The recent return of the BBC’s Sherlock from its long hiatus gave television audiences our first chance to see new episodes of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s modernization of Sherlock Holmes airing alongside new episodes of its American counterpart, Robert Doherty’s Elementary. The two-year gap between Sherlock‘s second and third seasons may have acted in Elementary‘s favor, because it allowed the CBS series a season and a half to establish its own voice and identity without being in direct competition with Sherlock. But that also means that the landscape of Holmesian screen adaptations has changed during Sherlock‘s long absence, and it’s illuminating to examine it in that new context.
When Elementary was first announced, many fans of Sherlock were skeptical, expecting a cheap copy. For myself, however, I was glad to see more than one modernized Holmes; if anything, I find it puzzling that it hasn’t been done more often. Holmes was originally a very modernistic character, a scientific investigator on the cutting edge of forensic techniques that real-life police hadn’t even adopted yet—and in some cases, techniques that would not even be invented for decades, making the Holmes stories essentially science fiction in their own time (despite being set years before their publication dates). The Sherlock Holmes of the screen was originally a modern figure as well; nearly every film adaptation produced in the first half of the 20th century employed a present-day setting, with the exception of the first two Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce films in 1939. Yet for some reason, as though a switch had been flipped, the cinematic Holmes became almost exclusively a period figure from the 1950s onward. True, two unrelated (but easily confused) TV movies, 1987’s The Return of Sherlock Holmes and 1993’s Sherlock Holmes Returns, had him cryogenically preserved, awoken in the present, and partnered with a female Watson-surrogate; and two unrelated (but easily confused) animated versions, the 1988 BraveStarr episode “Sherlock Holmes in the 23rd Century” and the 2000 series Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, transported Holmes into the future (via time warp in the former case and through the reanimation of his honey-preserved corpse in the latter). But those were all the Victorian Holmes taken out of his own time. The premise of Holmes and Watson as contemporaries of their audience, which was the norm for five decades, somehow went unexplored for the following six decades. Which is why I was so interested in Sherlock when it came along—and so pleased to see Elementary offering yet another take on the premise. Having two modern Holmes series at once struck me as compensation for the long stretch in which we had none.
My initial reaction to Sherlock, back when it was the only game in town, was that it was very much like Moffat’s Doctor Who and Jekyll: stylistically bold and brash, larger-than-life, and wildly creative, while also intensely fanboyish and metatextual. It was fun to watch, and I was intrigued by the stylistic innovations like the way phone texts were displayed on the screen; but in some ways it was overly broad and too clever for its own good. In the debut episode, “A Study in Pink”, Sherlock’s antagonist seemed too genre-savvy, talking not like a person who’d studied his detective opponent, but like a Holmes buff from our reality, speaking about Holmes as if he were writing an essay on a fictional character. The leads themselves tend to be caricatured, their personalities and relationships exaggerated to a very melodramatic level, and a rather slashy one where Holmes and Watson are concerned. And the stories rely heavily on references to, and reworkings of, elements and story beats from the Doyle canon. In essence, it feels like one big, superbly produced and acted work of fan fiction. (With some exceptions in the acting department. Andrew Scott’s Moriarty is absolutely ghastly, with a high-pitched voice and childish, sing-song delivery that are just obnoxious.)
By the end of the second season, I’d come to realize that what bothers me most about Sherlock is that the stories aren’t really proper mysteries—just big, convoluted, over-the-top Moffaty melodramas. For instance, the central “mystery” in “A Scandal in Belgravia” was what Irene Adler’s phone password was, and the answer was just a bit of shrewd Moffatian wordplay; any other mystery elements were incidental to the character drama. Sherlock isn’t a mystery series so much as a comedy-drama about the lives and relationships of people who happen to solve mysteries. True, Doyle’s stories often stressed the characters over the mysteries as well, but not to this extent. Thus, while Sherlock was often fascinating to watch, I found it unfulfilling on some levels.
By the time Elementary came along, though, it had been a few months since Sherlock‘s second season had ended, so I was able to make a clean break and consider the new series on its own merits. At first I was lukewarm, finding Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes a little too tame and ordinary and Lucy Liu’s Joan Watson a little bland. But the show grew on me over time, developing into a solid detective procedural with richly drawn characters and often clever mysteries. While it conforms to the familiar format of American murder-mystery procedurals, it’s an excellent and intelligent example of the genre, laced with often subtle but quite clever allusions to the Holmes canon. (I was quite thrilled when I realized that a crucial clue in one episode was the fact that a guard dog did nothing in the night-time. There was no self-conscious dialogue nod to “the curious incident,” as there probably would have been in a Sherlock episode, but the inspiration was undeniable.) Simply by virtue of having more episodes, Elementary has enough room to be about both the characters and the mysteries, and to develop both with more depth and subtlety.
