One of the characters that I love - have loved, really, since I was a kid - was Sherlock Holmes.
Oh, sure, I could brag about how I write for the Baker Street Blog, but the truth is, ever since I repeatedly checked that "Complete Sherlock Holmes" volume out of the public library, I have enjoyed the character. So much that I'll defend it against any missteps, like those Robert Downey, Jr. movies. (Short version - he's not a good Holmes. The movies are not good Holmes movies. They deserve to have their own name and their own identity).
Thankfully, for fans like me, there's the BBC's Sherlock, which seemingly does the impossible - translate a character fixed within a specific time and place to a more modern, 21st-century setting. (OK, technically Universal did the same with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, transplanting them to then-contemporary pre-World War Two England). This month's column is going to focus on both seasons of Sherlock (thankfully, I was able to get a sneak peak at season two - transmitted in England earlier this year, with US air dates to be announced). I promise you this - no spoilers for any of the episodes.
(Taking a note from the Baker Street Blog, I'll be using some of the cool abbreviations for the various stories "in the canon". For those who may have never read any Conan Doyle, please be sure to check out this 2006 community reading project by Stanford University, which contains many of the stories in convenient PDF form. As always, you can find free audiobooks via Librivox. Of course, for those of you who have never read any original Holmes stories, you are more than welcome to dive into the obvious choice - Sherlock Holmes for Dummies. Yes, that book actually exists).
Season one begins with Steven Moffat's "A Study in Pink" - a dramatic rethink of "A Study in Scarlet" [STUD]. Thankfully, that's the secret of Sherlock's success - it's less about setting the stories in a modern context as much as it is thinking through how Holmes and Watson might function in a 20th century setting. It helps that Martin Freeman's Watson - like his literary counterpart - is a veteran of Afghanistan. It also helps that Benedict Cumberbatch hits the right notes as Holmes - the arrogance, the brilliance, the all-consuming focus on rationality. But Moffat's script takes the right amount of liberties with Holmes - not bending the character into a cartoonish superman, but placing him in a context where he can disrupt a police conference with texts, where we see his intuitive leaps of logic..."A Study in Pink" is a great lead-off for a cracking series of stories.
Although it's not quite up to the standards of the debut, Steven Thompson's "The Blind Banker" is a pretty solid, third-out-of-three entry in the series. On the one hand, it's reminiscent of "The Adventure of the Dancing Men [DANC]" with its focus on codes and symbols...but on the other, it has a kind of original spin about it. (Thankfully, Sherlock's format allows for some interesting changes, as this episode builds on a subplot started at the end of "A Study in Pink" - namely, "Who is Moriarity"? It's not a bad episode in an of itself, but it does seem to lack some of the sparkle of "A Study in Pink", especially when contrasted with the final entry in Sherlock's first season...
Mark Gatiss helps bring the season to a thrilling - and engaging - close with "The Great Game." Integrating a group of Conan Doyle stories - most notably "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans [BRUC]" - Gatiss' script shows us a clever showdown between Holmes and Moriarity. (In fact, there's a mid-episode twist that is brilliant in its understatement). Thankfully, Sherlock is also more than willing to make nods not to to Holmes, but Holmes fandom - "The Great Game" is a colloquialism for a Holmes scholarly belief. The episode also ends on a how-are-they-going-to-get-out-of-this-one cliffhanger...
...and the way that the cliffhanger is resolved at the beginning of Season Two's "A Scandal in Belgravia" is not only somewhat clever, it also (in a strange way) will resonate later. (Since this is another Steven Moffat episode, we won't repeat the "no spoiler" warning). Taking its cue from "A Scandal in Bohemia [SCAN]", we meet the 2011 version of Irene Adler, or as most Holmes fans knows, "the woman". As with Moffat's other work (including Doctor Who), there is a heady mixture of plot-heavy twists and innuendo (Adler, in this episode, is a dominatrix), and it does get the series off to a great start. (There are some other clever allusions to stories such as "The Adventure of the Geek Interpreter" and "The Adventure of the Speckled Blonde", as well as the fact that in the canon, it's always 1895). It's a pretty rollicking start (and also makes a great holiday episode - although the series was postponed from its 2011 date into early 2012, part of this episode takes place during the Christmas holidays).
It seems as if the middle episode of Sherlock tends to sag, and Mark Gatiss' "The Hounds of Baskerville" is no exception. Yes, it takes its title from the 1902 Conan Doyle novel, and for the majority of the episode, takes a unique tone. (Gatiss, who presented a three-part BBC documentary called A History of Horror some years ago, knows how to create an appropriately creepy atmosphere). Although there's some really good set-up, the way the episode ends...is a little less than satisfactory. Without spoiling, this episode's resolution seems relatively anti-climactic, but for its evocation of a nice, noir-ish atmosphere without relying on hints of the supernatural (or even, say, going in the exact opposite route), "The Hounds of Baskerville" is well worth catching.
Finally, season 2 of Sherlock finishes with Steven Thompson's "The Reichenbach Fall", which could have easily been a revamp of "The Adventure of the Final Problem [FINA]"...but is so much more than that. It is a Holmes/Moriarity showdown, but this is an episode that really ratchets up the rivalry and animosity between the two men. Holmes is put in a position that he has never been placed in before; Watson demonstrates an incredible amount of loyalty and dedication, and when the end comes...granted, the end is somewhat spoiled by the fact that a season three was publicly announced, but there is a great how-are-they-gonna-get-out-of-this-one ending that tops last season.
In short, anyone who spoils "The Reichenbach Fall" to you is not your friend, and deserves your scorn. The episode is so well-written, so well-shot, it's one of the best pieces of television from 2011.
One of the great things about Sherlock is that it's not only good enough for hard-core Sherlockians, but is also great for casual viewers as well. Many are hoping to see what tales from "the canon" Moffat pulls from (and I vote for the final Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear). Until then, I'll just have to rely on other adaptations...and podcasts like I Hear of Sherlock and Baker Street Babes...and audiobooks....and, of course, the Jeremy Brett series from the 1980s/1990s (which is, alas, a column for another time).
As always, thanks for reading - and please, leave your comments below or in the CR forum!
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