, hasn’t she said somewhere that she’s the one that runs interference between Martin and the writers? And he has made some quite disparaging remarks about the writers, which I doubt he would do with excepting Phillipa if she were actually writing anything.

  30. Santa Traugott

    Yes — I did read “Life after Life” and enjoyed it. I agree with your analysis of it. Is it — that awful word which I have never really understood — post-modern — in that it shows us that there is no necessary way to tell any story — take one fork and a path is determined, take another and you go down an entirely different path.

    I think the discussion about fanfic really may be about, at least in my mind, a difference between text and drama that is presented visually. It takes a really, really skillful writer to let the text do all the work of indirection — to present no interior life, but let dialogue, form of text, plot happenings — do all the meaning-making, without doing any exposition or cuts to what our character is in fact thinking. Doc Martin exemplifies a drama that is told with very little, if any, access to the interior life of the characters and almost no exposition. “Show, don’t tell” might be its motto. A lot of “meaning”has to be teased out by a very active interpretative process, putting clues of dialogue, acting, set design, camera angles together. So when you put even an excellent piece of fan fiction, such as Resolutions, up against the dramatic presentation, it just seems to me to be not nearly as appealing.

    I do get the “wish-fulfillment” part of the fan-fic, and that it can be, at least temporarily, quite satisfying to enter into that world and have it play out as we would wish. And some of the authors are quite adept at weaving in suspense and cliff-hangers — DeclanS in particular.

    I’m not saying that the movies are always better than the book –heaven forbid! — or that I don’t love getting into novels and making my own little box world which will inevitably be better (to me) than any dramatic adaptation. Just that, when one has invested a lot of effort into making sense of the dramatic presentation of Doc Martin, having someone else put into words what they think is going on, is perhaps less satisfying to me than it might be to others.

  31. Post author

    From what we know your view seems sensible. We know that Simon has written when Philippa has produced in the case of “Staggered.” He doesn’t write for DM from what we’ve seen, and producing is what she likes to do. I still agree that she is involved in much of the decision making. It really bothers me that Martin has made disparaging remarks about writers. As I’ve said, and many others have said, including Nigel Cole, they can’t do anything without a good script. If the writers take longer than he’d like, or don’t get the story down as well as he’d like, then he needs to find the writers whose work he’s happy with and stick to them. I feel very sympathetic towards the writers because they get very little recognition for what they do yet without them we wouldn’t have a show. As you know, I am particularly impressed with Jack Lothian’s writing skills. Does MC really think he isn’t trying to write as well as possible? Many actors now have production companies and are branching out into other areas of the industry — directing, producing, even writing. Caroline Catz has done a fair share of directing and some writing too. If they don’t run things by her, they should. What she was asked to do in S6 was quite demanding and I would wager she loved it.

  32. Linda

    Your comment about not blaming the parents resonates somewhat with me. I have wondered why they were such vile parents but sumised that they too must have had a terrible upbringing. I suspect that they came from different socio-economic backgrounds, social groups, and possibly places and that she was attractive to him at first, but quickly, she realized what it would take to hang on to him. No doubt he was a first class louse and her visions of “the perfect marriage” before Martin came along was a figment of her imagination. She did not have a maternal bone in her body so she sacrificed the health and well being of her only child to hang onto a man who was an uppity cad. their whole life was a fraud and poor Martin, being punished sitting in a closet under the stairs, probably thought it was all pretty normal until he began to see how others lived and related to one another. It must have been very confusing. I can’t believe Margaret or any mother would not have put her son’s welfare over her husband’s and taken him out of that situation but she, like many woman, was so desperate to please Christopher that she failed as a mother. These problems cycle through generations, sadly, until two people meet, and realize that the cycle has to be broken. Martin and Louisa have both got huge challenges to overcome but, James, is loved by both and both love each other in a deep way. It will be a HUGE learning curve to Martin especially, but Louisa too has to do some changing too. We are all hoping for a good ending -not necessarily a fairy tale but at least a satisfying end for all.

