I only recently realised that the new series Sherlock on BBC 1 is only three episodes long! We’ve had two episodes, with the second one airing last night and I think the new creation of a modern day Sherlock Holmes [Benedict Cumberbatch] and Doctor Watson [Martin Freeman] is completely successful. Reviews of Sherlock in the press have generally been very positive so I’m hopeful that it will be recommissioned at some point in the future.
The first episode A Study in Pink is a take on the original novel featuring the meeting of Holmes and Watson, A Study in Scarlet, published in 1887 The drama spent a good deal of time and effort introducing the main characters which I think, due to the fame of the original, is time well spent. Arguably, many of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories are more about exploring the character of Holmes and his skill than about the storyline itself and therefore I was delighted that the writers and Cumberbatch portrayed him so effectively, depicting him in a way that was original, yet close enough to the text to please devoted Holmes fans like me. Cumberbatch has form, having played Stephen Hawking in the BBC’s 2004 drama Hawking.
Martin Freeman did worry me when I first found out he was playing Watson, because, although I like him as an actor, he has tended in the past to only play one kind of character. The character of Watson has been played in a variety of very different ways over the years so he did have some flexibility and I was pleasantly surprised by his acting. The first episode dwelt on the doctor’s past as a soldier and the effects of this on his character, which I think Freeman dealt with sensitively. By the end of this episode there was a great relationship developing between Holmes and Watson which I thought to be a fantastic tribute to Conan Doyle’s aim.
I found the first episode more enjoyable than the second, possibly because I find the exploration of the characters more interesting than the drama of the storyline, even though the writing is solid and the plot was engaging in both episodes. I felt Watson does revert from the troubled soldier to a simpler sidekick role in the second episode, but I wouldn’t attack Freeman or the writers for it as this does happen in many of the original stories, in order to focus on the murder story.
I realise I’ve barely touched on the attempt to adapt Sherlock Holmes to modern day London and I suppose this could be seen as a credit to the writers that the setting change is so smooth and comfortable that it does not require that much criticism. Holmes uses black cabs, mobile phones, nicotine patches and the internet, but other than that the modernity of their world doesn’t jar at all. In fact this may highlight that, apart from technological advancements and because we are used to modern dialect being inserted into period drama, the19th-century society of Holmes’ creation is not that much different from our own and it does not ruin him to set him in the modern day. Oddly the main thing that throws me off when watching it is the fact that Mr Holmes and Doctor Watson are now known as Sherlock and John!
The storylines used are, as expected for a prime-time modern drama, more exciting and fast paced than some of Conan Doyle’s short stories, though by no means all of them. Both episodes have featured serial murders and seem at times to dwell on bizarre, eerie and sinister plots, more so than Conan Doyle did. However this does fit with Holmes’ desperation for cases out of the ordinary and I expect that more extreme cases needed to be used due to the fact that Holmes in conjunction with a full modern forensic science department would easily steam through simpler murder cases. I would say that the characterisation is stronger than the storytelling as so far the plots seem to be leading up to a Doctor Who style dénouement when Holmes deals with Moriarty (who is behind all of the crimes) directly in the final episode, but I will wait to see how it is concluded.
Overall the series is a great success and proof that great drama can still be made and great old characters like Sherlock Holmes can still be reinvigorated with good writing. The writers have managed to tread that difficult line between making good exciting drama and retaining the beauty of the original text. They gain the respect of those who know the stories very well, particular in the first episode when they tweaked the dialogue between Holmes and Inspector Lestrade over the clue of Rache, which changed the plot, made the police look equally stupid as they did in the original text and made me smile. If you haven’t seen it already do watch the first two episodes, they’re still on iPlayer and the final instalment is on BBC 1 next Sunday. Here’s hoping for a second series!