Thursday, January 5, 2012

"A Study in Pink"

Anyone who knows me reasonably well will know that I'm a Sherlock Holmes enthusiast. I've got the complete novel and short story collection. I own all thirteen Basil Rathbone Holmes films from the 40s and the complete Jeremy Brett series of Granada television adaptations. I have a Sherlock Holmes t-shirt from the Sherlock Holmes museum at 221B Baker Street in London, as well as a deerstalker cap. I've dressed as Sherlock Holmes for Halloween. I play Frogwares' Sherlock Holmes adventure games. I have a section of my comic collection specifically devoted to Sherlock Holmes comics. Once, in an ice-breaker session in the first class of a Philosophy tutorial at university when everyone in the class was saying which fictional character they were most like, after jokingly suggesting "God", I said "Sherlock Holmes." So while I wouldn't say I was the biggest Holmes fan in the world, I certainly know what I like.
Understandably I was hesitant when it was revealed to me in 2008, by a gent at the Sherlock Holmes museum no less, that over the next two years we were to be seeing two new adaptations of Holmes, one for film starring an American of all things as the Great Detective and one on television re-envisioned for a modern-day setting. The former is a discussion for another time but my fears were somewhat allayed when I discovered that the latter television series would be under the creative control of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, who, certain Doctor Who efforts notwithstanding, have generally been consistent writers. My fears were further allayed when I learned that the affable Martin Freeman of The Office fame, who gave us an Arthur Dent perhaps better than most of everything around him in the film of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and who I particularly enjoyed in Simon Nye's underrated sitcom Hardware, had been cast as none other than John Watson. I didn't have a damn clue who "Benedict Cumberbatch" was but you can't go into a show knowing everything, I suppose.
"A Study in Pink", the first episode, is probably the strongest instalment of the first series. Conveniently enough, I suppose, we're able to retain Watson's involvement in Afghanistan and his subsequent wounding and trauma. I thought introducing Watson at first rather than Holmes was a good way of getting into the story through our "audience identification" character and the way he is depicted as this jaded ex-military type with a haunted, meaningless life was a very powerful and confronting way to get things going. That moment where he says "Nothing ever happens to me," and we smash cut to the title sequence is a great start that plays the contrast heavily to draw us in. While the idea of Watson writing a blog describing his experiences feels a little bit like Moffat and Gatiss making a desperate effort to be trendy by hamfistedly forcing in modern technology I guess it does feel like an equivalent situation to the publishing of stories allegedly written by Watson in the widely-read Strand Magazine in the 19th Century.
The introduction of Sherlock is very good as well, with enough reference to the set-up of the original "A Study in Scarlet" to make the encounter seem both brisk and plausible. We don't waste a lot of time on an origin story for the two of them. Seeing Sherlock striking a corpse with a crop and being completely oblivious to the advances of a woman are succinct enough, I suppose. Then we get the whole analysis of Watson which is based on some very observant deductions on the part of Holmes so we know he's one of those damn clever chaps we keep hearing so much about. Their method of showing the deductions is of course very clever, zooming all around Watson's person to show off relevant clues, and generally the direction compliments the narrative very well. In due course we're introduced to 221B Baker Street and Mrs Hudson, Inspector Lestrade appears and the game is afoot.
The crime in this is interesting enough, I think. How do you derive a murder investigation from what appear to be "serial suicides"? The references to "A Study in Scarlet" are funny enough for old school Holmes fans but spin things off in a new direction. It's interesting that the source material is one rarely seen in the better-known Holmes media because half the novel is backstory from a third person perspective set in the United States, a situation repeated in "The Valley of Fear" and certainly imitated in "The Sign of the Four." Certain elements are retained, of course. The murderer is a cab driver dying of a brain aneurysm and a life-or-death choice is made using poison. Of course in this instance the murders are being perpetrated against all sorts under the sponsorship of Moriarty to test Holmes and the cab driver wants to provide an inheritance for his children, not seek revenge.
This allows all sorts of mind games where the cab driver gets to put Holmes' ruthlessness and obsessive nature to the test as he almost has him pop a pill just to see if he can read the cab driver adequately. Fortunately Watson shows up to save the day and shoots the cab driver. I thought this end was a bit of a cop-out in some regards; Holmes was in no real danger from the cab driver, and the gunshot only seemed to shock him back to his senses. Was it just that the cab driver's hypnotic presence was somehow keeping Sherlock enthralled? The murderer claims that he talks people into killing themselves but later reveals that he actually threatens them into testing their luck with a fake gun and that with Holmes it's different, so really he is just forcing them to take a chance and relying on them making the wrong one based on this idea, not really borne to fruition, that he can "read people". It's just not entirely clear what the problem is, for Holmes, at least. Was he just desperate to prove he was better at deduction than the killer? I guess so, but pardon me if that comes across as a little insubstantial in some respects.
