Monday, November 8, 2010


The past few weeks PBS aired the three episodes of Sherlock on their anthology series Masterpiece (under that show's Mystery! heading, once its own series). For those of you who have never heard of Sherlock, it is a show which updates Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson to the 21st century. It aired on BBC One in July and August. This October and November it made its American debut on Masterpiece.

Of course, Sherlock is not the first time that the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson have been updated to contemporary times. There was a time when nearly every adaptation of Sherlock Holmes movie was set in the modern era; then again, given Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the last Holmes story in 1927 ("The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place", only those films made in the Thirties can truly be said to be anachronistic. It would not be until 20th Century Fox's classic adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce,. that Sherlock Holmes would be placed in the Victorian milieu with which we generally identify him. Surprisingly, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce would also star in the first movie in which Holmes and Watson were truly updated to the contemporary era. Beginning with Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), the classic Universal Sherlock Holmes series placed the pair to the World War II era. Since that time nearly every adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, either to film or television, has placed the detective in the Victorian Era. In fact, Sherlock is the first TV show to place Holmes and Watson in a contemporary milieu.

Sherlock was developed by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, both veterans of Dr. Who. Mr. Moffat had also written for the series Coupling, while Mr. Gatiss has written for The League of Gentlmen and adapted H. G. Wells' First Men in the Moon for the BBC. It was during their train trips from London to Cardiff (where production for Dr. Who is located) that the two, both Holmes fans, discussed updating the detective. Finally they discussed idea with producer Sue Vertue, Mr. Moffat's wife. The series was produced by Hartswood Films, BBC Wales, and WGBH (the Boston PBS station responsible for Masterpiece). Benedict Cumberbatch, who has appeared in films from Amazing Grace (2006) to Creation (2009) was cast as Holmes. Martin Freeman, who had played Arthur Dent in the movie adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005), was cast as Dr. Watson.

For those who may be doubtful about the success of a Holmes updated to the 20th Century, there is no need for concern. In many respects Sherlock is more loyal to the Holmes of the Canon than most of the recent adaptations in the Victoria Era. Benedict Cumberland's Sherlock Holmes is bohemian in the same way the Holmes of the Canon was, his flat at 221B Baker Street is a bit of a mess, while Holmes himself clearly dresses for comfort and practicality rather than fashion. Like the Holmes of the Canon, the Holmes of Sherlock is also sorely lacking in interpersonal skills. He is cold and unemotional, displaying little concern for his fellow man. He is forthright in his words to the point of being rude. The only thing that keeps Holmes from being an egomaniac is that he is quite right that he has a keen intellect sharper than the average police officer. At the same time, however, there can be no doubt that Holmes is a brilliant detective. In an instant he can pick up on details that the average person misses, and in a matter of no time come to a conclusion based on those details. His skill at deduction is unmatched.

Just as the Holmes of Sherlock is very much in keeping with the Canon, so too is Mr. Freeman's Watson. Just as the Dr. John Watson of the Canon, the Watson of Sherlock served in the military and was wounded in battle. Just as the Watson of the Canon was intelligent and capable, so too is the Watson of the Canon. Both tend to be much more ethical and moral in their outlook than Holmes, and both have the compassion for their fellow man that Holmes sorely lacks. Just as the Dr. Watson of the Cannon published accounts of Holmes' adventures as short stories, the Dr. Watson of Sherlock chronicles the pair's adventures on his blog.

One of the taglines of the series is "Other detectives have cases, Sherlock Holmes has adventures," and in this respect the show is much loyal to the Canon than previous Holmes series. The three episodes aired so far adapted two of the classic Holmes stories, "A Study in Scarlet" and "The Dancing Men," while the third is an original episode that captures the flavour of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories perfectly. Each of the three stories feature a bizarre, seemingly unsolvable mystery, a nefarious plot, and villains who would make the average Bond villain seem pale in comparison. Over all, Sherlock does very well in capturing the bigger than life feel of Mr. Conan Doyle's work.

A second series of three episodes of Sherlock is set to air in the United Kingdom in autumn 2011. There is no word yet on when they will air Stateside (although that they will is pretty much a given). In the meantime the series is available to watch at PBS' Masterpiece site until December 7. The series is also available on DVD in both Regions 1 and 2. If you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes, a fan of good mysteries, or a fan of rousing adventure stories, I urge you to check Sherlock out. You won't be disappointed.

1 comment:

Toby O'B said...

I've been a fan of Cumberbatch since he played Hugh Laurie's son in "Fortysomething". My excitement over the news of this series was met by the series itself, not a moment disappoints.

Of course it plays hob with my Toobworld concept, but I gladly put that aside for the enjoyment. This was genius!