Christopher L. Bennett Guest Post–“The Problem with Sherlock in a Post-Elementary World”

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.

21 thoughts on “Christopher L. Bennett Guest Post–“The Problem with Sherlock in a Post-Elementary World”

  • June 4, 2014 at 9:35 pm
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    I wonder if name factor played something here. If someone not named Moffat did the new Sherlock, would it be the preferred version still?

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  • June 4, 2014 at 9:37 pm
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    I should add my thanks to author Dan Andriacco, who provided me with some insights into Holmes’s early screen history.

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  • June 5, 2014 at 12:43 pm
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    I’d like to add that while you seem to find JLM’s Holmes more “relatable,” a lot of fans who truly feel like they don’t fit in anywhere (like me) identify with Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. I can’t relate to JLM’s Holmes – he thinks with emotions, he is romantic/sexual, he is casual about things the original Holmes was almost neurotic about. I can relate to how Cumberbatch’s Holmes does not understand relationships, is confused by ordinary life and has to consistently “not be himself,” as he says, in order to function in ordinary society. It’s like putting on a show constantly and it is nice, for once, to have a character who I can relate to.

    Also, the fact that BBC Sherlock did what he did with Janine in His Last Vow is much closer to the original character than JLM’s Holmes simply having a one-night stand. Canonical accuracy is important to me. So, what I’m getting is that the BBC version is closer to the original, and since I love the stories most, that’s what I’ll stick with. Plus, I don’t enjoy crime procedurals so the fact that BBC Sherlock deviates from this formula is a plus for me.

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  • June 5, 2014 at 1:55 pm
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    I suppose with a performance like Scott’s, there’s always the risk that it will rub someone the wrong way. Personally, I loved him, but I think it’s one of those performances that you either love or loathe – there’s no in between with it. I enjoyed his delivery, and I thought that the little mannerism of ACD Moriarty that he effected (the reptilian head tilt which is especially obvious in The Great Game, especially) were masterfully done. I can see how others might not enjoy that, though.

    As for Irene, I am not satisfied by either show’s interpretation. ACD Adler was never a romantic interest for Holmes. She was a worthy opponent – the only person in canon to defeat Holmes using his own methods of observation and deduction. I find the fact that both modern interpretations are eventually defeated by Holmes a telling point – it seems that the show runners do not believe that the audience would like to see a modern Holmes defeated by a woman.

    I have to admit that I prefer the BBC version of Holmes. Watching him, I can see BBC Sherlock eventually growing up to be Jeremy Brett’s Holmes (who will always be the measure of what Sherlock Holmes should be to me), but I can’t see the same in JLM’s version, much as I enjoy him.

    Also, moffatt has never been shy to say that they are making what amounts to fanfiction, and I love that about it. I love the fact that BBC Sherlock is made by fans for fans.

    And discussion of style over substance would have to include some pretty uncomplimentary words about ACD,possibly mentioning Mary’s mysterious second husband James, a wound that won’t stay put and other such trifles. The words ‘basically a hack’ might even make an appearance, and as I’ve no desire to die, I’m not touching that one.

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  • June 5, 2014 at 2:22 pm
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    To me the climax of ‘His last vow’, Holmes commited murder not out of his extreme lack of feelings. Quite the contrary. He was motivated by his hate to the villain but alsowas ready to sacrifice his freedom in order to provide Watson and his family with safety and happiness even if simultanously excluding himself from their lives. An absolutely selfish gesture, especially considering his relationship with the only best friend, as stated in ‘The sign of three’. Not quite the sociopath, don’t you think?

