The new (new) Sherlock Holmes

Masterpiece Theater has been airing episodes of a Sherlock Holmes miniseries set in the present.  As I was watching the first episode, I wondered whether this was a reaction to the wild success of the Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Jr. (soon to be with Stephen Fry, as Mycroft, if the message boards prove correct) and whether it also had something to do with there being another Afghan war on, giving Dr. Watson a plausible place in the future.  I am inclined to believe that the former is true, especially given similarities between the music and the Holmes-thought-process scenes in the movie and the miniseries.  Also, since Stephen Moffat wrote the series, Holmes occasionally slips into Dr. Who-dom.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but given that Benedict Cumberbatch is a skinny, eccentric white guy, and could plausibly play the Doctor, its a bit disconcerting to have these Whovian moments.

Updating a classic series is always difficult, and I think rarely successful.  The iterations of Alice and Wonderland movies/TV series, for instance, failed pretty miserably.  Although Alice wasn’t originally written for film, so perhaps the comparison isn’t fair.  Neverhteless, I still think that Christopher Lloyd’s white knight is one of the best translation of Wonderlandia to the screen.  Since I’m on this tangent, I do think that Tim Burton’s Alice’s final scene with her uncle discussing expanding into China is an interesting bit of imperial culture.  One might extrapolate that living in Wonderland, and being something rather exceptional in Wonderland led her to think imperially, but that last scene seemed more like an attempt to root the whole film in Britishness than it was any meaningful commentary on the impetus of empire.  Not that everything has to be meaningful commentary, but I think that if one brings up the empire, in a venue where it had no place being, some explanation is needed.

I have the opposite issue with Sherlock.  There is simply not enough empire, or really, other things that were common in the nineteenth century but seem unseemly now.  I have used the scene where Sherlock and Watson meet to teach with.  In this particular passage, Watson is recounting his time in the army: 

On landing at Bombay, I learned that my corps had advanced through the passes, and was already deep in the enemy’s country. I followed, however, with many other officers who were in the same situation as myself, and succeeded in reaching Candahar in safety, where I found my regiment, and at once entered upon my new duties.The campaign brought honours and promotion to many, but for me it had nothing but misfortune and disaster. I was removed from my brigade and attached to the Berkshires, with whom I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery. I should have fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the devotion and courage shown by Murray, my orderly, who threw me across a pack-horse, and succeeded in bringing me safely to the British lines. Worn with pain, and weak from the prolonged hardships which I had undergone, I was removed, with a great train of wounded sufferers, to the base hospital at Peshawar. Here I rallied, and had already improved so far as to be able to walk about the wards, and even to bask a little upon the veranda, when I was struck down by enteric fever, that curse of our Indian possessions.

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I have used this bit as an introductory lesson to analyzing texts.  Giving them a piece of fiction is always something of a risk, but it is useful to point out that things that are not strictly “true” can serve as primary sources, and windows into a time.  But the point about this piece also is how much the empire pervaded British life in the 1880s.  In the recent iteration of Sherlock, by virtue of the time shift, that empire is all but invisible.  I think that it was an important part of the original stories, from the Orientalist bigotry in the Adventure of the Creeping Man to the notion that too much interest in the east affects mania in The Specked Band, the imperialism and anxiety about imperialism of Doyle’s time pervaded the original stories.  I am not sure what could fit into the slightly uncomfortable place of nineteenth-century imperial bigotry, but by removing that valence from Holmes, and by also making him a recovering smoker instead of a cocaine addict, the creators of Sherlock smoothed the character out a bit.  That he comes across as Whovian, rather than a loose cannon takes something away from the Holmes that many readers know and love.  For what it’s worth, the authors seem to try to counteract this smoothness both by suggesting that Holmes is gay and by having both supporting characters and Holmes himself refer to the detective as a ‘high functioning sociopath,’ but it comes across more like a cocktail party quip than something threatening.  Maybe subsequent episodes will develop the darker side of Holmes – I certainly hope so – and if not, the series is certainly enjoyable, but it lacks a certain something.

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