Friday 25 May 2012

Witty and dazzling as it may be, BBC’s Sherlock isn’t simply a clever unlocking of Conan Doyle’s seemingly rigid original. The ferrying of Sherlock Holmes through time and quickening his Victorian soul is a resounding success on the front of sheer entertainment, but also a subtle, and often subversive, commentary on the salient issues of the current moment. Take your pick. Modern technology and its influence on people’s lives? Check. The painful process of acceptance of homosexuality as variant of norm? Oh yes. The state of political affairs? Even that. Many do perceive - and reject - Cumberbatch’s Holmes as too theatrical, too much of a walking firework display, not a hermetically sealed mystery in the shape of a sleuthing man, and thus hopelessly “out of character” in regard to Conan Doyle’s detective. But the psycho-physical setup of the new Sherlock is, too, a reflection of the state we’re in. The speed with which tragedy yo-yos into farce and back: instant. Transparency of emotion: all but indecent. Patience: zero.
But all of that is only a mirror in which we see ourselves, facepalm (in Internet speak) and laugh; the series’ creators’ strategy, in fact, goes deeper and touches upon more fundamental issues. A society—our society—where “being nice” and “doing good” are so well defined, where emotion is sacred, is injected with a hero whose heart is seemingly deaf to these notions. So, how on earth is good done by someone who isn’t—nor, by all accounts, intending to be—good? Oh yes, and we are, of course, inexorably in love with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes, so excruciatingly adorable and so tantalizingly unavailable that most of us would happily ditch our moral beacons to have more of him—a bit of a subversive lesson in itself. Even without realizing any of this, our thought patterns are broken, and the process of self-observation and the questioning of our own motives have begun. No small achievement for a short TV series; no wonder it’s gone iconic as soon as the first episode’s end titles rolled.
But here comes the most important kind of compelling magic of Sherlock: as the series progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that the ciphers of the plot, in all their witty, sparkly brilliance, are secondary to the cipher of the main character. The sleuthing stories are transport; Sherlock Holmes is the one being solved. He seems fairly obvious in the beginning - a brilliant mind, “a high-functioning sociopath”, his fancy tickled by detective work and his underfed, infantile ego touchingly visible. But enter John Watson, the limping military angel, the unlocker, and Sherlock’s hermetic heart is warmed and unsealed, allowing the contradictions in him to bloom openly—and all the more violently for that. We, in turn, are given to the torment of guessing, of choosing sides, of merging the impossible opposites within him, to turning him this way and that, to trying him on. Who is he? The answer—even as we assail, without success, the creators of the show for the original meaning—is to be found nowhere but within ourselves, and that truly pushes Sherlockup through the clouds of entertainment and into the stratosphere of real art.
What can be deduced, though, is the properties of Sherlock’s character that make him so irresistible, and at times a train wreck impossible to take one’s eyes off. He is Janus, a two-faced deity of beginnings and transitions, a dissonant violin, a contradiction pleading to be resolved. A genius, yet an idiot. A loved one—and a child. Damaged and brilliant, a blushing virgin and an ultimate calculating - also self-calculating - machine. Lacking in normalcy of feelings yet clearly very emotional. We almost want to ask - good or bad? Angel or demon? Either way, his contradictory, unstable and essentially mythical nature, apart from being the perfect vehicle for the story, makes him relevant to our own internal quandaries—we, after all, would never wish for answers to questions that have nothing to do with ourselves.
Conan Doyle warrants re-reading after Sherlock. You might find yourself surprised to notice what you never would otherwise—and more than a little entertained: yes, the series’ creators take great liberties with the canon (”…we take our story and jump off in all directions with it, we don’t necessarily stick to it,” says Steven), but almost everything that happens onscreen—even the ostensibly modern moments—can be bread-crumbed, however improbable the proposition, back to the original stories. The resulting Dada of Sherlock is great fun indeed—and a two-way win: it will add a curious dimension to the series and enliven the stories.
Asked whether he had read anything like Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, forensic psychology materials, or crime analysis in preparation to playing Sherlock, Cumberbatch explains: “I did read a lot but I’ve mainly read the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I’m not being flippant, I know exactly what you mean, those levels of calculation and darkness to him—but it’s all there in the original, it’s what Conan Doyle read, it’s more Conan Doyle source that I was interested in. And how that formulates into something that then obviously is gonna be playable and translatable into the 21st century, very well fed by an enormously brilliant script by Mark and Steven… and the other Stephen [Thompson]. So I didn’t need to research the type. The type was very clear to see—for me. I don’t know if that says more about me than my lack of research…”
Everyone, of course, wants to know how Sherlock became the Sherlock we know; presumably, the clarity of our perception of him would grow depending on that knowledge. Presumably. Moffat seems to be the ideal candidate for questioning, especially considering the breadcrumb trail of nods to the past that dot the series. But when the audience inevitably goes fishing for clues and does ask Moffat about his version of Sherlock’s back story, he is almost indignant:

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