A 21st Century Sherlock
Yesterday, Kristina Busse discussed Sherlock in terms of alternate universes, and I’d like to talk a little more about our universe’s impact upon this production (in which Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson are well-established fictional characters), and how the series represents a 21st century Holmes and Watson.
The producers (Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat, and Sue Vertue) have stated that their inspirations were the most-maligned of the Rathbone films of the 1940s (e.g., Roy William Neill’s Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon), in which Holmes and Watson fought Nazis during World War II. Not intending to create a simple “pastiche” of Holmes, Gatiss and Moffat have both spoken of “blasting away the fog” of Victoriana (which appears to have been quite successful in terms of ratings and appreciation, by the way).
So far, Sherlock has presented several hat-tips to attentive Holmes fans, from references to other Holmes stories (Mrs. Turner, James Phillimore, plus a scene swiped from The Sign of the Four), an explanation of Watson’s wandering war wound, and even hints of Billy Wilder’s excellent The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (through a character played by Gatiss). Moffat and Gatiss attempt to “reclaim” Holmes — they argue that the adventures of Holmes and Watson weren’t nostalgia to those who read the stories in The Strand Magazine, and there is nothing in principle standing in the way of modernizing the Canon (down to specific details, such as Watson’s Afghanistan war injury). The cleverness of this update is in how it dances between an interpretation of Holmes and Watson that stays true to elements of the source texts, while also exploring changes necessary for the 21st century setting.
As we’re in an era of CSI and investigative specialization, Holmes’s skills have been refined to be about making deductions and connections, and less about the forensics that typified many of the original cases. One senses that much has been done to remove the impact of the real Holmes and Watson — that is, as popular fictional characters — in order to make this series work. This manifests in clever and subtle ways; in the aired first episode Holmes and Watson staked out 22 Northumberland St from a restaurant across the street, a spot that is actually the location of the The Sherlock Holmes Pub. Additionally, in shooting the (unaired but included on DVD) pilot, the production carefully framed exterior shots near the Baker St. underground station so the real-life Holmes statue wasn’t visible, leaving one to wonder what they’ll do if they ever film in the Baker St. tube station itself (see below). In the aired first episode, these scenes were re-staged as taking place in a park, perhaps in order to avoid the issue entirely.
One way of thinking about these choices is as as a kind of inversion of “The Game,” or the playful exercise of fans in which Holmes and Watson are assumed to be real and brought into the events of the late Victorian/Edwardian era (Holmes solving the Jack the Ripper murders being a common topic of many pastiches). Holmes scholars are celebrating the centenary of The Game next year, and this new Sherlock sets itself apart from many of other renditions by being forced to address that 2010’s world is one in which Doyle’s stories, Rathbone’s and Downey Jr.’s films, and Livanov’s and Brett’s television performances have all had their mark upon the public consciousness. Rather than insert Holmes and Watson into history, the actual impact of these fictional characters must be accommodated or removed.
There was much sensationalism over the BBC’s decision to not air that 55-minute, £800k pilot. The producers insisted that the switch to a 90-minute format was behind this decision, but having seen a few brief clips from the pilot, it seems that the choice to bring in director Paul McGuigan (Push, Lucky Number Slevin) had an impact as well. That is, the visual style of Coky Giedroyc’s pilot seemed relatively staid, not distinguishable from many police procedurals, and perhaps heightening a sense of Sherlock as a “rerun” rather than a hard “reboot.” If the pilot was visually not very distinct from other recent mysteries, many which owe great debts to Holmes productions, how are we to believe that a Holmes and Watson didn’t already exist in this world, even as fictional characters?
McGuigan relies on a different visual pallette, with lens flares, graphics overlays, deft use of split screens, and, most notably, the presentation of on-screen text rather than cutaways to illustrate the pervasive use of mobile phones and inner thought processes (see below). It seems Euros Lyn (director of episode 2, “The Blind Banker”) will follow the same approach, and McGuigan returns for the final episode of the series. Reminiscent of some videogames (Quantic Dream’s recent Heavy Rain, in particular), this provides a striking, contemporary look to Sherlock. The Holmes and Watson of the 21st century both engage with modern technology, but unlike Rathbone/Bruce also have their inner thought processes represented in manners that remediate popular media. To be a plausible 21st century Holmes, one must be shown as thinking like a 21st century person, within a network of mobile phones, Internet-enabled devices, and even video games.
Sherlock is at once both an update of the classic and a novel creation. As it evolves, it will be interesting to see more of the world in which Holmes is just now appearing for the first time, as well as how this is conveyed through the changing visual style of the series.