IMAGE: Sherlock (BBC)
As I settled deeper into my chair, still appropriately stunned by the enormity of the television that dwarfed every other object in my friend’s apartment, again readjusting the 3D frames over the top of my regular glasses like – a – cool – person, something occurred to me. I was now two hours into Avatar, and, as those who have seen the film will attest, while the visuals remained spectacular, that initial awe was now rather wearing off; the narrative, while relatively functional, was starting to slow. So my mind wandered. (…Also, in truth I was probably still a little stunned by the use of the word ‘Unobtainium’ – what the hell?) On screen the private military were blowing up a tree, there was a bunch of big dragon things flying around, and I started thinking – as I’m sure many others have at this point in the film – about Sherlock Holmes and the dialogical effect of his narrative play.
No seriously. That last hour does kind of drag.
It was because of the glasses. Because I had to keep jostling them up my nose, hearing them ‘tink’ against my regular lenses. I got thinking about the mechanics of the whole process: about how these marvellous images get made.
From what little I understand, the filmmakers use two separate but fixed cameras that mimic the binocular process of human sight, capturing two images from two different angles, which, when projected almost simultaneously, are then processed in the mind to construct the appearance of a three-dimensional image. Two viewpoints; two separate angles; two perspectives that, when read together, appear to fill in the gap between them and unify the contradiction into a cohesive whole: a ‘real’ world image. Now, obviously two-visions-becoming-one is the larger, inane metaphor of James Cameron’s movie – human and alien seeing each other’s viewpoint; uniting; working together; making out, doing that weird stuff with their tails – but that’s too obvious and boring. (And I’m not sure the film’s cartoonishly villainous humans with their greed and brutality can really be considered a legitimate opposing viewpoint…) So instead, I want to draw a much flimsier analogy by using this premise to explore the world of England’s greatest detective, and the narrative structure that is so central to his success, exploring why the stories of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson remain thoroughly engaging, and continue to speak to new audiences one generation after the next.
Sherlock Holmes has had quite the resurgence in popularity of late. Between the exceptional BBC reimagining Sherlock (which I will get to drooling over momentarily), the curiously anachronistic Sherlock Holmes blockbusters starring Robert Downey Jr., and even a forthcoming American adaptation for CBS called Elementary, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature character is arguably risking cultural oversaturation. Indeed, even the recently concluded series House was an overt homage to the asocial, drug-addled investigator – this time merely transplanted from the methodically-observant detective genre to a medical drama. And although personally I baulk at the parallel, many in the past have likened the long-running Doctor Who and whatever intrepid companion is momentarily along for the ride, to the Baker street detective and his faithful scribe.*
For the purposes of this discussion I’m going to put aside the impending American remake (‘No,’ I hear purists cry, ‘but I’ve always pictured Lucy Liu as Watson!’) Similarly I will ignore the infectiously charming Robert Downey Jr. (who, despite being fantastic, is nonetheless in a peculiarly muddled film that seems to want to convince its audience that Holmes is a genius because he can beat the crap out of people). Instead, I intend to spend the following paragraphs raving with froth-bag affection for Sherlock, a series of made-for-television films on the BBC that – to my eye at least – perfectly capture the tone and heart of Doyle’s original text.*
There are many attributes that bind these two versions of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries – original Doyle fictions and modern television adaptation – so perfectly. In both we see a narrative structure that thrives on its immediacy and artifice of reality, that is playfully self-referential, and that remains fundamentally tied to the collaboration of two distinct personalities, two broken souls who need each other in order to exist and thrive.
Firstly, there is the decision (now being emulated by the American adaptation) to contemporise these stories. The creators of Sherlock decided that the only way to capture the spirit of the original tales was to set them in the modern day. This was a choice that some thought to be a violation of the original texts (‘Sherlock Holmes using Google Maps? WTF!?’), but in actuality it is as faithful as the creators could possibly be to the source material.
In the original texts, the intent was always to allow the reader to believe that Holmes might actually be out there, a real person, actually assisting the police in their inquiries. The stories were set in the (then) modern day, in London’s own streets. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle intentionally wrote his stories as if they were genuine account of recent incidents; he gave dates for these events; spoke of ‘reports’ published in newspapers; alluded to famous figures whose names (for the sake of decency, naturally) needed to be obscured; and he whispered that certain details of the crimes, about which only Watson and Holmes were aware, had even been hushed up by the press. Indeed, part of the reason that the ‘death’ of Sherlock Holmes was so disturbing was that many of the people reading these adventures each month in the Strand magazine had wholly invested in the suspension of disbelief Doyle invited. To help intensify the fiction he perpetuated the mythology that Holmes was real, that he was actually out solving cases while the reader slept, and that would be there, next month, with another rollicking adventure to share with the world.
Part of the genius of the new television version is that Holmes likewise operates in a modern setting. He – like the original – operates with all of the cutting edge sciences and technologies available to him: he scans the transom of the world wide web; he dances across the keypads of blackberries and mobile phones; he speaks of his brain as a computer hard-drive that requires defragging. He might not have many friends on his facebook page, nor have any purpose for it, but he at least knows what the site is. He is familiar with, and operates inside, a wholly contemporary world.
