The first of two TV movies made in 2003 that preceded the popular TV series that began a year later are significantly different creations, although they retain the basic premise of a city-based doctor who returns to the picturesque coastal village of his childhood, and eventually settles into the community as their G.P. That, plus the catchier title of Doc Martin.
In the TV series, Dr. Martin Ellingham's sudden aversion to blood halts his career as a respected surgeon, and has the unmarried doctor return to his childhood home Portwenn where he takes over as the local G.P.; in the TV movie, after discovering his wife has been shagging three of his best friends, Dr. Martin Bamford (a gynecologist) flees to Port Isaac for a week of mental recuperation, and becomes involved with a local mystery before taking over as the local G.P.
Derived from the character that appeared in the film Saving Grace, yet preceding all the events in the feature film, the prequel TV movie basically gives us Doc Martin's backstory, prior to the events central to the feature film, and though the character traits are very different from the TV re-think Bamford drinks, smokes pot, likes children, has great bedside manor, loves the local atmosphere, and does something called smiling' there are some nascent elements fans will recognize, with the port itself co-starring alongside the actors.
Using the same elegant wide shots during the port's most ravishing season, the filmmakers also add more eccentric quirks to the locals, setting the roots for the series' brilliant moments of dry, dark humour, and bouts of absurdism. The mystery moral crusader with his huge Jell-O creations, for example, is used to establish the port's sprawling physical makeup (a marked visual contrast to the more insular village created for the film) and introduce both new characters, and a few familiar faces from the film (Charley the bartender, and Harvey the sailor, played by Tristan Sturrock, who befriends Bamford, and reacquaints him with pot an unsubtle nod to the pair's devoted use as shown in the movie).
Also of note here is the writers' decision to needle-drop characters who will play greater roles in the events of the mystery, a subsequent conflict between the village leader and the good doctor, and characters whose initial dislike of the doctor swings to respect when his string of good deeds sets him up as the ideal successor to the town's aging G.P. (In the TV series, the doctor is begrudgingly respected by villages for saving a life or two, but he's vehemently regarded as a rude, arrogant bully even by his aunt, a new addition to the series - and is frequently branded tosser' by growling passersby.)
The movie was very much about a widow and her quest to rescue herself from dreadful debt, with characters largely there as light, forgettable colour, whereas for the TV movie, one gets a sense the balance between the port, Bamford, and the characters were vital because the teleplay really unfolds as classic, albeit feature-length, pilot for a new series, with a fast, happy finale that has the Doc Martin returning to the village and fulfilling his original career goal to help people as a G.P., and not become a wealthy snob like his wife Petronella.
A second TV movie, Doc Martin and the Legend of the Cloutie followed soon after, but we can easily see why the writers and producers decided to overhaul the Doc Martin world into something more bent: as an affable, helpful, good-spirited man, he'd simply blend into the community fabric, and the writers would run out of believable conflicts to keep the series going.
The Cloutie teleplay is adequate, but it too demonstrated the only way Doc Martin could make the transition into a TV series (using the more conservative British episode average of less than 10 episodes per season) would be to have him not only rub everyone the wrong way, but bring out dirty secrets, lost loves, and other infinite conflicts that would establish a far more vivid world, and ensure the show's ongoing success with fans.
Although broadcast in the U.K. and Australia, both TV movies have thus far only appeared on DVD in Australia, and are now out of print perhaps the most clear-cut attempt by the series creators to distance their show from the early drafts of the lead character.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan