Review of BBC’s new ‘Sherlock’
I’ve always been a purist, disdaining Sherlock Holmes pastiches that stray too far from the spirit and content of John Watson’s original Canon.
So when I learned of a new TV series called Sherlock on BBC One, I was skeptical.
Developed and written by Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat (who I was unfamiliar with), it places Holmes, Watson and company in modern times.
Right, I thought. Would the duo be turned into comic book action figures, as they were in the 2009 Guy Ritchie film? I hoped not.
Most of my fears were laid to rest by the end of the first episode.
As lifelong Holmes fans themselves, the writers showed due reverence to the Canon, yet did a very clever job of adapting it to fit into the 21st Century.
Holmes and Watson are now Sherlock and John and still live at 221B Baker Street. John doesn’t publish their exploits in The Strand Magazine; he writes a blog.
This cutting edge Sherlock has a smart phone permanently attached to his hand, which he consults at lightning speed. Rather than send telegrams, he texts. Rather than publishing articles and “monographs,” he has a website called “The Science of Deduction.”
(The website and John’s blog really do exist online, by the way.)
Sherlock makes full use of modern forensic methods, all of which help him gather evidence at top speed.
And (can you believe it!) the man whom Father Knox called “one of the world’s great smokers” now uses nicotine patches instead. Thus a “three pipe problem” has become a “three patch problem”!
For those who missed it, the series stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes, Martin Freeman as John Watson and Rupert Graves as Inspector Lestrade. It aired in the U.S. last fall on PBS Masterpiece Theater.
Each episode is 90 minutes, with the third ending in a frustrating cliffhanger. More episodes are promised, but not until some time this fall.
In an interview, writer Moffat explained they wanted to “blow the fog” away from Holmes. The Canon, after all, is about adventure, not gas lamps and crinoline, he said.
Devotees have always believed their hero can never die. He is an archetype, both ageless and timeless, so bringing him alive in the present day was an idea long overdue.
As Moffat said: “Holmes hasn’t grown old – his times did.”
The chemistry between Cumberbatch and Freeman is perfect and Graves is fine as the perpetually befuddled Lestrade
The series is not without flaws.
One may be that it is almost too loyal to the Canon. Doyle’s tales were exciting for his time, but may seem a tad tame compared to today’s non-stop action standards.
The new series is fueled too much by the speculation of Sherlock being gay, rather than the fact that he finds solving intriguing puzzles more orgasmic than sex.
As one reviewer put it, the “he’s not gay but let’s hint that he is” joke can only be pulled so many times before it becomes childish.
Another reviewer opined that the show turns Sherlock into a certified “nut job” – a bit too heartless, self-centered and obsessive.
There are merits to these complaints.
Yet Cumberbatch makes a superb Holmes. At 34, he may be the youngest to take the role – closer in age to what Holmes really would be at the beginning of his career.
Based on interviews I’ve seen, in real life Cumberbatch seems rather a mild-mannered fellow and his natural hair color is red.
Done up as Sherlock, he is imposing to look at: Tall, slender, with his hair dyed black and grown out into a shock of curls. He possesses chiseled cheekbones and extraordinary, almost preternatural eyes – light gray, luminous and piercing.
This image in place, he dominates every scene, very much the masterful detective I always imagined Sherlock to be. His getup facilitates this. He practically lives inside a classic, frock-like tweed coat with a high collar that flows and swirls around him.
This coat has sparked a sensation. Designed by a company in Wales, it was out of production, but due to fan clamor, is being made again for the cool price of 1,350 pounds! That’s about $2,700 in U.S. dollars.
If I saw someone walking down the street in Sherlock’s coat, my deductive reasoning would tell me “very rich geek.”
Being of a more scholarly bent, I appreciated the Canonical references and inside jokes contained in the first three episodes, during which John and Sherlock meet and develop their legendary partnership.
The first episode “A Study in Pink” mirrors the first Holmes novella “A Study in Scarlet.” The crime takes place in an abandoned house on Brixton Road; it is a poisoning and the perpetrator is a cab driver.
As in the Canon, John:
– is an army doctor invalided home from Afghanistan (things haven’t changed much in a century, have they?).
– has absolutely nothing exciting going on in his life, living in a plain hotel room and wallowing in what his psychiatrist claims is post traumatic stress. He even has “a psychosomatic limp” and relies on a cane.
– is introduced to Sherlock via Stamford at St. Bart’s Hospital.
Another parallel is viewers’ first introduction to Sherlock, furiously beating a fresh corpse in a morgue to see how far bruises develop after death.
Unlike the canon, which has Holmes and Watson living together for some time before Holmes explains his line of work, Sherlock is called to the crime scene while the pair is first looking at the flat they could potentially share at 221B Baker Street.
John tags along and from that point on his boring, self-absorbed life is turned inside out.
There is a neat twist over the message, “Rache,” found at the scene.
In the Canon, Inspector Lestrade speculates the killer meant to write the name Rachel, but was disturbed before he had a chance to finish. Holmes scoffs at him, saying the killer had written the German word for “revenge.”
In this new version, the murder victim scratches “Rache” on the floor with her fingernails before dying. The head of the forensics team (who detests Sherlock) speculates the victim tried to write the German word for revenge.
Sherlock scoffs at him, claiming she intended to write the name Rachel.
Apart from Lestrade, Sherlock has few fans among the Scotland Yard regulars. One police sergeant routinely addresses him as “freak,” a running gag, and warns John (who barely knows him at this point) that he is a psychopath who “gets off” on crime scenes.
Sherlock later denies this, stating, “I’m not a psychopath I’m a high functioning sociopath. Do your research.”
This is a shocking characterization. A sociopath is defined as having “an abnormal lack of empathy combined with abnormally immoral conduct.” While he may lack empathy, I don’t recall Holmes engaging in immoral conduct.
In the Canon, Watson says of Holmes, “Without having a tinge of cruelty in his singular composition, he was undoubtedly callous from long over-stimulation.”
Not quite the same as being a sociopath – but I digress.
On the way to the crime scene, Sherlock’s pride is pricked by John’s comment that police don’t consult amateurs. He responds with a shotgun string of deductions based not on John’s pocket watch, as in the Canon, but his cell phone.
In classic Watson style, John exclaims that he finds these deductions amazing.
Sherlock is taken aback and responds, “That’s not what most people say.”
“What do most people say?”
“They say ‘Piss off!’” replies Sherlock, a comment that John finds highly amusing.
John realizes he has met an extraordinary person and decides to stick around, despite repeated warnings given him that Sherlock is really weird and potentially dangerous.
On Sherlock’s side, John is among the few people in his life that seems to appreciate his skill. Instead of “freak” and “psychopath,” to John he is “brilliant” and “amazing.”
Sherlock hardly spares John’s feelings, calling him an “idiot” at one point. But he loves the positive feedback John awards to him!
During a frenzied chase after a taxi they believe contains the murderer, John realizes his limp truly is psychosomatic and abandons his cane. He also realizes he will be moving in with this beyond-the-box thinker, who fascinates him.
In the end, it is actually John who rescues Sherlock from his own recklessness. And Sherlock learns from the murderer that he has a “fan.”
Can you perhaps guess his name?
The second episode reveals more about these new incarnations.
Critics panned this second episode severely, but I’m not interested in its oft-repeated plot flaws, only its character development and relation to the Canon.
In it our duo must decipher a code based on a book. The trick is finding the book. Sound familiar from “The Valley of Fear”?
This time they are tracking a gang of Chinese smugglers, rather than an American gang.
As in “Sign of Four,” the bad guys are looking for a lost treasure; the murderer climbs walls and rooftops to break in and kill his victims; and John gets a girl out of it in the end.
As for Sherlock, we learn that when he is on a case he doesn’t eat, he doesn’t sleep and he doesn’t stop. It is obvious he has entirely hijacked John for his own purposes, meaning that poor John doesn’t get to eat, or sleep or quit either.
It opens with Sherlock receiving an email from a man he knew in college who now is an affluent banker. It may be remembered in “The Musgrave Ritual,” Holmes told Watson many of his early cases came through fellow students at college.
At the bank, Sherlock deduces his client has been around the world twice in the past month. His client laughs and says, “You’re doing that trick again.”
“It’s not a trick,” Sherlock seethes.
Sherlock looks genuinely hurt when his client tells John how he and his pals “all hated him” because he always knew “whom they’d been shagging the night before.”
“I merely observed,” Sherlock mutters.
In “Gloria Scott,” Holmes intimates that he “was never a very social fellow at college, not mixing much with the men of my year.”
I’ve always suspected he wasn’t very popular. While he might not “give a friend a pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid,” I can see him springing uncomfortable observations on people. Not “out of malevolence,” but because to him they were obvious- second nature.
Obvious or not, I don’t imagine this would go over too well. My guess is the writer of this episode held the same view, which is why he included this scene.
After teasing Sherlock further about his “tricks,” the banker explains a burglar has left a coded message spray painted on the wall of an office. He offers Sherlock 25,000 pounds to find the security leak and writes out a 5,000-pound advance check.
Still annoyed by the teasing, Sherlock proclaims pompously, “I don’t need an incentive,” and stalks off.
John – still unemployed – offers to “look after” the advance check.
Their initial inquiries uncover the first murder, of course.
Some critics complained because the inspector in this case was not Lestrade, but a newcomer named Lukis. This is in keeping with the Canon. In “Sign of Four,” the inspector wasn’t Lestrade, either, but a chap named Athelney Jones.
Similar to Jones, this new inspector starts out hostile to Sherlock. Midway through the episode, after all Sherlock’s deductions prove correct, he’s eating out of his hand.
