Ahead of BBC1’s rerun of season two of Sherlock (Friday, 8.30pm), I’m reposting my reviews of season one, starting with the opening episode.
Seriously, does Steven Moffat secretly possess a TARDIS for his own personal use? Not content with taking over the reins as show-runner of Doctor Who and writing six of season five’s 13 episodes himself, he now brings us an up-to-date adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories, co-written with Mark Gatiss, best known as one of the creators of The League of Gentlemen.
Background and history
It helps that this new production has been kept in the family, with Moffat’s wife and mother-in-law Sue and Beryl Vertue serving as producer and executive producer respectively via the trio’s production company Hartswood Films (which has an envious track record, having also produced Jekyll, Men Behaving Badly and the Moffat-penned sitcom Coupling).
Of course, this isn’t the first time Holmes and Watson have been brought to our screens. Many refer to the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films of the 1940s as the definitive version. (Yes, Holmes did exist on film before Robert Downey Jr.) I grew up with the Jeremy Brett/David Burke TV version of the late-80s, so that is my main reference point.
And many other distinguished actors have played Holmes on film or TV during their careers. To name but a few: Christopher Lee, Peter O’Toole, Patrick Macnee, Charlton Heston, Edward Woodward, Peter Cushing and Tom Baker. (We’ll ignore Michael Caine‘s turn in Without a Clue, shall we?) That’s quite a list!
A 19th century story, 21st century-style
The story unfolds at a cracking pace, bringing Holmes and Watson together for the first time via a mutual friend, exposing the latter first-hand to Holmes’ impressive powers of deduction and seeing them move into their new digs together at 221B Baker Street.
(Fact geeks: the exterior used in the programme is not the real 221B, which in real life is now the Sherlock Holmes Museum. Indeed, it is not even Baker Street, as the establishing shot clearly shows cars facing in both directions – in reality, it is a one-way street.)
Having set up the two main characters, the middle 40 minutes sees Watson being drawn into Holmes’s investigation of the ‘Impossible Suicides’, and here the episode really hits its stride, with Sherlock’s incisive dissection of the latest victim’s identity triggering a whirlwind of deduction and set-piece action (the rooftop/back-street pursuit of a black cab) that moves the main plot on at breakneck speed while also resolving the side-issue of Watson’s psychosomatic limp. And this all manages to give the final revelation, explanation and psychological showdown between Holmes and Jeff the cabbie (a chilling turn by Philip Davis) the space it needs to breathe in a denouement which benefits greatly from not being rushed.
What else? Stylistically, I really liked the use of floating on-screen text as a fast-cut way of conveying both text messages (the modern Holmes’ preferred method of communication, as opposed to the telegraphs and newspaper ads of the original) and the train of Holmes’ deductive reasoning. It is effective, avoids lengthy plot exposition and gives the series a signature visual look.
Benedict Cumberbatch looks every inch the 21st century version of the imperious, Victorian Holmes. While his look carries a hint of a bygone era, he brings a wild, youthful energy to the character without compromising the darker aspects of intolerance, impatience and impulsiveness mixed with a certain social awkwardness which are quintessential Holmes.
In many respects, this Holmes comes across not totally unlike Matt Smith‘s interpretation of the eponymous Doctor Who – a lanky, misunderstood genius who doesn’t quite appear normal, but you just can’t figure out why. It is no surprise that Cumberbatch is said to have been offered the role of the last Time Lord, but turned it down.
Equally important is the chemistry between Holmes and Watson, and Martin Freeman seems to fit this role perfectly, having made his reputation playing put-upon, straight-men in The Office and the film adaptation of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Freeman conveys greater expression with a raised eyebrow than perhaps any actor since the height of Roger Moore‘s James Bond, and his deadpan reactions provide a wonderful surface off which to bounce the humour which infuses this episode far more than in previous adaptations.
I’m a little less sure about Gatiss’s (uncredited) appearance as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, which looks set to be a recurring role to provide some ongoing – and possibly distracting – mystery alongside the presumably slow-burning revelation of Moriarty. Rupert Graves is excellent as DI Lestrade, the policeman repeatedly forced to play a subservient role to Holmes’ genius, and who is as much in awe of him as he is offended by him.
