Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Sherlock: A Study in Pink

Sherlock: 'The game, Mrs Hudson, is on!'

Sherlock is a reboot of the Sherlock Holmes franchise and is the brain child of Doctor Who head-writer Steven Moffat and The League of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss. It's also set in modern day London. Sounds awful? That's what I thought. In fact, I was completely prepared to hate this programme. How can anything good come of moving an iconic 19th century detective to the 21st century? Is the character of Sherlock Holmes even relevant these days? More importantly, can his unique brand of deductive reasoning cut the mustard in this modern age of GPS, computers and forensics?

I'm not what you would call a Holmes obsessive, but I do own (and have read) all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective stories (both short and long), am immensely fond of Granada Television's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (starring the inimitable Jeremy Brett), and own every episode of the BBC's Sherlock Holmes Radio Dramas (featuring the excellent Clive Merrison)—so I'm reasonably familiar with Holmes' world. What I don't like is when production companies take unnecessary liberties with the source material—so it was with some trepidation that I approached Sherlock. I've been hurt before. Guy Richie's 2010 blockbuster, Sherlock Holmes, left me crying in my Shreddies (The cereal, not the underpants). Why should this be any different?

Initially, Sherlock feels a little like Doctor Who, which isn't surprising as both Gatiss and Moffat are script-writers for the show. So the humour's familiar—as is Sherlock's infuriating sense of self-superiority, and eccentric mannerisms—but the only time travel in evidence is the jump from the Victorian era to modern day London. Benedict Cumberbatch works well as a modern day Holmes, whom he plays with just the right amount of narcissism and empathy. He's untidy, immodest, energetic, sometimes manic, and treats poor Mrs Hudson like she's his House-keeper. Yet Watson—despite being understandable frustrated by his new house-mate's oddness—seems strangely as ease with his eccentricities. And just one episode in and Holmes is already asking the diminutive Watson for advice on social etiquette. So even at this early stage, it's obvious that the two men get along.

Naturally, the concept demands a certain amount of mythology tinkering. You can't take a character from the 19th century and just plonk him in the 21st without making some concessions. So mobile phones and computers are in, as are cars and modern police practises; Watson writes a blog rather than for The Strand; and the three pipe problem has become a three nicotine patch problem. (This Sherlock doesn't smoke, and claims not to take drugs.) There's also the the odd vulgarity and occasional innuendo to pep things up, but generally the tweaks feel organic and are in keeping with the change in perspective. And visually, despite the series being set in modern day London, it does have a curiously Olde English feel to it. The cobbled streets outside Billy's Café and the Georgian windows, all add to that feeling of old world charm, and 221B Bakers Street, with its roaring fire, and the glorious Mrs Hudson (played by ex-Doctor Who companion, Aunt Sally,) makes for a suitably cosy base of operations.

The modernisation of Watson, also feels surprisingly natural. Like the Watson of old, he's a veteran of the Afghan war (obviously, a later war than in Conan Doyle's vision), and, thankfully, Freeman's portrayal of Watson is as far removed from Nigel Bruce's bumbling sidekick as you could ever hope to see. Freeman's Watson is a pensive individual, with a troubled history—the twist being, rather than being adversely affected by war, he actually misses it. He craves the excitement, and the adrenaline rush of danger, making him the perfect companion for Holmes, whom he inevitably meets through a mutual acquaintance.

Watson, invalided out of the army, is feeling disconnected and useless and, Holmes—already a budding consultant detective—needs an assistant and someone to share the rent. The solution is obvious: they move in together. The gay issue is addressed almost immediately, multiple times, and with humour, but unlike Guy Richie's Holmes, Moffat's Holmes is refreshingly asexual. He snubs Molly Hooper's romantic advances, mistaking her offer of coffee for an actual offer of coffee, before going on to insult the size of her mouth. It's not that Holmes hates women—he's always understood their allure—he's just never entirely trusted them, and as he stresses to Watson, he's married to his work.

It was a clever move to remove Mark Gatiss from the credits, that way the big surprise remained intact. Mark Gatiss just had to be Moriarty, yet in the end, and somewhat comically, he turned out to be Sherlock's older brother, Mycroft. I do like Mark Gatiss. He's a solid performer, and seems perfectly suited to his character, and by the looks of things, Moriarty will be featuring in the series. Jeff the Cabbie, despite saying that Sherlock would never know the name of his sponsor, couldn't help but but blurt out 'Moriaaaaarty' before dropping dead.

I was perhaps less enamoured with Lestrade and Donovan. Lestrade has none of the confidence, quickness or energy of his Victorian double: his performance in front of the press was desperately weak, almost pathetic. And him telling Anderson to look away, although vaguely amusing, undermined his authority completely. Holmes describes classic Lestrade as the best of a bad lot, both tenacious and determined, which Rupert Graves' Lestrade definitely is not—at least, not yet. Sally Donovan also needs some fleshing out. She did little more than name-call all episode.

The speed at which Watson recovered from his limp—imaginary or not—took some believing, but it served to illustrate both Watson's suitability as Holmes' side-kick, and Holmes' superior powers of deduction. Holmes was able to deduce, purely from his gait, that Watson's problems were mostly psychosomatic. And Watson's pause, before jumping across the rooftop, effectively mirrored his own leap into the unknown. The man he was at the beginning of the episode, and the man he is at the end, are polar opposites. It's as if being with Holmes brings out the best in him.

The conclusion could definitely have been stronger. Was Watson really close enough to see both men about to swallow the pills? Would he seriously have shot Jeff the Cabbie without telling Holmes? Would Jeff being a genius have given him any real advantage in a game of chance? Maybe. Maybe not. But the psychological show-down between Holmes and Jeff was worth the price of the licence fee alone. Did Holmes choose the right pill? We'll probably never know, but it was fascinating to see Holmes' near pathological need to be proven right take him down such a dark and dangerous road.

Other Thoughts:

—The title 'A Study in Pink' is a play on the title of the Sherlock Holmes novel 'A Study in Scarlet' (on which it's loosely based).

—In 'A Study in Scarlet' it's Lestrade who suggests 'Rache' may stand for Rachel, and Holmes who deduces it's German for revenge -- so a nice reversal there.

—Holmes' website is called 'The Science of Deduction' (as is chapter two of 'A Study in Scarlet').

—Looks like they're setting up Anthea as a possible love interest for Watson. But what was she fiddling with all episode? A mobile phone or a hand-held game?

—'A Study in Scarlet' also featured a cab driver with an aneurysm, and poisoned pills as a means of dispatch.

—Surely a 'No shit, Sherlock' gag is in order at some point?

—Why would a Cabbie 'naturally' have enemies wishing to kill him?

—Watson still possesses a gun, a souvenir, presumably, from his time in the military. (Although I'm wondering whether they even do that any more.)

—Holmes still plays the violin.

—I liked the visual representations of Sherlock's deductions. No more having to sit through minutes of tedious explanatory dialogue.

Quotes:

Holmes: 'I said dangerous, and here you are.'

Watson: 'So why are you talking to me?'
Holmes: 'Mrs Hudson took my skull.'
Watson: 'So I'm basically filling in for your skull?'

Mycroft: 'You're not haunted by the war, Doctor Watson. You miss it. Welcome back.'

Holmes: 'I'm not a psychopath, Anderson, I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research.'

Holmes: 'Anderson, don't talk out loud. You lower the IQ of the whole street.'

Jeff: 'There's a name no one says. And I'm not going to say it, either.'

Jeff: 'I've outlived four people, that's the most fun you can have with an aneurysm.'

Watson: 'Who's Moriarty?'
Sherlock: 'I have absolutely no idea.'

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