Spoiler alert: Do not read if you haven’t watched season 4 of BBC’s Sherlock.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to lay to rest one of the most beloved characters in fiction: detective Sherlock Holmes. Season 4 of BBC’s Sherlock proved once and for all that today’s filmmakers have no idea what to do with the Sherlock canon and that he would be much better off as a relic of the past.
However, fellow OneOfUs writer and all around unfathomably smart person (seriously, my biggest deep cut reference was to Multiplicity, where he talks about the cultural differences of vampire mythology) London Vayavong disagrees with the above statement, so we decided to discuss Sherlock Holmes, and why I believe he needs to go in the ground.
Davey: So London, to put it simply, Sherlock Holmes needs to die. After the fourth season
of Sherlock, which is universally considered the best of the newer Holmes adaptations (between the Ritchie films and Elementary), I can’t see anything interesting being done with Sherlock. This most recent season has done nothing well, instead resting on boring characters like Mary Morstan, completely rewriting the mythology of the show to keep the drama going, and dropping fake-out after fake-out on the audience. If this was just a problem with the BBC show, I would simply be calling for an execution of the program, but this problem extends throughout every piece of Sherlock media put out recently. They go through the famous stories, The Hounds of Baskerville, Irene Adler, James Moriarty, and then they drag their feet trying to come up with something equal. These shows and movies don’t know how to go past the few famous stories, and aren’t tuned in enough to the characters to make honest follow-ups. They make Sherlock a superhero, and the whole feeling of the original stories goes out the window. Nobody could write Sherlock like Doyle could, and they need to stop trying.
London: While I agree that this season was probably the weakest of the series, to say that the show did absolutely nothing well seems a little hyperbolic. The actual filmmaking aspect was beautiful at times like the moment in “Lying Detective” when Sherlock described how he knew that the note was created in a small apartment. The direction, camera angles, and performances all needed to be perfectly in sync. There was also a great moment in the last episode when Euros revealed that there was no glass in her cell. Aside from that, the performances all around were top-notch as usual. Sian Brooke who played Euros played three different characters and I will be honest in stating that I did not notice. Each persona felt so radically different from the other and I felt like an idiot for not noticing that they were the same person. That one instance was an example of how the writers of the show played around with the audience’s preconceived notions. Most of the audience wants to know the main narrative and ignores the details. The writers exploited this fact and used it to have an interesting reveal. The writers, Moffat in particular, brought the same template that they used in the Doctor Who series. The series is one long narrative and some of the little minute details are the building blocks towards the larger story. Honestly, the show has always been style over substance. The fast-pace, melodrama, and special effects were always prevalent. Sometimes it is not about reinventing the wheel. It is about constructing it in the most efficient way possible. Calling for the execution of the program is understandable since even I feel there is a feeling of finality to season 4. Although, Moffat has gone on record stating that he would be willing to continue and if he has more ideas then I think he should be given a chance.
Now, I am going to address the last two arguments. One being that no one can write like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle so no one should try to adapt his works and the other being that they always turn the Sherlock character into a superhero. I will concede that no one will be able to write like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his works are unique. However, the last part of the previous statement points towards the larger case that all writing is unique and even adaptation. Adaptation is a difficult process and it really boils down to the interpretation of the writer. When the writer adapts a work then there have to be important decisions made on what elements to adopt or drop. The issue that we currently have is that Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain so everyone is taking a crack at it. We have reached a saturation point like with superheroes, vampires, and zombies. Unfortunately, the studio system has exasperated this issue to the point that we are in right now. Be that as it may, there have been interesting stories with the Sherlock character throughout the years. Without a Clue was a comedy about how Dr. Watson was the true mastermind and Sherlock Holmes was just an actor. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution was about how, due to Holmes’ drug abuse, he manufactured the villainous background of Professor Moriarty. More recently there was a film called Mr. Holmes which was about how he had to deal with Alzheimer’s and the fact that his lifestyle left him alone in old age. The point that I am trying to make is that while there is a lot of garbage adaptations and remakes out there, every so often you find a piece of treasure because a writer genuinely was inspired.
Now, in regards to him always being made into a superhero, he was always a superhero. Sherlock Holmes was created during Victorian times and that was the era of the gentleman. There were strict moral codes and rules pertaining to how men and women should act. Sherlock Holmes was an outlet for the people to live vicariously through andfulfill yearnings of adventure. He was stout in his convictions and very strong in his own moral code and had an assistant that was the same way. He assisted the police with his heightened abilities and stopped the evil crime which went against the moral fabric of civilization. Aside from his high-level of deduction, he was a talented fighter understanding stick fighting and boxing. He was well-versed in chemistry, forensics, and psychology. He was what superheroes are today and mythological heroes were before; larger than life figures that were able to accomplish great feats to accomplish a moral objective.
In conclusion, if this is the last season of Sherlock then I am okay with it but if the writers have more ideas then because of their previous works I will trust their quality. I believe that Sherlock Holmes is over saturated but that does not mean that they should put a moratorium on him. If someone has a unique premise that they are passionate about putting forth then they should go with it. Finally, Sherlock Holmes has always been a superhero because he had heightened abilities and used them to combat evil.
Davey: I should have specified in my comments about the show, because yes, the acting is lovely and some of the cinematography and direction is very well-done. I will concede on that point. But to the claim that Sherlock is a superhero, I have to disagree. The thing that was amazing about Sherlock Holmes, to me, is that while he was the smartest person in the room, probably the smartest person on the planet, he wasn’t smarter than a person could be. Everything he came up with had a logical point, and you’re kicking yourself for not guessing the answer ahead of time. Recently, when Sherlock solves a case, there’s nothing keeping you in the mystery, and it requires a magical reveal to solve the puzzle. We’re not following the mystery at this point, we’re following a machine.
