Pre-Med: Preparing the Instruments

It’s worth stopping to consider what the Doc Martin creators did next. One thing we know they did not do, for whatever reasons, was go back to Simon Mayle. They needed a writer who could think in terms of serial television storytelling by creating a world that could hold a supporting cast of regular characters causing trouble for the protagonist yet also sparking off their own stories. The stories had to be involving and promise change without actually delivering it (if the castaways leave Gilligan's Island, the show is over). And the show had to have a “voice” to go with its “look,” as everyone knew from the start that Port Isaac would be the show’s chief visual asset.

hamishmacbethThe producers contracted with Dominic Minghella to create this new Doc Martin series for Buffalo Pictures and ITV. By 2004, Minghella’s credits included writing stints on TV series and TV movies, so he knew the business and knew what was needed. But the credit that probably secured the job for him was his time as writer and script editor on the Hamish Macbeth series (1995-97).

Based on (but in no way resembling) MC Beaton's mystery novels, Hamish Macbeth was an easygoing police constable in a remote and picturesque North Scottish village who dealt with the escapades of the eccentric locals and the stray bad apples who come to town. The location shots were magnificent, there was a large cast of village characters to help and hinder Hamish, and -- just to complicate his life a little more -- he suffers romantic misunderstandings with two local women. Macbeth's job entitled him to poke his nose behind usually closed doors, talk to all manner and classes of people, and be privy to most everyone's secrets. A single episode could shift tonally from light rural humor to grim mystery to romantic heartbreak to outlandish adventure-type setpiece.

Minghella therefore had experience creating the texture of the kind of world that the new Doc Martin would inhabit.

So Doc Martin’s genetic code includes: movies, setting, a production framework, and a writer skilled in creating episodic stories blending humor, drama, and romance. The producers also kept the “Doc Martin” name while dropping “Martin Bamford”. As that character had been created by Ferguson and Crowdy, good business sense dictated creating a new character not beholden to another’s copyright. The new character would now be called Martin Ellingham, his surname being an anagram of Minghella. Clever, that.

Another consideration was taking ITV’s fish-out-of-water idea under advisement and pushing it a bit further. Northern Exposure is probably the most obvious template for this sort of series; the 1990-1995 series was a big hit with its story of an uptight, big-city doctor bemused and frustrated by the quirky residents of a remote Alaskan village. Rob Morrow’s Dr. Joel was obnoxious and spiky, but he softened a bit as the series wore on and fell in love with the beautiful Maggie; the unsophisticated yet accepting community surrounding him patiently tolerated his bad attitude with warmth and good humor.

It was a good, smart show (for a few seasons, anyway), but why remake Northern Exposure in Cornwall? Why remake Hamish Macbeth, for that matter? What could be done to make Doc Martin's tone different from other fish-out-of-water, city-mouse-meets-country-mouse stories that dot the English literary and televisual landscape? What could be the central conflict that would drive the storytelling?

The answer was to take what worked for Northern Exposure — the culture clash between high-powered, no-nonsense doctor and sleepy little backward village — and push it to its logical, humorous extreme: make the protagonist so cranky and unlikable that, as Clunes has said, the village would be united in horror against him.

This is classic fiction writing 101 (and I mean that in a good way; we too often forget the basics): put the character in conflict with his setting to bring forth both his best and worst traits. That’s an aspect of story structure lacking from the Bamford movies and Hamish Macbeth: those characters loved living in their villages. They wanted to fit in. They had friends and allies. And to be fair, that's probably a reason viewers tuned in to watch those shows. But having the new Doc Martin be irritated every time he strolled through the village or examined his patients might spark more vigorous comic moments and give the character more bite. This sweet setting demanded dollops of vinegar.

Leading to the question: what was the tone of the show going to be? Straight-forward medical drama? Light drama with humorous touches, a la All Creatures Great and Small? A bit of soap opera, a bit of comedy, with a few bits of seriousness tossed about here and there to leaven the tone? How quirky and eccentric could the stories and characters become before they tipped over into too silly?  How quickly should the romance get started and how would that play out over the series?

Many such questions and choices must have presented themselves and even more decisions had to be made. Committing millions of pounds to any entertainment venture requires hard-headed decision-making behind the scenes: planning, budgeting, contracts, casting, cinematography, catering, editing, promotion, etc. No matter what the viewer may think as they see the whimsical story unfold before them, very few big decisions about that story are left to chance.

In the end, the movies leave only trace amounts of their DNA in the TV show: a doctor named Martin, a lead actor, a director, and a setting. The blueprint created for the first six episodes of Doc Martin— all written by Minghella and directed by Bolt — established a durable template for the series that came after. It also spawned a character better adapted for his TV surroundings and the rigors of weekly episodic storytelling.

All that’s left is to get our irascible doctor pointed in the general direction of the Cornish coast…