May 21, 2017
Sherlock? At Least in Name.
I finished watching the last series of BBC’s Sherlock last night. And I have opinions. That’s right, opinions. Run now!
Still here? Okay. I might perhaps have been more charitable had I not recently finished re-reading the canon. The intent of the show seems reasonable: updating the classic characters and stories for contemporary audiences. Or, more precisely, crib some basic plot elements from the stories and throw in a few winks and nods to the Sherlockian cognoscenti while updating the classic characters for contemporary audiences. We can discuss adaptation and toss around subjective views on acceptability of such re-imaginings (e.g., Shakespeare in a high-school setting) but the producers are certainly well-intentioned.
The first couple series were enjoyable enough. The fact that it had been almost two decades since my last Conan Doyle read-through might have helped the pleasure. The third series commenced the downward spiral, bottoming out here in the fourth. I think that is partly because the characters grew more and more divorced from the originals. There are, I believe, at least three reasons for this.
One is that Victorian-era characters would not translate well to contemporary London. True-to-character attitudes and responses to events would feel off to viewers. Casual anti-semitism, for example, would give us moments of uncomfortable pause.
Second (and related to the first) is corporate issue BBC socio-political culture. BBC characters must advance the pieties of the progressive Londoner. As doing so inevitably clashes with the worldview of a pair of Victorian gentlemen, the updated Sherlock Holmes and John Watson increasingly parted from their namesakes to the point where little connection remained.
Third, the writers appeared uncomfortable with retaining the core personalities over the course of the series, requiring ‘character growth.’ Sherlock must grow more human, more in touch with his emotions. His refusal to give into what he considered the weakness of love must be attacked. John Watson must find his status as Sherlock’s Boswell distasteful. He must not be so admiring and long-suffering of Sherlock’s abuse. There are other examples, but I’m not willing to sit through it all again to catalogue them.
So, as I said, I might have enjoyed it more had I not recently reacquainted myself with the inhabitants of 221B Baker Street. But that said, even those coming to Sherlock Holmes for the first time would probably find the last series objectionable. The stories became increasingly convoluted and incredible. The expanded role of Mary Watson (see point number two above) meant I pretty much knew what would happen at the end of the first episode of series four, so long as the producers wanted to pay at least lip service to canon. But frankly her character was rather silly and diminished Dr. Watson. The teasing of the resurrection of Moriarty continued to build unsustainably. The writers incurred so much narrative debt it is no surprise they were unable to pay it off in the end. But that absurd clunker of a finale is rather an embarrassment. And the motif of imagined interlocutors grew more unbelievable, to the point of the show taking on elements of magical realism quite at odds with a story about a rationalist detective.
A noble failure, I suppose. What do you think: could a more faithful adaptation succeed?