Note: This post assumes the reader is up-to-date with the most recently aired episode of Sherlock, Series 4, episode 2, “The Lying Detective,” and includes detailed discussion of important plot points and previous episodes. Spoilers abound.
In “The Lying Detective,” Nurse Cornish remarks to an offended John Watson that the Sherlock Holmes blog “is gone downhill a bit, isn’t it?” With her name, Sherlock creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss surely intended to reference a Cornish boatman who, upon meeting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famously said the same thing about the Sherlock Holmes stories after Doyle brought Holmes back from the dead.
With this slyness in asking their viewers to back off a bit, it seems Moffat and Gatiss must be fed up with the constant whining of fans who think they know best. Even professionals have started to question the recent direction of the show. Ralph Jones’ recent review from The Guardian, written after “The Six Thatchers” aired, voiced the concerns of many, saying the series had devolved to generic Bond flick status, particularly in regard to the increase of Sherlock the Action Hero, and plenty of critics agreed with him, at least in part.
This led Mark Gatiss to respond to Jones’ complaints with a poem pointedly featuring the instances of fisticuffs in the original stories. Thank you, Mark Gatiss, and may I back you up further?
In addition to the series’ increased action, Jones frets over deviance from the source material, stakes raised above plausibility, and lack of a basic whodunit. In short:
“Sherlock’s unofficial tagline is “brainy is the new sexy”. It feels like it gave up being brainy a while ago.”
If we had gotten more of the same, if Moffat and Gatiss had not raised the stakes, had not upped the thrills, had not stretched their creativity, we would have cried “Bored!”
Let’s go back to the beginning.
A Study in Scarlet/A Study in Pink: Episode One
Sherlock hit the ground running with its phenomenally adapted and updated take on Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, the very first Sherlock Holmes novel. We were all wowed by the little words floating up on screen around Sherlock’s head, or the text on screen instead of the then-typical shot of the phone itself.
Even more impressive was how faithfully Moffat and Gatiss used the source material, even some of the exact lines.
John Watson begins his account of his adventures with Sherlock Holmes by recounting his time as an assistant surgeon in the Fifth Northhumberland Fusiliers in the second Afghan War, where he was wounded and forced to return home. He was an army doctor who served in Afghanistan and was shot in the shoulder, which had a profound effect on his health.
He runs into an old friend and mentions he’s having a difficult time finding affordable lodging in London.
“That’s a strange thing,” remarked my companion; “you are the second man today that has used that expression to me.”
“And who was the first?” I asked. (Doyle 4).
The friend takes him to meet Holmes, who immediately deduces Watson has recently served in Afghanistan. He later explains his reasoning in almost identical fashion as Moffat’s Sherlock:
“I knew you came from Afghanistan. From long habit the train of thoughts ran so swiftly through my mind, that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps. There were such steps, however. The train of reasoning ran, ‘Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.’” (12).
Replace a pocket watch with a phone and you have an identical exchange coming from the second Holmes novel The Sign of the Four as it appears in “A Study in Pink.”
“I should judge that the watch belonged to your elder brother. […] He was a man of untidy habits — very untidy and careless. He was left with good prospects, but he threw away his chances, lived for some time in poverty with occasional short intervals of prosperity, and finally, taking to drink, he died. That is all I can gather.” (78).
How difficult it is to translate 19th century dialect for the modern ear! Even more challenging, then, to mostly let it lie and only play with the context.
What else stays? Rache (though they cheekily draw different conclusions), the cabby culprit, and poison. Although they take great pains to use actual scenarios from the source material in this and other episodes (“But the Solar System!” is a Doyle line, folks), Moffat and Gatiss choose also to emphasize themes of Sherlock’s brilliance/arrogance and need for a friend to help balance him. The reverberations of this decision ripple through the entire series until they become the series by Series Four. This is a very 21st-century choice.
The Dying Detective/The Lying Detective: Episode Eleven
Though a much shorter story than A Study in Scarlet, “The Dying Detective” shines clearly throughout the whole of “The Lying Detective,” just as in”A Study in Pink.” For instance, take the state of Sherlock’s health when John, at Mrs. Hudson’s insistence, goes to see him after a long absence:
He was indeed a deplorable spectacle. In the dim light of a foggy November day the sick room was a gloomy spot, but it was that gaunt, wasted face, staring at me from the bed which sent a chill to my heart. His eyes had the brightness of fever, there was a hectic flush upon either cheek, and dark crusts clung to his lips; the thin hands upon the coverlet twitched incessantly, his voice was croaking and spasmodic.
