Although we naturally (and quite rightly) think of Sherlock Holmes as a character comfortably ensconced in Victorian London, with its hansom cabs rattling down cobblestone streets, yellow fog, and helmeted bobbies, the idea of updating the character isn’t actually a new one. The early Holmes films were always set in the year of their production, just as we today think nothing of seeing James Bond (whose stories were written in the 1950s and ’60s) using a laptop computer or carrying a cell phone. The first Holmes film actually set in period was The Hound of the Baskervilles, starring Basil Rathbone, released by Twentieth Century Fox in 1939. Then, after one more Victorian film for Fox (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), the series moved to Universal and back to the cheaper approach of updating.
I was prepared to dislike the new BBC series Sherlock, broadcast on PBS, but to my surprise I quite liked it. The new Holmes operates as a police consultant in contemporary London. The police are suspicious of him (one accuses him of being a “psychopath,” to which he replies that he’s a high-functioning sociopath). He doesn’t wear a deerstalker or Inverness cape, but those costume elements have tended to be overused (and inappropriately used) in films and TV shows anyway. The modern world doesn’t allow him to smoke, so he relies on multiple nicotine patches when he needs to think out a problem. He does take drugs. The actor who plays him (one who rejoices in the name Benedict Cumberbatch) looks too young for the part, but has the attitude exactly right.
He is supported by one of the best Watsons I’ve ever seen (Martin Freeman), like the original a recently returned wounded veteran of a war in Afghanistan. He’s seeing a psychologist who thinks his limp is psychosomatic, and is right. However, she thinks he’s suffering from PTSD, while Holmes immediately recognizes the truth, that Watson’s become an action junkie, and is starved for adventure—a commodity his new fellow lodger is ready and willing to supply.
There are even some references to the idea, common among what C. S. Lewis once called the “amateur psychological wiseacres,” that Holmes and Watson were a homosexual couple. That idea, I’m happy to report, is treated as comic, as it should be.
I think what pleased me best about the episode, though, was that it was clearly written by people who know the Holmes stories, and enjoy riffing off the “canonical” material. For instance, in the scene where the body is found, the word “RACHE” has been scratched in the floor by the victim (in the original version, it was written in blood on the wall by the murderer). In the original, Inspector Gregson assumed that someone started writing the name “Rachel” and was interrupted. Holmes condescendingly informed him that “Rache” is German for revenge.
In this version, Inspector Lestrade suggests that the victim must be German, and Holmes condescendingly informs him that it’s surely an unfinished “Rachel.”
This episode, called A Study in Pink, is loosely based on A Study In Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes mystery. I give the writers full marks for taking on the job of adapting this particular Holmes adventure, a story so improbable and convoluted that I don’t think anyone has ever dramatized it before (though the title has been used for a film). A Study In Scarlet is interesting to readers as an introduction to some fascinating characters, but involves an interminable flashback set in the American west (Doyle was always at his weakest as a writer when venturing abroad). This new version avoids all that, providing the viewer with a competent, plausible modern tale that touches base with the original in enough places to please Sherlockians.
The bottom line is that it’s a lot of fun, with special joys for fans of Conan Doyle. Recommended.