It is the very end of Sherlock Holmes month, and so we close this series on weird adaptations of his stories with by far the most popular: the BBC miniseries Sherlock. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in a modern setting, this sleek new show is for many viewers the first direct dealing with Sherlock Holmes they have had, outside of the odd late-night A&E rerun. Creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (also behind the current iteration of Doctor Who) have managed to make the sleuth sexy again, by bringing their story into the 21st Century and giving him exciting new puzzles to solve.
The difficulty with a character like Sherlock becoming so prominent in pop culture is that eventually that character becomes a staid archetype, and begins mouldering around the edges. Each of the adaptations discussed so far has played on a certain image of Sherlock Holmes – the brilliant, beak-nosed detective in a deerstalker, combing through the foggy streets of (sometimes) Victorian London, dueling with the nefarious Moriarty. However, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first started writing Sherlock Holmes stories, the sleuth was at the cutting edge of science and thought. Sherlock was using forensic evidence to solve his fictional crimes when Scotland Yard was only just beginning to adopt fingerprinting and other developing sciences into practice. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes were basically the Victorian CSI. By bringing the sleuth to modern London, Gatiss and Moffat have, somewhat counter-intuitively, brought Sherlock back to his roots. The updated series has reinvigorated the detective for a new generation of amateur sleuths.
Since it would be foolhardy (and exhausting) to attempt to review both seasons of the Sherlock miniseries, I chose the episode that shows what Gatiss and Moffat have done best with their new interpretation. The season one finale The Great Game pits Sherlock against the elusive Moriarty in a battle of wits that catches civilians in the crossfire. There’s a lot to chew on here, so first let’s take a look at the bingo sheet:
Much has been written on Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s fantastic chemistry as Sherlock and Watson, and rightfully so. However, the best moment of the episode, which best exemplifies the something-old-something-new approach of Gatiss and Moffat, is the introduction of Moriarty, who as a character has been even more boxed in than Sherlock. I mentioned in the post on Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon that Lionel Atwell’s cackling, wizened Moriarty has basically defined the character, and every subsequent interpretation has been a variation on this. Consider Doyle’s original description of Moriarty, taken from The Final Problem:
“He is clean-shaven, pale, and ascetic-looking, retaining something of the professor in his features. His shoulders are rounded from much study, and his face protrudes forward, and is forever slowly oscillating from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion.”
The point of the description, largely lost in the parade of patrician Moriarty’s of the last century, is that Moriarty is both familiar and foreboding. He’s a man you’d pass on the street without a second glance, but if you gave him that second glance, you’d realize there’s something wrong about him, something off and maybe a little evil. Under Moffat and Gatiss, Moriarty, played brilliantly by Andrew Scott, truly becomes the devil in the details.
The viewer doesn’t actually see Jim Moriarty until Sherlock confronts him at a swimming pool, after Sherlock is supposed to have won their game. When Moriarty finally makes his appearance, the last thing anyone is expecting is a short, young Irishman. In fact, this short Irishman made an appearance earlier in the episode as a bumbling gay man who hit on Sherlock, a detail easily forgotten by both the detective and the audience. However, once the audience’s attention is fully focused on Moriarty, it’s clear that there’s something not quite right about him. He definitely has elements of Atwell’s monologuing villain, but he’s also more sinister, even as he’s more baby-faced. He is absolutely terrifying.
Moriarty’s characterization exemplifies the confounding contradiction of the BBC Sherlock: the farther from the source material Gatiss and Moffat seem to go, the closer they actually hew to the original spirit of Doyle’s detective. Like Nicholas Meyer, Moffat and Gatiss are superfans who delight in referencing as many obscure details from the original stories as they can. Superficially, some of the plots and detail changes on the BBC series can seem as incongruous and fantastical as the Universal series starring Basil Rathbone. However, it’s possible that this weird and wonderful modern Sherlock is the most faithful recent adaptation. Certainly it’s the most intelligent. Thanks to the BBC series, Holmes is back in vogue, spurring new interpretations such as the TV show Elementary. The evidence is in, and the deduction is clear: despite his age, Sherlock Holmes is still the world’s greatest detective.
That’s a wrap on Sherlock month, though our favorite sleuth is unlikely to be long gone from WRM. Have a favorite Sherlock story? Tell me in the comments!