The Inquisitive Genius of Sherlock

More than elementary deduction, this contemporary crime drama leaves plenty for viewers to wrap their minds around. Magnifiers ready, spoilers ahead.

Being easily bored is no excuse for rudeness. Of course, what’s a ‘gritty, modern reimagining’ without a dose of verbal swagger? As such, first impressions of Benedict Cumberbatch as Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective in Sherlock, updated for a contemporary audience by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, can leave a bitter taste. The Sherlock Holmes of the 21st century is a frustrated, work-obsessed loner – yet, through the course of three hour-and-a-half episodes, it’s difficult not to trust that there’s a method to his madness.

Gatiss and Moffat, who are also responsible for Doctor Who, have based a lot of this first series around the meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson. Watson (Martin Freeman) does a lot of playing-it-straight it must be said, but, in contrast to Holmes’ unorthodox deductions, he’s instantly likeable and the audience’s emotional barometer. Their personalities are worlds apart compared to the chummy, rough-and-readiness of Guy Ritchie’s Hollywood duo. Watching the complex dichotomy between these two men forms the foundation of Sherlock.

The scripts for the series pull material from Conan Doyle’s original novels – the first, ‘A Study in Pink’, is roughly based on A Study in Scarlet. The cases all feature impressive deductions from Holmes. How the producers show off his keen intellect is to rapidly flick between points as Holmes monologues. Not quite original, but contemporary nonetheless. It’s not difficult to miss information if you’re not paying attention, and at 90 minutes some audience members just aren’t going to make it to the bottom.

Far more interesting than the crime scenes themselves is how modern technology is used as a plot device, not just communicating messages between characters but to the audience as well. Internet-connected smartphones play a very important role, as Holmes and Watson receive vital information and messages from their illusive quarries. And instead of running off to the library of public records, they use the internet to browser for leads and patterns right from the scene of the crime. This is cleverly displayed to the audience as brief floating messages – silently breaking the fourth wall while the actors carry on as usual. The BBC has taken this further still with several fictitious websites, such as Dr Watson’s blog, that exist beyond the show. This intriguing use of technology as a plot driver is one of Sherlock best feats.

Much like the unusual consultant detective, Sherlock expects its audience to keep up or clear off. OK, that may be putting it a little too harshly, but the show makes no qualms about the fact that its eventual denouement can only be fully understood by those that have witnessed the episode in its entirety. It’s filled with red herrings and false leads aimed at giving the characters the run-around. And when it’s not steeped in crime-solving dialogue, the occasional humorous moment, like Watson being nicked for suspected graffiti, lets the steam off. With the exception of episodes two’s second half which I found a little too by the numbers, the show’s grand reveals successfully fool the audience with some astonishing truths. Episode one’s terminally ill serial killer was a smart touch. But I bet no one saw episode three coming.

Yes, Jim, the gay from IT, was actually Moriarty. It was a bold step by the creators to make a seemingly harmless character Holmes’ nemesis. The final scene of episode three was also a neat exemplar of the bond between Holmes and Watson. Throughout this series, Holmes is shown to be a brilliant thinker, unconcerned with the trivialities of ‘normal life’ nearly to the point of heartlessness. Watson, though uncertain of Holmes’ methods, isn’t afraid to add the courage to their partnership when it’s most needed. On a level playing field with his intellectual double and occupational opposite, we see a more human side to Holmes: a refusal to give up Watson.

It’s almost as smart as it thinks it is, but there’s no doubt that Gatiss and Moffat’s modernisation of the legendary detective is wickedly entertaining. Now, if they can condense each episode down to an hour, then we’re really on to something.

Aaron Lee

  • nick

    I thought that ‘Sherlock’ was an interesting and insightful production by the BBC, that merged a devout homage to the books and offered an interesting contrast to Ritchie’s modernised edition of a Victorian story, with a classical and romantic touch on a modern setting.

    Having been a victim of the Holmes-Hype that surrounded the well known director’s film, I was reluctant to view the BBC instalments; assuming they would be a simplistic attempt to jump on the band wagon and make some DVD sails in Ritchie’s wake. In fact I did not know they were a modernisation until I switched on iPlayer and found out for myself, but was pleasantly surprised. I thought that Cumberbatch played it beautifully and gave Holmes a new feeling of brash masculinity that was needed to update him from a Victorian idiom of mind and manner. The connections to the books were made to feel rewarding rather than unoriginal, as the BBC did not overfill the series with references, but made the audience appreciate the lasting-reputation of the Holmes genius. The transfer of Sherlock’s study of Watson’s pocket-watch in the novel, ‘The Sign of Four,’ to his mobile phone, was simply wonderful – as are the other references that undergo changes relevant to the plots and kept the stories fresh.

    Most in-keeping with Conan Doyle’s books is the theme of detection and detail relating to the reader or audience. The complicated plot and minute detail are of paramount importance, making sure the readers or audience are observing and deducing for themselves. My ‘inference’: A fine production form the BBC. I hope to see more, and it wouldn’t go amiss if they or ITV would renew the short stories on the small-screen; The old Jeremy Brett series is starting to look a little wooden…