There’s a moment in ”A Scandal in Belgravia”, the first episode of the second season of Sherlock, that made me laugh. Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and John Watson (Martin Freeman) are confronted by Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), a classic character from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, who appears naked before them, without showing the slightest sign of discomfort. Watson is annoyed, Holmes intrigued.
We get a glimpse into Holmes’s skills. As he’s observing Watson, we share his insights as little visual signs tell us for instance that the doctor must be using a new toothbrush. As Holmes turns to look at Adler, the little signs that appear are filled with question marks. Watson is a comically open book, Adler is a complete mystery. No wonder she has Holmes’s attention. This modern interpretation of Conan Doyle’s mysteries had an invaluable sense of humor, much like the old Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies, a great inspiration for creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat.
Looking for a new purpose
When Sherlock began, doctor John Watson returned to London after serving in Afghanistan. As an injured veteran, he was looking for the next chapter in life, a new purpose. He was also looking for a new home and agreed to share an apartment at 221 Baker Street together with Sherlock Holmes, a brilliant detective. Watson was immediately drawn into Holmes’s cases, the first one involving ”serial suicides” that surely must be something far more sinister. As they got to know each other and Watson started writing about their cases, the two men soon faced a formidable enemy in the shape of Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott), an insane but hyperintelligent master criminal who committed his crimes for no other reason really than trying to find an adversary worthy enough.
Too reverential adaptations
Gatiss and Moffat were well matched indeed. The latter had written Jekyll (2008), a modern update of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, and they were both writers on Doctor Who when they started talking about an update of Sherlock Holmes. Gatiss felt that some recent adaptations had been too reverential; he liked the Rathbone movies because they successfully transferred the Victorian detective to World War II. The new Sherlock would indeed take advantage of and have fun with our contemporary world, its culture and technological progress. Conan Doyle’s old stories would be used as inspiration for the individual episodes, which would all be feature film-length. Handsomely produced and filmed, they were signs of BBC going all in on this project; by the time ”The Abominable Bride”, a stand-alone episode, premiered in 2016, the show had become such a phenomenon that the episode was shown in British cinemas.
Sherlock was a hit because of its clever writing and the sheer spectacle of watching an old favorite look relevant in our times, but the casting also played a huge role. Cumberbatch (in his great breakthrough) and Freeman were ideal as the witty, acid crime-solver and the far more human war veteran; Scott was also mesmerizing as a provocative, annoying and frightening Moriarty. Among the women, Pulver was a stand-out as Adler the dominatrix.
Perhaps a tad convoluted and cold at times, the series remained compelling throughout its relatively short run, honoring the Sherlock Holmes legacy while also bringing modern-day London into it, making Conan Doyle’s characters relevant for yet another generation.
Sherlock 2010-2017:Britain. Made for TV. 13 episodes. Color. Created by Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat. Theme: David Arnold, Michael Price. Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes), Martin Freeman (John Watson), Rupert Graves (Greg Lestrade), Una Stubbs, Mark Gatiss, Louise Brealey, Andrew Scott.
Trivia: Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham, Cumberbatch’s parents, played Holmes’s father and mother in a few episodes.
Emmys: Outstanding Television Movie (for ”The Abominable Bride”) 15-16; Writing 13-14; Actor (Cumberbatch) 13-14; Supporting Actor (Freeman) 13-14.
Last word: “My idea for [the ‘Hound of Baskerville’ episode in season two] was, as ever, to look for the ‘modern’. So rather than setting it in a spooky old house, I wanted to find the sort of thing that frightens us today. We’re still a very credulous species but we tend to be more afraid of secret goings-on and conspiracy theories. So I thought, what about a scary weapons research place out on Dartmoor? Where secret animal experimentation or something similarly terrible was taking place. The reputation of the story was obviously a challenge, it’s the most famous and best-loved of them all. No pressure!” (Gatiss, BBC)