    I imagine, after so many years at it, MC and PB are looking ahead to an ending BUT the show is SO popular and beloved that it would be hard to see it end for the fans, the cast and the crew. It is a financial goldmine for the Clunes’. Alas, I do agree that it can only continue if they can keep up the high standard of writing and find really meaty topics. Remember that Martin still wants to be a surgeon and they both hated being an only child. Dear Al needs a love interest and so does sweet Morwenna. And …. if they’d quite treating Joe Penhale like the village idiot, he could have some “dramedy” and maybe even a love interest. Let’s not forget the wonderful Aunt Ruth – Eileen Atkins brings so much talent and is so enjoyable that we’d all love to see more of her. Bert is settled with Jennifer but Mrs. Tishell will have to be “Mrs. Tishell” with her kooky, loud husband Clive. The giggling girls are a fixture but maybe they’ll begin to see Martin as a sexy guy and be more respectful and interested in him! Time will tell!

  33. Joan

    I think Claire Bloom is such a good actress that’s it’s hard not to hate her. And Ruth sure gave us permission to do so. It sounded like Ruth and Margaret (Bloom) attended the same school so they may have had similar socio-economic status. But what I discovered when we were bought out by a business for many times the worth of our house and moved up to a “higher status neighborhood” many people got there or stayed there through criminal activities. My daughter was made the buddy of another “new” third grader whose parents tuned out to be involved in illegal activities that allowed them to pay cash for their house. Another neighbor I was told about embezelled money from her boss because her husband lost his job and she couldn’t stand to send her boys to school in non-name-brand clothes. She had to go to prison as did the other kid’s parents. So Margaret may have come from a family like that since she stole from the shops.

    I agree with your ideas for future story arcs. I still think Al has been set-up to be related to the Ellingham’s somehow. His parents each may have had affairs when they were having “trouble.”
    Joan seems to know something but chooses to say only that Bert loves Al. Al has started wondering since he has blue eyes and both his parents have brown eyes. Martin tells him it’s uncommon for two brown eyed parents to have a blue eyed child but not impossible. Al is tall
    and blonde like Ruth, Martin, and Christopher. The bartender at the pub said that Bert always liked them “tall and blonde” when Bert said he was afraid Doc was going to “fall into his arms.” Ruth told Louisa at Joan’s funeral that she (Ruth) had a domineering father and a distant mother that left her with” social awkwardness and a series of quasi-sexual activities at a very young age, ” Ruth told Martin that Al played chess as well as Martin had played it at a younger age, both Ruth and Martin seem to be fond of Al and he of them, and a satisfactory explanation of Martin’s prohibition from returning to Joan’s for the summer is still ambiguous.

    I’d like to see more of Eileen Atkins too. It’s true she’s almost 80 but I read she made a bad investment when younger and needs to continue working and is happy to do so. She is a role model for younger women and men too and I for one am not in a hurry to send her off to pasture. Martin and Philippa seem to be providing an opportunity for many older actors who probably are finding it difficult to get roles. They may want to continue to do so in the same way that they contribute to other charities like Buckham Fair.

    Portwenn On-Line refers to the gaggle of girls as the Greek Chorus. I remember the Greek Chorus as something I learned about as a college freshman. I don’t remember any details though. Maybe someone else does.

  34. Post author

    I don’t have time to write much now or in the next week. My niece is getting married. But I am a big fan of Eileen Atkins and she is far from needing work. She is in the most recent Woody Allen film, she just finished acting in a one woman play called Ellen Terry in London, which she wrote also. She is in demand and an excellent actor. She happens to like doing “Doc Martin,” so we’re in luck. I know this because I wrote her a note and she wrote me back. Very nice in so many ways!!!

  35. J Thompson

    Greek choruses were fixtures in ancient Greek plays. In a nutshell, they were used to fill out the plot, comment on the background of the story or the characters or themes. They were often used to express to the audience things the main actors could not say – like a storyteller describing the personality traits of a character in a book. The first time I saw the gaggle of girls in DM, I immediately thought of a Greek chorus. I think anyone who had studied Latin (as I did) or Ancient Greek at school would have done the same thing.

  36. Joan

    It’s good to hear she’s financially ok. The article I read said she was afraid if she did a one woman show people would think it was the only job she could get. What’s the Woody Allen show she’s in? I’d like to see her in something else.

