In the annals of literature, there are few characters quite so iconic as Sherlock Holmes. Since Doyle wrote his first story in 1887, Sherlock Holmes has become infamous enough that the mere silhouette of a man wearing a deerstalker and smoking a pipe is enough to evoke him. Sherlock Holmes currently holds the record as the most referenced literary character and has been rewritten in literature and film as a wide variety of things, including a boarding school student, a delusional cocaine addict, a vampire hunter, an elf, a large cartoon dog, a futuristic space-detective and a short brown-haired American with possible Aspergers. However, in the BBC’s new mini-series Sherlock, we once again see the world-famous sleuth as we’ve never seen him before; a modern-day consulting detective with sociopathic tendencies who is looking to flatshare. Sherlock presents itself not so much as a retelling of Sherlock Holmes as it is a re-imaging, a wise choice which gives the show the freedom to surprise us while still remaining true to the spirit of the original series.
Sherlock opens with John Watson, returning from combat in Afghanistan. Although Watson’s first stock-footage flashbacks are almost hammy, the series takes the wars impact on him very seriously. Watson is portrayed in many ways as a broken man, both physically, with his psychosomatic limp and phantom tremor, and mentally. He first scenes are sitting in his barren hotel room and his impersonal therapist’s office, trapped not so much by depression as he is in total apathy. The series quickly introduces Watson to Sherlock, in a scene that draws heavily from the original Doyle story. In a delightfully border-line manic scene, Sherlock plays the irresistible force to Watson’s previously unmoving object and Watson finds himself in short order not only at 221b, but also assisting Sherlock at a crime scene. While Watson is a character frozen, Sherlock is one who cannot stop, neither when dashing psychically from crime scene to crime scene nor when mentally dashing from clue to clue. In a deeply clever retelling of “A Study in Scarlet”, Sherlock and John must solve the question of a series of serial murders disguised as suicides across London.
“A Study in Pink” has two very great strengths. One is the clever retelling of the story. While the study had just enough nods to original Doyle story to delight Sherlockians, it has enough twists and clever misdirections to be a compelling mystery all on it’s own. Given how many times Sherlock Holmes stories have been retold, it is rather an accomplishment. When was the last time you were surprised to find The Hound of the Baskervilles was a large dog or the Speckled Band a poisonous snake? And while the show does indulge in some gimmicks (Sherlock’s analysis of evidence in particular is reminiscent of the Guy Richie film), it uses them to great effect. The series is not afraid to bring in modern elements such as drug busts, texting and other modern elements of London life.
Sherlock’s other great strength lies in its two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Martin Freeman (Watson). Cumberbatch is particular is well-cast as Sherlock, both for physical appearance and for all the nuances that he brings to the character. The series does take some liberties with the Sherlock Holmes character, converting him from an eccentric genius to a “high-functioning sociopath” with little to no social skills.However, Cumberbatch manages to convey a character both deeply self-centered and contradictory and yet still likeable. Freeman, meanwhile, does an admirable job with Watson. And the narrator of the books, Watson is a hard character to pin. Once narration is no longer necessary, what role remains for the character? Most versions of Watson are predominately comic relief, with a rare few that portray him closer to his original “intelligent friend and occasional partner-in-crime” status. How exactly this Watson will be portrayed has yet to be fully seen, although Freeman plays him so far with an admirable mix of stoicism and an understated weary desperation. While the series is slowly building Sherlock and Watson’s relationship, the two characters are already established as personalities worth following.
I highly recommend Sherlock “A Study in Pink”. For those who are fans of the original Holmes, this is a show that has done it’s homework and Sherlockians will have great fun with it great twists on canon. For those who are fans of Doctor Who looking to branch out, Sherlock was created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, and carries may of the hallmarks that make Doctor Who such excellent viewing. For anyone else who enjoys a well-crafted mystery and excellently written characters, I cannot recommend “A Study in Pink” enough.