...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, July 26, 2010

Day 3493: Sherlock aka Elephentry, Dear Watson


"Sherlock" is a new series from the BBC based on the famous novels of Mr Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: "The Adventures of Professor Doctor Who, er, Challenger, er, What?"

It's a really classy looking production, sharply directed and edited, beautiful and clever to watch, and with an excellent cast: Mr Benedict Cucumberpatch emptying the cabinet of quirks as the original maverick detective and Tim from the Office stoically baffled as Dr definitely-not-his-boyfriend Watson.

But the trouble with writing for a genius is that you don't get any excuses.

So it's inexcusable when Mr Sherlock is slower than the audience.

He really SHOULDN'T fail to deduce that the killer is a cabbie at the point where he's extemporising about "being invisible in a crowd" and "hunting in the city streets". After all, his Eighteen-eighty incarnation worked it out! And so did Daddy. Mind you, it was probably the director's fault that the moment was intercut with enough TAXICABS to make it so BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS!

Nor should Mr Sherlock be so STUPID as to start deducing OUT LOUD who's just shot the killer dead, and then have to say "oh just ignore me"; not after all the trouble you've gone to to establish his internal monologue by clever means of on-screen text: surely, Mr Sherlock should SILENTLY deduce that it must be Watters and THEN say to Lestrade "I have absolutely no idea"!

And, of course, you really SHOULDN'T have the "master of observation" repeatedly overlook the obvious when Mrs Hudson is trying to tell him about the taxi that is waiting for him, and the killer is standing RIGHT THERE. Yes, yes, it's very funny, just like all those times Dr Woo ignores K-9 when he has a vital warning or clue, but Mr Sherlock is NOT Dr Woo… oh.

You could really tell that this was a realisation by the Mister Moffster, the man who is currently behind Dr Woo. A lot of the great detectives mannerisms were VERY Dr Woo, although actually rather more Mr Dr David than Mr Dr Matt – particularly the "wooo, she was sooo brilliant" bit, but also a lot of the "I don't mean to be rude but I'm more intelligent than your entire species put together" was doing the "rude and still not ginger" Doctor. Mr Sherlock describes his rudeness as being a sociopath not a psychopath – though in fact the words have the same meaning, and "sociopath" is just what you call a "psychopath" when you don't want to annoy them – but really, his obsessive observation, high-functioning intellect, and lack of social awareness rather place him somewhere on the autistic spectrum but I guess that doesn't sound sexy enough for television.

The brilliantly clever direction is, I had to admit, clearly school of "Hollyoaks". No, I'm talking about the use of onscreen text for text-messaging and visualising train of thought, not the "oh she's a sister"/"oh you're his brother" school of… hang on, they did those too.

Thankfully we guessed that Mr Mark Gatiss was laying it on so thick was because he was going to turn out to be brother Mycroft and not Mr Professor Moriarty. Because casting yourself as brother Mycroft would self-indulgent enough, Mr Executive Producer, but the thought – that you were CLEARLY trying to double-bluff us into thinking – that you could be Mr Professor Moriarty sends shudders up the spine. And not in the GOOD way!

As it happens, we'd just found ourselves wondering how Mr Martin Freeman could actually DO acting, when he is blessed or cursed with such a totally "everyman" face, only then we saw him in a scene with Mr Mark Gatiss and thought: oh yes, he IS doing proper acting, and doing it brilliantly; you can see it compared to "that thing that Mr Mark Gatiss does".

Tell me this: how is it possible for Mr Mark Gatiss to do "that thing that Mr Mark Gatiss does" when he's just STANDING THERE? I don't know, but he did it and booted all sense of naturalism right out of the window for a good few minutes.

It isn't as though he can't DO acting: there are LOTS of other characters from "The League of Gentlemen" that he can do, to start with, and they managed to wring a decent performance out of him in "Poirot", but most of the time he just wants to do "comedy sinister toff". Well I say "sinister"; he's about as threatening as air. And I say "comedy"; it's just not funny…

But that visual "trick" of placing "post-it notes" of Mr Sherlock's thought processes over the "real" picture is reminiscent of the "the Doctor working it out" sequence from Dr Woo's "The Eleventh Hour" (where a rapid sequence of stills tracks the Doctor's mind's eye as he goes back over what he's seen). Although it's also reminiscent of Mr Guy Ritchie's technique of having HIS Mr Holmes play out a fight-scene in his head to work it all out before implementing it in a flash.

A lot of this episode, "A Study in Pink", comes direct from the original "Holmes meets Watson" story: "A Study in Scarlet", including the horrible history repeating itself of Mr Watson being returned from the war in Afghanistan; occasionally inverting it as with the "Rache/Rachel" clue – in the Conan Doyle version: Lestrade wants to look for a Rachel, but Holmes identifies the word as German for revenge; this time around Holmes identifies and rejects the German possibility and reverts to the incomplete name.

The Mister Moffster is QUITE RIGHT to bring Mr Sherlock right up to date. The Holmes adventures were never written as a period piece, but were always "cutting edge". The character is genuinely timeless, as Mr Basil Rathbone demonstrated by bringing him forwards to fight Nazis in the Nineteen Forties. Indeed most Holmes adaptations up to that point WERE contemporary rather than historical; it's only later that the whole Victorian setting became a part of the fixtures.

And most of the updating works. Daddy laughed out loud at the self-aware silliness of "the three patch problem". But not all.

When it comes to the KILLER, Mr Jeffthecabbie, the fatal aneurism and the belief that Mr God loves him and his helping him beat the odds both come from the original Conan Doyle; but by getting rid of the "Study in Scarlet" backstory – and, to be fair, all that stuff about MORMONS that is probably racist or something – it turns the character into that most TAWDRY of modern TV TROPES: the motiveless serial killer. Who then sort of has a motive that he's taking revenge (even though "rache" was a red herring) for being dying by "outliving" the people he kills. And sort of has another motive that he's being paid to bump off people at random to give his sponsor a cheap thrill (or was there some connection between them after all, that Moriarty wanted them all dead?).

Anyway, Mr Jeffthecabbie's modus operandi is to point a (fake) gun at his taxi passengers and make them chose one of two pills, one of which is poison.

It's been widely suggested, by everyone from Daddy Alex onwards, that BOTH pills are poison and Mr Jeffthecabbie has taken an antidote or built up an immunity over many years, what you might call the "Princess Bride" solution.

Others have taken the analysis of language used by Mr Jeffthecabbie – make the RIGHT choice, get the RIGHT pill and you live, did you get it RIGHT – to infer that our cheeky killer is trying to Derren Brown his victims into picking the poison pill. (It's almost impossible to see how this could have been done WELL – it certainly wasn't done by the banal conversation between killer and detective that we saw. Perhaps a direct to camera monologue by Mr Jeffthecabbie, perhaps scripted by the REAL Derren Brown, making the viewer take the Mr Sherlock role, and leave you with a lingering shot of the two pills and deciding for yourself which you would chose…)

Or possibly he was genuinely just NUTS. And LUCKY.

Irritatingly, the play doesn't bother to give us an answer.

And it would have been so easy: it would have been nice to have Mr Sherlock SAY that "obviously" both pills were poisoned.

Or, uncomfortable as it might be to see Mr Sherlock using TORTURE – crude infliction of pain; it OUGHT to be beneath him – you could definitely see him ruthlessly saying: "well, you're dying anyway and I've got to know if I'm right…" and forcing the pill into Mr Jeffthecabbie's shocked mouth. Which would be a "modern updating" of the "he tries the pills on a dog" of the original.

When he gets up and walks away from the poison pill game it's BRILLIANT. But then Mr Jeffthecabbie tries to talk him into taking the pill anyway: "because he's got to know if he was right", which is a dreadful misreading of the character of Mr Sherlock.

I mean, if he genuinely WAS a sociopath (which he isn't!) then "playing the game" is exactly what he WOULDN'T do, anyway.

But at this point Mr Sherlock is ABSOLUTELY NOT going to risk his life on a game of "who's got the biggest swinging BRAIN" by taking the poison pill for one very good reason: Mr Jeffthecabbie has just giving him a MUCH MORE INTERESTING PUZZLE.

