Arthur Conan Doyle famously had a falling out with his most successful creation, flinging him to a watery grave in a desperate bid to escape into what he saw as more worthwhile writing. That he was ultimately forced to resurrect the Great Detective by popular demand tells us just how powerful a figure Sherlock Holmes had become even then. He is now totally independent of Conan Doyle’s stories, able to freely infiltrate all forms of popular culture in a variety of cunning disguises, so we shouldn’t be surprised that he’s finally turned up in the 21st-century – rather that it’s taken him so long.
Although the concept might initially sound preposterous, the BBC’s new, updated adaptation is very much in keeping with the iconic sleuth’s screen career to date. Most early twentieth century film adaptations avoided the complexities of period setting by updating the action to their own times, while several of the supposedly ‘classic’ Universal pictures starring Basil Rathbone pitted the Great Detective against Nazi agents during World War II.
In many ways the universe of Holmes remains more intact here than it has been in many previous adaptations. The three feature-length episodes mash up images and mysteries from various Conan Doyle stories, Holmes’ brilliant ‘deductive’ powers and chilling social aloofness as compelling/irritating as ever. It ultimately makes little difference whether he trades pound notes for a debit card, a pocketwatch for a smartphone, and horse-drawn carriages for black taxicabs. Admittedly that last habit is somewhat harder to justify now that the capital is equipped with a world-class public transport system (something resembling the London Underground technically existed in the late 19th-century, but reliable historical accounts indicate that it was even worse).
Where the show really departs from popular convention, and proves its loyalty to the original stories, is in placing the relationship between Holmes and Watson firmly centre-stage. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman capture nicely the sense that the duo are two halves of the same whole, each providing the other with limited access to a world which would otherwise be utterly closed off. The everyman Watson’s secret need for danger and excitement is almost the central theme of the first episode, while it is made clear by the finale that without a partner to anchor him in reality, Holmes’ obsessions would lead him rapidly into insanity or death.
The elephant in the room for this series is Guy Ritchie’s uncharacteristically competent Sherlock Holmes (2009), which also emphasised the pair’s co-dependence to the point of homo-eroticism. Although the timing of the BBC’s new series inevitably draws some comparison, the only real parallel is in portions of David Arnold and Michael Price’s soundtrack; a collection of eccentrically squawking strings and gypsy-style cimbalom twanging lifted directly from Hans Zimmer’s film score, which cramps the show’s style considerably. Not that it would be a flawless ride even without the orchestra constantly clamouring for attention – while the stories are no less coherent than were Conan Doyle’s originals, the episodes are simply too long for that ridiculousness to go unnoticed. The mechanics of Sherlock Holmes stories have never stood up to close scrutiny whether in text or on screen, and 90 minutes gives the viewer far too long to actually think about what they’re watching. A longer run of shorter episodes would have let the larger plot-holes slip by unnoticed, as well as establishing the series more firmly in public awareness.
Brevity might be part of the reason why the best Holmes adaptations to date are the BBC Radio dramatisations by Bert Coules, half-hour episodes which still squeezed more character and atmosphere in between the lines of Conan Doyle’s stories than he broadly managed to put on them. The enduring power of the books isn’t in their details but the bold, colourful images and characters that emerged from them. It bodes well, then, that the new trilogy ends with the ‘surprise’ introduction of a bold new model of Professor Moriarty, who functions as ever to elevate Holmes’ intellectual puzzling to the level of a mythic struggle between good and evil. The problem is that, having apparently rolled their first meeting and final confrontation into one mildly misjudged climax at the Reichenbach Swimming Baths, the show’s writers will have to choose between seriously deviating from their source, or losing the mythic quality they’ve only just gained. It’s definitely worth tuning in to see their final solution – and how on earth they’re going to handle The Hound of the Baskervilles.