I thoroughly enjoyed Guy Ritchie’s 2009 cinematic reinvention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s super-sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. With a perfectly cast Robert Downey Jr. it represented a great example of Ritchie’s talents working at full strength, delivering a blend of stylish slo-mo flourishes, into-the-mind-of-Holmes sequences, sparkling wit and banter (particularly with a superbly chosen Watson in Jude Law) and action and intrigue. It had it all, and yet was still quintessentially Sherlock Holmes.
When I first heard about a BBC TV series which was seeking to reinvent the master sleuth yet again – in a modern setting no less – I was genuinely surprised at the timing. Surely one Holmes was enough? Surely nobody could step into the shoes of Robert Downey Jr’s cheeky, eccentric detective?
Indeed much of the first season of the BBC series, simply titled Sherlock, echoed many of the same beats as Ritchie’s first outing with Holmes – from its deconstruction of the detective’s thought processes to the clever sequences that show his tracking skills.
Yet somehow, within just a few minutes, Benedict Cumberbatch’s modern-day Sherlock established himself as comparable mainly in just classic Holmesian traits, and actually a very different animal in many other respects. The tales – whilst also classically Conan Doyle in origin, as they are all adaptations of his original stories – stand out because of their modern day interpretation; similarly Holmes himself has been adapted, as a character, to fit the modern setting. Now he London underground maps and mobile phone contact lists running through his head, even though his jaw-dropping ability to infer information from the tiniest of details is just the same. It’s actually these more stylish moments in the series – from slo-mo to zooms, freeze-frame examination and even what can only be described as Head-Up-Display information – which draw the closest comparison to Ritchie’s work, especially when accompanied by the deliciously playful David Arnold score which is every bit the match for Hack Zimmer’s movie equivalent. But who can complain about the stylistic comparisons, when, in both cases, the end result is so eminently cool.
The first season provided something of an origin story into Holmes’ private contractor detective, albeit not from his ‘birth’ as a sleuth but actually from the point at which he first encounters his future partner-in-crime, Dr. John Watson (played by The Office’s Martin Freeman), an ex-Army veteran with a bad leg from a battle injury who is looking for a flatmate. Of course he gets far more than he bargained for with Holmes and, despite the initial friction, soon becomes close friends with the master sleuth. Or at least as close as anybody gets to a self-centred eccentric super-brain.
Over the course of the three-episode first series we see the duo solve three increasingly convoluted cases; Holmes pitting his intellect against a number of reasonably worthy foes whilst Watson tries his best to have a normal life – even a girlfriend – in spite of the beck-and-call approach that Holmes takes to their ‘partnership’. Although the show wavers in the middle episode, which is made watchable only because of the aforementioned love story involving Watson, it is bookended by two stunning stories – the opening pilot which tells you everything you need to know about this modern-day genius, and the season finale, which ends on a superb cliffhanger as the detective duo face off against their hardest opponent, Holmes’s archenemy, Moriarty.
We’re left in an empty swimming pool setting, at night, with a cache of explosives sitting poolside, with Watson and Holmes at one end, and the enigmatic Moriarty at the other – with snipers waiting in the wings, their laser sights trained on our two heroes. Holmes has but one play left and, with one last look to Watson to signal what he plans to do, he takes aim at the explosives.
The second season kicks off right from where the first series left off and, whilst the resolution to the fantastic cliffhanger comes as something of an anticlimax – at least on the face of it – really, what else did you expect from this show? It’s not an overly contrived twist, and it is totally in-line with the rest of the proceedings and, before we know it, Holmes and Watson are back in work solving cases almost as if the incident with Moriarty never happened in the first place.
The three season 2 episodes are based on three of the most well-known stories in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s collection – A Scandal in Bohemia, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Final Problem. Fans of Conan Doyle will likely be familiar with most of the Holmes adventures, but even casual viewers will likely know these three stories – the first having been loosely adapted into Guy Ritchie’s first Sherlock Holmes movie; the second being just about the most famous Sherlock Holmes story of all time; and the third being Doyle’s original end to the legendary detective: his final, fatal confrontation with Moriarty (a tale which Doyle intended to be conclusive until later persuaded to resurrect the character for further adventures).
A Scandal in Bohemia has been adapted into A Scandal in Belgravia for this modern update, with Holmes encountering arguably one of his greatest opponents (but for Moriarty) in Irene Adler, a seemingly ruthless and brilliant high class dominatrix whose secretly-taped encounters with some of her more high profile clients become a cause for concern amidst the highest echelons of the Government. Most worryingly, however, is the fact that Holmes seems utterly incapable of reading the woman – she’s a complete enigma to him, and moreover, he appears to be positively entranced by this fact. Will Holmes be undone by this seductive, highly intelligent femme fatale? And is Watson actually jealous of her control over his ‘partner’?
