Television Review: Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (Russian)
Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (Russian)
Sherlock Holmes: Vasily Livanov
Dr. Watson: Vitaly Solomin
Years: 1979 – 1986
Filmed in Russia during the Soviet era, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson became one of the most successful Russian television series of all times. It also earned acclaim throughout the world as one of the best Sherlock Holmes adaptations ever to grace the screen. With eleven episodes in total, the series can now be purchased on dvd (complete with English subtitles) or viewed at various locations online.
Overall the Russian Sherlock Holmes series is, without a doubt, one of the best adaptations I have seen to date. It is stunning in its authenticity (even the deviations from Canon only serve to enhance the stories), visually breathtaking, and features an utterly fantastic Holmes, along with perhaps the best Watson in the history of Watsons.
The series is remarkable for its attention to detail, particularly where authenticity is concerned. At times, the series uses dialogue from Canon verbatim, creating a feel that is quite in keeping with Victorian London.
It cannot have been easy to replicate Victorian London in Soviet Russia, and yet the producers have managed to do an excellent job in this regard, both the sets and the costumes reflecting perfectly the period, and while occasionally the buildings and interior sets are perhaps a little too ornate for London, it does not distract (too much) from the overall feel of the series. It is obvious that a lot of money went into making this series. The production quality is outstanding, complete with well directed cinematography and an elaborate score. In short, there is nothing this series is lacking. Truly, it represents the pinnacle of Sherlock Holmes television.
Perhaps the best thing about this series is the casting. Although the language barrier and need to read subtitles did, occasionally, distract from my enjoyment of the actors (this was more frustration at my own lack of understanding than anything else), it is obvious that a lot of care went into casting, the actors perfectly suited to their roles.
Vasily Livanov as Sherlock Holmes:
Livanov is a fantastic Holmes. He is not perhaps the Holmes of Canon (and certainly he doesn’t quite fit the image of Holmes in my mind; Livanov too short, and often saddled with tinted glasses) but he still looks like a Holmes. It is, however, his demeanor which sets him apart from so many of his contemporaries. His Holmes is a dignified Holmes, a logical Holmes, a studious Holmes, and yet still as passionate, mischievous and playful as the Holmes of Canon. Livanov not only portrays Holmes with stylistic grace, he also manages to assume the complete identity of all of Holmes’ many alter egos, from priest to sailor to toff, so that not once was I not utterly convinced of his characters’ authenticity. Truly, Livanov is one of the greats, and it was an absolute pleasure watching him bring Sherlock Holmes to life.
Vitaly Solomin as Dr. Watson:
For as much as Livanov makes for a delightful Holmes, the true gem of this series is Solomin. He is, without a doubt, the best Watson to ever grace the screen (big or small). Solomin’s Watson is a younger Watson, as dapper, solid, dependable, rational, and stoic a military man as the Watson of Canon, with the caring compassion of a doctor and wide-eyed excitement of a school boy eager for a mystery. He dotes on Holmes. He stands up to Holmes. He is utterly fearless and quite self assured; in short, he is the Watson of Canon. Solomin will now forever in my mind be Doctor John Watson, late of the Army Medical Department. It should also be noted that Solomin is hot. Ridiculously hot. Walking wet dream hot. Especially in uniform. This certainly did not hurt in making his Watson the best Watson in the history of all Watsons.
Borislav Brondukov as Inspector Lestrade:
I have to confess; Brondukov’s Lestrade took some winning over. My first impression was that Brondukov’s portrayal of the Scotland Yard inspector was, to be polite, a little over the top. Okay, let’s be frank; he was obnoxious. But he grows on you. You become sort of enamored of him, which is maybe the point, because Lestrade is hardly a lovable character when we first meet him in STUD, but he grows on you, becomes more likable as the Canon progresses, and so too does Brondukov’s Lestrade. By the time I finished The Treasure of Agra (aka SIGN) I found the rat-faced, terrier-like little ferret of a man quite charming.
Rina Zelenaya as Mrs. Hudson:
Rina Zelenaya is a delightful Mrs. Hudson. Her role is not quite as large as some of the other adaptations I have seen (though it is keeping with Canon), but one truly gets the impression that she is the most long suffering of women. She is motherly, caring, and quite convincing as the land lady of 221B Baker Street. I adore the way she dotes on her boys, treating them more often like wayward school children than her lodgers. Of all the women in Canon who deserve our love and respect, Mrs. Hudson stands at the forefront, and Zelenaya’s Mrs. Hudson captures that essence perfectly.
