Sunday, January 1, 2012

DVD Review: Sherlock, Season 1

Fog rolls through the gas-lit, cobblestone streets of London as a gentleman in a top hat descends from his elegant carriage. But somewhere in the distance, the streets are lit by electric lights, while trains thunder through the countryside, punctually following the law of the printed timetable. The Sherlock Holmes stories conjure up a charmingly old fashioned Victorian England, but it’s a romantic illusion. The Victorian Age was a period of change and technological innovation, a time when so many of the inventions we take for granted today were developed and perfected. And so perhaps transplanting the Sherlock Holmes stories to the modern day is not a sacrilege against the beloved tales. In fact, the BBC’s new series Sherlock, a witty, thought-out adaptation of Doyle’s stories in the 21st century, is truly homage to the great detective and everything he represents.

Sherlock Holmes was the superhero of his day. The stories about him were so popular that Conan Doyle received fan mail addressed to Sherlock; people seemed to feel the need to be reassured by his existence. Perhaps it was because Sherlock could face a world made terrifying by change and find logic in a universe in which it seemed like the human mind might get ahead of itself. He always had all the answers and he found the culprit using the latest technology. In the first Sherlock novel, for example, he’s shown discovering a new test for blood stains. He’s an innovator, always ahead of the game and in control. BBC’s Sherlock responds similarly to our time: Sherlock texts instead of sending telegrams, for example, and thus similarly uses the latest gadgets to bring order to a complex, changing world. He reassures us, too, that in the 21st century, it is the human mind, and not its inventions, that will be in control. He becomes, in our world, the reassuring figure that he was for Doyle’s readers. Thus, the series takes on a tricky parallel that it manages to pull off spectacularly.

The screenwriters, Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss, closely follow the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, in their pilot episode, A Study in Pink, which is arguably the best of the three. There’s certainly more suspense than exists in Doyle’s original, as the writers have replaced the drawn-out backstory of the criminal with the development of Sherlock and Watson’s relationship, as well as thrown in hints of Moriarty’s scheming. The other two episodes take more liberties; in fact, the second episode, The Blind Banker, even borders on the ridiculous. The ending hinges on Watson being mistaken for Holmes, something highly when everybody caries around IDs – driver’s licenses, library cards, gun permits (in Watson’s case)…The third episode, The Great Game, is an epic battle of wits between Holmes and Moriarty. As usual, the writers take from the common trend of making Moriarty the archenemy; despite showing up in only two Holmes stories, he is, as usual, the scheming mastermind behind everything from the very first episode. However, the cliffhanger ending with which the writers taunt the viewer suggests that at least this time the two a bit more evenly matched.

But the storytelling’s only half the battle. It’s Holmes himself who is the real enigma to solve. As Doyle tells us in A Study in Scarlet, “the proper study of mankind is man,” and, in our case, of this particular man. Benedict Cumberbatch, with his lanky frame dressed in perfectly pressed suits, becomes the cold, calculating, and heartless detective. He’s both fascinating and disturbing in the depths of his brilliance and his ignorance. There are, of course, a few moments in which exchanges that calm composure for some comic relief, but that feels strained and unnecessary. Martin Freeman truly seems to be one of those shape-shifting actors who can take on any role: he’s gone from Arthur Dent to Bilbo Baggins to Dr. Watson and incarnated each one perfectly. Watson likes his adrenaline rushes as much as Sherlock likes to risk his life to prove he’s clever, and with that dangerous combination, the best New Year’s present one could get is the second season, which does, in fact, air today on the BBC.

Note: this is an expanded and edited version of a review of mine that appeared on Blogcritics.


  1. My husband and I watched season one when it came out on DVD and are very much looking forward to season 2!

  2. Hi Carrie!
    Thanks for commenting! I just watched A Scandal in Belgravia (first episode of season 2) and I have to say, it's just as witty, funny and entertaining as usual, though the plot does get a bit too winding in my opinion.

  3. I really do think that Steven Moffat's talents as a writer shine in this series more so than they do with the last two seasons of Doctor Who. Though, to be fair to Moffat, Doctor Who has a complicated story spanning almost 50 years with a number of different writers.

    You know, I think that Martin Freeman's portrayal of John Watson is absolutely fantastic. It goes well with this series, and he compliments Cumberbatch very well (as does Jude Law with Robert Downy Jr. in the movies). I certainly like their portrayals more than the one by Nigel Bruce in the old series with Basil Rathbone.

    Another thing I think is worth discussing is the role of technology in this series. The use of cell phones, in particular, in the first episode, "A Study in Pink," gave the impression of a more complicated world that Cumberbatch's Holmes lives in. I think this provides a new, rich area to explore in Sherlockiana--the relationship between high technology and Holmes' detective work. I think that his use of his blog in...the third episode?...would be a good starting place.

    The technology also allows for more interaction and heightens the ability to interact with the fiction. For instance, the blog the Watson keeps in the movie exists on the internet, and it can be read (as you know, at this address: Holmes' website is also shown to be updated on the show and the update is carried through to the actual website as it exists in the real world.

    It's a fascinating way for Watson to chronicle his adventure with Holmes in our modern world. It allows him to be more informal and to use the language and idioms of our time while fulfilling his traditional role.

    We should talk about this more in-depth sometime.

  4. Hi Josh :)
    I do believe some stuff has already been written about Sherlock and technology (at least in the Victorian era), comparing his innovations and methods with the technology available in Victorian Britain. As I think I got at in my post, Holmes is certainly doing the same thing in the modern day that he was doing in the Victorian era: using the latest tools. Which tools those and what that says about the technology of our society might be interesting, though.

    And yes, of course we should talk in depth. I'm online. You're not :) Also, you need to watch the newest episode.

  5. I love this series. I think Conan Doyle would be astounded at the enduring popularity of this classic character. I have always been a Holmes fan. I enjoyed the victorian setting,and in the past when movie versions tried to put Sherlock in the future I thought it was lame. (Sherlock hunting the Nazi's). This version the writing , acting, and the city of London itself humming with life brings this character full circle. I enjoy the light touch , the humour with the dark drama just under the surface. This is very difficult to do well and all the people involved in this series have done an amazing job at bringing the characters to life. I even love the music. I have a son with Asperger's syndrome which is just beginning to be portrayed much more accurately in the media. Before all we had was "Rain Man", which shows a rather pathetic one dimensional character. I see my son in Sherlock so I admit to being a little in love with Benedict Cumberbach's interpretation of this character.I laughed at the Christmas scene at 221b, it was as if I caught a glimpse of my son in his future life. Watson, is not a bumbling idiot but brings a much needed depth to his personality, he is a kind very competant doctor with a great sense of humor. He finds Holmes when his life is rather adrift,and has the insight to see beyond Holmes antisocial exterior to his humanity. Watson may not have the genius of Holmes, but he fills in the gaps of Holmes personality with his emotional intelligence, which Holmes slowly discovers he needs a bit in order to survive. Alot of people of been discussing Irene Adler who I thought was completely outrageous and fun to watch, albiet a little sexist. I think if Holmes ever decided to have a romance, I would choose Molly. I like her characterization. Like Watson, she is a kind , well educated and can overlook Holmes outrageous behavior.