The day after we got back from Thanksgiving travels my wife and kids went to bed early, so I seized the chance to watch something I’d had on our queue for a long time: the first episode of the BBC’s Sherlock, an updating of the Sherlock Holmes character to the 21st century that features the splendidly named Benedict Cumberbatch (Amazing Grace, Atonement) in the title role and Martin Freeman (Tim on the British version of The Office) as Dr. John H. Watson.
I can’t remember the last time that my level of excitement about a TV show was as high at the end of the episode as at the beginning. Or when I was so disappointed to come to the end of a series’ run. Fortunately, a second series has been filmed and is scheduled to air in the UK early next year, then premiere in the States on PBS in May. (I’m lucky: my wait in between series will only be a few months; I feel horrible for British fans who’ve been waiting since the original run ended in August 2010!)
Now, the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle are some of my favorite in literature, and have been for ages. One of my prized possessions is a two-volume edition of the complete stories of Sherlock Holmes, as annotated by William S. Baring Gould (whose grandfather wrote “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” among other hymns), which I asked for from my parents as a 15th or 16th birthday present. (Coincidentally, I found it quite easy to practice a Holmes-like level of celibacy as a teenager, but that’s another post.)
So it shouldn’t be that surprising that I’d be drawn to this new series. Among other things, it matches Conan Doyle both in economy and thrill of storytelling and even exceeds him in drawing complex characters. (I’d say Watson is more well-rounded here, revealing surprising, if quiet, depth of emotion and complexity of motivation — see especially his first encounter with Sherlock’s brother Mycroft in the pilot episode.)
Still, I’m somewhat surprised to have liked Sherlock as much as I did, since one of the chief reasons that I loved the original stories is that Conan Doyle so brilliantly evoked a particular sense of time and place. Aglow with streetlights flickering through omnipresent fog, its streets clattering with the hooves of horses pulling hansom cabs, the London of Holmes and Watson (much like their creator himself) was unmistakably English and yet still cosmopolitan — an imperial capital in which Watson (recently returned from Afghanistan as the partnership began, as he is — entirely plausibly — in Sherlock) and Holmes (who traveled to Tibet, Persia, Arabia, Sudan, and his ancestral homeland of France during a famous three-year intermission in the stories) encountered Mormons from Utah and self-made men from Australia, kings and spies from central Europe, and “the deadliest snake in India.”
Edgar W. Smith, perhaps the greatest Sherlockian scholar (and not an academic, but an American automotive executive), put it best in the second issue of the Baker Street Journal (a publication whose contributors included Dorothy L. Sayers and the longest-tenured resident of the White House), in which he ventured to answer the question, “What is it that we love in Sherlock Holmes?”
We love the times in which he lived, of course… the half-remembered, half-forgotten times of snug Victorian illusion, of gaslit comfort and contentment, of perfect dignity and grace. The world was poised precariously in balance, and rude disturbances were coming with the years; but those who moved upon the scene were very sure that all was well: that nothing ever would be any worse nor ever could be any better. There was no threat to righteousness and justice and the cause of peace on earth except from such as Moriarty and the lesser villains in his train. The cycle of events had come full turn, and the times were ripe for living—and for being lost. It is because their loss was suffered before they had been fully lived that they are times to which our hearts and longings cling.
And we love the place in which the Master moved and had his being: the England of those times, fat with the fruits of her achievements, but strong and daring still with the spirit of imperial adventure. The seas were pounding, then as now, upon her coasts; the winds swept in across the moors, and fog came down on London. It was a stout and pleasant land, full of the flavor of the age; and it is small wonder that we who claim it in our thoughts should look to Baker Street as its epitome. For there the cabs rolled up before a certain door, and hurried steps were heard upon the stair, and England and her times had rendezvous within a hallowed room, at once familiar and mysterious…. (quoted by Baring Gould, The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, vol. 1, p. 103)
Historians often ask each other when and where in the past they’d most like to time-travel; my own answer is the London of Sherlock Holmes. And that’s high tribute to the skill of Conan Doyle: in effect, that staunch imperialist has successfully seduced a trained historian who is fully aware of the hypocrisy and hubris of the British Empire and so neither remembers nor has forgotten the “snug Victorian illusion” of Smith’s description. (Tellingly, the new Sherlock scorns Watson’s patriotism; the original Sherlock used a pistol to form the Queen’s initials on the walls of Baker Street. And brother Mycroft, still described as the anonymous pillar of the British government, is now a vaguely sinister figure.) The squalid poverty, racialist assumptions, and institutionalized sexism of the Victorian era notwithstanding, I read these stories and find myself comfortably at home in front of the Baker Street hearth.