Boris Kluyev as Mycroft Holmes:
While Boris Kluyev does not look like the Mycroft of my imaginings, he quickly convinced me that he was, in fact, Sherlock’s older brother. The role of Mycroft is changed slightly in this adaptation, the series giving him both a wife and child, but aside from that he is quite recognizable. The interplay, too, between Kluyev and Livanov is quite brotherly, lending authenticity to the story. In short, he is quite convincing as Mycroft, managing to convert me relatively early on in the series. In fact, as I was jotting down notes while watching this series, I wrote, absently and in the margin: Mycroft = made of win, so you can see how much I adored Kluyev’s performance.
Yekaterina Zinchenko as Mary Morstan:
My first impression of Zinchenko was that she was entirely too young to play Miss Morstan (the reader will recall that Morstan is in her late twenties at the time of SIGN), looking no more than sixteen when we are first introduced to her. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that she is, in fact, older than first appearances, though her slight stature and extremely delicate features had me doubting this fact on several occasions. As such, I often wondered if Watson was a complete pervert for chasing such a young thing. Appearances aside, Zinchenko plays a sweet, adoring Mary, who obviously likes, if not loves, John. Her role is not as central as I expected, but she still manages to come across as a strong, important character, and while there were times when she did appear quite woolen, by the end of the series, I didn’t actually mind her (in fact, as I mention below, by the end of the series my heart quite went out to her).
Viktor Yevgrafov as Professor Moriarty:
Viktor Yevgrafov is hands down one of the creepiest, if not best, Moriarties I have ever seen. I suspect Yevgrafov will be featuring in my nightmares for a long time to come, with his hunched shoulders, spider-long arms and legs, and advanced super-orbital development. Seriously, words cannot describe how perfectly suited Yevgrafov was for this role. I have never in all my life seen evil so perfectly personified.
While overall the series remains quite true to Canon, it does deviate in several areas, though, oddly enough, most of these deviations do not distract from the stories. I have touched on episodic deviations below, but I will comment briefly on some of the larger deviations here:
Perhaps the biggest deviation is Holmes’ cocaine use. In short: Holmes does not use cocaine during this series. It is notably absent. Whether this was intentional due to cultural issues (or government regulation at the time) or simply decided against, I do not know, but it is quite interesting to see a Holmes without this vice. Despite what would have been my assumption (that Holmes would appear less as a character without this trait) the result is, in fact, the opposite. To watch Holmes battle his own mind, which still rebels against stagnation, and find other outlets, was quite delightful. Perhaps I simply live in an era which is over-saturated with on screen drug use, but I rather enjoyed seeing a clean, sober Holmes.
Watson’s marriage to Miss Morstan is yet another dramatic deviation in this series. Not only does he meet and marry Mary after Holmes’ return from Reichenbach, but he also remains married to her throughout the end of the series, Mary present long after Holmes retires and moves to Sussex to keep bees (and fight German spies). This tends to make the series less slashy as it progresses, though the viewer will soon agree that Holmes and Watson remain very much in love, Mary’s presence doing little to lessen the bond between them.
Acquaintance combines the Holmes/Watson introduction found in A Study in Scarlet with a shortened version of A Speckled Band. Oddly enough, the two stories work quite well together and make for a very engaging hour of television. It is a wonderful treat to see an on screen interpretation of Holmes and Watson’s first meeting, and this series doesn’t disappoint. While it does not follow Canon exactly, all of the essential elements have been included. This episode also provides us our first look at Baker Street. While, indeed, it is quite impressive how able the series is to transform Soviet Russia into Victorian England, there is still a decidedly Russian flair to all of the sets, and this includes Baker Street. Baker Street comes across as quite gloomy: dark wood, dark fabric, dark walls, dark lighting. All in all Baker Street is quite sombre and very ornately Eastern. The set is also laid out differently, with the sitting room down a level from a landing where the bedrooms are, only a few stairs up from street level. It is not quite the Baker Street of Canon, but it is certainly an interesting interpretation.
Of course, perhaps the most striking element of all in this, our introduction to the series, is the slash. Livanov and Solomin have tremendous chemistry right from the start. In fact, upon meeting Watson for the first time, Holmes’ first act is to ogle him several times over (to Holmes’ credit, Watson was wearing a snug, very flattering pair of trousers). Watson, who is at first amused by Holmes, is quite smug regarding Holmes’ open appraisal. Their agreement to take rooms together, along with the interaction between Holmes/Watson and Stamford (and I’m fairly certain Stamford and Watson were more than mere friends, especially if the latter bicycle scene is any indication) is simply delightful from a slash perspective.
This vein continues throughout the episode. Shortly after Watson moves in, we are treated to the sight of Holmes snooping through Watson’s belongings in Watson’s bedroom, a theme which continues throughout this episode, Holmes’ curiosity where Watson is concerned becoming quite apparent. This curiosity later shifts to something more, and throughout the first half of the episode we see Holmes actively wooing a slightly baffled Watson, as though Holmes has satisfied himself as to Watson’s character and is now quite intent on keeping Watson around. It takes Watson a little longer to warm up to Holmes; indeed, at first he is quite suspicious of Holmes, going so far as keep a loaded weapon on his person, protection against the man he is now certain is a criminal mastermind.