Secondly, Doyle famously employs the construct of the witness narrator. Watson, the second half of this duo, is Holmes’ observer, not only aiding him in his investigations but later writing them down and preserving them for we, the readers. In a detective fiction this limited viewpoint is, of course, a delaying tactic, central to the slow reveal of the mystery: as audience we have to await elucidation along with Watson; we too have to go along with his tangents and misdirections, waiting for Holmes to explain the clue that will set is all right.
Were the story told through Holmes’ eyes, Doyle could not hold off from telling the reader what each clue he spots means at the moment he spies it (although curiously Doyle did write some very late stories through Holmes’ viewpoint – they’re not his best); through Watson’s vision however, Holmes can point out a peculiar floor covering, a brand of cigarettes, a seemingly trivial idiosyncrasy, all without naming precisely why these details should be kept in mind until he is ready to disgorge the whole sequence of events in his concluding revelatory purge.
Watson is therefore constantly referring to his own act of writing and publishing these stories: he notes that he has changed ‘real’ names to avoid scandal; he speaks of writing particular adventures in order to correct the public record and respond to rumours in the press; indeed, Holmes is a celebrity in these stories precisely because of Watson’s publication, and in response to this scrutiny he offers pissy critiques of Watson’s writing style and tendency for exaggeration – arguing that his friend gets a little carried away in his praise.
This self-referentiality is something that Sherlock has built into its foundations also. Watson is now a blogger.*** Holmes’ adventures are typed up and posted on the web (rather than in the pages of The Strand magazine as they were under Doyle’s direction), where Holmes finds he has quite a devoted following. Indeed, in the second series, this audience has even elevated to the state of tabloid fandom – with Holmes something of a London celebrity by the final episode.
And just as was true in the original stories, Watson (in the marvellous Martin Freeman) is not merely a hapless servant, swept along in Holmes’ wake like a leaf; he is critical of his friend, willing to paint both his strengths and his failings. In both the original texts and the show it is revealed that Holmes has a particularly obsessive personality that can even slip into substance addiction (in the original text he’s a cocaine addict; in the new show he is wallpapered with nicotine patches). We get to see that he is unaware of simple trivia such as the detail that the earth circles the sun; and is not mindful of the truth that human beings have feelings, and might get insulted by his robotic detachment.
But perhaps most significantly, this version of the text – unlike so many before – has finally presented Watson as more than some witless lackey, stumbling around artlessly befuddled, waiting for Holmes to clue him in. Here – as he was in the original tales – he is an essential counterpoint to his companion, a crucial balance to his experience, one that Holmes finds he genuinely needs to prosper.
Holmes (played masterfully by Benedict Cumberbatch), is an asexual emotional vampire, lost in a maelstrom of arrogance and intellectual detachment; but in Watson, a selfless, compassionate soldier who is stirred by human empathy, he finds a partner, someone who can compliment and strengthen the aspects of his personality he knows to be lacking. Meanwhile Watson, driven by an urge to help others both medically and heroically, but shattered by his experience at war, lacks the strength to re-enter the world on his own until he finds the ingenious but socially maladjusted Holmes. They are more than room and work mates, they are two halves of the same broken soul. Thus, they present the perfect bromance, opposites attracting in a non-sexual way (a joke that the show itself plays up with Watson’s repeated assertion to everyone they meet that they are just roommates), the rational and emotional working in cohesion at last. Together, the one guides the other, providing purpose, perspective and drive.
And it’s through their intersecting perspectives that these stories, both in fiction and on our television screens, come to life. This evolution of the story, from flat, second-hand mystery to complex, multifaceted character-based murder plot, is entirely dependent upon the roles that Holmes and Watson play within their texts – not as a detective and snivelling servant, but rather as a voices of opposition comingling with one another – two parallel, but alternate points of view that bring the whole experience into focus.
Holmes with his cold clinical rationality, and Watson with his empathetic longing to help others, alone are unsuccessful, but together are an inviolable force of will. United they challenge the singular viewpoint of the events presented by pointing out contradictions, poking at the seams and exploring each unresolved tangent from multiple angles until their two visions align and the mystery is solved.
Two conflicting narratives, from two divergent viewpoints are finally unified into a third, cohesive whole. And as a direct consequence of this duality – bringing cohesion through contradiction, synthesising at least two contrary viewpoints – the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson seem to rise up and out of the pages and screens before us; we look into them, like 3D lenses, watching rounded, complex characters with lives and experiences as multifaceted as our own step into the world fully formed.
…Well, certainly with more dimension than anything offered in Avatar. I mean, what was going on with that crazy scar-faced General in the robot suit? What the hell was that all about?
* In recent years this likeness has been furthered because of Stephen Moffat’s integral association and guiding vision for both Sherlock and Doctor Who.
** I do want it noted for the record that I have restrained myself from mentioning Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century. Those who know that cartoon just punched the air in nostalgic glee; to those who don’t recognise the name: go on with your life happily unburdened. The short version is: Watson was robot; Sherlock was a clone; I was… confused. But, hey: flying cars and bowler hats? What’s not to love? (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyGAc-OLAiQ)
*** Indeed you can even read his blog here.