A 21st Century Sherlock

August 1, 2010
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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.

DSC07156 London Underground Baker Street

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.


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5 Responses to “ A 21st Century Sherlock ”

  1. Liz Ellcessor on August 1, 2010 at 10:32 AM

    I like your point about “thinking like a 21st century person” and remediation within the show. I think that’s what makes this show a convincing “update” rather than an “interpretation,” like we see when a Shakespeare play is performed as if set in, say, the 1930s. The Shakespeare keeps the dialogue, the forms of communication and interaction, and the plots, many of which are incongruous with the setting at best.

    In fact, the incorporation of digital media in Sherlock goes further than many entirely contemporary series, in which cell phones are still usually only used for phone calls or possibly texts (which are read aloud for the benefit of the audience). Teen series are normally the best at this incorporation, reflecting their audiences, so it’s nice to see it creep upward into all-ages drama.

  2. Kristina Busse on August 1, 2010 at 10:48 AM

    Great point, Sean, especially considering just how much of an impact SH has had on our collective unconscious and popular culture. My corner of fandom has been passionately debating the issues that pervade both your and my post, including the lacking reference to The Princess Bride. However, given that the film draws from Study in Scarlet, would it even exist in this Sherlock universe?

    One thing I kept thinking of when reading your piece was Star Trek Reboot. And while the central trope to respecting the old yet creating more than. Just a repetition without much difference were different, I am excited at both results and the ways they update without denying or merely copying the old…

    • Sean Duncan on August 1, 2010 at 1:10 PM

      The Princess Bride case is a really interesting one — on one hand, I can see Moffat just not being aware of the scene and it being an honest clueless duplication (the bit with the pills is really a riff on events from A Study In Scarlet), on the other I can see Moffat wanting to be clever about having events similar to Princess Bride but having Holmes point it out would be a bit “on the nose.” It’s an interesting conundrum, actually, as unlike Doctor Who which has thrown in random pop culture references from Ian Dury and the Blockheads through to Sharon Osbourne, Sherlock seems to be tied into a web of media but not (yet) actually talking about any narrative media. Beyond an offhand remark disparaging telly (which was sharper in the pilot, it appears).

      Re: Star Trek’s reboot, that’s another interesting difference, in that Orci & Kurtzman wanted to maintain the new Trek’s “canonicity,” while in this reboot, that’s not a concern. They could have easily done this with Sherlock — have Cumberbatch play the great-great-great-grandnephew of Holmes or somesuch, but there was no real need, really. They’re certainly trying to respect the old, but, like you imply, there’s also that fun sense of the writers seeing what they can get away with due to the changed setting.

      • Kristina Busse on August 1, 2010 at 2:31 PM

        Right, but I think in both there’s a very real sense of knowing and respecting the fans (as was in DW of course) and moving a path of avoiding too much and too little difference.

        Yes, on DW there’ve been extensive debates as to whether Holmes would indeed be a TV watcher, gamer, etc. I think one’s answer has a lot to do with how we define popular culture and how we’d define it for Victorian society and how we translate Holmes’ strengths and weaknesses to present day.

        I actually can see a Holmes who’s never seen Princess Bride but even more so I’d like to fanwank a universe in which there *is* no Princess Bride (or at least not that scene), because there is no Study in Scarlet 🙂

  3. […] A 21st Century Sherlock [Antenna] – Sean Duncan's reading of the new BBC Sherlock series (which, from the first episode, at least, looks magnificent): "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." […]