It is in fact this last assumption of Watson’s which leads to perhaps the slashiest scene of all. Watson, bent on confronting Holmes, proposes a boxing match, to which Holmes readily agrees. The pair strip down into their underwear, head into Watson’s bedroom, and begin boxing, the scene ending with Holmes knocking Watson down onto his bed. Words cannot describe the suggestiveness of this scene. It is, of course, here that Watson discovers that Holmes is not a criminal, but, rather, a private detective. After this, the two become quite close, Watson warming up to Holmes considerably, offering him smiles, blushes, compliments and even assistance with his cases. This transformation is quite endearing, not to mention adorable.
Slash aside, the episode itself is quite good. The story of the Speckled Band is authentically told, with a wonderful cast, well suited to their roles. The story even one-ups Canon, solving the “snakes are deaf” problem quite delightfully. That being said, there are other authentic adaptations, and what truly sets this one apart is the slash.
While I am not sure why the name was changed, Bloody Inscription is, in fact, A Study in Scarlet, without the Holmes/Watson introduction (which was transferred to Acquaintance). Remaining fairly true to Canon, the episode is quite charming, Holmes and Watson clearly growing closer, in this, the series’ second episode.
Bloody Inscriptions opens with a dramatization of the VR wall inscription scene found in The Musgrave Ritual. This is quite a lovely scene, for it takes place in Holmes’ bedroom, forcing Watson to enter Holmes’ bedroom in order to rescue Holmes from what he suspects is an attempted murder. When he witnesses Holmes’ indoor revolver practice, rather than leaving, he decides to stick around, chat with Holmes, not five feet from Holmes’ bed. Truly, it’s a lovely scene.
Made even more so by the touching. There is a lot of touching in this episodes: little shoulder squeezes, hands brushing, and, later, a hansom cab cuddle. Yes, you read that correctly. In a deviation from Canon, Watson decides to rush off and play detective on his own, only to find himself knocked unconscious by their suspect. It is Holmes who comes to Watson’s rescue, and then leads Watson back to Baker Street. Suffering a slight concussion, however, Watson is forced to curl into Holmes’ waiting arms throughout the cab ride home, Holmes offering his comfort and sympathy by petting Watson’s hair. Yes. Petting. Watson does not complain.
This really is a great episode for Holmes and Watson. Watson is so utterly excited by his role in assisting Holmes with the case that he literally vibrates. And Holmes is so pleased to have finally met someone who is so interested in his work that he positively beams. He then goes out of his way to woo Watson (by wearing striking red suits which, while normally I would think out of character for Holmes, is so utterly hot that I found my protests vanishing alongside my assumption that Holmes was not meant to be attractive).
The interplay between the two continues, with Watson taking an active role in the investigation. He sustains his second injury towards the end of the episode, their suspect once again getting in a hit (although this time it’s a kick, in a location few men desire). It is telling that Watson, upon clutching his crotch, cries out: “Sherlock!”
This episode also deviates in that it introduces (without a formal introduction), Holmes’ brother, Mycroft. Granted, the introduction is made in passing, Holmes spotting his brother outside the window. Liberties have been taken with Mycroft, too, who is married and the father of a son. We also get to meet Gregson, who appears in the guise of an Italian Don. Actually, I believe this is simply character interpretation, but either way, I can’t say it really worked all that well for me. Fortunately, I am starting to rather warm-up to Lestrade so between him and Mrs. Hudson’s Lestrade fangirling it is easy enough to ignore the odd portrayal of Gregson.
The episode ends with a very condensed version of The Country of Saints, the anti-Mormon message of Doyle’s original novel still coming across quite strongly. As Jefferson Hope is led away to prison, Holmes and Watson curl up next to the fire, Watson, much to Holmes’ delight, announcing his intention to write up Holmes’ cases. The tenderness and love in this scene is worth the five pipe rating alone.
As the title suggests, this is a dramatization of Charles Augustus Milverton, and follows, more or less, the original Canon. The story opens, not in Baker Street, but on a train, Holmes and Watson being domestic (perhaps post train porn?) during their return trip from a successfully solved case. Watson is delightful in the opening of this episode, for it is quite clear he has become quite the love struck puppy where Holmes is concerned. The gazing alone was enough to render me insensible with squee.
