Sherlock Holmes in the 21st century

The fascination that literature’s arguably best detective exercised in the popular Victorian imagination can be summed up in a single fact: such was his influence and appeal that Arthur Conan Doyle was compelled to bring his protagonist back to life by making him hold onto a tuft of grass, after having thrown him off the edge of a waterfall, into certain death. Yet, Sherlock’s resurrection wasn’t confined to the literary world alone.

Generations of writers and film-makers have reinvented and reimagined Doyle’s cultural icon in novel ways be it Robert Downey’s eccentric, James Bond-esque cross-dressing Victorian hero or Jeremey Brett’s iconic performances or the American sitcom Elementary that casts the role of Dr.Watson as a female surgeon.

But perhaps the most popular readaptation of the Holmes and Watson adventures in recent times has been the BBC 3 seasons-and-counting TV series, Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the lead roles. As a child I’d grown up watching an earlier British version and reading my mother’s tattered copy of The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, so naturally I was rather sceptical when a friend of mine lent me the first season of 21st century Sherlock with claims that it was mind blowing and easily the best thing on TV today.  For the next few months, I procrastinated in watching it citing some odd excuse or the other, till finally on Christmas Eve after returning from a party, I switched on the laptop to get an idea of what the whole fuss was all about.
Of course, I was completely unprepared for the sleepless night that followed, the purchase of DVDs with my own pocket money the very next day and the immensely-satisfying binge watching session with popcorn and chocolate that comprised the best Christmas of my life. The ways of Santa Claus are indeed subtle.

So what is it about the BBC Sherlock that has spawned a cult following on tumblr, a trove of fan fiction and a worldwide fan club to rival the likes of Star Wars or Harry Potter, that too with only three 90-minute episodes per season and a considerable time-gap between one season and the next? And after all, the geek subculture always tended to favour fantasy over crime and mystery.

The answer to this may be a bit complex. As advertised, Sherlock reimagines the Victorian detective in the 21st century settings, a world of GPS-enabled smart phone-wielding citizens, time bombs and nefarious terrorist activities. Modern day Sherlock still has a flat on 221 B Baker Street with a skull on the mantelpiece (‘a friend of mine’) and a stellar website called “The Science Of Deduction”.  Like the Victorian Sherlock, he has a profound knowledge of chemistry (he keeps human eyes in the microwave as part of an experiment), acute powers of perception (he can identify a software designer by his tie) and a history of drug use and smoking habits (he uses nicotine patches now). Dr Watson of course does not write about their “ridiculous adventures”, he blogs about them.

Thus by keeping the leading characters, their quirks and eccentricities as well as certain canonical details perfectly intact, BBC has made the transition from Victorian to contemporary society seamless and unnoticeable- a world where nothing from Doyle’s tales feels out of place. Except for Molly Hooper, a pathologist, all other pivotal characters including Sherlock’s arch nemesis have been faithfully borrowed from Doyle’s pages.
Episode-wise, the show can be regarded as a mixture of crime and drama. The initial episodes, notably A Study In Pink and The Great Game focussed on mystifying cases that had Scotland Yard out of their depths and turning to Sherlock for his help and had carefully constructed plotlines that combined Doyle’s stories with the writer’s own imagination and showcased what Sherlock easily excelled at: crime solving. Famous scenes and iconic moments, including the original waterfall scene, are referenced and reinvented with clever plot twists, that no doubt render the show engaging to an intellectual audience.

Yet, I believe that the show’s chief success lies not in its 21st century reimagination but rather in its subtle delving into the enigma that is Sherlock, a man whom Watson writes of as a “calculating machine”, devoid of empathy and a self-described “high-functioning sociopath”, who considers “sentiment” to be a “chemical defect found in the losing side”.
When we did Sherlock Holmes in class, our professor considered him as the embodiment of both the Romantic and the Enlightenment strains-the figure of the brooding, isolated artist, separated from the herd by his genius, a Byronic hero of sorts, mixed with the cold logic and reason of the Enlightenment era. And indeed, the show revisits these tropes repeatedly whether it be the scene where Sherlock stands alone atop a cliff in The Hound Of The Baskervilles or when Sherlock after delivering a splendid best man speech leaves the dancing crowd of the wedding early and disappears into the night.

Thus, the show isn’t so much about the classic locked room murder mysteries as it is about human relationships in an urban era. Sherlock and the supporting cast of John, Mary, Molly, Mrs.Hudson and DI Lestrade are all complex and evolving characters with a past. Thus embedded into the crime narratives are commentaries on love and friendship, trust and betrayal, companionship, loneliness and alienation. Doyle’s hero is thus injected with a fresh sense of ambiguous humanism that somehow simply makes him a more real and credible character than another Sherlock seen on screen, and therein lies the show’s magic.

There are of course two types of people who watch Sherlock: the die-hard fans of the Doyle original who enjoy the plot twists and references to the apocrypha and those who are not as familiar with the genre, who nevertheless relish the intelligent humour, the clever characterisation and the excellent story-telling.  And in the end, it does not matter which category you belong to-either way Sherlock promises one and a half hours of death-defying thrill, incisive wit, hilarity and deductive prowess. TV seriously hasn’t been this good for a long, long time.

Previously published in Voices, The Statesman

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