Thus, when Sherlock‘s third season finally did air in the US in January 2014, I discovered that its non-mystery approach stood out even more sharply by contrast, and was even more unsatisfying. When I read or watch a Holmes story, I want to see Holmes actually reasoning to a conclusion and explaining his process, not just glancing at someone and seeing a bunch of words floating in air. That was a clever technique on Sherlock‘s part several years ago, an innovative presentation of the standard routine—though always a bit redundant, just reinforcing what Holmes went on to explain in dialogue. But by now it’s become just an offhand trope with no accompanying explanation, because Moffat and Gatiss apparently aren’t interested in Holmes’s deductive process as much as they are in his so-called sociopathy, his flamboyant eccentricities, his gay subtext with Watson, and so on. They write Holmes the same way Moffat writes the Doctor, and his “methods” are just the sonic screwdriver, a plot device that can offhandedly do whatever the script requires without the need for explanation or justification. Sherlock is bold and flashy and energetic and wildly creative, but often has more style than substance. It’s on much the same level as the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies, all big frenetic action and broad character beats and talented actors showing off with big bravura performances.
And yet in some ways, Sherlock’s updating of Holmes is more conventional than Elementary’s—particularly where Irene Adler and Moriarty are concerned. I’ve never been a fan of treating Irene as a love interest for Holmes; Watson’s narration in “A Scandal in Bohemia” scuttles that notion definitively. So it bothered me when Elementary established Irene as Holmes’s great lost love. But the way it’s played out has been quite clever and even touching, and it fits this show’s version of Sherlock as well as the era he inhabits. Doyle’s Holmes was a confirmed chauvinist who could not comprehend how a woman could be as logical and intelligent as himself, so Irene was a paradox he couldn’t solve. But such attitudes don’t fly for a modern Holmes, and thus Miller’s Sherlock was able to recognize Irene as his true intellectual equal and thus could love her like no other. Sherlock‘s version of the relationship plays out similarly in that respect, but I don’t think it serves Irene as well, since that version is more defined by her sexuality and her not-quite-requited love for the male lead, placing her in a more subordinate role. Elementary‘s innovation (spoiler alert) of having Irene actually be Moriarty—making both of Holmes’s intellectual equals and unbeatable rivals the same person, which is really somewhat natural in a way—allows her to be a far more empowered and equal figure, and makes the Holmes-Moriarty conflict more personal and poignant, certainly far more compelling than the cartoon villainy of Sherlock’s Jim Carrey-esque Moriarty. Sherlock modernizes Holmes mainly through technology, storytelling methods, and edgy attitude, but Elementary‘s approach to making Holmes part of our world is grounded more in the modernization of values and cultural mores, as represented by the greater gender and ethnic diversity of its cast.
But the key difference between the shows is in their portrayal of Holmes himself. Sherlock has tended to play up the “sociopath” angle more than I care for, making Holmes a caricature to whom human feeling and relationships were incomprehensible distractions. Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes is more human and relatable—still as intellectual, imperious, and eccentric as one expects Holmes to be, but not pathologically devoid of empathy, and capable of self-reflection and growth and possessing nuance that his counterpart lacks. At first, in the third-season premiere “The Empty Hearse”, there were encouraging signs that Cumberbatch’s Sherlock had evolved in a similar way, becoming more engaged with human emotion and more able to express it and understand it in others. And in “The Sign of Three”, there was some solid work with the core of the Holmes-Watson friendship, some terrific and poignant writing in Sherlock’s best-man speech. But the first half of that episode also indulged in the caricature of Holmes as completely stupid about anything pertaining to human beings or relationships, undermining the credibility of the character. He’s a keen observer, so he should be able to reason out such things at least to an extent. And the finale “His Last Vow” took the caricature to even greater extremes, portraying Holmes as such a totally unfeeling and ruthless individual that the extreme act he committed at the climax was, while not something I predicted in advance, nonetheless completely unsurprising when it happened, merely another eye-rolling indulgence in excess. What was surprising was how cavalierly the finale negated the consequences of Sherlock’s extreme act by immediately bringing Moriarty back from the dead (and no, Jim, I did not miss you) in order to give Sherlock a handy reset button. If Moffat and Gatiss didn’t want Sherlock’s climactic act to have repercussions that lasted more than three minutes, why have him do it in the first place? It felt like a case of shock value trumping substance.
