The sharp Sherlock adaptation from Dr. Who producers is a Holmes for a very new century: set in modern-day London, the consulting detective has an iPhone to enhance his deductive reasoning, and Watson keeps a blog.
Sherlock has been a U.K. hit for months, and made its official U.S. debut at the NYCC to riotous applause and happy shrieks at mere mention of the names of show's creators, genre veterans and Dr. Who producers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss.
It was clear that many in the crowd were already devoted fans, come to watch it together on a big screen and see how the American version would be cut, along with curious and unexposed Holmes admirers like me. The series will begin airing on PBS Masterpiece on October 24th, with streaming thereafter, and you should be watching.
We were first shown a special feature from the Season One DVD to be released November 9th, in which Moffat and Gatiss explained that for many years they'd talked about how someone should do a modern-day adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, until, on frequent, madcap Holmes-like train rides together, they decided to develop it themselves.
They acknowledged that while there are many excellent Victorian representations of the consulting detective and his partner, they were interested in "blowing away the fog." We think Holmes and imagine gaslit streets at night and hansom cabs clattering on cobblestones.
Yet the creators found the classic character archetypes could fit easily into a modern-day London scenario: after all, in the books, Watson is ostensibly keeping his memoirs, and "memoirs were blogs!" Also, a bit too easily, the modern John Watson could have fought in the same country that Arthur Conan Doyle's army doctor was injured in 1878.
When they first meet on those pages, Holmes looks at Watson and says, "You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive." Moffat and Gatiss decided to let the story mirror where it would, but wanted the characters and their surroundings to be cutting-edge and contemporary, "the relics" getting an update.
The premiere episode is called "A Study In Pink," and though the central mystery involved is different than Conan Doyle's "A Study In Scarlet," it manages the fine balance of staying intensely true to the characters and primary material while blending them seamlessly with modern technology and updated surroundings.
The writing is so good and acting so convincing that it immediately makes sense that the war-haunted, gruff-and-ready Watson would write a blog at the advice of his therapist, that the technology-forward, cryptic Holmes would take to texting — he "prefers" it — and run a website.
The show is slick and well-shot, making innovative use of text on-screen. We see SMS messages and media clues pop that other characters do not, like the street map of London in Holmes's photographic memory that he relies on to follow a culprit; we see, sometimes, what a scene or a person looks like to his frenetically genius brain, and the things he can dissect and infer about them.
Our modernized world of technology is featured throughout — everyone is always on or using their smartphones, and Holmes no longer needs a network of informants to tail his villains when you can now hack a login and track a lost iPhone by its GPS. But good old-fashioned detective work, rambunctious rooftop chases and Watson with a gun in his pocket are still in the mix.
In Sherlock, many other elements of the stories are updated with a wink: instead of heroin or his even more infamous pipe, Holmes complains that you can't sustain a smoking habit in London anymore and rolls up a sleeve to bare his three nicotine patches.
The homosocial nature of the main characters' relationship, which is often flirted with in media these days, is flat-out expressed: several characters casually assume that Holmes and Watson are together, and they address it in a wonderfully awkward exchange.
Conan Doyle could never have dreamed of the slash communities his Victorian flatmates would inspire.
Benedict Cumberbatch, a man born with a name and cheekbones bound for glory, plays the brilliant, aesthete Holmes more than a little manic, which the texts suggest. In the present-day setting, we see aspects of Sherlock Holmes in a new light.
Coming from money, self-employed in his eccentric pursuits, self-centered, violin-playing, floppy-haired, Holmes is now a sort of hipster outcast who happens secondarily to be a hero because it piques his interest. At one point he declares, "I'm a high-functioning sociopath, do your research." True to Conan Doyle's characterization, he seems to have an almost asexual drive, unmotivated and unconcerned. Cumberbatch looks the part, bizarrely, palely attractive as a youngish Holmes might be, and wears an overcoat and jaunty scarf with flair.
Totally transformed is Martin Freeman as Watson — tortured by and yet hungry for the thrill of the war, Watson is wounded and wasted. We're used to seeing Freeman play more hapless parts like Tim in the U.K. version of The Office and Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker's Guide, but here his Watson has the limp and shadowed eyes of a man whose health was "irretrievably ruined" in Afghanistan, ready for the strange and dangerous adventures his new friend has brought into an empty life.
Even under the bright lights of electricity, the urban sprawl of London is still sinister and people are still doing terrible things. With an amiable Lestrade (Rupert Graves), mysterious brother Mycroft Holmes (played by Mark Gatiss himself) and hints of Professor Moriarty along for the ride, the show bills itself as "a new sleuth for the 21st century." It can be gritty and scary — like the original stories — but the dialogue is witty, often funny, and the 90-minute episode passes fast. Like the original stories, there are hints of the supernatural that science explains.
The world still needs Sherlock Holmes, and there's space for him to work with technology rather than have it feel strange, a sort of reverse steampunk. It's a natural fit: Holmes himself was too cutting-edge for his own day, and would have delighted in a smartphone.
I talked to dedicated Sherlock fans Anna, Daniel and Katie about why the three-episode arc has been such a hit, even prior to its American release. They mentioned the dual draw of trusted genre names like Moffat and Gatiss and the Sherlock Holmes brand — which has never fallen from popularity but enjoyed a resurgence in comics and movies. Word-of-mouth and buzz about the show had proceeded its BBC broadcast.
They promise that the series can satisfy the Holmesian purist and the casually interested, and that the updated tech theme runs throughout. The fandom is blossoming, with even secondary characters living fully fanfic-fleshed lives online; when the show comes to PBS on October 24th, fans will find thriving communities to feed their new fixation.
Sherlock will be available at PBS's website following its T.V. debut. And with the announcement of a second season arc for 2011, this isn't the last we've seen of Moffat and Gatiss's Holmes and Watson in the future.