Sherlock Holmes: Benedict Cumberbatch
John Watson: Martin Freeman
Case: A modern re-imagining
BBC’s Sherlock began with as one of the most promising series I had seen in a long time. It sadly did not end this way, so much so that I still haven’t seen the fourth season. The re-imaging of Canon in a modern setting, with updated characters and a present-day slant to Holmes’ best cases seemed ingenious. Perhaps because of this, the series soon became a bloated mess, the egos involved in the writing of it soon eclipsing any of the series redeeming qualities.
That said, these reviews were written in order of viewing, and as such they will be presented here as separate seasonal reviews, each season receiving its own rating. You will notice a distinct tonal shift as the seasons progress. I have included hindsight comments in brackets.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes
I tremble with barely suppressed glee as I write this, but I suspect I have found the Holmes for my generation. I cannot claim Brett as my own, or Rathbone as my own, or even Livanov as my own, for as brilliant as they were, they existed before my time, and I came to them after-the-fact, viewing their genius in hindsight. But Cumberbatch (and what a fantastic name) is unknown to me, his take on the Great Detective fresh, and what an utterly brilliant take it is.
Where to begin?
Our introduction to Holmes (and I cannot bring myself to call him Sherlock, though I so badly want to) thrilled me in a way I have not been thrilled since my first reading of Canon. My introduction to Sherlock Holmes was in A Study in Scarlet, so it was delightful to witness first-hand Holmes beating a corpse with a riding crop. It was delightful to witness first-hand Holmes deducing Watson’s stay in Afghanistan.
From the moment he opens his mouth, Cumberbatch personifies Holmes. His hyperactivity, his manic insanity, his disconnect from his fellow man, his genius, his charisma, his abruptness, his struggle against the ennui of every day living; so completely captures this early version of Holmes, before Watson came along to make him more human. I have no doubt this is the Holmes Watson first met in the laboratory at Barts. I have no doubt this is the Holmes Watson agreed to share lodgings with. And I have no doubt this is the Holmes who first peaked Watson’s curiosity. This is Holmes, not yet coloured or calmed by age, still revelling in his youth and energy. This is the Holmes no adaptation has dared to depict. This is Holmes untamed, and he is delightful.
(a shame, then he did not evolve into a later Holmes, but instead became a character unworthy of the name).
He has, of course, been modernized, something which I wholly applaud. I suspect this Holmes may appeal to a much broader audience than his Victorian cousin, and while part of my love for Sherlock Holmes stems from the nostalgia of 1895, I freely confess I am thrilled to see Holmes interacting with the world in which I live. Of course he would prefer texting to speaking on the phone. Of course he would have a website. Of course he would use upwards of three nicotine patches in a sitting (quite the three patch problem indeed!). And of course he would plant listening devices inside Scotland Yard’s press room so that he might counter Lestrade’s comments to the press. Regardless of era, Holmes remains Sherlock Holmes.
I love, too, that they did not neglect any of Holmes’ less savoury traits. Holmes as an immaculate yet untidy junkie is the Holmes of Canon, and yet, in true modernizing spirit, we see a man struggling against those demons, trying to remain clean, even as he searches for a way to alleviate his boredom. And again, like the Holmes of Canon, we meet a man whose social skills are seriously lacking, a man who is incapable of communicating with the people around him; a man who requires an intermediary (aka Watson) to act as a buffer between him and the outside world.
Cumberbatch takes all these elements and plays them with such subtlety that what emerges is the character. For the first time in years I have watched a Sherlock Holmes adaptation and seen the man before the actor. My head is still spinning with delight. Bravo. Bravo, indeed. I truly believe this role was perfectly cast. Cumberbatch has risen to stand among the many greats who came before him. He is Sherlock Holmes, and I suspect he will supplant those who came before him to stand in years to come as the definitive Sherlock Holmes.
Martin Freeman as John Watson
Martin Freeman’s Watson is such a perfect counterpoint to Cumberbatch’s Holmes. Steady, brave, stalwart, and loyal, with the subtlest underpinnings of vulnerability, Freeman’s Watson is plucked straight from the pages of Canon.
It is so refreshing a trend in these later years to see Watson come alive as his own character, rather than merely serving as a foil for Sherlock Holmes. In years past, too few adaptations have given Watson the credit he deserves. It delightful to find that Freeman’s Watson more closely resembles the Watson of Canon than many of his contemporaries. Yes, he delights in Sherlock’s insight. Yes, he craves the excitement of adventure. Yes, he struggles to keep up with Holmes’ quick-fire wit. But he is so much more than that, and it is very easy to see this with Freeman’s Watson.
