During a visit to the University of Toronto when I was an undergraduate student there, one of the most underrated science fiction writers of the mid-20th century, the magnificent Harlan Ellison, told an inquirer that one could learn everything one needed to know about the art and science of writing by reading the collected works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
I’d read all of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories as a boy, and continue to listen to them as audio plays during long drives. I’m very much a fan of all the dramatic productions of the stories, from the heydey of Basil Rathbone to the pinnacle of Holmes’s interpretation by Jeremy Brett to the recent, immensely entertaining, Guy Ritchie film. But I never found Conan Doyle’s writing to be particularly instructive, nor his plots particularly inventive.
The value of the Holmes stories, in my opinion, is in their novelty. Sherlock Holmes was literature’s first superhero, a meta-human with remarkable sensory powers who, for the first time, employed this new thing called “science” in the pursuit of criminal justice. And this is what makes Sherlock Holmes a character of science fiction.
The new BBC production, called simply Sherlock, updates the classic tale by placing Holmes in modern, 21st century London. Dr Watson is a battle scarred army doctor, fresh from war in Afghanistan, who finds an improbable friend in the (quite possibly) mentally unstable Holmes. This new Holmes advertises on his website that he is a champion of “the science of deduction.” That, in and of itself, qualifies Sherlock as a Skiffy show.
There are traditionally two dangers for any Sherlock Holmes adaptation. First is that the audience has become accustomed to seeing the great detective divine truth from a convoluted crime using nothing more than his mind and the data. This is a Herculean challenge for any script writer. The temptation is to jog down that well traveled path to action cinema, which is not what Holmes is about at all. A further temptation is to withhold information from the audience, thus making Holmes’s feat all the more impressive. The best adaptations lay the facts out for all to see, but weave a clever narrative of distraction and misdirection that allows the titular star to arise triumphant from the morass well before the casual viewer arrives at a solution.
The second challenge is that of portrayal. For decades, Basil Rathbone set the tone for Holmes in stage, film and radio. Holmes must be calm, brooding and always in control. Then came Jeremy Brett, who created the finest Holmes of the television era: a manic man of terrifying intellect and tragic flaw, a gigantic ego in a room of lessers. It is to Brett’s Holmes that all others will now be compared. It’s a hard challenge for any actor to face.
The new Sherlock was created by the new Dr Who show runner, Steven Moffat. Moffat is known for having written the most taut and terrifying of the new Who episodes, so expectations were high for this new show. It appears as if a pilot was shot but unaired because it was felt that it was not clever enough. This is a heartening development. It means that the show’s creators take seriously the first challenge mentioned above. I am pleased to report that the show’s aired first episode, “A Study in Pink“, is downright brilliant. Had it been a movie released to theatres, I would have happily paid to see it.
Indeed, the series’ full run is only three episodes. That’s right: three episodes. We await news of whether BBC will produce a second season. But each episode is 90 minutes long, making each a movie in its own right. The plot progresses so tightly, however, that each feels like a traditional 45 minute American TV show. The third episode, “The Great Game“, is so complicated –and some will say convoluted– that I confess to having got lost a couple of times. But this is a good thing! I’d rather a show’s plot challenge me than to have it be predictable and stale.
Now, the second challenge is perhaps the most daunting. Who can compete with Jeremy Brett? Who indeed? Again, I am pleased to report that the weirdly named Benedict Cumberbatch does a splendid job. There are rumours that Cumberbatch was in fact offered the part of the iconic Doctor Who after the departure of David Tennant, but chose instead to feast upon the Holmes role. I, for one, would have loved to have seen him as the 900 year old time lord. His is a special kind of vulnerable arrogance that works for both the Doctor and the addict Holmes.
Where Rathbone’s Holmes was respectable and all powerful, and Brett’s Holmes was otherworldly, flawed and terrifying, Cumberbatch gives us a sort of idiot savant who excels at the meta-human intricacies of deduction, but who is incapable of basic human relationships and who doesn’t even know who the Prime Minister is or that the Earth goes around the Sun.
In this modern era, a third challenge to enacting the myth of Holmes has arisen: how to depict the Holmes-Watson relationship. Author and critic Rex Stout, a member of the “Baker Street Irregulars“, once quipped that Watson was clearly a woman. This caused much consternation amongst Conan Doyle purists. But the next logical development then arose: suggestions that Holmes and Watson enjoyed more than just a fraternal relationship.
In the Conan Doyle originals, Watson was a convenient literary mechanism for telling the story of Holmes. The classist Victorian era was one that allowed a man to subsume his ego in service of a greater man’s ambition. In the modern world, however, it seems we need a reason for two middle-aged bachelors to live together in one flat. And that reason is rarely just economic.
The current film plumbs this suggestion in subtle tones, as Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr navigate about one another’s feelings like spurned lovers. In Sherlock, the supposition is brought to the forefront, wherein time and again the pair are asked if they are a couple. Indeed, in one telling scene, Holmes misinterprets Watson’s personal questions as an attempt at seduction. Fortunately for the Holmes mythos, the seeminly Aspergian detective is revealed to be as asexual as he has always been, proclaiming loudly that he is “married to his work.”
Given the deeper interest in the two men’s relationship, the character of Watson has grown more important in recent adaptations. To write and portray him requires a subtle hand that allows character development, but that does not overshadow the mystery or depth of the main man, Holmes himself. To play the role of Watson, then, is probably more difficult and less fun than to play Holmes. Watson must be more human and more sensitive than Holmes, to act as a descriptive foil to the great man. Watson cannot be a fool, for how could Holmes tolerate a fool? But Watson cannot be allowed to reach conclusions before Holmes does. See the challenge?
Martin Freeman does an adequate job with a difficult role. But, frankly, he is fairly forgettable. Mind you, this might be unavoidable, given the way in which Cumberbatch, via Moffat’s writing, dominates every scene and draws every eye toward him.
Sherlock is a daring, clever and immensely enjoyable interpretation of the world of Conan Doyle. It’s a new take on the now tired “crime procedural” that drags the now banal CSI-type shows back to their roots, back to the great meta-human detective that started it all. See, Conan Doyle understood that ultimately it’s not the crime or its solving that drives the story, but the inner darkness that compels both the criminal and the detective who catches him.