Finally, we get a proper introduction to Mycroft, who quickly convinced me that he was well cast for the role. He is far more polished than the Mycroft of Canon, but one can have little doubt that this is indeed Holmes’ older brother. The brothers proceed to engage in deductive banter, much to Watson’s amazement and delight. It is clear they are trying to impress Watson (and, indeed, Holmes, upon a later solo visit to Mycroft, suggests exactly this). The Diogenese club is striking, exactly as I pictured it (with perhaps a little too much eastern decor, but that can be said for everything in this series). It is Mycroft, in the end, who brings Holmes Lady Eva’s blackmail case.
Our introduction to Milverton is interesting, too. Milverton is a very polished character, quite professional and business-like. I got the impression that he was more concerned with money than anything else, which is exactly as he should have been. Despite this, the character did seem kind of off for me, though I still can’t put my finger on why. Still, Holmes and Watson’s meeting with Milverton necessitated some Holmes/Watson hand touching, so I’m not willing to complain.
Holmes as Escott and Watson as a detective are too charming for words. I giggled with glee watching Watson attempts at subtlety, all while Holmes had already infiltrated the enemy house. Watson gets quite caught up in his role, returning to Holmes to describe Milverton’s house in romantic detail. He is infuriated and quite hurt to learn that it was Holmes who passed him on the street, dressed as a working man. The tiff that results from Holmes’ announcement of his engagement to Miverton’s house maid is simply the gayest thing I have ever seen (complete with Watson storming off in a huff).
Their discussion turns to burglary, Holmes and Watson getting quite close as they discuss how best to get into Milverton’s house. At times, with Holmes’ arm around Watson’s shoulder, they are literally inches from kissing. This continues, with Watson blushing and giggling at Holmes’ compliments, then sneaking about at Holmes’ side, the pair touching and whispering and standing entirely too close for mere friends and partners. In fact, were it not for what followed, I think this alone would have made this one of my favourite episode.
Sadly, however, perhaps in ode to the Rathbone films of old, they had to turn Watson into a bungling burglar (not that Holmes was much better). It surprises me utterly that the police weren’t able to trace them, Watson leaving footprints, a handkerchief, and a shoe behind. This after breaking into the house and making about as much noise as a heard of elephants. The burglary sequence was, quite frankly, distressing. This is only marginally improved upon by the scene in which they cuddle behind Milverton’s curtain, though the episode is made twice as bad by the arrival of Milverton’s murderess, the actress chosen to play this role so woolen it was hard not to fall asleep during her little speech and emotionless shooting.
In the end, the episode ends well enough, with Holmes refusing the case, and Watson lamenting his idiocy. They manage to tie Moriarty into the affair, the episode ending in a cliffhanger. Overall, if one could remove the house breaking bungling, this would be quite the admirable episode. It is still worth watching for the slash alone.
No Sherlock Holmes series would be complete without the introduction of Professor James Moriarty. Deadly Fight is this series’ version of The Final Problem, the episode skillfully blending Canon with interpretation in order to create a stunning tribute to Holmes’s greatest battle.
There are a good number of deviations from Canon, and while most of these would likely be considered unnecessary, at the same time, they were done exceptionally well, creating a rather gripping telling of an old story. I spent a good portion of my time watching this in complete suspense: not an easy thing for someone who has read FINA countless times. They do a good job of tying Moriarty into past cases as well (something Canon failed to do), tying Moriarty to Milverton in an effort to show the extensiveness of Moriarty’s network. This does require the altering of some sets (i.e. Holmes meets Moriarty in Milverton’s old study), but doesn’t distract from the story. We are also given more background into the Moran/Adar hostilities, Watson becoming an involuntary witness to their feud.
Delightfully, we get to bear witness to the burning of Baker Street, although Watson, sans wife, is home at the time, and must contend with extinguishing the flames.
Some of the deviations are a little strange and serve neither to enhance, nor distract from the story, For example, rather than hiring a train, Moriarty appears in a steam powered car. Perhaps someone on the set possessed said vehicle and wished to show it off. Trivial things, however, and overall they are easy enough to ignore.
The episode is also quite noteworthy in that it is quite slashy. Holmes and Watson are adorable in this episode, especially near the beginning, with Holmes sharing some of his older cases, Watson listening intently, the pair falling into verbal games. Later, we are treated to Watson keeping notes for a case, except, when the audience is allowed a glimpse of these notes, it turns out that Watson has spent the better part of his time sketching Sherlock Holmes. One suspects he likely has a notebook stored under his bed, in which he has doodled his name and Holmes’s inside of great hearts over and over and over again. Yes, Doctor John Holmes has a lovely ring to it. Later, while investigating Moran at his club, Holmes and Watson have plenty of cause to lean in close to one another, at times so close they were, for all intents and purpose, on the verge of kissing. Also, we are treated to Holmes in drag. I don’t think that needs elaboration.
When they finally reach the continent, they have, what appears to be, a jolly jaunt through the whole of Switzerland. Nowhere can we find the air of two men fleeing for their lives. This is, instead, a vacation, and a romantic one at that.