Now it COULD be a mistake on the part of the crazy killer.

Seriously, if Mr Sherlock's only reason for playing the game is that he's BORED, then saying to him "there's a name but I'm not going to tell you" is EXACTLY the wrong thing to say! Woo, look, great big mystery. But still, life's so dull isn't it. I mean REALLY???

But then Mr Sherlock goes and gets TEMPTED so it's clearly a mistake on the part of the WRITER.

So let's address the writing.

One hugely significant thing missing from the show – one that might, ironically, have helped the writer avoid his usual habit of making the male lead a gawky self-parody and the female lead into a Sue Virtue analogue – is the almost complete lack of WOMEN. Or "women who aren't dead" anyway. Yes, there's a token lady police officer, who is mean to "our hero" when he outs her liaison (wrong in SO many ways) with the police pathologist. But she's not really an IMPORTANT character, is she. And brother Mycroft's airhead assistant barely counts as a character at all. And all the other women are DEAD.

Yes, of course, the ORIGINAL Holmes adventures tend to be a little, you might say, "female-lite"; but THEY were written a hundred and twenty years ago by someone who had never seen Sarah Jane Smith. What is Mr Moffat's excuse?

But there is, if possible, an even BIGGER absence. By throwing away the backstory, that tedious second half of the novel, you are also throwing away Mr Sherlock's METHOD.

Detection by logical deduction depends on pattern-spotting. Holmes EXCELS at this because he has trained himself to the peak of observation (except where Mrs Hudson is concerned, clearly) and is a genius at making connections.

It's a "unique selling point" that hasn't really been matched since: Poirot uses his "psychology"; Colombo a sort of dogged determination; Morse seems to wait until all the other suspects have been killed off and whoever's left is the killer; Wallander may or may not solve the crime, I'm just too depressed to find out… but Holmes's one-man CSI trick of spotting the tiny but significant details and extrapolating meaning from them is unbeatable because it's basically REAL police work but with a superpower that lets him do all the hard dogsbodying of real police work in an instant.

In "A Study in Scarlet" he solves the case by working out what the connection IS between the two dead men and the killer; that's the whole point of the second half of the book. By getting rid of that connection you lose the heart of the story. It's not just BORING that Mr Jeffthecabbie is a serial killer; it misses the whole POINT.

Which is why the ending suddenly becomes rather contrived, relying as it does on the so-called genius serial killer NOT turning off the mobile phone that he knows can (and indeed DOES) lead his pursuers right to him but instead deciding that the most larks would be to abduct the person who's close to catching him from under the noses of the police. Like you do.

Don't get me wrong. "Sherlock" is a work of GENIUS. But that genius was Mr Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Holmes and Watson are brilliant characters in their own right, and they are brilliantly realised by two hugely talented and charismatic actors. Holmes method of deduction is a brilliant hook to hang the detective stories on, and the story is vividly brought to life by clearly extraordinary and inventive creative people.

And so much of the writing, the characterisation, the nods to the source material, is spot on. There is a sense of humour and friendship and even reality to the proceedings that leavens some much-needed light through the darkness of a very dark story, in a way that, for example, the recent troubled "Luther" did not. (Yes, I said some nice thinks about "Luther" and the very next week they LITERALLY had a woman in a fridge. Sigh. Sorry.)

It's clearly a huge hit with the viewers and the critics and Twitter seemed alive with positive responses last night. And we'll definitely be watching again.

We'd just rather there were fewer of the, er, elementary mistakes.


1 comment:

Gwenhwyfaer said...

Thank you! That is EXACTLY how I feel about Sherlock, down to every last point. I got that it was a cabbie as soon as the first taxi went past, just as Holmes was saying "someone invisible". I actually thought he was chasing the cabbie when he and Watson went haring off after the cab, and was horribly disappointed to see them accost the passenger and MISS THE BLEEDING OBVIOUS! Everything after that was pretty much a lesson in WTFery, unfortunately - Moffat really can't write satisfying plot denouements.

But it was very stylish. I loved the style. I just wish Moffat would get someone in to help him with long deduction.