Review: Sherlock 1×1

A slightly flawed Sherlock, but better than the original

In the UK: Sundays, 9pm, BBC1/BBC1 HD

Sherlock Holmes is one of those classic characters who gets revived with incredible regularity. You can’t go for more than five years without yet another Sherlock Holmes remake. Sometimes, he gets revived in Victorian times (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), sometimes he’s Victorian and gets transplanted to modern times (Sherlock Holmes Returns), sometimes you get a modern day version of him but in another genre (House) and sometimes you just get him in modern times.

Steven Moffat, showrunner of Doctor Who, has also given in to this latter temptation with Sherlock. This sees Benedict Cumberbatch as modern day consulting detective Sherlock Holmes meeting Afghanistan war hero Dr John Watson in 2010, and running around modern day London, solving crimes in his usual ways – but also texting a lot.

When asked what the difference between Sherlock and Doctor Who was, our Stevie said “Sherlock‘s on an hour later” – and that’s about right.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson’s adventures in 21st Century London. A thrilling, funny, fast-paced contemporary remake of the Arthur Conan Doyle classic. 1/3. Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes meet, and tackle the case of the Impossible Suicides.

Was it any good?
On the whole, it was largely excellent. Almost too excellent in fact, because as Stevie suggests, here we have a Sherlock Holmes who is basically Doctor Who without his TARDIS – and as a result I spent the whole time thinking “Wouldn’t series five of Doctor Who have been so much better with Benedict Cumberbatch instead of Matt Smith?”

The story itself, A Study in Pink, was loosely based on the original Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet. Loosely though, because despite the presence of RACHE etched in the floor and some poison pills, there was very little crossover between the two. While the constant texting and Internet-usage seemed a little too much like “Look! We’re modern! Look Sherlock Holmes is texting!”, the general updating of the story worked well – A Study in Scarlet, while brilliant in its creation of Holmes and Watson and its depiction of Holmes’ deductive skills, isn’t the best of books, its villain is poor, RACHE is a stupid and throwaway red herring and is generally a poor way to introduce the world to the characters.

A Study in Pink, however, while by no means immune from silliness – Mycroft being the most obvious example – holds together a lot better. It’s also a lot funnier, with some great lines from our Stevie (“Mostly they tell me to piss off.”). There were some nice updates to well known Sherlockian traits – Sherlock’s “three-patch problem”, Watson’s service automatic, his blog instead of his memoirs, the scratches on a mobile phone instead of a pocket watch – and a few direct transfers (221b Baker Street, Mrs Hudson, Mycroft) but largely this was its own beast.

Sherlock Holmes is such a well known character though, it’s almost impossible to separate the update’s Sherlock from past Sherlocks. Would such an incredible set-up that bares so little relationship to reality be acceptable in a totally original piece of crime fiction? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean this wasn’t enjoyable – far from it.

Cumberbatch was awesome as the almost sociopathic Holmes, willing to do almost anything if it avoids boredom and unwilling to play by any rules, social or legal, that will hinder him. This Sherlock’s deductions, while not quite as inspiring as the original’s, still proved impressive as well, and we could understand why the likes of Lestrade would hire him as a result.

Freeman was surprisingly impressive as a Watson worthy of respect – a cool, intelligent, quietly forceful ex-soldier capable of doing things on his own* – the building up of Watson’s character as an adrenaline-addict who misses the war, a clever touch and an interesting take on him that’s never been done before but seems obvious in retrospect. Secondary characters were worthy of respect, too, with Lestrade a regular and decent cop, rather than a bumbling fool. Even Phil Davies’ serial killer worked well as a character, within the boundaries of the OTT world of Sherlock Holmes, chilling yet an everyman at the same time.

If the show’s let down at all, it’s by its supporting characters – Sgt Sally Donovan (why not Gregson?) was a tad wooden and Mark Gatiss’s Mycroft seemed to be in some other show altogether, one that required considerable overacting. While the on-screen texting and internal monologues of Sherlock worked well, there were a couple of misfires in the otherwise excellent direction as well – the constant use of the “door opens in the next scene but we’re going to leave the current scene onscreen” device grew irritating, and the weird chase down Lexington Street would have confused anyone who knew Soho well (So he runs down the west side of Lexington Street, goes through the door next to Millies, climbs up some stairs, goes round the back, jumps, and winds up on the east side of Lexington Street, to stop a cab that’s going west? Huh.) The music was also marvellous and seemed to owe a debt to the recent Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr – as indeed did the direction at times, with its Matrix slow-mo and weird camera angles**.

But this was great stuff. It was fun, perplexing and action-packed. The bones of a series arc involving Professor Moriarty and the well known criminal organisation he (or will it be she?) runs was there as well, giving us even more reason to watch the other two episodes.

Recommended Sunday night/iPlayer viewing.

* This is what Rory should have been in Doctor Who I spent my time thinking. Damn Stevie
** This is who we should be getting on Doctor Who instead of Murray Gold, I spent my time thinking. Damn Stevie

  • Damn Stevie indeed.
    But it was wonderful. I didn’t spend the whole time thinking BC should be the Doctor but it certainly is a worthwhile reworking of the Doctor minus a TARDIS.
    BTW, much as I love Mark G, he was so way too arch here I’m almost dreading his re-appearances. I hope Moff does something a bit original with him overall.

  • stu-n

    I don’t know whether BC would have made Series 5 better, though it certainly would have been different. I’ve never seen him display enough warmth to be the Doctor; he’d be a better fit as the Master, which he seems to be hinting at in that interview on Digital Spy (“I wouldn’t be appearing in an episode of Doctor Who. Not an episode.”)
    You’re quite right about Martin Freeman as Watson, though: best performance I’ve ever seen from him, and a great take on the character.
    Mycroft did seem to have teleported in from the League of Gentlemen. You’d wonder how Watson, as he’s presented here, would react to someone who’d effectively been the British secret service and the CIA, as they’d be directly responsible for sending him to Afghanistan…
    Someone’s pointed out elsewhere that Sherlock’s compulsive texting is a nod to the Holmes of the books always sending telegrams rather than letters.

  • DOPEaddict

    This was really good TV, regardless of its strange relationship with reality. I’d really liked BC in The Last Enemy & so was looking forward to this, & I was not disappointed.
    I rather liked Mycroft. His silliness seemed to me to be SM winking at us, as if to say “we know the show’s ridiculous, let’s have fun anyway.”
    And I heartily agree, the music was 1st class. I hummed the tune the rest of the evening, annoying my wife, not to mention the cats.
    I really hope they leave BC out of Doctor Who in the short term so as to save him for the long. I’d love to see him as The Doctor a few years from now.
    And Sherlock was a great way to help deal with my Doctor Who withdrawal.

  • bob

    Brilliant. Wonderful script. So amusing. The friendship between Sherlock and John really worked for me too.
    I think that BC would have made a great Doctor but one for adults. I can’t picture him giving the energy that Matt Smith brings to the role. Which is to say that I would prefer a more sedate Doctor to the current level of craziness but I get that DW is a show for a broader range of ages so the casting is probably right.

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