On that count, the makers of the new series were wise not even to try to recreate Conan Doyle’s mythic past. I know some people love the TV series starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes, which was faithful to the original stories and set in their time; I found them molasses slow, like watching Conan Doyle’s characters come to life — in Mme. Toussaud’s wax museum. (Which happens to be just around corner from the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London.)
Instead, by uprooting Holmes and Watson and then replanting them in the post-imperial, post-modern London of the 21st century, series creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis were able to create their own distinctive energy that was simultaneously faithful to the style and spirit of the Holmes “canon” (Moffat and Gattis are clearly well-read in those stories, as their scripts are full of allusions) and refreshingly irreverent and innovative.
In that sense, they seem to have proven correct the second half of Edgar Smith’s 1946 essay on why we love Sherlock Holmes, in which he claimed that, beyond the draw of a particular time and place, there was something universally appealing about Holmes, that he possessed qualities that could survive transplantation from the 1880s to another, perhaps less settled age:
Not only there and then, but here and now, he stands before us a symbol—a symbol, if you please, of all that we are not, but ever would be. His figure is sufficiently remote to make our secret aspirations for transference seem unshameful, yet close enough to give them plausibility. We see him as the fine expression of our urge to trample evil and to set aright the wrongs with which the world is plagued. He is Galahad and Socrates, bringing high adventure to our dull existences and calm, judicial logic to our biased minds. He is the success of all our failures; the bold escape from our imprisonment.
Or, as Watson put it in the valedictory last sentence of what Conan Doyle meant to be the last Sherlock Holmes story (1893’s “The Final Problem,” which closes with both Holmes and Moriarty seeming to have fallen over an alpine cliff during a life-and-death struggle), Holmes was nothing less than “the best and wisest man whom I have ever known.”
Except that the Holmes written by Moffat and Gattis and played by Cumberbatch is so clearly not as pristinely virtuous as Galahad, or even the more prickly Socrates. He’s certainly not the best man anyone knows, or even necessarily all that wise (as opposed to intelligent). Time and again in the series, both Holmes (I should say, Sherlock — one modernization is that the two friends call each other by what the English used to call their “Christian names”) and other characters make clear that he is by no means a “symbol… of all that we are not, but ever would be.”
- “I’m not a psychopath,” Sherlock rebukes an unfriendly police technician in the pilot episode, “I’m a high functioning sociopath. Do your research.”
- At the end of that scene, after Holmes has abruptly and rudely departed, Watson asks the beleaguered Scotland Yard detective Lestrade, “So why do you put up with him?” Lestrade replies, “Because I’m desperate, that’s why. And because Sherlock Holmes is a great man. And I think one day — if we’re very, very lucky — he might be a good one.”
Then in the third and final episode of the initial series, Holmes insists that he won’t make the “mistake” of caring about the lives of those victimized by the crimes he solves. At the look on Watson’s face, Sherlock says, “I’ve disappointed you… Don’t make people into heroes, John. Heroes don’t exist, and if they did, I wouldn’t be one of them.”
Of course, it becomes clear that even this Sherlock does “care” about (certain) people, and that he is a heroic figure, but credit the writers and actor with daring to make such a beloved character such an unapologetic misanthrope. It’s tempting to draw a connection with Hugh Laurie’s obviously Sherlockian doctor on the American TV series House. Perhaps because of the popularity of that character, we might now assume that such puzzle-solvers engage in staggering feats of deduction — or is it induction? — for the sheer intellectual pleasure of the activity, with the preservation of life being nearly an afterthought. But while Laurie’s House takes almost no joy in drawing breath, Cumberbatch’s Holmes — so long as his mind is presented with puzzles — clearly revels in his own existence.
As do his fans, many of whom can’t wait until 2012 and the arrival of new Sherlock episodes.