Monday, 16 August 2010

Elementary, my dear Mr. Moffat

The narrative begins with a familiar feel: the retired army medic, wounded in Afghanistan; looking for affordable digs in London; a chance meeting with an old colleague; an introduction with an eccentric scientist at Bart’s.

The first few minutes of the pilot episode of the BBC’s contemporised Sherlock, A Study in Pink, closely follows the opening to Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. It helps settle that feeling of trepidation I have on behalf of Moffatt and Gatiss for such a brave undertaking. Let’s face it, the original stories are in themselves iconic, and we all have our favourite Holmes and Watson. As a child, I couldn’t get enough of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce’s rip-roaring adventures; Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke played beautifully convincing portrayals; my tapes of the BBC’s radio series with Clive Merrison and Michael Williams are almost worn out.

The Doctor and The Master?: BBC

Casting comedy actor Martin Freeman as Watson rang alarm bells for me prior to watching Sherlock. The last thing we need is a bumbling sidekick. Benedict Cumberbatch, on the other hand, could be a masterstoke; he is a fine actor and pulls off arrogant-eccentric with ease.

In fact, Freeman puts in a creditable performance; his timing is superb, and he acts as an excellent foil for Cumberbatch. However, I’m not entirely sold that he is ex-army medic John Watson; perhaps Holmes’ perception is greater than mine because I saw little evidence of military bearing. Cumberbatch, as expected, was excellent, given the restraints he was forced to entertain: namely the sanitising of Holmes’ foibles. And while Mark Gatiss plays extraordinary characters brilliantly in The League of Gentlemen, he is no Mycroft.

Holmes was dragged into the present to battle Nazis: Universal Pictures

Once Lestrade begs Holmes’ help, the real detecting starts, and we are sucked into the romp good and proper. It’s all entertaining fayre, and has a Doctor Who feel about it: corny humour, oddly dressed protagonist, lots of running. Which reminds me, the psychosomatic leg arc added no value to the story whatsoever. There are some handy highs and lows to keep the drama going, but most people will have realised the identity of the murderer long before Holmes did, which is sad. The enjoyable romp part ends with the anti-climactic face-off, the explanation for which didn’t seem to ring true somehow: a believable impossibility is preferable... and all that.

The writers incorporated some of the plot-points from A Study in Scarlet into the story: the method of ‘suicide’; the scrawling of RACHE in blood (the usage in the original is better); the murderer’s profession; the murderer’s terminal illness. However, there were many omissions from the original which could be classed as missed opportunities: Holmes’ string of cases that relegate Watson to his room early on; the whole motivation for the murders (perhaps replace Mormons with Scientologists) and the antagonist; Watson’s actual injury; Holmes being tricked by a collector of evidence.

Holmes and Watson brought into the 1980s to play themselves: Granada

On the plus side, the BBC has made good use of interactive media. Watson’s journals are now a blog, and Holmes’ article ‘The Book of Life’ takes the form of a website. I wonder if better use could have been made of these, during the first broadcast?

One of the problems with bringing the world’s only consulting detective into 2010 is that Conan Doyle was able to use his own medical knowledge, and inspiration from forensic surgeon Joseph Bell, 130 years ago, to bestow Holmes with credible expertise in a period when brilliant gentleman scientists could achieve more than those mediocre types funded by an institution. Nowadays, an amateur cannot hope to match the modern CSI. At no stage did I feel that this new Holmes offered anything that Gil Grissom could not.

Grissom vs Monk vs Creek vs Holmes; where's your money?

There is no doubt that Conan Doyle’s Holmes would be classified today as a manic-depressive; a condition not unknown in polymaths. Sherlock did not make good use of this; a pity considering how Stephen Fry has shoved it into the public eye. The original Holmes smokes strong (pipe) tobacco furiously, and, during times of particular duress, administers something a little stronger; the BBC seems unable to allow their heroes such disgusting habits, culminating in a nicotine patch sketch bordering on parody.

Although this opener is mostly enjoyable, and will no doubt perform well in the ratings, in my opinion, the twenty-first century Holmes is not quite a match for contemporaries Adrian Monk and Jonathan Creek, who, while clearly created in the Holmes mould, have brought their own distinctive techniques and foibles into play, comfortably beating their master to the solution.

The clue to my rating of Sherlock is given away by the episode’s title: A Study in Pink is a pale reflection of the original.

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