@steven_moffat and @markgatiss have got a winner in Sherlock, a new series on the BBC.
Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ new series, Sherlock premiered last night on the BBC and the series is off to a cracking start.
There’s no questioning of either Moffat’s or Gatiss’ chops as aficionados of Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective, Sherlock Holmes and their love for the character is plain to see on the screen. As a life-long aficionado of Holmes myself, I almost feel if they were writing just for me. A conceit on my part, to be sure, nonetheless, I consider that to be the highest praise I can give it. It was completely entertaining television and there was never any question that it was anything other than Sherlock Holmes.
For those not in-the-know, Sherlock is a new BBC series consisting of three, 90-minute stories. It is a modern-day retelling of the Holmes story. In the first story, Moffat’s A Study in Pink (a play on Conan Doyle’s original Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet) a wounded Afghanistan war veteran, Dr. John Watson returns to London and meets and takes lodgings with the world’s-only consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes.
Many Conan Doyle purists have complained about attempts to “update” Holmes now and in the past, but I’m not one of those. I grew up watching Basil Rathbone fights the Nazis. As a title card from the first “modern” Rathbone movie stated, Holmes is timeless and indeed he is! From my perspective as a child of the 1960’s, even the “updated” 1940’s Holmes stories were about the ancient past – and so too, someday, will Sherlock be viewed by some as yet unborn Holmes fans.
In Sherlock, Holmes is a nicotine-addicted, self-proclaimed, high-functioning sociopath. Like all incarnations of Holmes, his brain operates on a whole different level than us mere mortals. Holmes has no friends and is disliked by most of the police force, in particular the forensics team, but is tolerated (indeed, sought out) by DCI Lestrade.
John Watson is returning war veteran, wounded in the line of duty. As the story starts he is suffering from a psychosomatic problem with his leg. He’s been encouraged by his therapist to keep a blog, which will no doubt reflect the modern-day equivalent of Watson’s journals of Holmes’ adventures. Was it just good timing that the this modern series has taken place at a point in history where, like the Victorian original, Watson can be returning from a war in Afghanistan?
In their first adventure, Holmes probes a mysterious case of “serial suicides”, which are, of course, actually murders.
A Study in Pink doesn’t pretend to be a remake of A Study in Scarlet, although some scenes are cut whole-cloth from the original. As an original story, they have avoided having the audience know who the dastardly villain is until the conclusion of the story, yet by using parts of the original, the entire thing just feels right as a Holmes story. The story struck a nice balance between a new story and the necessary legacy of the Holmes we all know and love.
Benedict Cumberbatch puts in a great turn as Holmes. His voice, appearance and mannerisms are spot on. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is younger than what we’re used to seeing onscreen, but let’s not forget, when Holmes and Watson met in A Study in Scarlet, Watson would have been a young doctor, fresh from medical school and then into military service, and Holmes was a student. In Sherlock, they’ve cast accordingly.
Martin Freeman is Dr. Watson and also puts in a solid performance, although so far, he has far less personality than Holmes. Whenever I see him on screen, I can’t help thinking of John Simm’s Sam Tyler. Perhaps it’s his appearance or perhaps it’s the competent, no-nonsense professional character tossed into a mad, bizarre world that makes me think of Simm. Either way, he may turn out to be the most useful Watson to date.
If I had any complaints at all about this episode, it would have to be with the direction. At several points the use of a split-screen to emphasis two different pieces of action or to cut between successive scenes is gratuitous and distracting. At other times, through the use of onscreen titles and gimmicks, the director attempts to visualize Holmes’ thought process for the audience. It reminded me a bit too much of the TV Series Psych in that it highlighted what was catching Holmes’ eye. It went further by actually writing his observations on the screen.
This technique might have worked if Holmes didn’t have to then turn around and explain everything to the other characters in the room, anyway. Watson is our tool for understanding Holmes’ brilliance and I don’t think the flashy on-screen graphics in any way enhanced the story. Perhaps in a situation where Holmes couldn’t or wouldn’t have an opportunity to explain it might be better, but if we know what Holmes is seeing and thinking, where is the joy of “the reveal” that was so all-important in the Holmes literature?
None of that was distracting enough to diminish my enjoyment of the story at all.
Finally, it’s been questioned if a modern-day Holmes story could compete in this age of CSI and high-tech crime scene forensics. Forensics was, of course, completely in its infancy when Holmes was first conceived. Conan-Doyle’s own professor that Holmes was loosely based upon, was an early advocate of the careful, methodical examination of the clues that are overlooked by everyone, but in this age of DNA analysis and computer programs to analyze blood spatter patterns, has Holmes and his “amateur detecting” got anything to add?
Indeed he does. While forensics investigations have taken on the necessary methodological and technological tools to thoroughly document and analyze, Holmes is able to spot and sift the important pieces nearly instantaneously and his deductive powers from that evidence leaps beyond the methodical into the magical. It is only afterwards when it is explained that we feel like we should have been able to see that, too. Forensics will find hair fiber and DNA evidence and help link someone to a crime scene, but Holmes will deduce from the age and wear patterns of a wedding ring that woman is a serial adulterer. This has always been the appeal of Sherlock Holmes, for the he is the archetype thinking-man’s hero.
The hero that gives us the hope that, if we’re just smart enough and observant enough, everything will always make sense.
Unfortunately, that isn’t true, and until the day it is, Holmes will live on in any age for any generation.