Once upon a time – I’ve always wanted to start a story like that - I had to treat a person with a panic attack on a train. The usual scene,
‘Is there a doctor on the train?’
I went along to the carriage and found a person who was hyperventilating (breathing too fast) to the extent that their muscles were going into spasm. If you over-breath it blows too much carbon dioxide out of your blood and that changes the chemistry in your muscles so they spasm. The solution is to breath into a paper bag for a few minutes to push the carbon dioxide back up. I did all that, but the train had to make an extra stop so that the person could be off loaded onto an ambulance. I got home late and started to explain it to Lois, who promptly said,
‘I know’ and told me all about it. For a moment I thought it must have made it to the TV news, but it turned out that I had managed to knock the phone in my pocket so that it switched on and dialled home – so she heard the whole thing.
Lots of people have the same experience I expect, but it never occurred to me as being an excellent dramatic device.
In this week’s episode of Doc Martin it was used brilliantly. Doc Martin can drive you mad, especially for someone like me that was once a GP, but Martin Clunes plays this clever but gauche character brilliantly.
I loved the way the script wove the story together. All the way though you knew what would happen, Doc Martin’s heavily pregnant ex girl friend Louisa, was bound to be in the taxi driven by a man with an undiagnosed illness. (He has methanol poisoning from trying to make his own bio fuels .)
Doc Martin is about to leave Cornwall to go back to London, thus abandoning Louisa and baby. The whole of this series has been leading up to 'will he go or will he stay' - so a dramatic end is anticipated.
Let’s skip the rest of the build up, but by the fourth quarter Louisa is in the taxi and we know how ill the driver is because his wife has collapsed back in the village. A neat way of making sure that the whole viewing audience know what methanol poisoning does, and knows that you can treat it by getting some proper alcohol (ethanol that is) into the blood stream. Putting it in simple language if the liver has a lot of ethanol to deal with, it hasn’t got the capacity left to turn the methanol into something even more poisonous.(1)
The taxi crashes, as expected, with the Doc in fast pursuit. Doc gets there, finds Louisa is still OK and taxi driver passed out. He needs to get him to a pub because the bottle of vodka the doc set off with is lying on the back seat smashed.
Doc phones his secretary to get her local knowledge as to nearest pub, and he leaves his phone on, so now his secretary is getting a running commentary on saving the taxi driver and Louisa going into labour.
The secretary is at the harbour side in the middle of the local fete, so has access to a PA system. Through this neat bit of scripting we get the final dénouement - Doc realising that he is wrong about going to London - Louisa delivering baby boy - and the entire village hearing the whole thing over the PA. OK so we knew it would all work out, because it always does, doesn’t it?
That neat trick of the Doc leaving his phone on was such a clever piece of scripting, but it reveals more than just writing skill. Doc Martin was supposed to be going back to London to be a vascular surgeon – a thing you can’t do if you are technically inept. All through the series he has done technical clever things – but always in a medical context. Using a mobile phone no longer seems like a technical skill, it has become a social skill, an essential part of being human and communicating with other people, so it feels right that the Doc, who has the social skills of a concrete post, should be incapable of working his phone. He can’t talk to people so he can’t use a mobile phone – obvious. The mobile phone has ceased to be a technical gadget and become a social accessory, like shoes or jewellery. The writers of this series are just the first to spot it and use it as a device and to make the plot work and have a climax that involves almost every character in the series.
It was brilliantly done and hilarious, I hope it wins an award.
(1) The reason you can treat methanol poisoning with ethanol is that ethanol acts as a competitive inhibitor. Ethanol is a competing substrate and so it blocks the conversion of methanol to its toxic products. Competitive inhibitors act by occupying the same site in the enzyme that the substrate occupies thus preventing the substrate from being acted upon by the enzyme.