  37. Maria

    …”that awful word which I have never really understood — post-modern…”

    I am totally with you on that one. And I would add deconstruction and post-structuralism to the list as well.

    The basic premise is of postmodernism in literary analysis seems to be that although the writer has written the story, the reader “co-constructs” its meaning in accordance with their own experience and reality. So there is no “real” meaning, and what the author may or may not have intended is not the last word. This approach is the ultimate expression of ‘There are no absolutes. Nothing is certain. Everything is relative’. I guess this means that in this theory, the 10 million DM viewers can have 10 million interpretations, all equally valid!

    Getting back to your earlier point about ambiguity and indirection, I think you’ve clearly nailed the difference between the two. With indirection, the creator has a definite idea in mind that it is possible to discern. It takes effort and energy on the part of the viewer/reader, because the creator deliberately does not express the idea overtly. The viewer must construct it by synthesizing parts of different elements – in the visual arts, for instance dialogue, shot selection, and other factors. But whether the viewer succeeds or not, the creator has a specific intent for a specific and unequivocal meaning.

    With ambiguity, the creator also has intent, but in this case the intent is to be deliberately equivocal. There may be too few “clues” or they may be vague, contradictory, or anything else that makes multiple interpretations possible. This is appealing both because it’s suspenseful and because it allows the viewer to choose the interpretation they prefer, at least until the situation is resolved – if it is. For instance, the question whether Martin and Louisa will stay together or separate in the immediate term will be answered at the start of S7, but that of Martin’s potential Asperger’s will never be answered definitively, at least not by the current writers.

  38. Linda

    Joan …. I like your ideas! The rumours that Al was a product of a “one night stand” between Christopher Ellingham and Bert’s wife seem plausible, given what we have learned by and by. It would certainly be an intriguing story line that would shake up Martin’s life if he were to be Al’s half brother. It would answer many unanswered questions and rumours, many of which you have written. There is a lot ambiguity around these rumours and storylines!

    I agree that the so called “older” actresses who have been on the show have been marvelous additions to the cast. Each of them, being so talented have created characters who have great experience and depth. I like that about the show, very much.


    I wondered what you meant when you said MC made disparaging remarks about the writers? That is the first time I have head this. What is that about?

  39. Santa Traugott

    The remark that stands out was rather vulgar, but it was to the effect that they were too full of themselves and standing around with their thumb….(deleted) but he was the one that had to appear on those morning breakfast couches. And he has said, as well as Philippa, but I can’t quote chapter and verse, that she is the one who deals with (protects) the writers.

  40. Mary F.

    Wow, Santa! I never heard that one before! Seems more like something Doc Martin would say than Mr. Clunes! However he can be feisty at times….like when he told off a guy on a morning show who was belittling people who beg for money on the street, or something like that, Clunes really snapped at him. I have often thought that you can’t pull off a wisecrack successfully as an actor unless you have a natural flair for it and our Doc is the consummate (and very funny) wisecracker.

  41. Maria

    The idea. that Al could be Martin’s half-brother via a one night stand between Bert’s wife and Christopher is intriguing, but I don’t quite see how the timing would work out. Presumably this would have happened during one of Martin’s visits to Aunt Joan, since Christopher had no other reason to be in PW. I thought she said at some point that Christopher and Margaret stopped letting Martin come to Port Wenn when he was about 11? Since he is at least 15 years older than Al, that would mean Christopher would have been back there at some later time. That is possible, of course, but the way it’s been presented, he cut off all contact with Joan because of her affair with John Slater.

    It’s definitely true that Al is about the only person in Port Wenn that Martin tolerates and actually seems to find competent, and Ruth clearly likes him also. I think his function could be to humanize Martin a bit. (Roger Fenn seemed to play this role as well). We accept Martin’s standoffishness and lack of any social graces, but in order to stay invested, he has to have some compensatory quality other than being a brilliant doctor. We have to be able to see the possibility of liking him also. It would be hard to do that with a person who exhibits complete disdain for absolutely everyone.

