I got around to watching the new BBC series Sherlock, showing in the US as part of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater.
There have been many reconceptualizations of the iconic character of Sherlock Holmes, not all of them successful. The recent film version with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude was a buddy action movie and I found the hyperactivity just barely tolerable. The 1980s and 90s BBC series with Jeremy Brett as Holmes and two different actors as Watson were perhaps the best of the lot so far, with Brett in particular capturing the edginess and nervous energy of Holmes.
Despite being a huge fan of the Holmes stories, I at first resisted the temptation to watch the new series because it was set in the modern day. I have read and re-read the entire Holmes oeuvre several times and love the entire ambiance of Victorian England, with its horse-drawn carriages, gas-lit streets, dark and gloomy moors, and so on. I did not want to let go of those images and also did not think that Holmes’s methods of deduction would translate well in the modern era.
But people kept telling me how good the new series was and so on Netflix I watched the first episode of the first season and I am glad to report that I was wrong. The show was excellent and I plan on watching the entire series. Each episode is 90 minutes long so it is really a feature film. The creators have retained an important element of the original stories’ appeal in that it is more than solving the big puzzle, the delight comes in all the little puzzles that are solved along the way.
The title of the first episode was A Study in Pink and is loosely based on the first Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet. The small change in the title slyly gives a hint of how the writers have conceived the new series, using some of the basic plot elements and even dialogue of the original but making enough changes that it could be considered a new story. The first episode tells of the meeting of Holmes and Dr. John Watson and their first mystery together, involving a string of apparent suicides that seem to have no connection with one another apart from the method of death. While it retains sufficient details of the original story and remains largely true to the main characters, the elements of modern life are embraced rather than downplayed, with cell phones, text messages, GPS tracking, and the internet playing central roles. Watson is now a blogger.
I had not seen Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays Holmes) in anything before but he captures well how a young Holmes might have behaved these days, still tightly wound and arrogant and condescending to those whom he sees as his mental inferiors, but more exuberant and less formal than his Victorian counterpart. But the real casting coup was selecting Martin Freeman to play Watson. Although his role is nominally that of a second fiddle, he is essential to the stories’ success. The early black and white films with Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes suffered grievously from Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of Dr. Watson as a buffoon. The Watson of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories was stoic, brave, and somewhat unimaginative but definitely not a bumbling fool. Freeman, who was in The Office (UK) and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is perfect for the role, down to his everyman visage. He also has a nice touch for comedy and his Watson is not as worshipful of Holmes. He admires his skills but also does not hesitate to express his exasperation with him and his disapproval of some of his actions.
Holmes aficionados pore over the texts and know practically every detail by heart. They treat them as real and examine seeming contradictions and anachronisms in the stories and devise ingenious ways to try and reconcile them so that the contradictions disappear. Their efforts are similar to those of Biblical literalists who try to find ways to reconcile the contradictions in the Bible, except that the Sherlockians accept that ultimately the stories are fictional and that what they are doing is just a fun exercise.
The writers of this new series clearly know that devoted Holmes fans are a picky and demanding lot and cater to them by throwing in little bits of esoteric information and dialogue from the stories that will generate nods of delighted recognition by us addicts. For example, in the original stories Watson is introduced as having just been discharged from the British army after being wounded in Afghanistan, but seems a bit confused about exactly where he was shot, initially saying it was in his shoulder and in later stories referring to the pain in his wounded leg. The writers address this by having his therapist(!) and Holmes suggest that his limp and use of a cane to aid walking are purely psychosomatic, thus getting rid of that particular contradiction.
One thing I am looking forward to is that Sherlock Holmes’s brother Mycroft may be playing a more prominent role in the new series. His appearances in the stories were always intriguing and too few in my opinion.
Here’s the trailer for the new series.
I will review the later episodes as I see them.