Monday, June 4, 2012

Michael5000 v. Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock, first season
BBC, 2010

I’ve never had any problem with the proverbial man who goes into a room with three books and comes out with four, given that the book he writes while he's in the room is a good one. There’s nothing wrong with synthesis; it’s a way that many good things are brought into the world, including, come to think of it, individual human beings.

The BBC makes no attempt to hide the three books it took into the room to write Sherlock: they are the venerable TV serial Dr. Who, the 1990s TV serial The X Files, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sprawling corpus of Sherlock Holmes tales. If it wasn’t for direct quotations – names and so on – of the last of these, the Dr. Who influence would be the most obvious. The “new sleuth for the 21st century,” per the DVD cover, is essentially the New New Doctor, an ascerbic, scruffy, vaguely foolish genius with an ego the size of all outdoors: “I’m not a psychopath,” he snaps in the first episode, “I’m a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research!” He insults, bemuses, and casts an unlikely spell of personal charm on his Companions in their episodic adventures, bossing them relentlessly and failing to notice that they are regularly saving his bacon. The Beeb was not unwise to create a parallel product for Dr. Who; Sherlock was essentially launched for a ready-made fan base. The show's title music, a variation on the Dr. Who theme, is a tip of the hat; the marketing blurb on the back of the DVD case highlights the continuity of the creative team between the two shows with exclamation points, just in case anybody failed to make the connection.

The influence of the X-Files is less overt, but no less palpable. Indeed, it was perhaps unavoidable, since the very concept of Sherlock invokes the precedent, pairing a brilliant misfit lateral thinker with a rationalist doctor to investigate uncanny crimes and circumstances.  Having gone that far, Sherlock immediately signals its intention to bring on board a ponderous “mythology” of sinister controlling forces behind the scenes. Already by the end of the first episode, we’ve got both Holmes’ brother Mycroft (who “IS the British government”) and the mysterious Moriarty, each of whom clearly has vast resources and a deep interest in what Mr. Holmes is up to. Both of these characters are out of Conan Doyle, of course, but the notion of deep conspiracy that may, or may not, be manipulating the protagonist into using his energies and competence against himself, or something, maybe, is pure X-Files. The Smoking Man is lurking somewhere just off camera.

The Conan Doyle material is used and modified with considerable creativity, wit, and flair.

The writers and producers of Sherlock, happily, have attended to the most important element of making Sherlock Holmes viable in a modern setting and to a modern audience: they have made him fallible. This is important. The method of Sherlock Holmes (in any incarnation) is famously not “deduction,” but neither is it induction. It is, rather, close observation followed by audacious guessing. In real life, somebody couldn’t really employ this method past a certain point just by being sharper or less distractible than everyone else; he would just have to be luckier than everybody else. Sherlock lets its version of Holmes get it right most of the time, which is eminently reasonable: Sherlock Holmes was one of the first fictional sleuths, but he was also one of the first superheroes, and he is only a coherent character with his superpower intact. By letting him slip up here and there on the details, though, this adaptation maintains a tenable connection between its world and the world we live in.

Except, there is an enormous difference between the two worlds: In Sherlock, everything is the same as it is here, except that there was no Sherlock Holmes. 221B Baker Street is not a tourist destination, no one has ever been referred to as someone else's "Watson," and a man called “Sherlock Holmes” can go around freely with no one remarking on his name. You can enter his name in a search engine and find him, rather than the 122,000,000 hits about the literary figure that Google can find in .24 seconds in our world. This actually makes the world of Sherlock a fairly significant alternative reality, as Sherlock Holmes is a very, very deeply embedded point of reference in the English-speaking world and beyond. Try imagine living in a world in which you’d never heard of Sherlock Holmes.  Compare that with a world where no one had ever discovered, say, Neptune and Uranus. Or Antarctica. Or Denmark. I think you’ll find, unless you are a Dane, that life without Sherlock Holmes is harder to imagine. I was disappointed that, in these first-season episodes, the makers of Sherlock didn't see fit to exploit this disparity between their world and ours. Not that I see how they could, exactly, but they’re supposed to be the clever creative ones.

I expected to love Sherlock, but I liked it. There are two – but only two – specific things about the show that rub me the wrong way. The first is fairly minor – the appearance of words on the screen to show us what Holmes is thinking or what people are seeing on their cell phones. It’s a silly contrivance, and it's essentially a confession that a scene couldn’t be adequately planned, scripted, or acted in such a way that it could carry the story's weight. The second is a more significant thing: the episodes are too damn long. They are movie length, but they are not self-contained enough to function as movies. Serial television comes in half-hour and one-hour packets, and for Sherlock to ask us to sit still for a full British hour-and-a-half feels like a presumption. After an hour, I’m ready to get on with my life. But, like Watson with Sherlock in the early going, I am willing to put up with Sherlock on a trial basis despite the irritating idiosyncrasies, and for the same reason. I’m curious to see what happens next.


Rebel said...

It's interesting that you compare it to both Dr. Who and the X-files. Those are two of my favorite shows, but I have not been able to get into Sherlock at all. I think part of it is because in the other shows, the audience at least has a chance to figure things out with the protagonists, you get to follow their thought pattern to some degree. With Sherlock it's all mystery mystery mystery and then Holmes pipes up with "Well, obviously this is what happened, weren't you paying attention?"

I don't really like it when the protagonist makes me feel stupid.

Michael5000 said...

I see your point, Rebel, although you're the only person I've ever met who had the slightest idea what was "really" going on in the X-Files. (I was going to say "nobody ever knew," then I remembered.) Mitigating factor: Conan Doyle was the same way, at least in his early stories. The convention that the reader should have at least a chance to guess about the bad guy hadn't been invented yet.