I suspect a lot of Watson’s depth can be attributed to the re-imagining of the character. Victorian military men were painted as stoic, brave and regimented, lacking in the vulnerability we now know all humans possess. Victorian military men did not suffer from PTSD (or if they did, they were called cowards), nor did they have trouble reintegrating into civilian life once their service had ended. This is, of course, far from the truth of reality, but the fiction of the time would have us believe this is so, and so Watson’s military service in Canon is a source of bravado, rather than trauma. It is delightful (and if I’ve used this word too often, it is only because it so perfectly encompasses the feeling engendered by this series) to see Watson struggling to adapt to civilian life. It is delightful to see a Watson who is not ideal; who has his own demons (because how could the only friend to Sherlock Holmes not have demons?). We’ve been given a very interesting look at the inner psyche of Watson, and I for one find it both believable and entrancing.
I do, however, miss the moustache, but one cannot ask for everything.
Rupert Graves as Inspector Lestrade
I must first confess myself a Rupert Graves fan. He is a fantastic actor, who I have always found particularly entertaining. So, it is with this bias that I have fallen in love with his Inspector Lestrade. Graves’ Lestrade is a little out of his depth, completely dependent on Holmes, irritated by his need for Holmes, and yet as swept away by the sheer brilliance of Holmes as every other person caught in Holmes’ web. In short, he is the Lestrade of Canon, perhaps without the sallow, rat-faced bull-doggedness. Graves’ Lestrade is fantastic, and if I could purchase a miniature version of him, I would carry him around in my pocket and be gleeful. And that came out far more stalkerish than I intended, so I will cease discussing him now, save to mention that any episode which does not include Lestrade is a travesty, Canon be damned.
Una Stubbs as Mrs. Hudson
I always love an enjoyable Mrs. Hudson, and Stubbs is an enjoyable Mrs. Hudson. She is not my favourite Mrs. Hudson, but as an updated version of our favourite landlady, she comes close to perfection. It is nice, too, to see an amicable relationship between Holmes and Mrs. Hudson. Holmes of Canon had quite the soft spot for his landlady, and she for him, something recent adaptations seem to have forgotten.
Mark Gatiss as Mycroft Holmes
I am not quite sure what I think of this casting. I suppose, in my mind, Mycroft is meant to be less polished and more austere. Gatiss’ Mycroft is quite the dandy, and I’m not sure that really fits the character. Still, I enjoyed the fresh take on the character (was amused beyond measure in fact) and in the role of this new Mycroft, I found Gatiss’ portrayal quite enjoyable. They have taken our quiet, unenergetic, and profoundly anti-social Mycroft, and turned him into a pretentious queen, and it is perfectly suited to this new, modern adaptation. My head is still reeling from our introduction to Mycroft. Well played, indeed.
Andrew Scott as James “Jim” Moriarty
I am still not entirely convinced “Jim” is not a blind. I half expect to discover that he is yet another puppet of the great Moriarty, and that we will discover his appearance in The Great Game was meant only to throw Sherlock Holmes off the true Moriarty’s tracks (how delightful had this been true, the character soon becoming tired and cliché). It is not that I disliked his performance (though it was at times over the top), but rather that his Moriarty is so far removed from the Moriarty of Canon that I am having a hard time reconciling the characters.
That is not to say that the potential for this Moriarty to be an equally great nemesis doesn’t exist: it does. It is simply to say that this Moriarty is not a criminal mastermind bent on his own selfish interests. This Moriarty is an escaped mental patient who is obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. Certainly he is clever, but he is nothing like the man Sherlockians know and love/hate. I’m going to reserve judgement until the BBC decides to write, film, produce and air further episodes, but I will say that as a newly invented character, Scott does a fantastic job of convincing me he is utterly nutters.
Where does one begin? I suspect I could write an entire novel on the delightfulness of this series (which only made my later disappointment sharper), and even then I would be incapable of expressing half of what makes this series so wonderful.
The faithfulness to Canon is perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of this series. It is exceedingly clear that the series’ creators both know and love Sherlock Holmes. The twisting of Canon into a modern setting is so seamless, so utterly flawless, that if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear Sherlock Holmes had always existed inside of the twenty-first century. And yet –yet– I recognize these characters for who they are and where they came from. The blend between eras is so exact it escapes notice. The love and passion the writers/creators have for Holmes and Watson is abundantly clear in every scene, every piece of dialogue, and every wayward glance. So much attention to detail has gone into bringing these characters to life. Even transported into the modern world, they retain everything which first made them great. It is an absolute pleasure to sit through this season.