Slash aside, the most delightful aspect of this episode is the appearance Professor Moriarty. He is simply fantastic. Viktor Yevgrafov is brilliantly cast in the role, his Moriarty quite possibly the most sinister and creepy villain in the history of television. His performance calls to mind a great spider, sitting so brilliantly at the centre of its web, sensing all that is criminal throughout the whole of London. There were many times when I felt a chill, simply watching the graceful elegance of his movements. I suspect, were I to meet his Moriarty in a dark alley, I would likely faint dead away before my flight or fight instinct kicked in.
It is perhaps Yevgrafov’s performance that makes the Holmes/Moriarty fight at the falls the highlight of this episode. His performance is spectacular. They really couldn’t have better cast this role. The sombre, seriousness of the fight, the eerie backdrop of music, the perfectly choreographed movements; the entire sequence became Canon in my mind. I wish there were words to describe its brilliance, but since I cannot call them to mind, I must only urge you, again, to beg, borrow, and steal to get your hands on a copy of this episode. The fight scene alone is worth every penny.
If the fight scene was spectacular, Watson’s reaction to Holmes’ demise is a masterpiece. Props to Solomin for portraying such utter dejection and despair so convincingly. There were times when I was certain Watson was seconds from throwing himself over the ledge, following the imagined journey of his friend and thus ending the partnership permanently. My only complaint with this scene was the presence of Holmes and Watson’s innkeeper, whose backstory was oddly misplaced, and whose presence (and lamenting) at the side of the falls was distracting. A shame, because otherwise the scene was the epitome of brilliance. As an aside, it is also interesting to note that Holmes’s letter views in English, something I found quite strange, unless the substitution was made and re-filmed for the subtitles (which I doubt, but otherwise Russian audiences would have seen an English note).
So ends this episode, but the thread is picked up in its companion:
Hunt for the Tiger
Hunt for the Tiger picks up where Mortal Fight ends, with the telling of The Empty House. The first half of the episode follows Watson through his period of mourning (though, and it is possibly a mistranslation on the subtitles, it appears as though Holmes is only gone a month, rather than three full years). In addition to wearing a black band of mourning, and walking around in a grey, sombre fog, Watson also spends some time nuzzling Holmes’ violin, more time crying, and even more time trying to follow Holmes’ last orders; an act which prompts Watson to wear Holmes’s clothes. One cannot watch Watson’s obsession here without becoming utterly convinced of his affection and love for Holmes.
Sadly, this is not the first episode to play the Watson’s a bumbling idiot card, and like Master Blackmailer, the antics fail miserably here as well. Watson, by this point, has spent years following Holmes, observing his methods, acting as his shadow, so it is inconceivable that he would so badly bungle an investigation as to end up Scotland Yard’s prime suspect! This is, unfortunately, not the only quibble in this episode. Sadly, we are again subject to one of Moriarty’s henchman, whom I have dubbed the Wolfman, for he appears as such, complete with fangs. His presence and appearance, though meant to be menacing, were quite distracting. Fortunately, neither of these two oddities last particularly long, and soon enough we are treated to the reunion.
Before I get to said momentous occasion, I must take one moment to applaud Vasily for his bookseller portrayal. Delightful, simply delightful.
I want to spend countless hours pointing out every nuance of the reunion scene. I have actually written, in my notes:
If that’s not love, I don’t know what is!!!!
Followed by six or seven poorly drawn hearts. Somewhere down the page, I doodle (much like Watson) HWs, this time surrounded by those same poorly drawn hearts. It really is that lovely a scene. Watson faints. Holmes lovingly revives him. Holmes cries. Watson cries. They touch each other. Watson hugs Holmes. Wait, let me repeat that. Watson HUGS Holmes. Full body, completely crushing hug. It is a thing of great beauty. Watson is giddy at Holmes’s return. Holmes is affectionate, adoring even. In short, they are both completely in love.
And it doesn’t end there, because, in addition to Holmes’s now continual staring at Watson (like he can’t take in enough detail), we also get Watson blushing and stammering, both equally adorable as he tries, and fails, to suppress his glee at having Holmes home. Then, just as we were beginning to recover from the above scenes, we are treated, without subtext, to the kiss scene.
Yes, the kiss scene.
While awaiting Moran in the empty house, Watson reaches out, takes off Holmes’ hat (after a moment’s hesitation and Holmes’s nod), Holmes grinning and removing his glasses, before Watson leans forward, intending to close the distance between them, Holmes’s mouth falling open as he leans forward, the space between them lessening until… they hear Moran’s footsteps on the stairs, Holmes having just enough time to jump clear of Watson’s arms before their would-be assassin enters the room (though not before Holmes covers Watson’s mouth with his hand and drags him into the back corner). The resulting fight with Moran, with Holmes losing, and Watson coming to his rescue, was inspired brilliance; enough to forgive Moran for the aborted kiss scene.