  42. Gabriele

    If you want to read the interview with MC’s remarks about writers, it’s here:
    And in another interview MC mentions you, his American audience, whe he says “Series six finished on a bit of a low. The American fans didn’t like that so we’ve got some ground to make up.” (
    So I am quite hopeful the writers will guide series 7 out of the deep hole – as we say in Germany.

    For a couple of weeks already I am a keen reader of this blog. I am stunned by the quality and the depth of your observations. Being German, the language barrier prevents me from joining into your very elaborate discussions. But maybe every now and then I’ll try to contribute a short comment.
    Greetings from Germany,

  43. Post author

    A quick welcome to you! It’s exciting to know you’ve been reading from Germany. My daughter-in-law is German and I know German pretty well. If you want to make a comment and aren’t sure how to write it in English, go ahead and write it in German. I’ll do my best to translate it accurately. You clearly read English very well!

    Thanks for the references. It’s kind of funny that they do care how we Americans respond to the show. From the way they make it sound, we are more analytical than the British and how we accept the direction of the show matters to them. Also, from what MC says about the determination of the tone of the show, it sounds like PB is to blame for taking it in the darker direction and MC went along. So we can stop wondering who made those questionable decisions.

  44. DM

    Wonderfully said. Indeed it was the artful ambiguity of this television programme that initially drew me into the story of Doc Martin (that and being laid up for three straight days). I was quickly impressed with how the writers were able to brilliantly tell a story by as much as what was not being said and done as by what was. I would extend what you very nearly said to say that the story’s “ambiguity” is its “richness”. It’s that richness that feeds our imagination by which our individual interpretations begin to germinate. It’s often said that humans are storytelling animals, but I believe that it’s more accurate to say that we are storymaking animals. This is what we do when we watch (even as passive viewers), we take the story presented to us- with all its ambiguities, and make the story our own by remaking it from the interpretations we have conjured up in our heads.

    The viewer consternation you describe from elsewhere regarding S6 is interesting. I get the sense from your description that many viewers’ frustration stems from an interpretation of S6 largely as a “Deus ex machina” fraud which the writers and creators have perpetrated. Perhaps the frustration of such viewers might be assuaged with the reassurance that: ambiguity does not mean arbitrary. It’s unclear whether such viewers’ speculation of what should happen next has any underlying theory or is based upon only some karmic interpretation of arbitrary plotlines from the writers justifying arbitrary expectations from the viewers (as if arbitrary begets arbitrary). Perhaps like you, this is the same reason I don’t care for efforts to pathologize Martin just so to make sense of the story we’re being told or to force it to conform to some extempore explanation.

    Something that may be helpful to alleviate the frustration with S6 of the more thoughtful commenters here, is to emphasise your point that ambiguity is as old as the oldest oral stories and myths from across time and across cultures. The same practice of conjuring stories from the ambiguities of others is evident from the contours and stratification of Greek mythology (and its reinterpretation again into Roman mythology). What transcends language, culture, and a common history in so many such cases is often the influences similarly employed by the writers of Doc Martin. Joseph Campbell wrote:

    “It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those that tend to tie it back.”
    – Joseph Campbell

    And of course it works both ways, symbolism powers stories just as much as stories power symbolism (semiotics at work). The writers of Doc Martin (the many, different writers of Doc Martin) do employ a great deal of symbolism throughout the episodes and the series. Sometimes that symbolism is overt, sometimes it’s subtle, and often it’s subject to ambiguity itself (as surplus meaning). You’ve addressed some of these symbols thus far in your blog (like the symbolism of the Buddharupa- i.e. Buddha statues in the surgery for which the consensus was they had no significance- or do they?). I tend to believe that the symbolism at work in Doc Martin accounts for a big part of the appeal that we don’t necessarily realise amongst the sparse dialogue, circumscribed character interactions, near absence of introspective divestiture, with a handful of episodes every other year, and (fortunately) Martin’s infinite facial expressions from the most infinitesimal of facial muscle contractions. Symbolism can (and in the case of Doc Martin surely must) carry much of the story.