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  • June 5, 2014 at 3:01 pm
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    I have been a Sherlock Holmes fan since I read the books when I was 10. I have seen not them all but I’ve seen many film adaptations and none has come close to fascinate me as much as BBC Sherlock. I watch Elementary too. It actually is one of my favorite shows, I never miss an episode and I like both Watson and Holmes but every time someone calls Holmes “Sherlock” I do a double take because he is just NOT Sherlock Holmes. He is a great character, very fun to watch, but he is too… normal? for me to be Sherlock Holmes. Elementary is good, even great, but BBC Sherlock is just brilliant.
    There have been many great mystery books, some even with better mysteries than the Conan Doyle stories, but what has made the SH books/movies the most popular ones is Holmes’ unique personality (his otherworldliness, his lack of connection with normal people) and Holmes and Watson’s unlikely friendship. I think BBC Sherlock is a much better translation to both these elements, which I think are the heart of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
    Elementary is good especially (IMO) due to its leading actors. JLM is excellent as this eccentric, recovering-junkie detective and Lucy Liu is solid and likable and cool. The cases… not so much. I have been able to “guess” a couple of them not because I’m especially good at it but because I had seen the same plot in other procedure dramas. I understand that writing 22-24 episodes per year is much more demanding than writing 3 movies every 2 years but still, the storytelling in BBC Sherlock is way, way superior.
    Finally, I must strongly disagree with you regarding Moriarty in BBC Sherlock. I think Andrew Scott’s performance is simply perfect. He manages to be both terrifying and likable. It’s Sherlock with a twist. He is a genius too but he doesn’t follow the logical path so he is a real challenge for Sherlock. I know that bringing him back to life in series 4 (if that’s what happens) can go terribly wrong… but Gatiss and Moffat haven’t disappointment so far so I’m counting down the days. There should only be a year and a half left 🙁

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  • June 5, 2014 at 3:42 pm
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    While it’s fine to state tastes differ – and I prefer Sherlock much more – I do have some gripes that the article holds up a very superficial view of Sherlock as ‘truth’. No problem if you don’t like, no problem you prefer a perhaps more approachable show. But giving as reason that Sherlock is shown “as such a totally unfeeling and ruthless individual” in let’s me doubt you’ve really seen the episode. Or, to cite the famous detective, ‘you see but don’t observe’ 😉
    Or the first half of “indulged in the caricature of Holmes as completely stupid about anything pertaining to human beings or relationships”. Really? I saw a deeply disturbed and frightened man, a selfless friend, in helpless turmoil of emotions (should be enough for starters :).
    To summarize: you may not like Sherlock – that’s fine. But please don’t belittle it (“whishing it would grow up”) when you can’t be bothered to give it an adequate understanding and critic.

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  • June 5, 2014 at 3:59 pm
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    Added: Sorry, the formatting didn’t work out: The 1st quote references to the article’s passage about “His Last Vow”, the 2nd to “The Sign of Three” and the last to the opinion of the show in general.

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  • June 5, 2014 at 4:31 pm
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    A brand-new account of a little-known Holmesian case has apparently just come to light. Google this:
    => Holmes Moriarty Landstrasser “Botanical Monograph”

    We leave it to the amateur sleuths among the readership, to determine the genuineness of this newly-discovered manuscript.

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  • June 5, 2014 at 5:15 pm
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    I couldn’t disagree more with you. Your reasoning for your dislike of Sherlock rings hollow and your prejudice against Moffat and Gatiss is more than apparent. I believe your lack of fulfillment in regards to Sherlock is frankly due to mistaken expectations rather than a lacking on the show’s part. The writers have made it very clear that the show is about Sherlock. The story is character driven. It is not a mystery procedural show. I found your article extremely disappointing. I was expecting a fair analysis between the modernized shows. What I got instead was an article touting the wonders of Elementary and disparaging BBC’s Sherlock. It looks like you and I both need to adjust our expectations. If nothing else, your article has merely cemented my preference towards Sherlock over Elementary. So, thanks, Mr. Bennett. I owe you.

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  • June 5, 2014 at 6:29 pm
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    You are right about the lack of “mystery” in Sherlock. Gatiss once said that Sherlock is not a detective story, it’s a story about a detective. Elementary is more “ordinary”, yes, but sometime it’s mean “dull” too. For me, after watching soooo many CSI, CSI:NY and CSI: Miami… Elementary is just another one.

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  • June 5, 2014 at 6:59 pm
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    While I think that the author of this article has some very valid points, I feel the need to address some of them—specifically those about BBC’s Sherlock.

