…the British TV series Sherlock is a must see. Sherlock reboots Holmes into our world. Yet despite advancing in time some 130 years when Sherlock first meets Watson he says, exactly as in the original, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” A shiver ran down my spine.
via Sherlock Holmes v. Sherlock — Marginal Revolution.
So, I finally* got around to watching “Sherlock,” the BBC1 update of the eccentric Victorian sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. On the face of it, this is an exceedingly entertaining show and, I would add, worth watching. And I say this as a person who loathes the literary Holmes.
“Sherlock” transplants our gangly sociopath into modern times, “reboots” as the writer in the above excerpts puts it (though he has Holmes’s quotation completely wrong). It all seems faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and short stories. Conveniently, there is a modern war in Afghanistan for Dr. Watson to have been wounded in. The characters are nuanced and are possessed with complex psychologies. And, leaving aside some unfortunate homophobic humor, the grounds for the relationship between Holmes and Watson is, oddly, more believable on TV. Their banter is a highlight; in one scene, Watson chides Holmes for simply being a good guesser. Holmes protests, but of course that is all he really is.
A particularly engaging tactic that fits the context and the medium is the annotation of Holmes’s ponderous line of abductive reasoning (guesses!) with computer-generated captions. As Holmes observes, for example, a murder victim’s rain-soaked collar, explanatory text pops up over his probing fingers. Sadly, there is no similar technological economy employed in leavening his triumphant and tedious oral explanations.
The most interesting thing about the first episode is the method employed by its antagonist, a terminally ill killer who uses poison pills in a kind of Russian roulette to dispatch his victims. You get the idea: there are two pills, and the killer asks his victim to choose one, saying that he will take the other. One nervous gulp later, the victim is dead and the killer is incrementally more smug.
Many fans of the show, though strangely almost none of the critics in the media, recognized that premise from the iocaine-powder scene in the motion picture “The Princess Bride.” In the movie, the idea was that the protagonist was immune to the poison. But in “Sherlock,” no explanation is provided. This led several television critics, in otherwise rave reviews, to gripe about holes in the plot. To wit, The Guardian’s Sam Wollaston harrumphed, “How come they always pick the wrong pill?”
Fans of the show were moved in other directions, too. Some slapped their palms figuratively to their foreheads, saying that Holmes’s real problem was that he never went to the movies. Others were moved to compose strange bits of fan fiction. A few apparently literate fans pointed out that the two-pill premise was, in fact, derived from the first Holmes story written by Conan Doyle.
However, knowing as much gets you no closer to knowing the answer to Wollaston’s question. After apprehending the killer, Conan Doyle’s Holmes blusters on and on – “In solving a problem of this sort, the grand thing is to be able to reason backwards” — but he never explains how the killer knew his victim would take the poison. The reader is left to assume that because the killer was going to die, anyway, he did not care what pill he took.
But this explanation is weakened considerably in context of the television program, in which there are four victims to Conan Doyle’s two (only one by poison). Conan Doyle’s killer was motivated by revenge, but we learn that the television killer is (spoiler!) acting for the benefit of his children; he is being paid per victim. It seems to me that the television killer would want to maximize his chances of staying alive, at least for one victim, and so must have had something up his sleeve. But “Sherlock” provides no more explanation than Conan Doyle did in his book.
The thing that has always bugged me about Holmes as a character is that he is always up against the most eccentric criminals imaginable. I suppose there is something in that odd stories are the ones that get told. But it strains credibility that every ne’er-do-well in Holmes’s London turns out to have some peculiar dust on his pants, or a rare kind of clay caked on his feet, or an aftershave composed of an unusual blend of fragrances. The fastidiously careful criminal — or, indeed, the morosely mundane — is totally foreign to Holmes.
In the end, those Conan Doyle stories drone on much like Holmes does. After the first few paragraphs, you basically have an idea of what you should be looking for later (i.e. the source of the dust, or the clay, or the aftershave). Of course, and annoyingly, Conan Doyle sometimes dispenses with this altogether, and the reader only learns about the most important clue at the end when Holmes explains what it was. It is as if Conan Doyle is saying, Thanks for coming, Reader, but you were not even necessary.
* The caveats here are numerous. I’m coming at this two years too late, of course, and it is not obvious from noodling around on the Web if I’m assessing the program’s initial reaction correctly. And I have not watched any of the second round of three episodes. But whatever.