Sunday, December 5, 2010

2010: the year of the consulting detective

A few months ago I heard that BBC was producing a miniseries called Sherlock.  Its premise?  Take Sherlock Holmes, Dr. John Watson, and other characters associated with the famous consulting detective from their late 19th century setting of swirling London fogs and transport them to 2010 London, laden with cell phones and forensic science.

I had heard about it, but after the spectacular success of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, I wasn't too eager to give the series a try.  I had already had my Holmes "fix," so to speak, and besides, I've seen enough TV characters who resemble a modern-day Holmes:  Dr. Gregory House from House, M.D. and Law & Order: Criminal Intent's Detective Robert Goren, to name a few.  I would even go so far as to compare Bones's Dr. Temperance Brennan's logical methods as a forensic anthropologist to the Victorian consulting detective's own focus on logic for solving cases.

But what could yet another modern take on Holmes bring to the table that hasn't already been presented?  So I chose to let the series alone.

A few weeks ago, however, one of the regulars at the coffee shop where I work on Saturday mornings raved about the miniseries.  He went on about its merits and introduced enough details that I became fully intrigued.  So when I finally installed internet in my apartment around Thanksgiving, I looked up the miniseries.  One week later I watched the first 90-minute episode.

I have since finished the entire three-episode miniseries, and I must say that I am blown away. BBC managed to remain truly faithful to the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Watson while putting their own modern spin on things.  Not that they actually had to try very hard to do so.

image source: BBC One
The series' first episode, "A Study in Pink," starts out nearly identical to the first Sherlock Holmes mystery, "A Study in Scarlet."  Dr. John H. Watson, recently wounded while serving in Afghanistan, needs a roommate.  A mutual acquaintance introduces him to Sherlock Holmes, a consulting detective (who, at the time of the meeting, has just finished beating a corpse to see how it would bruise postmortem).  Sherlock is also looking for a roommate.  A perfectly modern situation.

Then Sherlock is invited by New Scotland Yard to investigate an apparent suicide where the victim has written "Rache" into the wood of the spot where she died.  And then the real fun begins.

The differences between 19th century Holmes and his modern-day counterpart are often subtle.  Holmes and Watson go by their first names in the present day instead of their surnames.  Instead of smoking a pipe while he ponders a mystery, Sherlock sticks nicotine patches on himself.  He makes extensive use of cell phone technology to text others, locate murderers via GPS, or look up small details that the Victorian Holmes would have looked up in the encyclopedia.  The modern Sherlock even shoots a smiley face into a wall during a fit of boredom, while the 19th century one chose to decorate with a "V."

There are a few blaring differences.  The modern Sherlock Holmes can be extremely lazy when he is occupied on a case.  He often makes John text people for him, or hand him a cell phone that is three feet away or even in Sherlock's own coat pocket.  The modern Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard appears to have the greatest respect for Sherlock, while the Lestrade of the 1890s often lost his temper and tried to flaunt his "abilities" as a detective in front of Holmes.  Also, Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's brother, is not the anti-social member of the Diogenes Club of the Victorian era, but a very influential British civil servant who often uses the resources at his disposal to keep tabs on his younger brother.

The miniseries was done extremely well.  Modern twists include constant comments made by many characters alluding to their own opinions that John and Sherlock are homosexuals who are dating each other.  Since John is in a heterosexual relationship by the third episode and Sherlock remains as asexual as the Holmes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, fans of the consulting detective may not be as offended as they were by the "bromance" displayed in Guy Ritchie's portrayal of Holmes and Watson. Modern John Watson is also a blogger who writes about his adventures with Sherlock online.

While I was not exactly a fan of how the first mystery was resolved, the second and third episodes were thrilling displays of Holmes' own abilities to solve problems.  The third episode ended on an amazing cliffhanger.  Apparently this cliffhanger will be resolved by BBC, because they plan to produce three more episodes.  While that might please many fans of the series, I hope that they don't extend the show to too many more episodes.  The first three episodes were excellent, but too many more may ruin the Doyle-esque purity that the writers and actor Benedict Cumberbatch have created in the character of the modern Sherlock.  Besides, I don't know if television would be greatly improved by yet another crime show, or the permanent presence of another TV Sherlock Holmes. 

If truth be told, however, I would not mind for the series to have ended on the note it did during that third episode.  It would truly be what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have wanted when he wrote "The Final Problem."

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