    It must be understood that BBC’s Sherlock is more of a modernisation than an adaptation. Moffat and Gatiss never intended or even attempted to make it their own or alter it except when utterly necessary, and unlike Doherty’s Elementary who took some fairly unnecessary liberties, they simply took Holmes and Watson out of Victorian London and into the 21st century. The author claims that Sherlock “[relies] heavily on references to, and reworkings of, elements and story beats from the Doyle canon” and that “it feels like one big, superbly produced and acted work of fan fiction”. And I agree with this, because that was rather the point. Moffat and Gatiss have never claimed Sherlock for themselves. They’ve stated time and again that Sherlock is fan fiction, and that they never intended for it to turn out any other way. Sherlock, in its entirety, is simply the Doyle canon set in the 21st century. The author also says that “Sherlock modernizes Holmes mainly through technology, storytelling methods, and edgy attitude”. This is because this is exactly what the canon is. Sherlock Holmes is set apart from his contemporaries because, as the author has said, the Sherlock Holmes stories are in their own way almost science fiction, given the amount of technology and innovation we see in them. It has to be said however that all this does not mean that Moffat and Gatiss will limit themselves to the Doyle canon. They’ve stated before that one of their inspirations for Sherlock is Billy Wilder’s “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes”. We can expect, therefore, that they might follow the same path and veer slightly away from the Doyle canon, but never as far as Elementary did. The reader will see me exemplify this argument further as I go on with this comment.

    The author accuses Sherlock of “playing up the ‘sociopath’ angle” and of “making Holmes a caricature to whom human feeling and relationships were incomprehensible distractions”. Again, this is because this is exactly what Sherlock Holmes is in the original stories. Holmes being unable to figure out human emotions and relationships does not undermine the credibility and integrity of the character, because that is really what he is. I’d also like to point out that the author completely missed the point of Sherlock killing Magnussen in “His Last Vow”. Sherlock did not kill Magnussen because he was a “totally unfeeling and ruthless individual”. It is in fact the exact opposite—Sherlock did what he did because of his love for his friends. If Sherlock did not kill Magnussen, Mary, and subsequently John and their unborn child, would still be in danger. The act could even be interpreted as Sherlock returning the favour of John killing a man to save his life in “A Study In Pink”, which again shows a love for his friends that is so unlike the Sherlock Holmes of the first series and even of the canon itself. I also would like to point out that Sherlock’s adherence to the canon regarding “His Last Vow” was not an attempt to “take everything to exaggerated extremes and makes Holmes’s behaviour as outrageous as possible”. It was simply what the canon was, and Sherlock, as a modernisation, adapted it.

    The same is true for Sherlock’s treatment of John Watson, and why I think Joan Watson was a bad idea. There is very little that we know of John Watson himself, as he is the narrator of the stories and therefore often leaves himself out of it. But then again, it should be said that Sherlock’s John Watson was nothing if not faithful to what little we do know of him from the original stories. It should also be said that the author neglects to point out the effects that turning John Watson into Joan Watson has on the story itself. It is not merely because Joan is a woman. By turning John into Joan, the whole dynamic between Sherlock and John as a whole character (gender and all) is gone, and Elementary is, in many ways, less “Sherlock Holmes”. Also, the introduction of the sexual tension between Sherlock and Joan—especially in the beginning of the series—runs completely contrary to Sherlock’s personality and psychology as per canon, in which he is completely oblivious and sometimes dismissive (but not misogynistic) to the fairer sex and to our baser natures. I will elaborate on this later in this comment, when we come to Irene Adler. And as such, on the point regarding gender and even ethnic diversity, I really fail to see how Sherlock lacks in this aspect. In Sherlock, the ratio of male and female characters that have appeared in two or more episodes is more or less 1:1. And as with racial diversity, it has been said that Moffat and Gatiss their cast selection focuses more on the actors’ skills and their fit with the character they portray than with how racially balanced the cast is as a whole, which is acceptable logic indeed.