    The ending of S6E2 “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” provides, I believe, not only an example of how the writers use ambiguity as you describe, but also some of their intentions for its use. This episode is set against the wedding’s afterglow of the first episode and subsequent episodes’ depiction of Martin’s steady descent into darkness. It unfolds with familiar themes of Martin being Martin (albeit whilst undergoing a degree of domestication), with recurring childcare problems, patients getting personal insults to go with their medical insults, attending a concert with Louisa (for the second time), and culminating in a disastrous dinner with Louisa’s boss. At the very end we are treated, as is Louisa, to Martin assuming his trusty doctoral identity to care for Louisa’s bleeding laceration where she’s hit the glass whence he proceeds to cast aspersions on her hygiene (again)- as well as her age, by diagnosing her with dandruff (seborrhoeic dermatitis, not capitis). We await the familiar fireworks from Louisa overreacting, once again, for great comedic effect and instead she expresses some mild chagrin and the episode fades to black.

    There is amply fecund ambiguity in this scene that very much invites us to speculate: does the dandruff portend some frightening health or mental a symptom for Louisa? Is Ruth’s expert advice to Joe/Cliff/Martin “that nobody likes to be criticised all the time” hint at Louisa’s coming disenchantment? Is Martin’s role as doctor to his beloved Louisa as patient, about to somehow let loose a cataclysm within Martin’s psyche? I suspect that the writers took this rather prosaic scene in a rather prosaic episode and still managed to stoke far wilder speculation than even these possibilities.

    Yet in all likelihood, having just come from a construction site where Dennis was using a sander- it’s nothing but sawdust in Louisa’s hair. Martin was wrong with a benign (at least to us) misdiagnosis. Did we miss the obvious here along with the wink from the writers only to embellish it with ambiguity instead? Was there other symbolism, obvious or otherwise, that we missed in this episode or were the writers just having a bit of fun?

    To me, the scene seems to be an invitation for reinterpretation of other scenes in this episode, and the series, and throughout all the series (perhaps constituting the best purpose of ambiguity). Although I too was distracted by the lack of ready humour in S6, an underlying theory does begin to emerge from this episode by reinterpreting the symbolism amongst the scenery of the long journey of our hero. Or possibly not. In which case you may want to retitle this post, “Ambiguity Unbound and Unbounded” 😉

  45. Post author

    Thank you DM for all your remarks. I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to reply. I actually started a response yesterday and discovered it disappeared for some reason. First I want to say that your mention of semiotics is very pertinent and applies to all stories. The signs and symbols of language, as well as what is left unsaid, mark a well-written work.

    I like your mention of how the end of the second episode fades to black rather than having Louisa blow up in response to Martin’s comments about her dandruff. Once again, as in much of S6, this is out of character in comparison to previous scenes like this. Her muted reaction could be a good sign — she’s now aware that Martin’s comments are not meant as an insult — or it could be a foreboding sign of their coming difficulties with each other. I find it a stretch to think ME would mistake sawdust for dandruff, and I’m more inclined to think the writers were having some fun. I’d also be loathe to reinterpret too many other scenes based on this one. I continue to believe that much that we end up analyzing in depth was not deliberately thought out. I know PB claims 80% of what we notice was planned, but in my experience many writers are surprised (and often delighted) by what people see in their work. Their eyes are opened to wider possibilities than they ever realized while writing.

    My appreciation for your contributions is what is unbounded. Thank you!

