Thursday, October 04, 2012

Doctor Sherlock

I last commented in this space about the BBC series Sherlock just after seeing the first 90 minute episode. Now there have been six in two seasons, all on DVD, so it’s time for a revisit.

I was struck back then by the similarity of Sherlock to Doctor Who (with Steven Moffat at the helm of both, and Mark Gatiss involved in both), down to a physical resemblance between Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes) and Matt Smith (the current Doctor.) There remain unavoidable parallels, made stronger by the way the character of Watson and the role of the companions in the new Who have become a stronger element in each series, with more reality and substance in these characters.

Now that Cumberbatch and Smith have appeared together onstage (to present Moffat with an award), their resemblance and fast talking personae were available for all to compare. (In the comments to that first post, someone wrote that Matt Smith had auditioned for Sherlock. Apparently he did not—he auditioned for Watson. Cumberbatch was the only actor considered for Sherlock, the producers say.)

Now Star Trek fans are interested in Cumberbatch since he is playing the antagonist role in the next Star Trek JJA feature film. (There’s also a funny nod to Star Trek in the Sherlock version of Hound of the Baskervilles: when a shaken Sherlock admits he felt fear at the sight of the gigantic hound, and is even more upset by being upset, Watson tries to soothe him by calling him Spock.)

But this BBC series is not the only new Sherlock on the block. Over the past century Sherlock Holmes has not been long absent from stage or screen, but he’s currently everywhere, from a motion picture franchise (with Robert Downey, Jr.) to a new CBS television series (“Elementary,” which I deduce will not last long.) And that’s apart from Holmes mutations on “The Mentalist” and “Law and Order: Criminal Intent.”

But he’s making perhaps his biggest international splash with the BBC-originated Sherlock. The first series was a major hit, and a third series of 90 minute TV films goes into production early next year. While the Downey features are set in the 1890s of the original stories, they are more steampunk than Arthur Conan Doyle. The BBC films are set in contemporary London, but they make more use of the original plots. Both of their Sherlocks are younger than usually seen, but so is the Holmes of the first Conan Doyle stories: he’s in his 20s.

  Arthur Conan Doyle prided himself on his historical novels, but he tried his hand at various other popular forms. His first Sherlock Holmes novel in 1887 (A Study in Scarlet) didn’t provoke much reaction. Public response for his second Holmes novel in 1890 (The Sign of the Four) was better, especially in America. But it was the series of short stories in the popular periodical The Strand a year later that created an immediate sensation. By 1893 he was sick of Sherlock and killed him off, but the public demand didn’t abate and ten years later he brought him back. His last Holmes story was in 1927.

  Conan Doyle was puzzled and embarrassed about the stories that made him rich and famous. The first ones borrowed liberally from Edgar Allen Poe and Wilkie Collins, and others were indebted to other authors. Other people contributed to the saga: the trademark deerstalker cap came from an illustrator, and the curved pipe from the first actor to play Holmes on stage. (An actual Doctor Who--Tom Baker--played the full Holmes in his TV film of the Hound of the Baskervilles.)

The stories (and Holmes’ deductions) didn’t always make complete sense but as Don Richard Cox writes in his book on these tales, “we should admire Doyle for the principles his stories are based upon rather than the particulars. There are a great many things one can learn from the careful observation of evidence; until Holmes demonstrated that this was theoretically possible, few people...had bothered to look at physical evidence as closely as he did. Doyle helped establish the modern science of criminology, even though some of his own detective’s ‘discoveries’ were dubious.”

In the years that H.G. Wells was establishing science fiction, Conan Doyle established the “scientific detective.”  

The BBC series is the brainchild of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, both self-confessed Sherlock scholars who know the 60 Conan Doyle stories down to the geekiest details. Their films are full of references, mix and match plot elements and inside jokes—perfect for Sherlockian DVD obsessives. Yet they manage to make the characters and events convincingly contemporary. This is easily the most stylish version yet. The quality of these films is really obvious on DVD, especially since I’m convinced that Masterpiece cuts out several minutes per episode for U.S. television. Production values, direction, acting, writing--all work together, all first rate.

Its Sherlock is a contemporary take on the classic character (though Moffat and Gatiss talk admiringly of the very uneven Basil Rathbone movie series, Benedict Cumberbatch says he was most inspired by Jeremy Brett’s interpretation for Granada television) but its Doctor Watson is singular, as played by Martin Freeman. Though troubled (like Doyle’s Watson, he’s just returned from service in Afghanistan), he is the real person that anchors these stories. There’s plenty of humor but not (as in other portrayals) at Watson’s expense.  And the relationship is complex but fun (Before Holmes is to give court testimony: “Don’t be a smartass, Sherlock.” “I’ll just be myself.” “Have you been listening to me?”) The chemistry between these two actors makes this complex relationship fascinating and real, including moments when the actors and their characters seem to fuse. 

  But this series also includes some conventions from previous film versions. Moriarty is foreshadowed and makes several appearances, though Conan Doyle used him basically once. Mrs. Hudson, of not much consequence in the stories, is given the ample screen time that other dramatizations gave her, though her role is slightly different here: she is the middle-aged landlady, not the housekeeper, though she does wind up fulfilling that function somewhat. With Holmes and Watson in their 20s, she has more potential for a kind of maternal role and apparently, the specific qualities of the actor playing her (Una Stubbs) and her chemistry with Cumberbatch and Freeman that led to a richer relationship being scripted. In fact it’s become crucial—Sherlock’s warmth and gallantry towards her is at first practically the only humanity he displays.

Andrew Scott is a terrifyingly contemporary Moriarty. Also young, he is as pale as a vampire, a demonic genius with a psychopath’s charm. Another marvel of casting is Rupert Graves as Lestrade. He’s not at all the bumbling police inspector of the previous film and TV versions (though he was accounted as more able by Holmes in the stories.) As Gatiss and Moffat note, he has the charisma to carry his own detective series, and he is not threatened by Sherlock’s talents—he patiently uses them, and keeps an appraising eye on him.

The DVDs include a couple of brief and fairly informative “making of” docus, and 3 of the 6 films have commentaries, usually with at least 3 people talking. These also are informative now and then, but basically demonstrate that the people making these are having way too much fun.

The stories range from the fairly obscure (“A Study in Scarlet,” Conan Doyle’s first but rarely dramatized, became “A Study in Pink”) to the most famous ones in Series 2: Irene Adler, the only woman to impress Sherlock, an “adventuress” in Conan Doyle, is reimagined as a dominatrix. This one stirred some controversy.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles,” probably the most famous tale, becomes the hound of a village near a secret government lab, surrounded by a minefield. Conan Doyle’s subplot is suggested and blithely dismissed—a cheeky in-joke. There’s a scene adapted from Doyle’s “The Blue Carbuncle,” and probably others I have yet to discover.

This series ends with its version of “The Final Problem” in which Sherlock seems to be caught in Moriarty’s web, and dives off the top of a hospital building to his death. The original story’s fans had to wait a decade to learn he hadn’t really died, but Sherlock appears mysteriously alive at the end of this film. How did he cheat death? That’s in the next series. The DVD provides endless opportunities to look for clues. I found four. Possibly five.

1 comment:

Maurice Mitchell said...

Sherlock is a great show. I think Doyle would be proud.