This is particularly noticeable when it comes to technology. Naturally, Holmes would be a computer expert. Naturally, he would choose to text whenever possible (think of all the telegrams he sent, even after the advent of the telephone). Naturally, Watson, to appease his curiosity, would google Holmes. Naturally, in lieu of sending his stories to the Strand, he would keep a blog. It’s so perfectly in character it astounds me that someone didn’t consider the concept earlier.
The series is also quite stunning from a visual standpoint. I adore the sets (dark and gritty with the sporadic flare of colour) and the cinematography, with wide-angled camera shots. I adore the rendering of clues into text to give the audience insight into the working of Holmes’ mind. Visually, this series swept me off my feet. At the risk of sounding puerile: it’s just so pretty.
And Baker Street! How utterly fabulous is Baker Street? I don’t think I have ever seen a better set. I could blink and be transported back to 1888, and then blink again and find myself in 2010. The blending of Victorian decor with the implements of modern life came across perfectly. I love that Holmes’ chemistry bench was the kitchen table. I love that he kept human eyes in the microwave. I love that Watson retained his room upstairs (even though I doubt they will need the second bedroom for long). I love that Holmes keeps his correspondence affixed to the mantel with a jackknife. And I love the two armchairs gathered around the working fireplace. It’s perfect. Utterly perfect.
So, too, is the inclusion of Canon references. I adore fan service, I really do, and even more so when it is so appropriately placed that those unfamiliar with Canon do not notice its existence. Much to my husband’s annoyance, I spent our second viewing of each episode pointing out the direct Canon references (I had wanted to on our first viewing, but was told in no uncertain terms to keep quiet). It amazed him to discover how relevant and well-suited the source material is to today’s world.
I suppose no review would be complete without the occasional quibble. My biggest complaint –and it is slight– is that, in borrowing heavily from Canon, the mystery, for those of us familiar with the stories, has been removed. An excellent example is in A Study in Pink. Having read STUD, I knew well ahead of time that the cabby was responsible for the murders, and so it seemed to take Holmes a particularly long time to come to that deduction. I am fairly certain at no point in a Sherlock Holmes adaptation should the audience feel smarter than Sherlock Holmes, even if I was technically cheating. To be fair, my husband, who has not read STUD, only connected the cab driver to the murders when Holmes did, so it is possible my intimate knowledge of Canon is to blame for this minor distraction from my enjoyment.
I suspect there will also be those (and this may become more of a problem as time goes on –we shall see what happens if this does become a regular series) who will quickly become irritated by the ineptitude of Scotland Yard. The Scotland Yard of the Victorian world requiring the aid of Sherlock Holmes is believable, but I very much doubt the Scotland Yard of our time would ever condescend to seeking the aid of an amateur, however brilliant he may be. Again, I suppose only time will tell.
Finally, and as with any multi-episode series, episode quality varies considerably with the episode’s scriptwriter. Here we have been given three episodes, with three separate writers, and in addition to lacking complete continuity between the episodes, it is quite obvious that not all the writers are on par with one another. I speak of course of The Blind Baker, which, while not a terrible episode (it was interesting in its own right, and I will dissect it further below) it was certainly not up to the standards set by A Study in Pink, and later The Great Game. If this does go on to become a regular series, I suspect fans will have to contend with the occasional weak episode, depending on whose name is attached to the writing credits.
A Study in Pink
A refreshing, and dare I say it, improvement on the original case in A Study in Scarlet, A Study in Pink pits Holmes against a serial killer whose victims take their own lives.
Not that something like that has ever stopped me, however.
It is amazing how much of STUD they managed to convert into a modern setting. From Watson’s return from Afghanistan to his meeting with Stamford to his introduction to Holmes: I have longed to see a fresh adaptation of their first meeting, and it did not disappoint. This episode borrows so heavily from even the dialogue of Canon that anyone familiar with the Sacred Writings will find themselves swooning with delight. I could spend an eternity pointing out lifted Canon material. From Holmes’ “the game is (on)” to his texting Watson with “come at once if convenient”, to Holmes dragging Watson out on their first case, to the empty house in Brixton Road, to the drunk man’s watch deduction (upgraded to a cell phone), to Watson flattering Holmes with praise, to the wedding ring, to the cabby, to the two pill choice murders, to the Rachel vs Rache, to Holmes knowing London intimately, to Watson’s wandering wound….
See, I told you I could go on and on. In fact, for those who are interested, it might make for a fantastic drinking game.