What’s interesting to me is that both “His Last Vow” and the Elementary episode that aired in the same week in the US, “Corpse de Ballet”, drew on a plot point from Doyle’s “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” in which Holmes cultivated a romance and engagement with the antagonist’s housemaid merely in order to gain access to his home. The former stays fairly close to the story, having Cumberbatch’s Sherlock cultivate a weeks-long romance and use a false proposal to convince his mark to let him into a highly secure building. In the original prose tale, Holmes felt he had no choice given the high stakes of defeating Milverton, and took comfort in the fact that the housemaid had a rival suitor who could take his place; but Sherlock in “His Last Vow” shows no such trace of remorse, and the deception feels like merely another one of his routine transgressive acts. By contrast, “Corpse de Ballet” simply has Miller’s Sherlock spend the night with a suspect as a ploy to gather information—a less elaborate but much less hurtful gambit, since he made no pretense of seeking a relationship and didn’t string the woman along for weeks. This pretty much sums up the difference between the two shows: Sherlock takes everything to exaggerated extremes and makes Holmes’s behavior as outrageous as possible, whereas Elementary has shown Holmes gradually developing more humanity and empathy while still retaining his familiar eccentricities and arrogance.
And it occurred to me: From an in-story standpoint, one could chalk up the difference in the two Sherlocks at least partly to the difference between their Watsons. Watson has always been Holmes’s anchor and his filter, his interface with the rest of humanity, as it were. So change Watson and you change Holmes accordingly, or at least change how others perceive and relate to him. Elementary‘s Joan Watson came into her Sherlock’s life as a sober companion, a guide toward rehabilitation and functional behavior; thus, she’s become his conscience, a gadfly who cuts through his excuses for bad behavior and convinces him that it’s logical to show more regard for other people. But Sherlock‘s John Hamish Watson is an adrenaline junkie who thrives on danger and chaos and thus is essentially an enabler to Holmes—even as Holmes is an enabler to him. He makes a show of being outraged by Sherlock’s excesses, but does little to actually influence or change his behavior, because ultimately he doesn’t want to. So they’re Watsons of opposite polarity: John Hamish feeds his Sherlock’s excesses and addictions, while Joan tempers them in hers. Thus, Sherlock is an exercise in self-indulgence, while Elementary is a story about redemption and recovery.
Two years ago, people were expecting Elementary to be a hollow imitation of Sherlock. But Elementary has handled a modernized Holmes so well that it makes Sherlock seem rather superficial and self-conscious by comparison—loaded with style but not big on substance. To be fair, I do wish that Elementary could adopt some of Sherlock‘s flexibility and not be so locked into the American formula of making every case a murder mystery. But on the whole, at least to me, Sherlock now feels like a rough draft and Elementary the more sophisticated second try. To put it a bit more harshly, Sherlock is like a kid jumping up and down and saying “Hey, look what I can do!”, while Elementary is like an adult who’s figured oneself out and is comfortable in one’s own skin. The former can be more fun to watch in some ways, but it can also be irritating and a lot less reliable. Looking at Sherlock now, I find myself wishing it would grow up.
Really, though, the fact that the two modernized-Holmes shows are so completely different is a powerful argument against the preconception that revisiting a character or concept must be imitative or pointless. It proves that you can do a variety of distinct and worthwhile things with the same basic characters and premises, that good stories are worth retelling and reinventing. I prefer Elementary’s approach, but there are many who prefer Sherlock’s, and that’s the value of remaking and transforming a franchise to develop different facets of its potential. Holmes has been portrayed in many ways over the decades, and that adaptability is part of the reason he’s the most frequently portrayed character in screen history. We now have three distinct, coexisting screen versions of Holmes, counting the Downey movies; and while many may consider three simultaneous Sherlocks excessive, personally I’m not sure it’s nearly enough.
About the Author:
Christopher L. Bennett is a science fiction novelist from Cincinnati, Ohio and the author of multiple critically acclaimed Star Trek novels from Pocket Books, including the Star Trek: Enterprise—Rise of the Federation series, whose second installment, Tower of Babel, was released in March 2014. His original novel Only Superhuman, perhaps the first hard science fiction superhero novel, was voted Library Journal’s SF/Fantasy Debut of the Month for October 2012.