Updated Sherlock: Game Is Still On

Freeman, Cumberbach in "Sherlock"

Freeman, Cumberbach in “Sherlock”

Are other people enjoying the BBC’s Sherlock as much as I am? I was worried that Doyle’s stories were being exhausted by constant remakes, but Sherlock shows that creative minds can always come up with new twists.

In case you haven’t seen the series, it updates Sherlock and Watson so that they are operating in a world of social media that includes laptops, cell phones, twitter, and the blog that Watson maintains to inform the world about his friend’s exploits. Watson is back in England after a stint as a medical officer in Afghanistan (some things don’t change), and he and Sherlock must confront contemporary variations of the crimes that we know from the original stories.

Here, however, is where the series becomes most interesting. Sherlock engages in intricate dances with those stories, both gesturing towards them and going its own direction. For viewers who know the originals, this adds an extra delight.

To give you an example (but without revealing too much), last week viewers saw “The Last Vow,” which plays off  of “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” in which Holmes takes on a blackmailer. And not just any blackmailer, as Doyle’s Holmes informs us:

Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation, Watson, when you stand before the serpents in the Zoo and see the slithery, gliding, venomous creatures, with their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces? Well, that’s how Milverton impresses me. I’ve had to do with fifty murderers in my career, but the worst of them never gave me the repulsion which I have for this fellow. And yet I can’t get out of doing business with him—indeed, he is here at my invitation.”

“But who is he?”

“I’ll tell you, Watson. He is the king of all the blackmailers. Heaven help the man, and still more the woman, whose secret and reputation come into the power of Milverton. With a smiling face and a heart of marble he will squeeze and squeeze until he has drained them dry.

I recalled the general outlines of story, which used to be a favorite of mine, and therefore was startled when the episode reached Doyle’s finale midway through. I won’t reveal what happens next, but it takes full advantage of something unusual in the original story.

For once, Doyle puts Holmes and Watson on the wrong side of the law. Unable to protect a client from the blackmailer, they have broken into his house to steal the incriminating letters. More interesting yet—and this is what must have attracted me to the story when I was young—Watson discovers that he likes the experience:

My first feeling of fear had passed away, and I thrilled now with a keener zest than I had ever enjoyed when we were the defenders of the law instead of its defiers. 

Sherlock takes full advantage of this other side of Watson. It appears that he has picked up an adrenaline addiction while in Afghanistan (a la Hurt Locker), and as a result becomes a far more interesting character than the bland straight man we are accustomed to.

I’m thinking that, for all the changes from the original, Sherlock attracts us for some of the same reasons it did at the turn of the century. Doyle’s original readers, overwhelmed by the chaos of London and a rising crime rate, could fantasize that some underlying order still existed, even if it was invisible to their eyes. In the classic Sherlock Holmes story, the detective receives his clients in his room above the streets, descends into those streets to detect (hence the word detective) patterns that no one else can discern, and then returns to his room to reveal it to the rest of us. There is something very reassuring about this.

In Sherlock, life has become even more fragmented than late 19th century London, especially with the advent of the internet and all the crimes that it makes possible. We still find it comforting, therefore, that Sherlock appears to thoroughly understand the dangers of computer crime, identity theft, and cyber-terrorism and how to restore order.

As I say, some things never change.

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