Sherlock, one of the most popular programmes on television, returned yesterday, New Year’s Day. However, why is it such a success? What makes it good and what are the bad points? And, most importantly, what will Series three be like?
For those of you who don’t know, Sherlock is a modern retelling of the Sherlock Holmes stories that were originally written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 18th Century and were a huge hit, with audiences amazed at the main character’s unbelievable powers of deduction and seeing it through the eyes of an ordinary man, his companion John Watson . These stories were published in The Strand magazine, with people buying it to see the adventures in the same way that we tune in to a TV soap opera every night. These stories still stand up to modern standards and set the scene of Victorian England perfectly.
However, because of this, Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) became stuck in this setting. Whenever someone mentioned that name you immediately thought of the fog, the cart and horses and cobbled streets. It didn’t help when all of the film and TV adaptations continued to pander to this setting. When I started to become aware of Sherlock Holmes, it was very hard for me to enjoy it as I am a child of the 21st Century; seeing programmes set more than 100 years ago with people speaking what sounded like Shakespearean prose just sounded dull to me. The only thing in the Sherlock Holmes franchise that appealed to me was the film starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude law as Holmes and Watson. However, the character of Holmes was reinvented to fit a modern audience, and I found the sequel A Game of Shadows boring. Despite this, I would soon come to love it… thanks to another show.
Sherlock made it simple. Written by fans of the original stories and my other favourite show Doctor Who, I can’t remember being so engaged, in awe, scared and inspiring in anything else. Sherlock made Holmes and Watson modern-day, which made it much easier for me to understand. There was no fog. There was no old English language. There was no barrier. Now Sherlock Holmes had gone from a posh man with a hat traipsing round Victorian London into a near-psychopath. He was as ignorant as he had been in the books, and that made him fun. Modern directing and writing skills made it easier than ever to see the world through his eyes. In fact, it made it easier to understand the character to even people who had never heard of his origins in the 18th Century. In addition, I can watch the old-fashioned adaptations and the books without trouble. This is probably the biggest reason for Sherlock’s success: it takes him from a stereotypical time in history and plonks him in 21st Century London with superb results that are just as faithful (if not more so) to the original stories than the adaptations set in the correct setting.
Another reason why it is the BBC’s flagship show is the writing; the genius of Conan Doyle combined with new writers with bags of experience smashes the cliché filled CSI and NCIS out of the window. In those, the stories are always the same: someone is killed, and then the body is found. After looking at the crime scene, one person makes a discovery which is checked out at the lab. Next, they find a witness or someone with information. They are distraught and finally start talking when they get shot, kidnapped (usually by a relative or friend) or something distracts the detective. In the third act, they somehow find out who the killer is and the witness from earlier helps out. At the end, everything is as cheesy as, err, extra mature cheese and everyone is happy. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Sherlock, on the other hand, is different. Every episode feels very distinctive; it always had a different genre, a different take on the Doyle story which it’s loosely adapted from and a different tone:
A Study In Pink: Origins story introducing all the main characters.
Adapted from: A Study in Scarlet.
What the story does: Makes us think about the people we trust who we don’t even know (the murderer is a taxi driver!)
The Hounds of Baskerville: Shows our rational characters believing in the supernatural.
Adapted from: The Hound of the Baskervilles.
What the story does: Again pushes our two leads into new areas and that our mind can play tricks on us into thinking certain things.
The Reichbach Fall: Shows our two main characters in their lowest position.
Adapted from: The Final Problem.
What the story does: Shows the two leads at their most vulnerable and their most heroic.
See? This is original. Let’s not forget the incredible performances of our two leads; Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as John Watson. Cumberbatch is made for Sherlock; he has an amazing voice, is somehow very young, yet very old at the same time and is perfect at playing extraordinary people (he has previously played Frankenstein on stage and the bad guy in Star Trek: Into Darkness).
Freeman, on the other hand, is the opposite: as co-creator Steven Moffat said, he “finds poetry in the ordinary man”. Those of you who have seen Nativity will know what he’s talking about. He blends into the crowd, I believe everything he does and is a great match for Sherlock as Watson; he shows Holmes morals and how to become more human.
Series three is here, so what can we expect? Well it’s been two years since Sherlock faked his death; John doesn’t know this and thinks he is gone, he has moved on and has a partner, Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbigton), and is looking forward to a bright domestic future. But Sherlock is about to rise from the grave…
As writer Mark Gattiss (pictured below as Holmes’ brother, Mycroft) had said previously, John didn’t act nicely when Sherlock reappeared. In the story on which this is based (The Empty House) Watson simply faints when he sees Sherlock then forgives him immediately. Really? You’ve seen your best friend die before your eyes and for two years you have managed to accept that he’s not coming back and got on with your life. Just as you’re about to get married he turns up again like he’s never been gone. You would indeed be very angry.
I am so glad the episode went down this path as it creates tension and adds something to the relationship which we think we know inside out and makes it fresh again. It also makes the show more real and more modern-day; how many times have you had a big fall-out with your friends? How have you reacted?
Additionally, Freeman’s real-life partner Amanda Abbington plays Mary Morstan. Yet again, a new perspective on the ‘bromance’ of Sherlock and John. Some have complained about this, saying it will ruin the Holmes and Watson’s chemistry. I totally understand why they love it; it’s not bad that we have more gay relationships on TV, but it means we get less of the ‘two mates’ friendship. In the very first episode, A Study in Pink, a mate of Sherlock presumes he is dating John when they are having dinner with each other in his restaurant. Mary will not ruin it; Sherlock and John will continue to be friends. If you want to complain, complain to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The second episode, The Sign of Three (based on The Sign of Four), will be written by Steven Thompson. This could go either way; The Blind Banker is the worst episode of Sherlock so far (but is not bad television and still beats CSI) while The Reicenbach Fall is the best. So this episode could go either way. I hope he can write romance as this is where John and Mary get married.
The last episode is His Last Bow (His Last Vow) by Steven Moffat. Moffat has produced some high-quality episodes for Doctor Who and Sherlock so, as always, I have high hopes. The episode it’s based on is His Last Vow which, worryingly, is the last ever story. This is my biggest worry of Sherlock: are they going through the stories too quickly? Think about it: only six stories have been done, and we have already got to the point where Holmes comes back from the dead. They are more than 6 stories in that time. If they keep doing them at this speed, Sherlock may come to an end sooner than we would like.
But for now, let’s enjoy this fantastic drama. Sherlock is the best thing I have ever seen and I hope Series three lives up to my great expectations.
“The Game, Mrs Hudson, is on!”
- Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Pink.