So ends the two episode telling of Holmes’s demise and resurrection, the two most momentous occasions of the whole of the Canon, coming together into two beautifully crafted episodes.
The Hound of the Baskervilles
I am quite torn in regards to this episode, and while I suspect this is simply because I have seen so many Hound adaptations, the bar, on occasion, set particularly high, I wonder if I am also biased by my most recent reading of Hound, which, being mere weeks ago, has not yet faded from memory.
There are many things about this version of Hound which are delightful. The opening scene, complete with the well polished coffee pot and Watson’s attempts to deduce via Dr. Mortimer’s stick, is brilliantly done. I am also delighted to note that the Persian slipper makes an appearance. In fact, in many ways this version of Hound is one of the more true to Canon adaptations I have seen, and for that it should be applauded.
The adaptation does, however, deviate in one area, and that is with the portrayal of Sir Henry. It is this portrayal which, unfortunately, takes what would otherwise be the best Hound adaptation to date, and lowers it to one of my least favourites. We will return to the problem of Sir Henry in moment. To start, I want to talk about the things I did enjoy:
Sir Henry aside, the remaining cast of characters (well, perhaps not Mrs Barrymore, who was more annoying than Sir Henry, if that can be believed) were brilliant. I adored Dr. Mortimer and his dog Snoopy. I enjoyed Mr. Barrymore’s aloof silence. I was even taken in by the Stapletons, Frankland, and Laura Lyons. All things considered, the vast majority of secondary characters were portrayed quite convincingly.
The story was also particularly chilling, which is hard to do with such a well known story. It begins immediately, the flashbacks to Sir Hugo’s death exceptionally well done, followed almost immediately by Dr. Mortimer’s chilling: They were the footprints of a gigantic hound! Really, the dark, late winter-early spring atmosphere, along with gloomy, damp, dark sets, made for the perfect backdrop to the story. The attention to detail in the sets and costumes, too, really transported the viewer onto the moor. They even went so far as to outfit the post office with a portrait of Queen Victoria. Visually, it is easily one of the most pleasing versions of Hound I have seen to date.
The story is also quite slashy, despite the fact that Holmes is absent for most of it. Right from the start Holmes and Watson are close, Livanov an extremely tactile Holmes, who quite enjoys touching Watson, leaning into Watson, and even, twice, hugging Watson. There is even a delightful scene where Holmes lights Dr. Mortimer’s cigar while Watson glares at them with blatant jealousy. Holmes makes up for it later by wearing his burgundy coat. I’m sure Watson appreciated it as much as I did. As if Holmes in red wasn’t lovely enough, we are even treated to Watson blushing prettily over Holmes’s compliments.
I confess; Hound has never been my favourite story, Holmes’s absence keenly felt, but this is a well done version in terms of their relationship. I have no doubt, whatsoever, that these two were quite in love, even separated by countless miles of countryside (or so Watson assumed). The subtextual elements of the story manage to transcend to the film version, which almost makes up for the deplorability of Sir Henry.
As I mentioned above, my biggest problem with this adaptation was Sir Henry. The character is a gross exaggeration of what I imagine Russians imagine American cowboys to be. He appears, alongside some banjo music, wearing chaps, a fur coat, and carrying a saddle. He then proceeds to buzz around obnoxiously like some sort of Victorian used car salesman. He is clearly meant only for comedic relief, and it distracts from the film. This is made a thousand times worse by the fact that he is clearly an idiot, a coward, and apparently an alcoholic. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such blatant character assassination. In fact, the only time Sir Henry proves even remotely entertaining is when he’s mooning over Miss Stapleton, but I suspect this was merely due to his complete ridiculousness (the man actually rides off on his horse while shooting randomly over the moor, all in his frustration over the Stapletons — truly the character of an American cowboy, straight out of the wild wild west). Fortunately, it is quite apparent that Watson dislikes Sir Henry almost as much as we do. I suspect he’s going to punish Holmes for forcing him to live with this man.
There is one other strange element in this episode. During the scenes filmed in outdoor “London” it was obvious that extras were not hired to fill the streets, therefore Baker Street comes across almost as a ghost town. It was quite odd, especially because this is not the case in other episodes. Fortunately, as I mentioned above, both the moor and Baskerville Hall were fantastically done.
As with any version of Hound, the moment of truth comes, not from Sir Henry, or Dr. Mortimer, or even Holmes and Watson, but rather, from the appearance of the hound. This wasn’t the worst hound I’ve ever seen, but it certainly isn’t the best. It amounts to a Great Dane wearing a halloween mask. I am, however, willing to forgive the low-budget dog, as this was filmed during the early 80s, and in Soviet Russia, no less.