At the end, in classic pay-it-forward style, Sherlock hands all the credit over to Lukis and tells him he has a brilliant career before him.
“I go where you point me,” replies Lukis.
“Exactly,” Sherlock mutters as he walks away.
As for the girl, in this version her name is Sarah, not Mary. John meets her while applying for a part-time job at a local health clinic. Because Sherlock has kept him up all night working on the case, he falls asleep in his office his first day at work!
Despite this lapse of professionalism, Sarah, the doctor who hired him, agrees to go out on a date.
Sherlock couldn’t be more beside himself when he learns that John is abandoning him for something so “dull.” He talks him into taking Sarah to a Chinese circus. Sarah is delighted, but John isn’t when he learns Sherlock has invited himself along.
Sherlock not only is convinced the members of this circus are the gang he is after, but there is no way he’s taking his tenterhooks out of John, girlfriend or no girlfriend.
The entertainment comes to a premature conclusion with a fight between the gang members and Sherlock, with John and even Sarah joining in (she’s a rum gal).
Much to Sherlock’s resentment, Sarah trails them back to the flat and it’s actually Sarah who notices a clue that sends Sherlock racing into the streets to find the book they need to decode the message.
By the time he returns, decoded message in hand, the gang has kidnapped both John and Sarah. The look on his face certainly suggests genuine concern and that he may not be as much a sociopath as he claims to be.
As in the first episode, it actually is John who saves the day, killing a gang member who is strangling Sherlock, even though being hogtied to a chair. When all is over, he assures Sarah their next date “won’t be like this.”
In the final scene we learn someone with the initial “M” masterminded this crime, too.
Which brings us to the final episode.
Critics raved about this sequence, and for very good reason. After a somewhat slow start, it moves at a breathtaking pace. It concerns an anonymous bomber, who has taken a keen interest in Sherlock and his methods.
Sherlock is set the task of solving five cases on a deadline, or the bomber will blow up innocent hostages along with anyone who happens to be near them.
The bomber communicates with Sherlock through the hostages via cell phone and Sherlock communicates with the bomber via his website.
The main Canonical reference is a fairly loyal retelling of “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” complete with Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, played by writer Gatiss.
Mycroft and Sherlock are shown as being quite at odds with each other with serious sibling rivalry going on, unlike the original Canon. Since Gatiss is quite thin, Sherlock’s inquiry of, “How’s the diet?” becomes a running gag.
There are only a few other Canonical references to giggle over.
At the start, we witness an amusing reworking of Sherlock shooting at the wall of their flat out of sheer boredom. Having been without a case for too long, he petulantly whines, “All that matters is the work. Without it, my brain rots!”
He chides John on his write-up of the “Study in Pink,” on his blog, mainly because John mentioned Sherlock’s lack of knowledge of the solar system.
In an updating of the Canonical moment, Sherlock points at his head and states, “This is my HARD DRIVE and it only makes sense to put things in it that are really useful. If I ever did know (about the solar system) I’ve deleted it.”
The argument ends with John stalking out of the flat, hurt and disgusted. He spends the night at Sarah’s. Even though he sleeps on the couch, at least he has somewhere to go when his flat mate becomes too beastly.
All is forgiven the next morning when John races home having learned that the building across the street has blown up. Once the real action begins, he’s at Sherlock’s side once more, Sherlock informing him that, “I’d be lost without my blogger.”
The action doesn’t let up until the end when…
Well. For those who haven’t viewed the series, we’ll leave it to the imagination.
My favorite puzzle in this episode is the unknown body lying on the bank of the Thames.
After a close examination and a series of rapid consultations on his ever-present smart phone, Sherlock proclaims, “That rediscovered Vermeer painting is a fake.”
How classic. The master, as usual, reaching a seemingly incongruous conclusion in a matter of moments based on a series of small inferences.
After explaining how he did it, John exclaims, “Brilliant!” Sherlock mutters, “meretricious” and Lestrade, in a throwaway line says, “And a Happy New Year!”
Although I feel it oversteps some boundaries, my deerstalker still is off to Stephen Moffat and Mark Gattis for bringing John and Sherlock back to life and making them cutting edge and entertaining while still capturing the essence of the Canon.
It will be hard to wait for three new episodes this fall.
Review by MEW, January 2011
About the Writer: The lady known by the acronymical name, MEW, lives in southern Michigan in a small town on the shores of Lake Huron. (Using Michiganian geo-manual designations, we call her location “the knuckle of the thumb”. McMurdo’s Camp, on the other hand, is at the “tip of the ring finger”.)
At the age of 12, MEW began a decades-long interest in the great detective by sneaking looks at her parents’ copy of Return. Before long, there were trips to the library for more, followed by an allowance-busting purchase of the entire Canon. MEW describes her life-long obsession with the world’s best-known literary icon as having waxed and waned, rather like a medical syndrome that has active and recessive stages.