Moffat and Gatiss opted to change “ill” to “dangerously high,” given their previous references to junkie Sherlock and lack of tropical fever in modern-day London.
Read Doyle’s description of Culverton Smith:
I saw a great yellow face, coarse-grained and greasy with heavy, double chin, and two sullen, menacing grey eyes which glared at me from under tufted and sandy brows. A high bald head had a small velvet smoking-cap poised coquettishly upon one side of its pink curve. The skull was of enormous capacity, and yet as I looked down I saw to my amazement that the figure of the man was small and frail, twisted in the shoulders and back like one who has suffered from rickets in his childhood.
Here is my personal favorite: The opening paragraph of “The Dying Detective” and a quick peek into Mrs. Hudson’s mind:
Mrs. Hudson, the landlady of Sherlock Holmes, was a long-suffering woman. Not only was her first-floor flat invaded at all hours by throngs of singular and often undesirable characters but her remarkable lodger showed an eccentricity and irregularity in his life which must have sorely tried her patience. His incredible untidiness, his addiction to music at strange hours, his occasional revolver practice within doors, his weird and often malodorous scientific experiments, and the atmosphere of violence and danger which hung around him made him the very worst tenant in London. On the other hand, his payments were princely.
Reading this gives all of Mrs. Hudson’s accomplishments in “The Lying Detective” more verve and demonstrates how Moffat and Gatiss can expand on a character without compromising what Doyle already gave them.
This principle resurfaces in the adaptation of the story as a whole. The bulk of “The Dying Detective” is actually the standoff between Mr. Culverton Smith and Mr. Sherlock Holmes which unfolds in the exact same way as the show. Sherlock lies incapacitated in a sickroom/hospital. Smith looms above him, and Sherlock coaxes a murder confession out of him because Smith believes it doesn’t matter, having already planned to kill Sherlock himself. John (or a symbol of John, in the show) secretly hears the whole thing so that when Smith denies the confession ever occurred, the duo can provide proof to the authorities.
With such care in adaptation, how on earth could Sherlock have left its brains by the wayside?
Sherlock is a modern retelling of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories.
Key words here: modern, and retelling. Yes, it takes liberties with the source material, but considering Guy Ritchie’s films as a “retelling” (i.e. using character names and a Victorian setting) Sherlock makes remarkable reference to the original stories, as we’ve already seen. Retelling and adaptation are not necessarily synonymous.
While he primarily lambasted the perceived overuse of Sherlock’s fists in his article, Jones also took aim at Mary Watson, a character given a much bigger role in the retelling.
When Moffat, Gatiss or both decided that Mary Watson just had to be a ninja assassin with a murky past, they took ill-advised liberties with Conan Doyle’s stories in what one can only assume was an attempt to make the programme even sexier. It failed. None of the scenes involving Mary ring true. How can the viewer be expected to believe that both John Watson’s best friend and his wife could be waist-deep in such extraordinarily cool activities? The show began to feel implausible, a fate from which it has never recovered.
- No, not sexier. An attempt to make the series more palatable for modern tastes, and to give Sherlock and John a problem to solve.
- The show addresses every complaint of implausibility.
Put yourself in the shoes of Mark Gatiss or Steven Moffat (whichever you prefer. I pick Gatiss). You have just “killed off” one of your main characters. While your audience mourns the loss of their show for a few years, your other main character mourns the loss of the man who became his best friend. Who died unduly in disgrace. Thanks to the people he helped time and again, he was brought to his knees by a madman and forced to commit suicide or watch his friends—a new experience for him—die. Everyone says he took his own life out of despair, but you know that’s not true. And so, alone and unbelieved, you have to go on as you were when you first returned from Afghanistan. Shell-shocked and trying to understand where a person like you fits into the world.
So logically, what kind of woman would John Watson fall in love with? Someone who complements him. Someone who understands how a war veteran would think and feel. Someone who could sympathize with how much a relationship with Sherlock Holmes meant to him. Someone who could maybe fill part of the void Sherlock had vacated.
