Update Sherlock Holmes? Do the stories not the trappings? The problem with a project like this is just how much do you keep and how much do you lose?
It’s bound to upset some of the hardcore Holmes nerds. We love our Victorian Gothic, the cobbled streets, the deerstalker and the pipe. The adaptations can’t be too faithful. The canon is the gospel, and the best Holmes is Clive Merrison. All of which is rubbish, of course (except for that Merrison being the best); if I’m going to enjoy an adaptation then it had better provide something that reading the stories can’t; and Moffatt has clearly clearly chosen to focus on the core relationships in the stories – as he said on Newsnight “The surface is the detection Underneath is the friendship.”
Sherlock was born out of a conversation Moffatt and Gatiss repeatedly had on the train from Cardiff about doing a modern day Sherlock Holmes: “Do the stories not the trappings”. But when he said “Someone should do that, and it’s really annoying because it should be us” he seemingly ignores the fact that some already has, with great success, in one of my favourite shows. Indeed, taking the point “the surface is detection” the writers of House abandoned the crime elements of the source material completely, abstracting the characters relationships one level further (and slightly changing the names, albeit not beyond recognition). In comparison to that show, Sherlock is positively traditional. It not only retains the names and professions of the characters (and even Watson’s service in Afghanistan) it actually takes much of its storyline from the work of Conan Doyle.
A Study in Scarlet is not an obvious choice for opening the new series, because although it is the first story and details Holmes and Watson’s meeting, it is commonplace to wait for the second season of the modern TV series to do the “origins” story and to give viewers and immediate taste of the relationship between the characters at the core of the show. It’s not an ideal choice either because it’s nowhere near as fun or scary as some of the later, shorter pieces. In his review, Sam Wollaston points out that A Study in Pink is less scary than The Speckled Band. This is true, but then so are most things, the novel A Study in Scarlet among them. Moffatt, who wrote this opener, then plays fast and loose with the plot. As I’m not a particular fan of the original, this may not seem like a great lost, but to use some of it invites comparison, and some changes do not seem improvements. Why make the villain’s motivation financial rather than personal (the revenge of the original)? This is far less convincing, and has the appearance of being contrived to allow another adversary (from another of the weakest stories) to be built up; although quite why paying someone to commit random killings would enhance their credibility “criminal mastermind” is not yet clear…
All of which is silly quibbling, really. Despite the slow opening (perhaps an inevitable result of telling this story of the friends’ meeting) once Cumberbatch appeared as Holmes I was completely absorbed; I even began (guiltily, as I like Matt Smith) to wish Cumberbatch had been cast as the eleventh Doctor (this has past now; as I am convinced he would be even better as the Master). There are plenty of similarities between Holmes and the Doctor; the brilliance, the otherness and the apparent total lack of interest in the opposite sex – although it’s odd that Holmes appears to be oblivious that he has been asked on a date whilst instantly spotting a liaison between two police colleagues. In this he once again irresistibly reminded me of House (and his fascination with people); perhaps there is a little influence from that show (even though it’s Watson who gets it, there’s a lot of business with a cane much like House’s). Freeman, too, is near perfect and nails Watson’s character without being patronising or comical in it. The womanising is perhaps a little played down, so far, bar one half-hearted effort to chat up Mycroft’s driver.
Speaking of Mycroft, this is another addition that feels unnecessary. To those who know him, it was immediately obvious who he was going to be (he’s far too thin, but the apparent omniscience in calling phones near Watson, the “government” suit and the fact he stayed put and had Watson brought to him suggested only one person) but he played no role in this story and the again the reveal felt contrived.
One thing central element of the original stories that has presumably been jettisoned is the role played by the detective’s client. In the update, Holmes has become a self-styled “consulting” detective where in the original the client was the character who (in Homes and Watson’s reactions to them) drove the story; much as the patients do in House.
In keeping the characters in their traditional roles (detective and doctor) the science of detection is of vital importance. There is perhaps a little to much emphasis on the forensic (Conan Doyle may have been ahead of his time in this, but this modern Holmes is not about DNA and fingerprints but about making deductions based on observing that which others have missed). The deductive flourishes are quite properly given centre stage. Holmes’ fondness for texting is reminiscent of the telegrams in the originals, another nice and rather traditional touch; although the text is somewhat distracting while he is examining the crime scene (and unnecessary since he explains it all verbally and repetitively immediately afterwards – why not just cut the audio of this with the video of the examination?) But the only time the updating appears to be in danger of becoming itself just a new set of (21st century) trappings is with the gimmicky “find my phone” function of the iPhone – sorry, mePhone; I thought the direct rooftop chase of the taxi was a far more timeless kind of thrill.
Ultimately, I’m not sure that Sherlock really does shake off the trappings of the original stories altogether; though there’s nothing wrong with that when the show is this good. The writing and the performances feel very faithful to the central relationships regardless; and it will be interesting to see if and how the remaining stories deal with Conan Doyle’s original material. I’m looking forward to Sunday, and still disappointed there are only two more episodes.