  46. Linda

    It would be a shame if the writers didn’t read blogs like this one where the participants get into the story and characters so deeply and so heartfeltly. It would be very interesting to know IF they do take any of this into account. How might we find out about that? Any ideas? I thought Carol’s comment about Martin Clunes being ill just as the show started was interesting because many of us have thought that the wriiers were taking this into account during the series. I had not even thought that the writing was mostly done by the time he got sick! Great ovservation Carol!
    Fan fiction? I don’t see it quite in the same light as this blog, in particular. I think it is often more fantasy and I feel that Martin and Louisa, in particular, do and say things in many of the stories, that REALLY don’t seem to fit their personas or the true story as it has been presented. Of course, there are many skillful writers of fan fiction who are well versed on the real show and do a good job of writing with that in mind. I enjoy many of the stories and know that a lot of work has gone into them. They fill a void felt by many who find the bi-annual format hard to deal with. I pick out the skilled writers whose stories I feel are good off-shoots of the real deal.
    A lot of the other so-called “blogs” don’t seem to change much over time and there is no discussion. They report bits and pieces of “news” and drop in to odd picture. This blog, is a TRUE blog and it is fascinating to read and participate in because it is so thought provoking. Karen and others, are masters at bringing up such interesting topics and researching and commenting on them. I often feel quite inadequate in my attempts to comment on their excellent work. I do love the stuff on Portwenn On-line as I have mentioned before. Since I am going to Port Isaac in May, 2015, the location stuff is fun to look at and I do intend on trying to find many of those sites. The voting has been fun too and there is a a lot of fun stuff there.
    I agree that the writers must have decided to take Martin to the mat in Series 6 but I think it didn’t have to be so DARK and SAD for both him and Louisa. The fact that there was very little humour after E1 was a HUGE mistake which left everyone feeling more than just curious about next series but also really SAD personally. I am sure the audience for Series 7, Episode 1 will be astronomical but we’ll all be holding our breath and dreading it a bit. I suppose we all feel badly for Martin because we know how he was raised and have seen how he has been crushed over and over by his parents inspite of his efforts to remain polite and civil. He has ENDURED them countless times. It was refreshing to see him finally stand up to his mother and finally seem to “get” that she had mistreated him all his life. If he was at all sad about his father dying, he wasn’t saying so to Louisa when she asked him about it. Perhaps he was glad to be rid of him and his demeaning comments or perhaps he was still wishing that he had known if his father had been proud of him in any way. We feel for Louisa because she desperately wants to have Martin open up to her and for them to be able to discuss things as a husband and wife should do. She is hurt and confused and no doubt wonders if it is all worth it. Martin knows he is hurting her but seems unable to change how he is. He seems paralyzed. He he seems unable to respond to her. His rush to see Ruth gives us us hope that he has “twigged” that his behaviour has damaged his marriage and that in part, Louisa’s injuries have been the result of his actions. He knows that she is on the brink of leaving him with James and, he knows that if he doesn’t fix the problems and take action, that the damage may be permanent. We can only hope that he has finally got the message that HE MUST CHANGE and that he needs to do it now. Louisa will respond to his attempts to change and she may learn how better to deal with him too. She loves him and she wants her family to survive. He loves her and wants the same thing. Hopefully the writers will make this happen early in Series 7 so that they can get back to a “dramedy” format that has worked so well in the past. Time will tell.

  47. Post author

    Linda, your praise is extremely nice. I started the blog for exactly the reason you mention – there wasn’t any place else where there was an in depth discussion of this show. Digital Spy has some good discussions, but they aren’t usually of the kind we have on this blog. I like Portwenn Online too. Kate has done a remarkable job and I often use her site as a reference.

    I would be very honored if any writers or anyone associated with the show read this blog.

  48. Gabriele

    I am pretty sure that the writers of the DM series are constant readers of this blog. This sort of internet platforms is certainly a very important source of feedback for the writers of TV series, and I suppose this blog here is the only place on the internet which offers a profound discussion of the series.
    A couple of years ago I have participated in a forum about a TV series here in Germany. We were complaining a lot about a new actor who had been introduced into the show and who in our opinion absolutely did’t fit in with the show. It didn’t take long and he was written out of the show and never appeared again. So I am quite sure the producers did read our forum.
    Other than in theater productions, film actors (and producers) don’t experience the spontaneous reactions of their audience. I think that’s why MC and his colleagues show themselves quite affable to all the spectators who gather in Port Isaac during the filming. That is the only occasion when they meet their audience in personae. And they certainly enjoy this positive feedback.
    Then there are things like facebook, but we all know that this sort of superficial mini-communication is of no worth. So I am sure the writers enjoy this blog as much as we do.

    But I am sure as well that some of the psychological analysis here explores depths that were not thought of or intended by the writers. There are certain constraints imposed by the TV format “dramedy”. Ambiguity comes handy here. After all, this series is made for entertainment.
    And then there was MC’s illness at the beginning of the shooting of Series 6, so that they probably had to alter and to rewrite a lot in order to deliver the series nontheless. Maybe this is why this series finally turned out to be darker than initially intended. But maybe all this explains also the inconsistencies we find in the whole plot, especially in Series 6. During the whole Series 6 I asked myself “Why on earth did they marry?” Louisa DID KNOW Martin! What was new that made her change her mind? The child? Fair enough. But L could not expect any change in M’s character and his resulting behaviour. So the spectator was left alone and helpless given the complete lack of tenderness or intimate and cosy togetherness we had to witness during Series 6, which was excruciating.