Now who does that sound like?
That being said, Sherlock is all about the titular detective and his relationship with John Watson. It’s been that way since the beginning. The idea of some that Mary’s character or the series’ stakes should change this is ridiculous. Has anything occurred in the more thiller-like episodes to change this core relationship? No. Are there still mysteries? Yes. Do those mysteries always last the entire episode? No, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories often lasted no more than a few pages. This leaves room for Gatiss and Moffat’s invented plot threads, especially those that would be of more interest to an Information Age audience than a Victorian one.
The intellect remains the draw of the series.
Perhaps Jones is right. Perhaps we all want to see Benedict Cumberbatch “getting sopping wet while kicking ass in an expensive suit,” and perhaps we tune in with this image in mind.
But Sherlock was known at first for its creativity in how it portrayed Sherlock’s thought process in order to make it, ahem, plausible for the average TV viewer. It hasn’t stopped.
Human are fickle and selfish creatures; tiny floating words wouldn’t have amazed us for long. Knowing this, Moffat and Gatiss used their increased budget to stretch the boundaries of their imaginations. In so doing, Sherlock’s mind palace became even more visually compelling. The showrunners continually thought up creative ways to demonstrate that what Sherlock deduced was, indeed, possible. We saw this happen in “The Sign of Three” when Sherlock questioned the women in an imaginary courtroom, and also in the spectacular sequence detailing Sherlock’s thought process upon being shot. The Nerdwriter deftly identifies an impressive Series Four scene in which Sherlock makes a key deduction under the influence of drugs, information the show reveals to us in only three minutes’ time using careful camera angles and shot locations.
Jones also claims that Sherlock doesn’t use his brain anymore, and thus he has lost whatever superiority he had to Bond, who must use gadgets. Also untrue; Sherlock solves many cases throughout series three and four, some in the background, some in in the foreground. Sherlock doesn’t stop taking clients. The difference is just that the primary focus has shifted from the mystery Sherlock is solving to solving the mystery of Sherlock the man.
And because they’ve included the original stories, included the cases, and included the observations and the deductions, they’re allowed to go there.
Moffat and Gatiss have raised the stakes to the extreme, sure. But it’s a logical progression.
A story needs momentum. Looking at the the show as a whole, as the story of Sherlock Holmes, the man, it needs to go somewhere.
Frankly, the stakes were high to begin with. In lesser shows we’d have seen Sherlock’s standoff with A Study in Pink‘s cabbie in a season finale, when Sherlock’s need to stop being bored, to be the cleverest, had finally tipped him over the edge and he nearly killed himself trying to prove it.
But no, this is the series opener.
Where can a story go from there? Well, it can introduce a nemesis. So it did, Moriarty, in a cliffhanger. Then your hero fights the nemesis: Series Two, check. Nemesis vanquished. So then who does your hero fight? Who could possibly top Moriarty’s unhinged brilliance? Magnussen worked all right, but he merely slipped by and only then because he was used as a personal threat: a threat to the happiness of John and Mary, thus the crux of “His Last Vow.”
So how do you threaten the happiness of John and Mary? You give one of them a dark secret that must never see the light of day. And you shine the light of day on it. The secret can’t be John’s. We already know John. Thus, again: it is logical and plausible for Mary to be an ex-assassin. And then after Mary, what next? What keeps this struggle emotional and personal for Sherlock? Who, then, becomes the new ultimate antagonistic force?
Himself. John. Perhaps even another Holmes.
Yes, Sherlock takes liberties with its source material. Yes, it does occasionally stray into fanservice’s clutches, but that does not mean the show has “perversely morphed into Bond.” If it is Bond, what is Sherlock’s code name? Where are his gadgets? Where are the hordes of women he thoughtlessly cavorts with?
Never fear, my friends. Sherlock may have evolved and changed over the years, but so have we all. We may suppose the things we cherished about this marvelous creation have grown too numerous or too scarce, but the foundation and heart of the series haven’t gone anywhere.
And to Ralph Jones I say,
Media obtained from the BBC and Giphy.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Complete Sherlock Holmes. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2009. Print.