I love the BBC’s new Sherlock, a modern adaptation of the late-Victorian Conan Doyle classic by Doctor Who wizard Stephen Moffat. I should mention as a starting point that I’m a Sherlock fan in general, and am a sucker for pretty much anything with a Dr. Watson and a deerstalker hat somewhere in its production.
As a modernized version, Sherlock does suffer from a severe dearth of deerstalker hats, but what it lacks in natty headgear, it amply makes up in canny production decisions, a fully realized and persuasive Holmes, and some winking gestures toward the history of Sherlock Holmes adaptations that manage to be fun without seeming burdensome. The Watson/Holmes relationship in particular is the subject of frequent jokes and raised eyebrows as they are repeatedly taken for a gay couple, a nice way to incorporate both the many queer readings of Holmes and the more conservative insistence on an asexual, unsullied detecting machine.
“Detecting machine” is a useful phrase for Sherlock Holmes, and Moffat’s biggest achievement with the miniseries is his completely convincing answer to a question that necessarily underlies any modern procedural, and especially an updated Sherlock – what is the point of a guy like Sherlock Holmes in the age of the internet? Bodies can be scanned to discover all of those telling inconsistencies, train timetables and moon phrase calendars no longer need to be memorized for convenient access, and why would someone need a photographic memory of every shoe brand in the world when a search engine will remember it for you?
Moffat’s Sherlock answers this question in the traditional way – whatever human technology may be, Sherlock Holmes is just a weird, mesmerizing guy, and his powers of deduction are a part of his appeal as a mysterious character. As is pretty obvious watching Sherlock, Moffat’s Holmes bears a striking similarity to another lean, socially awkward, oddly intelligent, timeless character, and the decision to portray Holmes at an early, unformed stage in his career bears out further comparisons with Moffat’s youthful Dr. Who. Their long, narrow faces and dark mops of hair make them nearly twins, but where Dr. Who’s hilarious goofiness occasionally reveals dark, scary glimpses of his real self, Sherlock Holmes’ serious work ethic gives off a glint of humor every once in a great while. Similarities aside, these two characters make the same points about their impressively long-running fictional franchises: the world around them may change, but an appealing character will stay relevant.
At the same time, Sherlock uses some smart visual devices to cue its viewers into the way Sherlock’s brain works, and to impress a current audience with his enduring acumen. As Holmes scans a crime scene, observes a clue, or even does research on his mobile phone, a visual annotation accompanies his train of thought. The cloud of textual notes – “wet,” “clean,” “unhappily married,” overlay Sherlock’s field of vision like an embedded augmented reality app. Rather than needing our smart phones to take in an image of the world and parse it for useful data, we can just look through Sherlock’s (and Sherlock’s) frame of reference. It’s also incredibly similar to Heavy Rain’s solution to in-game detection. Sherlock Holmes is still interesting as a character, but he’s also still extra-human, even in a new technological paradigm.
What’s different now is that where 1900’s Sherlock Holmes seemed to have skills outside the power of any other human being, 2000’s Holmes has observational powers only inaccessible to other humans with no laptop, cell phone, or microscope. This is part of what makes Sherlock so effective and arresting. There’s no question that Sherlock Holmes still has an intellectual edge on everyone else, but the gap is no longer as large as it used to be. Sherlock Holmes’ quirks – his single-mindedness, his dogged obsession with puzzles, his reliance on nicotine and other stimulants, his general lack of manners – these are no longer just wacky side characteristics. Sherlock weaves Holmes’ deductive skills more firmly into his weird personality, and makes it obvious that any yahoo with an iPhone is not immediately the next great detective. To be Sherlock Holmes, you’re also going to have to be kind of a (compulsive, obnoxious, insensitive, fascinating, brilliant, possibly gay) jerk.