    The author goes on to say that Sherlock’s stories “aren’t proper mysteries” and that the show lacks the “procedural murder-mystery element” that Elementary has in droves. This is because the original stories are NOT procedural murder-mysteries—they’re about the detective Sherlock Holmes as seen by his friend Dr. John Watson. This is also why there is so much focus on Sherlock’s “so-called sociopathy, his flamboyant eccentricities, his gay subtext with Watson, and so on”—because, unlike in procedural murder-mysteries, it’s really not about the cases. It’s about Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. The cases only serve to portray Holmes and his science of deduction and are not intended to be the focus of the stories. And as I’ve said in the previous paragraph, Sherlock is only as the canon is. Because the original stories are not procedural murder-mysteries, then so is Sherlock. I’d also like to point out that, unlike with procedural murder-mysteries, Sherlock Holmes does not have to “explain his process”. In “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes tells Watson in the “Silver Blaze” story that, and I quote, “I follow my own methods and tell as much or as little as I choose. That is the advantage of being unofficial.” This is exactly what Cumberbatch’s Holmes does, because there is absolutely no need for Sherlock Holmes to explain the case and his process any more than necessary. This does not mean, however, that what JLM’s Holmes does is wrong or even detrimental to the show. All this serves to illustrate is that CBS’ Elementary is a procedural murder-mystery that is—in my opinion, loosely—based on Sherlock Holmes while BBC’s Sherlock is a drama about the life of Sherlock Holmes, which consequently is exactly what the canon is.

    The author even points out that there is so much focus on Sherlock’s “gay subtext with Watson”, as if this was purely from Moffat and Gatiss. We see this because, when one reads the original works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the context of 19th century European society and culture (in which the original stories were set), the “gay subtext” (or rather, “bromance”) between Holmes and Watson would and could be viewed as perfectly normal. From the time of the Ancient Greeks up until the decline of the Edwardian era at the start of the First World War, intimate male-on-male relationships were highly esteemed and were even expected of gentry, as females were considered non-entities during those times and intimacy between persons of the opposite sex outside the context of marriage is looked down upon. As such, it is only when the stories are viewed in the context of the 21st century does the Holmes-Watson relationship take on a homosexual tone, and could therefore be considered an extrinsic feature of the stories and should thus not be blamed on Moffat and Gatiss.

    As with the “innovation” (I honestly cannot bear to call it that) of Elementary having Irene Adler and Moriarty be one and the same, I really think that this was a completely unnecessary liberty on the part of Elementary. First of all, the “former love interest” angle is completely contradictory to the personality and psychology of Holmes. In the case of Irene Adler, the apparent “attraction” between her and Holmes is entirely uncanonical in that it cannot be found in the original stories. In “A Scandal In Bohemia”, Watson has explicitly stated that, and I quote, “To Sherlock Holmes [Adler] is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. IT WAS NOT THAT HE FELT ANY EMOTION AKIN TO LOVE FOR IRENE ADLER. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind… He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer… And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.” Watson also says that Holmes inevitably “manifested no further interest in the [female] client when once she had ceased to be the centre of one of his problems”. He also states that Holmes has an “aversion to women” but “a peculiarly ingratiating way with [them]”. Holmes himself states that he is “not a whole-souled admirer of womankind”; in fact, he finds “the motives of women… so inscrutable…” Ergo, Holmes has nothing more than respect and admiration for Adler, and this must—in my humble opinion—never be misconstrued as love or affection. Furthermore, Doyle himself has claimed that Dr. Joseph Bell—the real-life inspiration for Holmes—”is as inhuman as a Babbage’s calculating machine and just about as likely to fall in love.” This, however, does not mean that Holmes is a misogynist. Watson writes in “The Adventure of the Dying Detective” that Mrs. Hudson is fond of Holmes in her own way, despite his bothersome eccentricities as a lodger, owing to his “remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women”. And before you accuse BBC’s Sherlock of setting up a love story between Sherlock and Molly Hooper, watch the third series again and note that Sherlock only became nicer to Molly, and nothing more. But while I acknowledge that this could go in the direction of Wilder’s “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” which would then be uncanonical, I personally would be much more comfortable with this than with Sherlock having a relationship with any other established canon character (i.e., Irene Adler or John/Joan Watson) because at least the integrity of the original stories remains intact.

    Second, although it is somewhat plausible for Adler and Moriarty to be one and the same in the modern version in the sense that they are both antagonists, their identities as characters are much too different and irreconcilable. Adler only did what she did to protect her own interests. Moriarty, on the other hand, does evil for evil’s sake and without regard for himself or others—making his actions unpardonable and unnecessary. Therefore, these two characters being one and the same completely ruins the dynamic between these two antagonists and Holmes.

