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When the BBC’s Sherlock first hit screens in 2010, nobody really knew what to expect. The task of adapting Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved sleuth stories for the 21st century was fraught with peril, as it always is when great works of literature are transferred to the screen. You could almost hear the critics sharpening their blades in preparation for a bloodbath. It was, therefore, a delightful surprise when Sherlock turned out not only to be a respectful adaptation of Conan Doyle’s books, but an extension of them. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman did not just inhabit the roles of Sherlock and Watson, they became them. By the end of series two, the show was generating more conversation than any other on the TV. Sherlock’s apparent plunge to his death had fans and critics alike puzzling over his miraculous survival, while choking back the tears from Martin Freeman’s moving graveside performance. Sherlock was riding the crest of a wave.
So what went wrong? At what point did one of the most interesting shows on TV become so smug and self-referential? How did we go from fast-paced puzzle-solving goodness to the weird ‘Saw’ rip-off we had to endure the other week? And why?
The warning signs were there in series three, when Sherlock pranced around at a wedding for most of an episode before fingering the culprit – who is never even given a name – in the last five minutes. As a standalone episode, it seemed like an anomaly at the time. But then came the Victorian Christmas special in 2015, which is still the most eye-wateringly up itself the show has ever been. I can’t remember all of it but there’s one scene next to a waterfall which is one of the most cringe-inducing sequences I have ever seen on television. It basically consists of Sherlock and Watson congratulating themselves and each other before pushing Moriarty off a cliff – and it’s all happening in Sherlock’s head anyway. Sherlock even says the line “elementary, my dear Watson”, which Conan Doyle never actually used in the books. The whole scene commits the worst crime that any scene of a TV show can: it could be mistaken for fan fiction.
The show’s biggest flaw, for me, is focussing on the characters rather than the storylines. In the first two series, the relationship between Sherlock and Watson was very interesting. Sherlock seemed cold and emotionless, but he had a heart from the very beginning. Watching Holmes come to respect Watson, in a way that he respected few others, was one of the great joys of the first series. But crucially, the show was not about their relationship, it was about the stories, which just so happened to be based around solid characters. And not just Holmes and Watson, either. Molly Hooper quickly became a fan favourite as she grew from a nervous love-struck girl in episode one to Sherlock’s saviour in episode six – though of course, she’s now been put firmly back in her box. Lestrade (not “Greg”) was always a background character but brought a normalcy to affairs which contrasted well against Sherlock’s oddball quirkiness. He, of course, barely appeared in series four. And Mrs. Hudson’s fleeting appearances were funny because of her subtle mannerisms, and Sherlock’s quick-witted responses – not because she was crashing a sports car into some dustbins.
Sherlock was always different enough from Conan Doyle’s books to have a personality, but with enough nods to the novels to still be recognisably Sherlock Holmes. Yet as it strays further from the source material, as it becomes more and more its own entity, it has somehow lost some of its personality. In the early days, the plotlines were classic Holmes material – a puzzle to solve, a trail of breadcrumbs to follow, and consequences to face at the end. This is the structure that has worked for whodunits for years. So why change it?
The need to move away from the books and into new territory is one I understand, but even if you want to come up with stories of your own, you have to retain at least some elements of the source material. Otherwise why call it Sherlock? Call it ‘the Crystal Maze’, because that’s basically what the most recent episode was. Watching Sherlock, John and Mycroft complete a series of weird sadistic challenges was reasonably entertaining I suppose, but so are YouTube videos of goats screaming and I wouldn’t recommend one of them for a BAFTA. It made for decent television, I guess. But it wasn’t Sherlock.
The most worrying thing is that there have been no reprisals for the failure of series four, no admissions of missteps. I suspect that Sherlock is now successful enough that the producers can afford not to care. The last straw for me was that phone call between Molly and Sherlock, a scene which existed solely so that Sherlock and Molly could say “I love you” to each other without any consequences at all. Of course, there would have been some fallout from that scene. Molly’s heart would be broken, and the newly-humanised Sherlock would struggle with the torment he put her through. But at the end of the episode, during that bizarre voiceover segment, she shows up at Baker Street looking happy as Larry, when just twenty minutes earlier she was being put through the emotional mill. Because what does it matter, right? The fangirls got a nice little squee out of Sherlock saying “I love you” to Molly, the fanfic writers have enough material to keep them going until the next series, and the rest of us are just supposed to forget that this once-great show is now little more than a vehicle for the producers’ wish fulfillment.