In reversioning the characters and settings for a contemporary world, Moffat and Gatiss have remained true to their protagonists’ origins, while injecting a vein of humour lacking in many previous incarnations. Holmes remains, by his own description, “a high-functioning sociopath” – an abrasive, combustible, adrenalin junkie who is constantly amazed at the inability of other people to see the world as clearly as he does. His drug habit – in the books, he uses a seven percent solution of cocaine to alleviate the boredom between cases – is glossed over slightly with the use of nicotine patches, but the addictive, danger-fuelled nature of his personality is addressed squarely within the plot to redress the balance somewhat. (And it must be remembered that cocaine usage, while frowned upon by the original Watson, was not illegal in Victorian times.)
Or, as one of my friends put it while drawing parallels between Holmes and Hugh Laurie’s titular character in House, Sherlock is “a cynical know-it-all drug addict who has no mates”. (The similarities between House and Holmes are not uncoincidental – the former even lives in apartment 221B.)
Assuaging the fears of many fans, Sherlock works very much within the spirit of Conan Doyle’s original, and stands alongside but separate to procedural dramas such as the CSI family, NCIS or Law & Order. As Moffat says:
Sherlock Holmes is one of a kind: whilst other detectives have cases, Holmes has adventures. Sherlock isn’t a drama about police procedure; the police are involved but the cases themselves are Sherlock’s and he’s only interested in the strange ones.
As what was effectively a retelling of the story of Holmes’ origins, this was a cracking launch episode, and bodes well for the remaining two stories in this three-part mini-series. I’m looking forward to the next one immensely.
A Study in Scarlet: A few notes
The episode’s title is a play on the title of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet (originally titled A Tangled Skein), first published in 1887. The book’s title relates to a speech Holmes gives to Watson explaining the nature of his work, in which he refers to the murder investigation as a “study in scarlet”:
There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.
Obviously, the story has been significantly revised and updated from the original, and while (unlike, say, Harry Potter) it is not necessary to have read the novel, viewers familiar with the book will recognise several key elements, although some have been transposed or even turned entirely on their head. Here are a few examples off the top of my head:
- The original Watson was an army doctor invalided from war in Afghanistan after sustaining a gunshot wound; the modern-day version has the exact same background – same location, different conflicts.
- Many of the Holmes stories are narrated through the medium of Watson’s diary; similarly, it is established in this series that Watson has been asked to maintain a personal blog by his therapist.
- In one early scene, Holmes is seen flaying a corpse with a riding crop while testing out a theory. In the novels, Holmes is frequently seen carrying one and even describes it as his favourite weapon.
- Lauriston Gardens in Brixton is the venue for the key murder in the story, although in the book the victim is a man, Enoch Drebber, rather than a woman, Jennifer Wilson.
- Holmes uses a miniature magnifying glass to examine the woman’s body. A Study in Scarlet is credited as being the first fictional work to use such a tool as an aid to criminal investigations.
- Before dying, Jennifer scratched the letters ‘RACHE’ into the wooden floor, which we see Holmes note is the German for ‘revenge’, before concluding that she was trying to spell out ‘Rachel’. In the original story, Lestrade incorrectly assumes this is meant to be ‘Rachel’, but Holmes points out the word was indeed intended to be ‘Rache’.
- In the TV version, Holmes attempts to draw out the killer by sending a text message to the victim’s mobile about her suitcase; in the book, he places a newspaper advertisement for a missing wedding ring.
- In both instances the killer’s victims are asked to choose between two apparently identical pills – one poisoned, the other harmless.
- The killer is ultimately revealed to be a taxi driver (unnamed in the episode, but listed as ‘Jeff’ in the credits). In the original book, the killer is Jefferson Hope, a cabbie. In both cases, he is dying of an aneurysm.
A Study in Scarlet (and indeed the entire Sherlock Holmes canon) have been converted into e-book format as part of Project Gutenberg, and can be downloaded free of charge online via any e-books seller.
This review was originally published on slouchingtowardsthatcham.com.