The Treasures of Agra
Spanning two episodes, The Treasures of Agra intertwines the telling of an abbreviated version of A Scandal in Bohemia, with A Sign of the Four. I haven’t the faintest notion why it was decided to merge these two stories, and while I perhaps could have done without the retelling of SCAN, it seemed to work, paralleling Watson’s courtship with Mary with Holmes’s brief encounter with Irene Adler, the episodes coming across as quite romantic.
I should probably mention that this is by far my least favourite episode. I’m sure that comes as no surprise, given my dislike of Adler (though not for the reasons one might think – I actually object to the character’s motives in blackmailing the king, only to withdraw her threats upon finding the love of a “better” man, something which I feel makes Adler one of the weakest female characters in Canon, but that is a subject for another day, another essay).
It is not all bad, of course; in fact, overall, the story is delightful. Watson’s mooning over Mary is quite well done (hilarious, in fact), his awkwardness and uncertainty completely adorable. Mary is a little woolen in this episode, seeming often bored and uninterested (in not just Watson, but pretty much everything), which only makes Watson’s seeming obsession with her that much more comical. Were he not Watson, I perhaps would have found their interplay a little creepy, but knowing Watson as we do, one cannot help but find his dorky shyness endearing. It is pleasing, too, to note Holmes’s objection to the Watson/Mary romance, Holmes quite horrified by the prospect of Watson leaving him for a wife (indeed, in the final scene, when Watson announces their engagement, Holmes is devastated, chocking back tears — it’s a very touching scene.
The adaptation is startlingly true to Canon (save a few minor detail changes –such as replacing the local Inspector with Lestrade, eliminating Holmes’s cocaine use, and renaming the steam launch Diana), the episode at times lifting the dialogue directly from Canon. The attention to detail, too, is stunning. In fact, I even commented to my husband that Solomin’s Watson runs like an old British soldier (knees up!), which, in fact, is exactly how Watson would have run . It’s the little things (the trifles, as it were) that make this series so great. It is quite obvious that its creators/producers/actors/writers/etc. were immense fans of the original Canon, and so strove to do it justice. They succeed quite admirably. I was especially impressed by the interspersing of London sets with Russian sets (I believe St. Petersburg is where this episode was filmed) during the Thames steam boat chase scene. It was very exciting to recognize several landmarks.
Thaddeus Sholto takes a little getting used to, the character even more over the top than the Sholto of Canon. Still, the character comes across, adding an interesting dimension to the story. Jonathan Small, too, is interestingly cast, slightly more savage than one would expect, but still recognizable. In fact, the only real character complaint one can make is in the casting of Tonga (who is, quite literally, a middle-aged white man wearing a shaggy wig), but his appearance is so brief it can be forgiven. Perhaps, however, the best character casting of all is the casting of Toby, who in this adaptation is an English Bulldog (a breed not known for their scenting abilities, I know, but suspend your disbelief for a moment). I confess, as an avid “Bully” fan (I myself am owned by a Bully named Thaddeus) I was thrilled to see my favourite breed in the role.
In the SCAN adaptation, there are really only two characters of note, the King, who appears as an overwrought, almost hysterical wreck, and Irene Adler, who does little except float around while orchastratic music plays in the background. It is really hard to understand exactly why Holmes was portrayed as so utterly awestruck over the woman. Certainly she was attractive, though only in the same way a fine piece of art is attractive. Sadly, this is not the series to redeem Adler’s character.
While not perhaps the most slash-friendly episode of this series, the viewer is still treated to a number of slashy scenes, all of which lend weight to Holmes’s devastation at losing Watson. It is obvious, throughout the two-parter, that Holmes is quite keen on keeping Watson for himself. At one point, shortly before climbing out onto the Sholto’s roof, Holmes actually straddles Watson, so that Watson is, quite literally, pressed between Holmes’s legs. Later, we are treated to Holmes and Watson dozing side by side next to the fire in Baker Street, and when Watson begins lamenting over Mary, Holmes attempts to win him back with his infamous serenading scene. In the second episode, there is an entire scene in which Holmes and Watson stand nose-to-nose conversing, the camera panning in dramatically, which, along with the sudden swell of music, had me convinced they were about to kiss. I was actually surprised when they didn’t, until I remembered this was reality and not the lovely places my brain has a tendency to visit.
Overall, it’s a lovely adaptation of two of the more famous stories from Canon, and while neither story has ever been a personal favourite, their filming was admirably done.
The Twentieth Century Begins
Another two episode arch, and easily the best of the entire series, The Twentieth Century Begins skillfully melds together four stories: The Engineer’s Thumb, The Second Stain, The Bruce Partington Plans, and His Last Bow.