    I think that producing a series over a lot of years is somehow like stumbling ahead. At the beginning of Series 1or 2 nobody knew that there would even be a Series 5 or 6. And I am not sure if the writers were aware from the beginning that this was to be more a Martin-and-Louisa-drama than a medical drama. MC said in one of the first years that he was convinced that L and M would never come together.
    In my opinion, in Series 6 not only M has reached the point of breakdown but the series as well. But I am confident that the producers will show enough creativity, so that Series 7 can regain the old spirit. After all, this blog is the ultimate evidence of the quality of the series!

    (P.S.: Karen, please feel free to correct my language errors. I would be grateful! 🙂 )

  49. Post author

    Gabriele, I wouldn’t correct a thing. Your English is quite good and I had no trouble understanding what you wrote. I appreciate the effort you put into writing your comments.

    You make a good point that actors do not have the same feedback from being on TV shows as they do in theaters. I could see where that might be both good and bad depending on the response they get from the audience. Your observations about the direction of the show would be supported by your position that the writers and others take some cues from what they read on blogs, etc. Once they realized how important the relationship between Martin and Louisa was to viewers, they made it more of a centerpiece. In my opinion, they should have known that would happen because the general tendency of most audiences is to become engaged in any romantic liaisons developed in a show. I don’t think this show was ever meant to be a medical drama in the same way other medical shows have worked. It was more a MASH styled dramedy with medicine as a backdrop for the various interactions amongst the characters in the village, and mostly humorous. Of course, this included the tension between the GP and the headmistress of the school. I am convinced that Caroline Catz turned her character into a much more captivating and important figure than they originally expected her to be. Luckily the people involved in decision making for the show recognized what they could do with that and augmented the role. Now, to me, she is just as essential as MC. But the entire ensemble really makes the show so high quality. As in MASH, a few characters have been replaced over time without much detriment to the overall caliber.

    As you probably know by now, I am not so baffled by Louisa’s decision to marry Martin. I do agree that their interplay changed significantly in S6 and that was strange and inconsistent. They should fix that in S7, as so many of us have said.

    From what I know about series, there often is a large-picture story arc that would extend over a long term. I read that Vince Gilligan, the creator and head writer of “Breaking Bad,” had a plan and knew how he wanted the series to end from the beginning. I’m sure they find ways to alter and rearrange the story as it continues, but I think they have a basic grasp of where they’re headed. The small number of episodes in this series as compared to a “Breaking Bad” or many other shows makes it even more likely they have determined what they want to accomplish in each series well before they film it (with nips and tucks made along the way). For many of us, they miscalculated in S6 and took a direction so different and so much more serious than what we’d come to expect that, as you say, it did some damage to the show. Like you, I expect them to be capable of recuperating it.

  50. Santa Traugott

    I’m coming back in to this discussion after S7 has finished airing, and I’m sure that Karen could find multiple examples of ambiguity in S7 that serve a purpose, and contribute to reader involvement, add layers of complexity and interest and all the points that have been made so well in the original post and comments.

    I do want to follow a story that makes me work to understand it, and if it’s a visual story, I want the visual elements, such as set and wardrobe design, to do a lot of the work of exposition. I don’t mind if endings are left a bit up in the air, so we can think about how we imagine it would have played out — but, the options and the interpretations need to be at least plausible. There has to have been some predicate for each course of action or interpretation that might follow.

    But sometimes, ambiguity appears to be put in arbitrarily, without any groundwork being laid, no plausible story reason for it. And I think that’s a disservice to the audience. Or a discourtesy.

    Prime example: the very last scene. “I’m never going to change the way I feel about you. I’ve tried, I’ve really tried, but it just makes things worse.”