I mentioned above that A Study in Pink improves upon STUD, and I think making the cab driver a run of the mill serial killer rather than a wronged man bent on revenge makes for better television. The problem with STUD (and the reason it is not often adapted) is that the telling of it requires the back story included in The Country of the Saints, and for most Holmes fans, the story is too dull to sit through. That they have managed to tie this into Moriarty (although it does require some suspension of disbelief) is genius. I love that Moriarty is portrayed as a crazy nut job fan who is obsessed with Sherlock Holmes, rather than the evil genius criminal mastermind of Canon. It adds a distinct element of realism. (a shame this theme didn’t continue)
This episode is also quite delightful in that, rather than being exceedingly plot-heavy (something one doesn’t need when borrowing from Canon) it expands a lot of energy introducing our characters. We learn a lot about Holmes and Watson, and while they are quite familiar to the Holmes and Watson of Canon, it is clear that they are influenced by their modern-day existence. Naturally, those traits attributed to Holmes and Watson which stem from the Victorian era have been omitted, to be replaced traits fitted to the modern world. I’ve mentioned this above, but will say it again, the re-imagining of these characters is brilliant.
The Blind Baker
The most startlingly problem with this episode is that its writer is obviously unfamiliar with Canon. I make that deduction, of course, based on his interpretation of Holmes and Watson, as well as the (extremely loose) Canon references, but if I’m wrong, then he ought simply to be fired.
This is an original case, with some aspects borrowed from Canon. The problem, of course, is that the elements borrowed from Canon are plot devices, which, when meshed together result in garbaly-goop. What should be taken from Canon in these types of episodes are character traits. This, sadly, was not done.
Sure, we learned that Holmes went to Uni (though not that he left after 2 years), that he had few friends (but what about Trevor?) and that he doesn’t eat when working. We were also introduced to Sebastian, who I believe was meant to represent Reginald (but why introduce Reginald without the wonderfulness of The Musgrave Ritual?). We learned that Watson is broke (though not that the reason for his being broke is his tendency to spend his war-wound pension at the track –which would have made for some interesting character insight). We learn nothing else useful about the boys, instead sitting 90 minutes through a convoluted plot that didn’t flow any better the second time I watched the episode (and this is the only episode I will leave at two viewings).
There were problems with characterization, and continuity of characterization. I realize we were meant to see Holmes and Watson struggling to find their footing in a new relationship (both in terms of being friends, flatmates and colleagues) but considering how the last episode ended, I had a very hard time understanding where a lot of the hostility was coming from. It didn’t make any sense. Also, you cannot have Holmes being clueless about a girl’s crush, and then have him use the girl’s crush to manipulate her over the span of two back to back episodes. It just doesn’t work. Either he knows she likes him or he doesn’t. It cannot be both.
While on the subject of quibbles, I’m still not entirely certain how Watson got a date instead of having his ass handed to him after falling asleep on the job, on his first day of the job. Not that the date wasn’t cute (especially Holmes acting territorial and jealous, and in general getting into a snit because Watson is his, damn it). I’m also not certain when Watson traded his stoic bravery for quivering, ineffective cowardice. The characterization in this episode was completely off (from both Canon and the standard set in the previous episode). Again, I reiterate: the episode’s writer is obviously unfamiliar with Canon. I am deeply offended that he thinks Moriarty would use capslocks. I suspect Moriarty is equally appalled by the notion.
Reading the above, you might assume this episode is terrible. It’s not. It’s mediocre considering its companion episodes, but it’s still worth viewing. It simply neglects to treat the characters (who are the point of this series) with the respect they deserve. When making a Holmes and Watson adaptation (even when it has been re-imagined), it is important to remember that Holmes and Watson are more important than plot, and that any plot you conceive as particularly clever will be made better by staying true to the original source material.
Also, I feel it essential to point out that the book/symbols cipher is not taken, as so many seem to think, from The Dancing Men, but rather, from The Valley of Fear. Does no one recall Porlock? Re-read the story, please.
The Great Game
In contrast to The Blind Baker, The Great Game is a fantastic episode, which flows seamlessly from A Study in Pink. It makes one wonder why the middle episode was needed, as the short series would have been made infinitely better by its exclusion.
Part of what makes this episode so enjoyable is the obvious love for Canon. Clearly a fan, Gatiss does both Holmes and Watson an incredible amount of justice. Part of my dislike of The Blind Baker stemmed from the treatment of the characters (specifically, the unexplained hostility between Holmes and Watson). The Great Game succeeds where The Blind Baker failed. It shows the trials and tribulations of Holmes and Watson’s relationship, allowing the characters to express irritation and annoyance, while still maintaining the affection and love that was the cornerstone of their relationship.