Set in the years leading up to the the first world war, we are first swept away by a retelling of ENGR, the series’ writers suggesting that the story’s plot of counterfeiting is in fact a German plot to disrupt the balance of economic power between England and Germany, part of Germany’s pre-WWI planning stage. This later bleeds into SECO, when we see that the counterfeiter in ENGR becomes Eduardo Lucas in SECO (readers will recall that it was Lucas whose bloodstain didn’t correspond to the stain under the carpet). Again, the stealing of a letter from Trelawney Hope’s dispatch box becomes part of German plot to set in motion the first world war.
German plots continue, this time with Oberstein attempting to purchase the plans of the Bruce-Partington submarine in a re-telling of BRUC. A small change is made here, Oberstein bringing the plans to Von Bork of LAST fame. It is simply amazing how seamlessly these four unrelated stories were woven together, creating what is quite possibly the most intriguing and ingenious Canon re-telling ever to grace the screen. Even if the reader decides against watching this series (which I do not recommend doing), they should at the very least watch Twentieth Century Begins, as it truly is not only the best of the entire series, but simply the best Sherlock Holmes television I have ever seen.
Although these episodes are worth seeing for their plot alone, they are also considerably well filmed, again with complete attention to detail, the sets, costumes, language, and props all very much in keeping with the early part of the twentieth century. The loyalty to Canon, too, can be seen throughout this episode, even though so much of it has been adapted. For example, although this takes place after Holmes’s “retirement” to Sussex, Watson is still quite married to Mary (although in the episodes, she appears more as a put-out housekeeper than a wife, and Watson treats her accordingly –I actually felt ridiculously bad for Mary, the poor, neglected thing). Despite this small change, Holmes and Watson are exactly as they appear in the later Canon (complete with Holmes raising his bees), though here it is suggested that they have kept in very close contact throughout Holmes’s retirement, Watson visiting often.
In another change, Mycroft’s role has been expanded, Mycroft the centre of pre-WWI British intelligence, urging his brother back into action while he skillfully and carefully runs the country from behind his desk (and occasionally gas mask). Watson, too, is expanded upon, this Watson Holmes’s equal partner. Part of what I adore about this entire series is the treatment of Watson (most of the time), Watson generally shown as intelligent, capable, loyal, brave; everything we as readers have ever known Watson to be. I adore that so many of Holmes’s Canon lines and deductions were given to Watson, making Watson every inch a detective in his own right, and while perhaps the ending might have been better written, I must still applaud the writers for recognizing Watson’s significance and importance.
If good storytelling and wonderful characterization isn’t enough, there is always the subtext. Like the rest of this series, Twentieth Century Begins is hardly light on the subtext. Holmes and Watson are very much together in these episodes, their relationship as strong as ever, the bond between them unquestionable. We see this in everything: from the way they sit together, knee to knee next to the fire, to the way Watson teases Holmes when Holmes can’t figure out how to work a telephone, Watson walking Holmes through the process while Holmes drapes his arm over Watson’s shoulder and leans into his friend. If this isn’t enough, we are also treated to Holmes and Watson on a date, watching the latest in motion picture technology. Regardless of the scene involved, whether they’re gazing at one another, leaning on one another, or simply standing at one another’s side, the love between them is painfully obvious.
This is not, of course, to suggest that the episodes are perfect; they are not. There are a number of scenes I could have done without, such as Lestrade’s crying during the confrontation scene in BRUC (and I still have no idea why Colonel Valentine Walter’s story of crushing debts brought Lestrade to tears), or Watson’s complete lack of faith in Holmes during the final scene of the LAST segment (were we honestly expected to believe that Watson thought Holmes was betraying his country?), but aside from these minor problems, the episodes really are outstanding. The same, in fact, can be said for the entire series.
I’ve said it repeatedly now, but I will say it again: this is, quite possibly, the best Sherlock Holmes adaptation ever filmed. Livanov and Solomin have redefined Holmes and Watson for me, and considering how many actors have come before them, this is quite the accomplishment.
But it is not simply the casting of this series which makes it so outstanding. It is the dedication to Canon, the attention to detail, seen in every scene, every set, every costume, every line of dialogue; in short, the whole of the series is a testament to Doyle’s detective, and for that reason alone it is worth watching, repeatedly.
Even without the slash this series would be worth watching, the blatant subtext only adding to the delightfulness of an otherwise perfect series. For the student of subtext, we are doubly blessed, because this series is probably the slashiest series I have seen (either that or the subtitlest was a slasher), allowing the viewer a glimpse into the potential of Holmes/Watson, something very few adaptations have been willing to explore.
There really are not enough good things I can say about this series. I will simply conclude with this:
Watch it. Trust me.