    Martin’s tried what? to change, to be what Louisa wants? We’ve seen him trying in everything that’s led up to this moment, from E1 on. (How that has made things worse is far from clear, also, but I assume we could figure it out or have fun trying.) Does he mean he’s tried to stop loving her? There’s no evidence at all for that, let alone that he’s “really tried.” Why is that dialogue phrased exactly that way, if not to deliberately confound us? I don’t call that ambiguity, I call it unnecessary and arbitrary.

    Now, it’s not that I don’t think that such a solution wouldn’t have a certain appeal to Martin Ellingham. He might very well think that trying to deep-six his feelings for Louisa would be the cleanest, tidiest and least painful solution to the problems their relationship presents for him.

    Indeed, you could easily convince me that a) he tried to suppress his feelings for her in earlier episodes, because he sensed involvement with her would be difficult for him b) he tried again in S4 when she appeared again, pregnant, and that was partially why he appeared to consider a dalliance with Edith and c) that in fact when he shut down in S5, he was trying to avoid dealing with his feelings for her.

    But you can’t convince me (I don’t think) that in S7, he at any time considered that he should just “really try” to stop loving her. He may have concluded, by the end of E7, that continuing to hope for reconciliation was futile, and that he would have to find some way of dealing with his pain about that, but that is very different from seeing any evidence at all that he was really trying to stop caring about her.

    So why write the dialogue that way, so that no one can say for sure what he meant? I am betting that this was a script revision, and that Jack Lothian had a pretty clear idea of what his character meant. If a writer doesn’t have any idea what his character is trying to say, that’s a nonsense, to me.

    On the key-hole versus box analogy, which is a wonderful description: for me, I’m looking through a key-hole. I have no trouble at all thinking of these characters going on, living their life, almost as real to me as people on FB whom I have never met. Certainly i don’t always or even most of the time have that reaction to drama, but this is one place I do. (The children in the 4th season of The Wire also still haunt me, but that’s a way different story.)

  51. Santa Traugott

    Or, now that I read what I wrote, it dawns on me that just possibly, Martin COULD be referring to the whole stretch of their relationship, from first meeting through at least the end of S6. That at least is plausible to me.

  52. Maria

    That’s true, but I overall, I don’t think it reduces the validity of your comments , which I totally agree with (which of course thereby makes them valid :)). I am frustrated by the ambiguity because it seems sloppy – or more kindly, hastily written – in a way that doesn’t allow for a variety of interpretations, all plausible, but just left me saying, “what??” Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m also bothered by the way the line was written: “I’m never going to change the way I feel about you.” That doesn’t make sense to me, because we don’t – even Martin, I think – make a deliberate decision to feel a certain way about someone, or even some thing. “I think I’ll start disliking this person now.” “Ok, time for me to start loving this person” Really? We can attempt to control our feelings, or maybe we could say “I’m going to change my attitude towards this person” but to me that’s something different than actively changing feelings the way we would change clothes.

  53. Post author

    I don’t know exactly why those lines were written so inscrutably. I am convinced that they do that deliberately and let us trouble over it, maybe even because they like giving us something to parse. Like you, I’m not sure the words used here are meant to be anything so mysterious even if we are inclined to do our best to figure them out.

    I see some evidence for Martin having tried to change for Louisa throughout the entire show and I want to trace that in my next post. I also think he has found it impossible to stop loving her. When he says he’s never going to change how he feels about her, he’s saying he will always love her, which is what he told her at the end of S5. At the end of S5 he actually never finishes that sentence because Penhale interrupts them. But we know that’s what he was going to say. This time he puts it in the form of not changing, and that is significant to me.

    I agree that there is no evidence in S7 that he has done anything but try to show her how much he’s willing to prostrate himself to please her. I don’t see where he has tried to stop loving her. What he’s really tried to do is express himself both in therapy and directly to her, and he’s really tried to show her by his actions that he wants to be a part of the family again. He is wrong about that having made things worse, but I can see how none of it seemed to make things better. At every point Louisa was unreceptive and unwilling to give in much. Now and then we would see a softening on her part, as in the hugging exercise, but mostly she was the one who erected a wall this time. So I read it as he’s tried to change for her and didn’t find any of it worthwhile.

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