Their relationship was beautifully portrayed in this episode. It is still early days, and they are still getting to know one another, and finding flaw and annoyance in one another’s action. But already it is clear how much they care. That is obvious right from the start, with Watson storming out while Holmes watches forlornly from the window, Mrs. Hudson commenting on their “domestic”. Even angry, Watson, having spent the night on Sarah’s couch (and they are clearly not sleeping together), he rushes back to Baker Street the second he thinks Holmes might be in danger.
I love that Watson cares so deeply. I love that Holmes lets Watson solve the West case. It is so clear that Holmes adores having Watson as a part of his life, and so he goes out of his way to include Watson in everything, something he wouldn’t do for anyone else. Holmes cares (considerably) for Watson’s opinion. His hurt expression when Watson admits to being disappointed is as touching as it is distressing. Later, he deliberately waits for Watson to leave before contacting Moriarty regarding the Bruce Partington Plans, and we sense that he is afraid of disappointing Watson a second time. He is enjoying this game with Moriarty, but he knows Watson will think less of him if he confesses it.
All of this cumulates into one of the most touching finales I have ever seen. The way that Holmes’ face falls when he thinks that Watson might be Moriarty is heart wrenching. The shift to horror when he realizes that Watson has been chosen as Moriarty’s next voice, that he is wearing a bomb, took my breath away. In that instant, it is abundantly clear how much Watson has come to mean to Holmes. Throughout their confrontation with Moriarty Holmes darts Watson continual glances, clearly terrified for the well-being of his friend. Even Moriarty knows that Watson has become Holmes’ weakness –that however heartless he might have been, John Watson has ignited a spark. Just as Moriarty knows how attached Watson has become, Watson’s ploy to allow Holmes to escape ending with a single threat to Holmes’ life.
All of this cumulates as Moriarty leaves, Holmes instantly rushing to Watson’s side, stripping him of the bomb. He shouts, “are you alright”, twice over, clearly terrified and on the verge of breaking down. Watson staggers, but is clearly touched by Holmes’ concern. As Holmes thanks Watson for risking his life, Watson can only smile and point out that Holmes has just stripped him of his clothing in a darkened swimming pool.
Because of Gatiss’ advanced knowledge of Canon, he was also able to use Canon references effectively (another problem I had with The Blind Baker). There are dozens of Canon references in this story, and although they are taken from dozens of stories, they are perfectly interwoven and modernized, making for a compelling and fascinating episode which is both borrowed and original. The trick (and Gatiss clearly gets it) is that the elements taken from Canon were either character traits or direct elements from cases, which, when littered throughout the script, do little to distract from the overall plot. I was particularly delighted by:
Holmes shooting holes in the wall; Holmes not knowing the earth travelled around the sun; Holmes referring to his brain as a hard drive; his playing the violin; his telling Watson that he is ‘lost without my blogger’; Holmes’ indignation over Watson’s writing; his chemistry background; his need for data, data, data; his ability to rock a disguise; his acknowledgement that he is lacking a heart, his actions then disproving his words when it comes to Watson; Watson’s loyalty, his frustration, his desire to flatter Holmes, his amazement and hero-worship of Holmes; Mycroft out-deducing Holmes; the Bohemian stationary; the appearance of the Baker Street Irregulars; the “already crossed your mind” exchange between Holmes and Moriarty; and, of course, the tie in with The Bruce Partington Plans. In fact, the only element which I thought was perhaps too forced was the Orange Pips reference. I can’t say hearing 5 pips would have naturally led to such a deduction. Even for Holmes. It was a stretch.
The original elements of the script are fantastic, too. I adore the idea of Moriarty as a not quite stable consulting criminal, who reveals part of his hand to Holmes because he wants someone to play with. He is very unbalanced (and very different from the Moriarty of Canon), and it works exceptionally well in this modern-day retelling.
The cliff-hanger ending was perfect, too, leaving it open for expansion should they decide to make further episodes. Fingers and toes crossed that they do.
And as an aside: Holmes yelling at the television set was priceless.
No episode is without its quibbles, and while they are few and far between, they do deserve mentioning. I am still not quite sure what to make of the fight scene between Holmes/Watson and the Golem. It was quite ill placed, and very distracting from the story. It was also left unresolved, so it seemed to me as though it was more than a little gratuitous.
Overall, though, this episode is fantastic. It is worth watching again and again and again and again. It is a delight to have this series end as strongly as it began; setting the stage for what I hope is to become a very, very long-running series.
From concept to creation, this series is nothing short of brilliant. I highly, highly recommend watching it, and hope (most feverishly) that we will see this turn into a regular series. Already, with only three episodes to its credit, it has risen to take its place as a classic. I am utterly certain Sherlock Holmes fans will treasure Sherlock for years to come.