The Hound of the Baskervilles has been adapted into The Hounds of Baskerville, and the no-doubt familiar tale appears to be largely intact albeit, once again, updated for the modern setting. Here we have Holmes and Watson investigating rumours of attacks caused by a monster which has been unleashed into the countryside from a nearby military facility. Of course, neither of them believe in such monsters but, as the investigation gets more and more dangerous, they soon realise that what they may be dealing with is far more than just a simple military experiment gone wrong.
The season finale, renamed from The Final Problem to The Reichenbach Fall – a nod to the Reichenbach Falls which was, in the book, The Final Problem, the location of the seminal final confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty – is a fitting conclusion to the second series, and sees Holmes’s arch-nemesis return for the master detective’s hardest case, which soon turns his whole life upside down and sees the lives of everybody close to him put in jeopardy.
There’s no doubt that BBC’s Sherlock series provides some of the absolute best TV drama out there, practically movie-quality features which have extended 90 minute runtimes each and tell fast-paced, quick-witted, superbly-written, desperately tense and undeniably stylish modern tales time and again.
Writer Steven Moffat is the man who made his name working on Press Gang a couple of decades ago although, of late, he is perhaps better known as writer for Coupling, for several of the Doctor Who revival episodes commissioned since 2004 and as co-writer of Spielberg’s Big Screen Tintin adventure. Working as co-creators and co-writers on Sherlock Moffat and fellow Doctor Who helmer Mark Gatiss (who also plays Sherlock’s elder brother Mycroft in the show) impress with their ability to provide fresh and topical modern-day Sherlock Holmes tales which are still packed to the brim with references to the classic source novels upon which they are based. They’ve updated the great detective for his modern day setting with the utmost respect for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work and, but for a slight penchant for over-doing the blurred relationship between Holmes and Watson, continue to provide enthralling adventures to captivate home audiences.
Indeed Moffat wrote arguably the two strongest episodes in Sherlock so far – the first season’s pilot episode, A Study in Pink (based on A Study in Scarlet) and the opening episode of season 2, A Scandal in Belgravia – and Gatiss provided last seasons’s excellent finale, The Great Game, and their presence can be felt throughout the show as these versions of the characters created by Doyle have clearly undergone extensive treatment to update them.
I’m sure that any fan of the show could sing its praises ad infinitum; the pacing, the style, the characterisation, the dialogue, the action, the intrigue, the chemistry and the confrontation – it’s all in there, arguably making Conan Doyle’s characters and stories more accessible and perhaps even more enjoyable than ever before. It may seem sacrilegious to say it, but the BBC’s own modern day Holmes is more than a match for anything Guy Ritchie, or the countless filmmakers before him, have brought to the small or Big Screen in respect of this franchise.
That said, the show continues to have one failing – a weak middle episode. This may seem like a minor grievance, but when there are only three episodes per season, that’s a third of the series which is affected by this drop in consistency. Both season one’s middle episode, The Blind Banker, and season two’s middle episode, The Hounds of Baskerville, suffer under the weight of contrived, implausible stories which are explained all-too-late for the purposes of viewing pleasure. In fact I dare say that Baskerville represents the worst episode in the show so far.
The trouble is that it just doesn’t seem at all fitting for a modern-day Holmes to traipse around the countryside looking for a mythical beast; somehow infiltrating a mysterious military camp to get further leads, and keeping everybody – including both Watson and the audience – in the dark about what on earth is going on all the way up until the final reveal. It’s a flimsy story at best, mostly consisting of old wives’ tales told over a pint at a country pub, and (homo)sexual innuendo made ever more prevalent by the gay landlords of the bed and breakfast that the detective duo rest up in.
In fact the first season’s middle episode probably only stood out like a sore thumb because it’s surrounding episodes were just so damn good, but with season two that’s not quite the case – Baskerville not only does not live up to expectations, or to the standards set by the rest of the show, but it also represents probably the only episode that fans will likely not be all that keen on returning to.
To a certain extent I sympathise with the writers because Baskerville represents easily the most difficult adaptation – not only is everybody already very familiar with the story, but the story itself is not necessarily the best Holmes tale to be told. Sure, the great detective was always famous for his Houdini-like penchant for debunking myths and folk tales, but the mystery surrounding the ‘hound’ just feels too protracted and too supernatural even for the most ardent Holmes fans. It’s no real surprise then that, in adapting such a difficult story, the writers (and director) crafted the least satisfying of all the modern Sherlock tales.
Honestly, though, it’s easy to forgive Baskerville as a throwaway, watch-once episode, mainly because the surrounding two episodes are undeniably excellent. If anything, despite how great the corresponding two episodes in the first season were, these two are even better.
A Scandal in Belgravia is a superb kick-start to the season and, in my opinion, represents the absolute best episode in the entire show so far. The introduction of Conan Doyle’s classic femme fatale Irene Adler is a fantastic tactic. For those who were unsure about the way in which Moriarty was brought to life for the show, then Adler’s characterisation here is simply perfect, and arguably better than the way in which she was introduced in Ritchie’s first movie. In Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes she was played by Rachel McAdams (The Notebook) but here she is played by Lara Pulver (BBC’s Spooks) and, despite the fact that you may think that you know this character from having seen the movie, Pulver’s Adler is as much a different animal to McAdams’s as Cumberbatch’s Holmes is to Robert Downey Jr’s.