    BBC’s Sherlock is far from perfect. But so is CBS’ Elementary. And while this article seems to enumerate all of Sherlock faults, it leaves out most of Elementary’s. This now makes me wonder if the objective of this article was to compare Sherlock and Elementary or to simply attack Moffat and, subsequently, Sherlock. My main point is that BBC’s Sherlock respects the canon, pays tribute to it, and improves upon it—which is ultimately what makes it a great show and a brilliant adaptation. Sherlock is neither too imitative of the canon nor disrespectful of it. It’s a proper modernised adaptation of the original stories because in spite of all of the changes that were made to the story, it was still faithful to the canon at the core. Moffat and Gatiss made these stories their own and put their own twists to them, but they retained the core plot and the key aspects of the original stories. Elementary, on the other hand, did the exact opposite. Doherty made a show and almost forced the characters into places they didn’t belong to. Elementary has left almost nothing of the original stories, except the names, the crime solving, and the drug use—which, by the way, is not as bad as it is portrayed in Elementary, as Doyle’s son has clarified in his letters to the Strand. As such, I cannot really say that Elementary is “more sophisticated” than Sherlock because it isn’t even a good adaptation to begin with. CBS’s Elementary, in my honest opinion, took things a little bit too far with all of the liberties they took with the plot, the setting and the characters themselves. The show would’ve been so much better if the writers just made a whole new show based loosely off of the Sherlock Holmes canon (i.e., “House”). And while there are many things that Elementary does better than Sherlock, the fact still remains that Sherlock is still the better adaptation, and (for me at least) the better show.

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  • June 5, 2014 at 10:39 pm
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    I really enjoy Elementary, but it doesn’t feel like Sherlock Holmes to me. I really love JLM and Lucy Lui and but it feels like they could be called Benson and Stabler and the show wouldn’t change. It’s a fantastic crime procedural, but it’s not Holmes.

    BBC Sherlock was great in the first two series. For me, it really felt like a genuine modern update. Unlike the author, I felt Scott’s Moriarty was a highlight. When the infamous “That’s what people DO!” line came on, I was genuinely frightened of this man.

    And then S3 came along. And it all fell apart. It tried to be funny; it tried to pander to the fandom. Mary shoots the lead and we are still meant to love her. Sherlock acts like a complete idiot and we are still meant to love him. Mycroft sends his brother to certain death. Anderson is Sherlock’s biggest champion. Honestly, after this season the only people I like are Lestrade, Molly and Mrs Hudson.

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  • June 6, 2014 at 6:55 am
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    I enjoyed this article quite a bit, and you hit the nail on the head for some of the differences I see between the two shows. Like yourself, I was dazzled by Sherlock the first go around, but later seasons the glitter wore off and my brain couldn’t overlook certain weaknesses. Still, I appreciate that you (as the columist) have an obvious appreciation for both series, and understand that they each bring a valuable interpretation to the masses.

    One of the earlier comments criticizes that in both interpretations, Irene Adler is defeated by Sherlock, as if a woman could not win in either case. I’d like to correct that misinformation. In the Elementary season 1 finale, it’s stated outright that Watson predicts Moriarty’s final gloating visit to Sherlock’s hospital bed, and therefor Watson is responsible for the trap that leads to Moriarty’s arrest. Sherlock: “You know she solved you. The mascot. Watson. She diagnosed your condition earlier this evening. She realized the real reason you could never quite bring yourself to kill me.”

    This is extremely important because Sherlock did not defeat Irene, Joan Watson did. Both Moriarty and Sherlock negotiated from unemotional, logic-based perspectives, and that game Moriarty would always win. But it took the emotional/psychological/humanist insight of Watson to predict Moriarty’s behavior. This was a prediction Sherlock could never have made (too clouded by his history and preconceptions of Irene) and Moriarty could never have anticipated (arrogantly thinking herself above the same emotionality she so cruelly abused in Sherlock in order to cripple him).

    Having Irene Adler/Moriarty be defeated by unpredicted insight from another female character, Joan, effectively destroys the false myth of “the woman.” It’s indicative of the growth and social awareness of modern gender politics that updates from the original material. As much as Moriarty is built up as a titanic figure in Sherlock’s recollection, that was a facade that Moriarty created for Sherlock’s benefit, and one she bought into herself at the end. In truth there is no such thing “the woman.” There are women, and they are individuals, and they are not enigmas wrapped in mysteries but only…people. As Sherlock is only one person, capable of being defeated by the right opponent, so too is Jamie Moriarty.