Despite such not-entirely-satisfactory resolutions the plot is nonetheless engaging and keeps you on your toes as to how these crimes are being committed. Some of it, as I've said, is a little too technology-heavy, such as using an online GPS tracking service to find people's phones, but Holmes' insights and methods are interesting to see, as is his budding friendship with Watson. Now I'm not some repressed fangirl so the continuously implied homoerotic misunderstandings between Holmes, Watson and anyone who encounters them don't seem particularly necessary to me, and much like the occasionally awkward insertions of technology I find the gay jokes a little bit too defensive or apologetic about a two-man team occurring in modern drama, as if it's incredibly rare for two guys to hang out together without some kind of subtext. In addition the show seems deathly afraid of describing Holmes as asexual, which seems much more likely than anything else, as if people won't buy it or something. I do like the idea that Watson actually misses the war rather than being traumatised by it, however. It's not an entirely pleasant notion but it makes his friendship with this version's particularly alien Holmes more plausible.
While I think Cumberbatch does an excellent job with the role I sometimes think this version of Holmes lacks something of the suavity or gentlemanly demeanour of a classic Sherlock Holmes. Even though Holmes is regularly arrogant and manipulative in even his original iteration there was also always something rather dapper and high-class about him. This translates into the modern incarnation as him being a "high functioning sociopath" which mostly means him being alternately oblivious and brilliant, usually for comic effect. While this is effective in its own way I feel like it makes him more aloof and less engaging than other performances of Holmes. We do occasionally see him having a chuckle with Watson or a mutually respectful greeting with a former client but I think we could use a little more. We don't even see him playing the violin this series, when his appreciation for music was one of his more relatable characeristics. However, I believe the writers wanted this to develop over time through his friendship with Watson so I'll grant some leeway. As I say, Benedict Cumberbatch is very well cast and puts in an excellent performance as a man of intermittent spontaneous action and as a unique thinker. He does work in a way I think a modern-day Holmes would, and that makes the character a success.
Watson for his own part I think is my favourite character in the series. Martin Freeman's well-known in the UK for his comedy work but this series is also very successful at giving him opportunities to show off a more serious side. While his personal brand of quiet, eyebrow-involved bemusement is well-placed as a counterpart to Holmes' antics, he also works very well as someone who is evidently troubled or at least ill at ease. You can believe him, I think, as someone who is bother a soldier and a doctor, as a man with the courage of both professions as well as an adventurous spirit coupled with a compassionate nature. I realise that sounds a little bit wishy-washy but I think both the writing and Martin Freeman's performance really nail the character and likewise make him believe as a modern-day version. People can forget that in "Sherlock Holmes", Watson is really just as crucial as the Great Detective himself, and evidently if you're going to produce a good adaptation you've got to get Watson right too. You can't just slap a moustache and a bowler hat on anyone and you've got an instant Holmes offsider. Rather, we need to see a competent associate, a "friend and colleague" as Holmes traditionally puts it, someone who's not just a sidekick but one half of a team.
We're also introduced to two major recurring characters from the Holmes canon in this story. The first is Inspector Lestrade, who is updated again successfully I think as being competent but, in his own words, "desperate". Rupert Graves has that very contemporary "police drama" look to him and quality to his rather exasperated performance which goes further in making the series mesh neatly with the standards of modern detective shows. Nonetheless I found the antagonism towards Holmes from his deputies in this episode to be a little needless and overplayed at times. They call him names like children and it just seems pointless dramatically, like all those times Dr McCoy jumps in with a wise crack to try to get Spock to show emotion. If I was Watson and one of them told me Holmes was a psycho I think I'd reply "Is he, or are you just envious that he's a better detective than you?" I realise that's the point but I feel like their attitude is to an extent laboured.
The other major Holmes character introduced in this story is his brother Mycroft, played with the more traditional suavity, albeit with a sinister element, by the ever-dependable Mark Gatiss. I've always liked Mycroft as a character and I think he was a good inclusion. Like everyone else, I'm sure, I was convinced he was Moriarty upon his first appearance in the episode and had a good chuckle when this was contradicted at the end. While I do sometimes despair at how Holmes pastiches obsess over Mycroft being some kind of spy mastermind, they make it work here. That being said, I would have appreciated some more of Mycroft's traditional lethargy since in some ways he seems a lot more active than Holmes himself. I also would have enjoyed seeing an even more intense example of Mycroft's superior skills of deduction. That being said he's not crucial to the plot so his involvement is simply enjoyable for what it does.
As such, apart from a few instances in which I think Moffat, unsurprisingly, gets a little bit carried away with what he thinks is his own cleverness, "A Study in Pink" is a good starting point for the series and a successful attempt to bring Sherlock Holmes into a contemporary context. In some ways it's familiar, and in some ways it's different, but overall it works. We get strong characters, an intriguing mystery and some good insights into criminality and "unusual" behaviour from both sides of the law. I understand there was a shorter, unbroadcast pilot with a similar plot filmed earlier so evidently they were afforded the resources they needed to compose a finished product of quality. It may not entirely be the Holmes you know and the plot could maybe have used a little bit more work but it achieves its mission statement to an impressive extent and it's definitely an enjoyable watch.

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