Here Adler is simply seething with sexuality, the BBC drama pushing the absolute boundaries of pre-watershed viewing with Pulver spending the majority of her first encounter with Sherlock utterly naked, just with her legs and arms crossed in all the right places. Yet it’s not just the overt sexuality that raises the heat of this episode – even the clever text message sequences (the show has always found imaginative ways to bring the messages to life on the screen for you to see) showcase a playful romantic tension between the two. Honestly, the chemistry between Holmes and his new sparring partner is fantastic, and positively palpable (Pulver and Cumberbatch being far more convincingly attracted to one another than McAdams and Downey Jr ever appeared to be) and the twists and turns of this second season opener are utterly compelling – you get wholly involved in the drama, invested in these characters, and hang on tenterhooks for the outcome (indeed the second episode feels all the more of a letdown when you consider that potentially equally emotional moments, when arguable even more important characters’ lives are put in jeopardy, simply don’t have the same resonance).
The season finale brings us full-circle with Holmes’s nemesis, Moriarty. Carried over from the first season’s climax, and teased at in both of the other episodes in the second season, things finally come to a head in The Reichenbach Fall, as Moriarty unleashes his full arsenal to bring Holmes to his knees.
Now, the casting of Andrew Scott (The Hour) was an immediate point of controversy in this BBC adaptation. Many felt that his equally eccentric, somewhat hammy, over-the-top interpretation of arguably the most important Sherlock Holmes villain of all-time, was a massive misstep in the drama. Scott’s almost bipolar version of the character, who flips to ragingly psychotic at the flick of a switch, is certainly not the easiest to get your head around, particularly when you consider that this character is supposed to be Holmes’s ultimate opponent, the proverbial flipside to his coin.
Personally, I think Scott nails a modern-day representation of Moriarty. If he had played him totally straight he may have come across as too similar to Co-Creator/Co-Writer Mark Gatiss’s portrayal of Holmes’s Government spy brother, Mycroft (who has more screen-time but a less significant role to play in this second season). Scott’s Moriarty is young, well-dressed and eloquent, whilst also eminently unpredictable and unquestionably psychotic. His ‘final problem’ for Holmes, whilst not quite as satisfying in its final conclusion (you may have a smidgen of doubt as to whether this character would actually have the courage of his convictions – i.e. sheer stupidity – to go quite so far in pursuit of the absolute destruction of his rival), is still a genius piece of storytelling, covering so much ground in just one episode. Bringing in elements which were introduced both in the first season’s climax and also all the way back in the pilot episode (like the Police Sergeant who always suspected that one day Holmes would go too far) is a brilliant manoeuvre, and we feel that very much this is a conclusion not just to the stories in this season but to the series overall.
Of course there’s no denying that Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of a modern day Sherlock Holmes is a huge part of what makes this TV drama work so well. We all love watching utter psychopaths in action, and Sherlock Holmes – or, at the very least, this particular modern incarnation – is most definitely one of them. Moriarty and Irene Adler make such perfect opponents purely because they are just like him, and it’s ten times as interesting to watch a psychopath battling another psychopath (look at Manhunter, or any other Hannibal tale, and there are even episodes of the TV series House that could be used as evidence of precisely that; House being just another interpretation of Holmes, of course). And Cumberbatch nails the inner psychopath in Holmes, perfectly focussed throughout the entire series with unwavering intensity and utter obsession. Martin Freeman may make a competent Watson (even if he’s too much of an emotional ‘love interest’ in this series, rather than an effective foil as he was in the more balanced first season) but he’s only there to clarify just how amazing Cumberbatch’s Holmes is – oh, and highlight just how batsh*t crazy the man is too.
It simply doesn’t get better than watching Cumberbatch float his hands around in mid-air, as if he were acting out that pivotal Tom Cruise scene from Minority Report, as his mind projects head-up-display information which he can then sort through ‘mentally’. It’s what we love so much about Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House. Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes is certainly no less engaging, nor any less eccentric, but he’s so quaintly out-of-touch with reality that you can’t help but find his character strangely endearing. Cumberbatch, on the other hand, rides the same fine line as Hugh Laurie in House – they are utterly reprehensible as people and you couldn’t imagine surviving a day in their company let alone as long-term friends with them, but, somehow, their genius is so great, and often so true and revealing, that you’re overwhelmed with awe and admiration. You hate the antisocial psychopath, but you admire the sheer intellect and marvel at the way in which his mind works.
Whichever Holmes you like, however, there is no doubt that BBC’s Sherlock is a worthy, surprisingly respectful, desperately entertaining and utterly compelling interpretation to add to the franchise, and, if you have not encountered it thus far, then I suggest that you seek it out forthwith. Highly recommended.