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  • June 6, 2014 at 12:32 pm
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    I preferred Nina’s article. This is oranges and apples. Sherlock aims to update yet remain true to the Doyle canon. Elementary aims to put Holmes into the formulaic “Law and Order” type crime show. Seen it. Boring. BBC shows in general are wildly creative, unexpected, and I simply adore them. If television were reason enough to take up occupancy in London, I just might. American television has been predictable and formulaic, void of any real genius or originality for decades. Fortunately for Elementary, it falls right into that same stale pattern that has captivated the American audience.

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  • June 7, 2014 at 8:11 am
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    Bernice said: “I find the fact that both modern interpretations are eventually defeated by Holmes a telling point – it seems that the show runners do not believe that the audience would like to see a modern Holmes defeated by a woman.”

    But it wasn’t Holmes who defeated Irene/Moriarty in Elementary, it was Joan. That was the whole lovely point.

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  • June 7, 2014 at 9:05 pm
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    I’ll preface this by admitting I have not seen Elementary at all, and have only seen three episodes of Sherlock. I don’t watch a lot of television and am by no means an expert on Conan Doyle’s work, though I do enjoy it.

    What I like about the BBC Sherlock series is that the title character seems to be on the autism/Aspergers spectrum somewhere. He’s high-functioning but completely adrift when it comes to personal relationships. He can figure people out as puzzles, but can’t engage with “normal” people in any socially acceptable way. I see him as someone who has feelings but not the tools to express them properly, so he does what he can for Watson within his own constrained abilities. He has a rich inner world that is much more engaging to him than the mundane real world, except when the extraordinary piques his interest. He is a tragic figure, and while the audience may hope for him to eventually connect with other people on a more human, emotional level, he will always be an outsider in many ways, a quality often found in successful SF characters.

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  • June 11, 2014 at 5:37 am
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    Elementary is tied for my favorite TV show. JLM’s take on Sherlock fascinates me, and I love that Joan Watson is has developed into a full-fledged partner and not a comic stooge. Cumberbatch as Sherlock: I don’t want this man in my house! And all those text-over graphics? I am sure they are all wowsers on a giant, HD flatscreen TV, but they are completely illegible on my old set. Elementary, live long and prosper…

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  • June 12, 2014 at 7:29 am
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    I cannot argue for one side over the other. Regarding Sherlock, Cumberbatch is a perfect update of Holmes–but on occasion the writers make him a caricature (as when he “returns for the dead” and can’t fathom why Watson is angry enough to attack him repeatedly). Not saying it wasn’t funny, just that Sherlock Holmes was brilliant at discerning motives, which means that he understood human nature even if he considered himself superior to it. As to Elementary, while it sometime drifts too far into the American formula, Holmes and Joan Watson make a good team, the mysteries are often clever, and updating Holmes’ sensibilities to the 21st Century works well.

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  • June 20, 2014 at 5:32 am
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    I generally agree with your assessment of the two different series, although I think you are being much kinder to Sherlock, than I can be. That series is so heavily burdened with Moffatt’s ego that I find it ridiculous and, as I lack the requisite ADHD for all those implausible plot twists, will not be watching it anymore. At least Conan Doyle’s Sherlock was not a sociopath, which was his saving grace.

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  • August 3, 2015 at 11:03 am
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    *facepalm* for the LAST time, Sherlock (BBC) is NOT a sociopath and the writers are well aware of it! Here’s what Sherlock showrunner Steven Moffat has to say about this issue, (https://goo.gl/hT3AmT)

    “It’s funny how people are always wanting to prove me wrong on this one. They say: ‘But he’s not a high-functioning sociopath.’ I never said he was! Sherlock Holmes tells people he is. Why would you listen to him? Nobody can define themselves. That’s what he’d like people to think he is. And that’s it–and I think he probably longs to be one. I think he loiters around prisons for the criminally insane, envying them their emotional detachment. He knows emotion is a problem to him. A man who has decided to suppress all his emotions in order to be better at what he does clearly has an awful lot of emotion. That’s a very simple deduction. It clearly is a problem for him. So, in itself, that is an emotional decision.”

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