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.