He was larger than life, but he was never larger than the capacity of life. Superman is larger than the capacity of life. Nobody on this planet can ever do what Superman does, nobody is going to be shooting lasers out of their eyes as you walk down the street. However, there are people smart enough to deduce and solve puzzles. Sherlock is the gold standard, but he’s not an impossible creature.
Referring to adaptations, yes, I will concede that films like Mr. Holmes do a good job of crafting new interpretations of the character, but they don’t feel like Sherlock stories. My main complaint is with movies and shows that advertise themselves as traditional Sherlock adaptations. And while adaptation is a difficult process, it’s not an impossible one. And new stories can be made with the right tone, feel, and understanding. Here, people are looking at Sherlock Holmes the way we look at a modern detective story. He’s not a modern character, he can be put in modern times, just look at the first two spectacular seasons of Sherlock, but he’s not a modern character with modern sensibilities, and when he is given those sensibilities, it fails.
And on your point of oversaturation, yes, like vampires, and zombies, Sherlock Holmes is a public domain idea, and can be used freely. But like zombies and vampires, being in the public domain doesn’t mean the idea doesn’t have core rules. Vampires don’t glisten in the sunlight and Sherlock Holmes is not some supernatural creature. When these rules are broken, action needs to be taken. We do need to kill vampires, at least for a little while, so we can get back to what they’re really all about. And I would say the same for the detective in the deerstalker. We need the adaptations to phase out, we need the muck to drain away, where all we have to go off of is the Doyle stories. Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed human character in literary history, and much like a game of telephone, one adaptation to the other is going to result in something closer to the fourth Michael Keaton clone than a brilliant mastermind.
London: When it comes down to the idea of superhero then I believe that we both have different definitions. I do not believe that a superhero needs to have abilities that make him larger than the capacity of a human. I just believe that they have to represent something and be iconic. Batman, Captain America, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Green Arrow and the Punisher are all considered superheroes even though they do not have any ability further than the capacity of a human. There was even a series called the Call of Duty that furthered the idea that superheroes could be just regular people like police, firefighters, and EMTs who went beyond what was expected. Holmes was an iconic figure with who went on these remarkable adventures that allowed the reader to live vicariously through him. That is why I compared his status to that of a mythological hero. Achilles, Hercules, and Odysseus were all iconic heroes for their times. (Well, Hercules is a little murky on the “heroic” side) This concept can even be stretched to Arthurian legend. The point that I am making is the “superhero” of today is what those characters were of their times and I include Sherlock Holmes amongst them. While I will concede that if a show advertises as a “traditional” adaptation and does not follow up then they are lying. I blame the studios, marketing, and writers confused about their own properties for ramming those ideas down our throats.
However, the modern sensibilities argument is one that I must disagree with. At first, I was taken aback by Sherlock being emotional because of his famous line in the first episode, “I am a high-functioning sociopath.” Although as I look back at the previous episodes, I noticed that he was a highly emotional character and he forced himself to be apathetic. The final season revealed why he did so. I also equate modern sensibilities to an evolution of the character. I love the original stories and they are great representations of their time. You are right in that this kind of character taken directly from the stories would be a little awkward for this time period. So, giving him modern sensibilities allows his character to transition to this period and connect with the audience. What worked with BBC’s Sherlock is that the writers had a consistent vision of the character. So while the modern sensibilities differed from the source material, it was consistent with their vision.
In regards to vampires and zombies having core rules, they actually don’t. The “traditional” vampire that we know today are representations of the lore behind Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There are many different iterations of vampires around the world. In China, they are called the Chiang Shih and are covered in white or green hair. They also have deadly breath. The Aswang from the Philippines could walk around normally in the day and attacks its victims at night. The Polish vampire does the opposite and attacks during the day and sleeps at midnight. Some lore claim that the seventh son of the seventh son will become a vampire and others believed that if a pregnant woman is looked at after the sixth month then the child will become a vampire. The same argument can be used on zombies since even the term is not what the mainstream has made it out to be. It originated in Haiti as an otherworldly punishment for slaves who committed suicide that was then incorporated into the Voodoo religion. They then became reanimated corpses that were empowered by Voodoo shamans and priests. Going back to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there have been many adaptations of the story and especially of the Dracula character. In the story, Dracula was a monster and a force of nature that did not really have any substance. Later on, filmmakers developed him into a romanticized villain and it actually gave the character more depth especially in Francis Ford Coppola’s version.
This statement hearkens back to the previous argument about the evolution of the character. Sometimes when characters evolve it is for the better. Captain America started out as war propaganda but he changed during his revival and became a nonconformist champion of morals and free rights. Batman used to kill others but his mythology was changed into anti-killing. I will not say that the character of BBC’s Sherlock is better than the original but he was a character that worked for this time. Oversaturation is a problem and I believe that there are some stories and mythologies that need breaks. I will even concede that BBC’s Sherlock should have maybe one or two more specials at the most if they wish to continue. We are in an uncreative stagnated hell due to the remakes, reboots, adaptations and so forth. Be that as it may, no idea should be stricken from the playing field. If someone has an amazing idea for an adaptation and is passionate about it then he or she should be allowed to pursue without risk of persecution. There are benefits to character evolution that took place later on like with Batman and Captain America. So in the end, I agree that it is time to take a break from the recycled material but it still should not be taken off the table because we never know what the future will bring.
Davey: So, should we kill Sherlock Holmes? No. I’m not above putting the man into a medically-induced coma for a decade or two, but London has convinced me that there still can be good found within the famous detective, but that we need to take a breather before going back into that well. Much like with any public domain character, the IP is out for the taking, but the overuse of those IPs are starting to annoy pretty much everybody.