Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sherlock in the 21st Century

It's been slow going with the second novel "The Sign of the Four". With the exception of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" I enjoy the short stories better. Part of that is that at this point Doyle is still growing as a writer and figuring these characters out. Which also makes the novel slow going as I also stop to take notes of first appearances of certain common Holmesian tropes. Lastly, my copies of the Holmes books are collected editions, so they don't make as easy portability as various paperbacks.

However, PBS just recently aired Sherlock, a new BBC series based on the character. Only this time the characters and stories are transcribed to modern day. It's an interesting and intriguing idea. Like many, I tend to think of Holmes as being thoroughly Victorian. And, thanks to all of the movies and shows, Holmes and Watson are generally at best middle-aged if not approaching old age. Yet, Holmes and company didn't start out that way, neither old nor artifacts of an older, simpler time. By doing Holmes and Watson in modern day and relatively young men, it allows a generation to actually see Holmes more in the manner of his original readers and author did, a genius and proponent of modernity. This is not the first time this has been done. The old Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce movies portrayed the character as being current though the England depicted seemed to contain elements of both the 19th and 20th centuries, giving them a certain limbo feel to the time period.

The series has another advantage, the writer is Steven Moffat, writer of many episodes of the recent Dr. Who series, writer and producer of the wonderful Jekyll and the creator and writer of the hilarious series Coupling. He knows his way around telling a story, creating compelling characters and witty dialogue.

Sherlock Holmes comes across as a young man of dangerous intelligence coupled with disassociation or empathy with his fellow man. His temptation at the end to actually take the pill, just to see if he had figured things out correctly is played completely convincingly. By that point of the show, one is never sure where his ego and his desire to know will take him. Also amusing was the playing up of the character's asexuality and the sometimes confusion that leads to modern readers over the relationship between him and Doctor Watson. Although my favorite bit is Holmes with the young woman that allows him access to fresh cadavers for experiments. I couldn't decide if he was oblivious to her attentions or just playing with her mind.

Watson himself is updated, a soldier and doctor, he operates in both arenas here.While the story is not narrated by him nor strictly from his point of view, in many ways he is the view point character. His introduction to Holmes and the world he operates in is ours. However, more is made of Watson than narrator. As mentioned, his dual background and conflicted nature as a healer and taker of life is a big part of his characterization. Worked into it is the nature of his wound and its location. Just as in the first novel, he is invalided home and he walks with a limp through the use of a cane. However, according to his psychoanalyst and Holmes, this limp is psychosomatic, thought to be due to post-traumatic stress. When he's later "cured" of his limp, shown to truly be in his head Holmes asks about the wound, if he really was shot. Watson replies that he was shot, only it was in the shoulder. Plus, it turns out that Watson's problem is not living with the horrors of the war but being attracted to the excitement, and adrenalin from the danger and the guilt of that. It's a nice turn, adding depth to his character and strengthening the bond between him and erratic and eccentric Holmes. The two fulfill a need in each other.

The first episode is titled "A Study in Pink", clearly a nodding reference to the first Holmes story. It covers much of the same ground, updating it to modern times. Naturally, the whole Mormon and revenge angle is gone. The mode of murder is the same, the victim chooses between two identical pills, one of which is poison and one not, but instead of being an element of divine retribution, it's the game of a sick mind. The bit about Holmes giving a complete rundown on Watson's "brother" based on his cell-phone is almost verbatim of a bit with a gold pocket watch in the second novel "The Sign of the Four" when Watson tries to put him to the test). The only thing, wish they hadn't played the Moriarty nor Mycroft cards so soon though though it was a neat twist and play on preconceptions. One of the things about the novels is the surprise when they finally do show up, the idea that as smart and strange Holmes is, his brother is even more so (done to a hilarious degree in the tv show Monk, but the idea that Monk has a brother who is every bit as smart but even more of an anti-social recluse is an obvious allusion to Sherlock and Mycroft).

There are interesting little turns, playing on expectations. Holmes using nicotine patches instead of a pipe to help solve problems, I couldn't decide if it was funny or an annoying concession to these political correct days. Being the type of animal Holmes is, it's hard to see him as someone that would really care about the increasingly unpopular societal views on smoking if it helped him think. After all, he used drugs. But somehow, nowadays it's more acceptable to be a closet drug user than a tobacco smoker. Even the tv show House has the Holmes inspired character addicted to painkillers and a bit ruthless about the lengths he'll go to keep on his drugs, but he doesn't smoke. Mycroft in turn is played by a tall thin man and there's even a reference to him losing some weight where in the books, Mycroft's chief physical characteristic is his obesity.

Despite the liberties taken, the show manages to be more faithful than the Robert Downey Jr. film (which is an enjoyable movie if you can manage to ignore who the character is supposed to be) and make the show work as a modern crime drama and Holmes and Watson as fresh yet recognizable characters. Makes me yearn to see what they will do with Irene Adler. Hopefully, other than one or two of his more famous cases, the show will venture into all new stories and mysteries, just pulling bits and pieces of scenes and inspiration from various stories like the excellent Murder Rooms show did.

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