The game is on!
Tony Fyler fills in for the skull.
The name positively reeks of Victorian England. The character ignited the literary world of the day with its demented originality of approach, and it’s not really too much of a claim to say that it legitimized the penny dreadful and established crime fiction as a respectable market for the first time. When you think of Sherlock Holmes, you instinctively think of cobbled streets, pea-soup fogs and nefarious goings-on against the backdrop of the industrial age and the era of empire. That’s who Sherlock Holmes is, an unconventional Victorian genius, able to move in every circle in his world, and uncover the perfidy in all of them.
So, clearly, what was needed in 2010 was to ditch the Victorian setting altogether and bring Sherlock Holmes into the modern world, after more than a hundred years of expansion in the genre of which he was master, to re-tell the Holmes stories with a bit of a twist.
That was bound to be welcome…right?
From the vantage point of 2015, with Moffat and Gatiss’ Sherlock ruling the world and re-introducing people to the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, sure, it looks like an obvious winner, but back then, it could have gone either way. Sherlock could have been as welcome as a fart in a wet suit had it been handled badly. People tuned into Episode 1, A Study In Pink, mostly with the attitude of ‘Alright, let’s just see if this is as weird as it sounds…’
Most of those who watched that first episode have gone on to watch three series (albeit mini-series), and now regularly clamour for more.
So much about A Study In Pink is ridiculously spot-on, it’s almost embarrassing to write about.
The opening scene shows us not the genius detective in the deerstalker, but John Watson, soldier, doctor, sufferer of nightmares related to his wartime service in Afghanistan. We learn he’s in therapy, has a limp and doesn’t write the blog his therapist recommends because nothing happens to him. In true Whovian style, we go into the series through the eyes of the anchor, the companion, our avatar who will accompany the man we can never be.
Then, in a scene which, once you know, screams at you that you’re being given the answer to the mystery that will unfold over the course of the episode, we see people whose days include one common factor, and then suddenly two, when they take a pill from a bottle and die.
Lestrade and his colleagues are shown as tough and clever modern cops, rather than the buffoons they’ve been made out to be in less faithful adaptations of the Holmes stories, but the impossible nature of the man that is Sherlock Holmes is shown through the first truly glorious bit of technological updating – butting in to hack a bunch of reporters’ phones with the word ‘Wrong!’ whenever Lestrade or his colleagues say anything with which he disagrees. But also right there we get a hallmark of Conan Doyle – a seemingly impossible crime. How can you have ‘serial suicides?’ How does that even begin to work? So we have the makings of what could be a promising modern Holmes story – a seemingly impossible crime, some tough, clever police officers, and the impertinent, arrogant, accurate genius of Sherlock Holmes. But it still all depends on the persona of Holmes himself. What would a modern Sherlock Holmes even be like?
When we first meet Sherlock in person – the person, it’s worth noting, of up-and-coming, whippet-thin and gloriously Bryonic Benedict Cumberbatch – he’s unzipping a body bag in a morgue, and setting about it with a riding crop. As it turns out, there’s a method to his madness – a man’s alibi depends on the bruises that form as a result of the beating, and shortly afterwards, he’s introduced to Watson by a mutual acquaintance.
Steven Moffat was experienced by then at writing for the cleverest person in the room – his first series as Doctor Who showrunner had introduced the Eleventh Doctor earlier the same year, and there are inevitable similarities between the two, but where the Eleventh Doctor tries to be cool, Sherlock can be properly grown-up, sociopathic, I-don’t-care-what-you-think cool (known since the eighties among Blakes 7 fans as ‘Avon Cool’), and has to explain slightly more of the method of his own brilliance. By the time their first five minute meeting is done, Sherlock has learned as much of what we know about Watson as we have, but from his own sources – a leg, a mobile phone, a gait – and absolutely hypnotized us with his personality. He’s also left his riding crop in the mortuary, more or less agreed to share a flat with Watson, and captured his audience utterly.
There are several key scenes in A Study In Pink that show us how this new, breathtaking Holmes works – his childlike, sociopathic disconnected ‘It’s Christmas!’ joy when he discovers there are four serial suicides and a note; brief eye movements, and flashes on screen of what we’re led to believe are his mental processes. The scene where he examines Jennifer Wilson’s body, making deductions on the fly is a master stroke in ‘showing, not telling.’ His mental map of London, shown on screen through moving journey-trackers and a range of traffic signals, while he and Watson run down a suspect in a cab shows us what it might be like to live in his brain. His relationship with Lestrade and his fellow officers, shown both at the murder scene and during the so-called ‘drugs bust,’ is allowed to develop its own spiky rhythms – you begin to get a sense of just how dangerous a man like Sherlock Holmes could be if he decided he really didn’t like you in the scene where he casually reveals what he knows about Anderson and Donovan’s affair. You begin to understand what his true arch-enemy could be like. Not surprising then that Donovan warns Watson off him.
Among the most remarkable elements of A Study In Pink though is its pacing – nothing seems particularly forced or rushed, but there’s time allowed to take beats with Watson and the mysterious stranger who later reveals himself as Mycroft. Time allowed to build the tension and reveal the psychology of both Sherlock and Jeff, Phil Davies’ masterfully contained genius cabbie. Time to reveal the name of his mysterious sponsor, Moriarty. Time, essentially to make it all make sense. If you step outside the scenario for a second, it makes perfect sense long before Sherlock gets it – Serial suicides? Fairly obvious – they take the same pill under the same duress, inflicted by the same other person. But while the fact that it makes sense is pleasing, like the original Sherlock Holmes stories, the real joy is in the character and his process. How he arrives at the truth is far more satisfying than, early on, thinking to yourself “Oh, they must be forced to take the pills.” Crime fiction is, at its heart, a genre that forces you to suspend some parts of your rational brain, while highly stimulating other parts, to follow the pathway and the clues you have to hand. That’s half the genius of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. The character of the kind of person who can follow that pathway much much faster than the rest of us is the other half.
A Study In Pink, when it was broadcast, lit up phonelines and appreciation indices like a firework display – it had taken the fundamental elements of the original Sherlock Holmes and given them a modern twist that no-one thought they needed, but once the episode was shown to them, most people loved it. Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as the new Holmes and Watson felt right for our age, the genius and the anchor to the world of human beings. Mark Gatiss was elegantly conniving as Mycroft. Rupert Graves was a great new face for Lestrade – competent but desperate - and Una Stubs brought a delicious flapability to the new Mrs Hudson. The world of Sherlock Holmes, the city as the battlefield, was laid out before us, and as a proof of concept for an updated Sherlock Holmes series, it was an unqualified success. It delivered an hour and twenty of original Sherlock Holmes genius, given a freshness and a twist by two TV writers at the top of their game, and the world of the Victorian detective laid out and updated in a way guaranteed to make both geeks and the geek-stream (those who don’t class themselves as geeks, but watch every Marvel movie, Doctor Who when it’s on, Game of Thrones, every Bond movie and so on) fall in love with it. Sherlock was here to stay, and the game was well and truly on.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk