John: So why do you put up with him?
Lestrade: Because I'm desperate, that's why. And because Sherlock Holmes is a great man, and I think one day, if we're very lucky, he might even be a good one.
--Sherlock, Episode One, "A Study in Pink."
If you know me and have had any sort of conversation with me in the past few weeks, you have probably heard me mention the BBC television show, Sherlock, a modern day adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. It was in the works, as far as I am aware, for quite a while. I certainly knew that it was being made and that Martin Freeman would play Watson before I left for grad school in August 2009--possibly even a year before that.
Let me just get this out of the way, before I actually review. Yes, Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes is GORGEOUS. (Can't believe I didn't notice him so much in Amazing Grace...but then, 18th C. wigs aren't particularly flattering, and Ioan Gruffud (sp? I can say it, but can't spell it) outshone him.) Yes, Martin Freeman as John Watson is ADORABLE, and very Sam Gamgee-ish. (So many Sam Gamgee moments!) I admit it. But let us move on.
What I'm interested in is what I see as one of the most important of the themes that run through the show, and which I think is encapsulated in the quotation at the head of this post. But to discuss what is interesting about it, we need to go back to Arthur Conan Doyle's work.
The Sherlock Holmes stories are (almost) all narrated by Dr. John Watson, an army doctor who was invalided out during the Anglo-Afgan war. Watson admires Holmes to no end. He is occasionally put off by/makes reference to Holmes's exasperating vanity and incredible pride, but in general he sees Holmes, as Holmes seems to see himself--a super-humanly intelligent and all-around awesome dude. His interest in Holmes and Holmes's work originally seems to stem from boredom, but quickly turns into single-minded hero worship. (Now, I am overstating the case a bit. I am making Watson seem more like the Nigel Bruce bumbler than he actually is. But at times he almost portrays himself as such, and we have to read between the lines to see that he isn't.)
I think that Holmes and Watson have a great friendship, and that's what draws me to the books (rather than the mysteries themselves) but it is Watson's devotion to Holmes, rather than Holmes's to Watson that makes it memorable. There is one very special moment in "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs" in which we do get a glimpse of Holmes's affection for Watson. It makes every fangirl's heart go pitter patter. Here it is in full.
The scene: Holmes and Watson are waiting for an American gunslinger [must write about America as "the other" in Victorian fic some time. A very amusing topic, in my opinion] named "Killer Evans." Evans walks into the room where they are hiding:
Clearly our moment had come. Holmes touched my wrist as a signal, and together we stole across to the open trap-door. Gently as we moved, however, the old floor must have creaked under our feet, for the head of our American, peering anxiously round, emerged suddenly from the open space. His face turned upon us with a glare of baffled rage, which gradually softened into a rather shamefaced grin as he realized that two pistols were pointed at his head.
"Well, well!" said he coolly as he scrambled to the surface. "I guess you have been one too many for me, Mr. Holmes. Saw through my game, I suppose, and played me for a sucker from the first. Well, sir, I hand it to you; you have me beat and..."
In an instant he had whisked out a revolver from his breast and had fired two shots.
I felt a sudden hot sear as if a red-hot iron had been pressed to my thigh. There was a crash as Holmes's pistol came down on the man's head. I had a vision of him sprawling upon the floor with blood running down his face while Holmes rummaged him for weapons. Then my friend's wiry arms were round me, and he was leading me to a chair.
"You're not hurt, Watson? For God's sake, say that you are not hurt!"
It was worth a wound--it was worth many wounds--to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.
"It's nothing, Holmes. It's a mere scratch."
He had ripped up my trousers with his pocket-knife.
"You are right," he cried with an immense sigh of relief. "It is quite superficial." His face set like flint as he glared at our prisoner, who was sitting up with a dazed face. "By the Lord, it is as well for you. If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive. Now, sir, what have you to say for yourself?"
I have found this moment to be fascinating ever since I entered the world of Holmes and Watson. It is of course an "awwwwwww! Holmes cares!" moment. But it is more than that. One of my pet topics is the cost of friendship, which goes back to the *cough* Rankin/Bass Return of the King. *cough*...
In that masterpiece of 80s cinema, which I may or may not have written a whole post on a year or so ago, there is a song that says "If you never say hello, you won't have to say goodbye." And that line, in connection with the sadness of Frodo leaving has meant a lot to me. I suppose by now I could be more sophisticated and quote "Shadowlands" (not C.S. Lewis--a misattribution as far as I can tell): "The pain then, is part of the happiness now. That's the deal."
But however you want to put it, love makes you vulnerable because you will experience loss eventually. In fact, one real Lewis quotation, from The Four Loves, because it is such a great one (and then I don't have to feel too bad about the Rankin/Bass quotation):
Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
This may be fangirl heresy, but I will dare to say that Conan Doyle's Holmes really did wrap his heart around with hobbies and little luxuries. He did his best to lock it up safe in the casket of his selfishness. He did not completely succeed, but if Holmes's life is not characterized by selfishness, I don't know what is. I'm glad he had hidden some love for Watson deep down inside--Watson earned it. But I am afraid that as readers we have to at least ask ourselves if Holmes's facade of indifference does not go more than skin deep. (See also his behavior in "The Empty House" and "The Dying Detective.")
I find it very sad and pathetic that all of Watson's relationship with Holmes leads up to that one moment where for an instant he sees that Holmes actually cares. But Watson doesn't seem to feel that way. He just accepts Holmes as a great man, and while he is made incredibly happy by this tiny moment of humanity, he doesn't really quesition Holmes's goodness. Greatness is enough.
Now, I said this was a review of the BBC show, Sherlock, and it is. And I've finally gotten back around to it. :-)
John, as portrayed by Martin Freeman, is very much the Watson we know and love. He is awestruck by Sherlock. Every time Sherlock makes some kind of deduction he says "That's incredible" or "that's amazing"--something to that effect. In fact, here is a really cute exchange where Sherlock is rattling off facts about a dead woman. John has peppered the conversation with little exclamations (Freeman is so good at making what could sound very silly or forced sound perfectly genuine):
John: That's fantastic!
Sherlock: Do you know you do that out loud?
John: Sorry, I'll shut up.
Sherlock: No, its...fine...
And as in the original books, Sherlock partly wants John around because he is so appreciative. At one point he says (speaking of a serial murderer) "That's the frailty of genius, John, it needs an audience." I don't think he's self-aware enough to know he's describing himself, but he is.
Unlike the books, however, the TV show brings the issue of Sherlock as a human being, not just a calculating machine, into the open. From the beginning, Sherlock's insensitivity due to his brilliance is highlighted. It's often funny--when the girl who has a crush on him asks him "would you like to have coffee?" He says "Yes please. Black. Two Sugars. I'll be in the lab."--but it keeps coming back, and even as the first episode progresses becomes more serious. The victim had scratched the name "Rachel" onto the floor while she was dying. The detectives found out that "Rachel" was her daugher, who had been still born fourteen years earlier. Sherlock has been thinking out loud, and John suggests that the murderer (who somehow forced the victim to self-administer poison) used her daughter against her somehow. Sherlock says, "But that was ages ago! Why would she still be upset?" and the whole room goes quiet. Sherlock realizes he messed up from their reactions. And as an audience member, I don't think you despise him for it. John sets him straight, but you (along with John at that moment) feel more pity for the Sherlock who cannnot feel, than you feel disgust at the Sherlock who does not feel.
At the end of that episode, Sherlock risks not stopping the serial killer in his desire to prove himself right, and it is John who saves him.
As the second episode progresses and the third begins, it is becoming evident that Sherlock may be more capable of emotion than he lets on. Or rather, that John expects him to show emotion and to feel, regardless of his professed inability to do so. John becomes more vocal about pointing out to Sherlock when he is being mean or insensitive, and he continually asks him to think about the victims in the case as if they were people.
Moriarty is holding people hostage for set periods of time, while Sherlock has to figure out the mysteries Moriarty sends to him before the time runs out or the hostages (who are strapped to bomb) are exploded, usually in a densely populated area. While John is still amazed by Sherlock's powers of deduction, he is clearly personally offended, as well as offended on principle, by Sherlock's careless attitude towards human life in favor of his obsession with facts and proving himself more intelligent than Moriarty. John reaches a breaking point after an old woman (along with many people in her apartment complex) is killed, and Sherlock is only fascinated by Moriarty's evil genius:
John: So why is he doing this, then? Playing this game with you? Do you think he wants to be caught?
Sherlock: I think he wants to be distracted
John: I hope you'll be very happy together
Sherlock: Sorry. What?
John: There are LIVES at stake, Sherlock, actual human lives! Just so I know, do you care about that at all?
Sherlock: Will caring about them help save them?
Sherlock: Then I'll continue not to make that mistake.
John: And you find that easy, do you?
Sherlock: Yes. Very...Is that news to you?
Sherlock: I've disappointed you.
John: Good! That's a good deduction. Yeah.
Sherlock: Don't make people into heroes, John. Heroes don't exist, and if they did, I wouldn't be one of them.
But Sherlock's nonchalance about human life is challenged, when suddenly the man strapped to the bomb is John. (Another brilliant acting job. Cumberbatch somehow manages to portray Sherlock's sudden fear and vulnerability, while preserving the mask of self-confidence towards Moriarty. That's not a good description...you have to see it...but then you should probably watch it before reading this anyway...) His only friend is in mortal peril, and he is confronted with his brilliantly evil enemy, and he starts to see things John's way:
Jim Moriarty: I have loved this--this little game of ours...Playing Jim from IT...Playing gay...Did you like the little touch with the underwear?
Sherlock: People have died.
Jim Moriarty: That's what people DO!
Sherlock: I will stop you.
This was Sherlock at the beginning of the episode:
John: Try and remember there's a woman who might die.
Sherlock: What for? This hospital's full of people dying, doctor. Why don't you go cry by their bedsides. See what good it does them.
Can you spot the difference?
I end this rambly review-ish thing with another observation.
At the end of "A Study in Pink," Sherlock is about to take the pill. He is compelled to eat it, because he needs the rush to stave off the boredom of living as a genius among lesser mortals. He has been goaded into it by the serial killer cabbie who taunts him with the possibility that he has been outwitted. He is facing possible death. And his hand shakes.
At the end of "The Great Game," Sherlock has his gun trained on the explosives near Moriarty. He is ready to blow up himself and John because it seems they are doomed, and he needs to take Moriarty out as well. He has looked to John, and received a short nod of approval for the action he is about to take. He is facing almost certain death. And his hand is perfectly still.
Now I can only wait for the next season (Fall 2011!?!?!? WHAT?!?!!?!) to see what happens. Will they be saved in a Mycroft ex Machina? Or will we have a Reichenberg Falls-esque opening, with John in the hospital and Sherlock assumed dead? However the screenwriters write everyone out that sticky situation, my main interest is Sherlock's character. Was this just a crack in the facade, as in "The Three Garridebs"? or has Sherlock changed from just a great man, to a good one?