Monday, 6 January 2014

More #Sherlock thoughts

I'm afraid to say the second episode of the newest series of the BBC's Sherlock impressed me as little as the first episode did.

Once again, crowds of fawning fans gathered on Twitter, Tumblr and (presumably) Trams to spew several gigabytes of praise and cutesy adulation - and so, once again, I feel duty bound to set out an alternative point-of-view on a Blog which (almost) nobody reads.

My biggest gripe with the second episode of Sherlock is the treatment of Sherlock's personality - specifically, the increasing 'humanisation' of him as a character.  Benedict Cumberbatch has always done a fantastic job of portraying Sherlock Holmes as he is meant to be - not just emotionless but disdainful of emotion, and of anything which is removed from pure logic and reason.  (For example, he never much took to Ableton.*)  However, as I mentioned before, I feel Sherlock's writers are moving further and further away from the original character - I've nothing against different adaptations, of course, but if you start to change the fundamentals of the character, it's no longer Sherlock Holmes at all.

Conan Doyle's Holmes never gets drunk.  (Despite being actually a far greater drug user and smoker than the modern Sherlock, he always knows his limits and would never allow himself to get out-of-control.  Holmes vomiting on a client's carpet? Unthinkable!)  He is never one for public displays of affection.  And he would never make a sexually suggestive comment about handcuffs to a bridesmaid!

But, most importantly, although he maybe aware of his own flaws, he does not see them as flaws.

Holmes may not be keen on emotions, but that does not mean he does not understand them.  He is a very intelligent, highly perceptive man who probably understands more of human interaction than most of the people who actually value it.  This is made particularly clear in The Adventure of Charles August Milverton, in which Holmes becomes engaged - he does so only to gain vital information for his case, of course (he has no feelings for the woman - Agatha - involved) but this just goes to show that he's more than capable of sweet-talking, romancing and gaining the trust of another person, should he so wish.

Holmes knows how to act like a "normal" (for want of a better word person) - and does so when it suits him - but he prefers not to.

In the BBC's Sherlock, though, the eponymous character seems equally aware of his eccentricities - but uncharacteristically embarrassed by them.  He mentions several times that he is aware of how difficult he must be to live and to work with; nothing wrong with that, but this is done in an empathetic way which at times verges on apologetic.  This, to me, is unforgivable - Sherlock Holmes would never apologise for being Sherlock Holmes!

Conan Doyle's Holmes may know that most other people view him as a strange, cold, emotionless being - but he is not ashamed or worried by this.  Quite the opposite, in fact - he believes that this is how everyone should be.

Sherlock, no matter how well-acted, spectacularly misses this point.

* Sorry - that's a music technology joke.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

#Sherlock: a review

Like many people, I watched the return of BBC1's Sherlock last night.  Unlike many people, I was not overly impressed.  Having taken twenty-four hours to organise my thoughts on the matter, I am going to write about why.

There were some good things about Sherlock, which I really enjoyed - in particular, I liked the passing reference to The Adventure Of The Blue Carbuncle (the deductions Holmes makes from a lost hat), which I thought was very cleverly done.

Unfortunately, though, this latest instalment of the BBC's modernisation amplifies many of the flaws which I thought were apparent in the first two series, and as such suffers from a huge amount of over complication and needlessly elaborate plot devices.  This was evident in a few key points, in particular...

Firstly, the fact that Sherlock had planned to survive falling from the top of the building - directly at odds with Conan Doyle's Holmes, who walks to the Reichenbach Fall convinced he is genuinely going to die.

This problem stems from the over-reliance on Moriarty which I highlighted in my post about the previous series - by making Sherlock premeditate faking his own death (and in a typically over-elaborate way), it was necessary to give him a reason for this grand deception, and thus the Moriarty storyline spiralled out-of-control - but ultimately goes a long way beyond this.  In carrying out this scheme (and it is worth noting that the writers still haven't provided a definitive answer as to how this was done), so many extra helpers would have been required that the secret would surely not have stayed hidden for long.  Conan Doyle's Holmes prefers always to operate alone - the very idea of involving so many other people in a plan of such great importance and precision is so unlike him that it jars with the rest of Sherlock's characterisation.

Indeed, at one point in the episode it feels rather as though the entire ruse has been wholly for John Watson's benefit - and that he is the only one who wasn't in on it from the start, like one great big magic trick.  While this may provide some colourful and dynamic scenes when Sherlock first reveals himself to John two years on, the idea is patently absurd.

The second big issue I had with the episode is again something which has grated on me before in the previous series, but which has this time been taken to a whole new level.  I am talking here about the writers' seemingly insatiable need to make everything within the plot link up, and for all the storylines to intertwine.

This is typically done by having one persistent "enemy", and making each crime which Sherlock solves ultimately trace back to this source (usually in an implausibly convoluted way).  In the past, this was done (wrongly) with the character of Moriarty - in this new series, that vacancy seems to have been filled by "a terrorist organisation" about which we currently know very little, but which appears already to have been cast in the rĂ´le of Sherlock's "nemesis".

This warping of the Sherlock Holmes paradigm is one with which I feel very uneasy.  In Conan Doyle's stories, the vast majority of Holmes' cases are standalone crimes, each with their own perpetrators and their own victims - not assignments handed down to him by agents of the British state, in which the puzzle must be solved against the clock and with enormously high stakes.  Most of the cases solved by Conan Doyle's Holmes are, in the grand scheme of things, actually rather petty - there are not hundreds of lives at stake, there is not a risk to an entire nation, and the cases come to him by way of private clients seeking his assistance, not government agents.  The only common thread running through all of Holmes' cases is that they are all interesting.

Unfortunately, it seems that the writers of Sherlock have failed to grasp this fact.  They start with the premise that Sherlock Holmes has to save the world (in as spectacular a style as possible) at the end of every episode, and work backwards from there, twisting the story as they go in order to force it into being interesting.  The biggest - and therefore most ridiculous - way in which this is achieved is by making the episodes' criminals (sorry, criminal masterminds) leave smug, self-satisfied clues for Sherlock as he attempts to solve the mystery.

Again, this began in the previous series, with Moriarty setting Sherlock little tests with clues and pointers provided and a clock ticking in the background for no reason other than for his own amusement, but was also ratcheted up a notch in the latest episode when John Watson was kidnapped and almost burnt alive on a Guy Fawkes' Night bonfire.

Not only did this segment have very little to do with the overall plot of the episode (other than providing a convenient reason for John to forgive Sherlock after having been angry with him following his initial reappearance), but it was another example of the programme's criminals seeming to care more about agitating Sherlock than their actual crimes.  This, added to the fact that this entire sequence of events was left completely unexplained - and that we still have no idea who kidnapped John in that way, or why they did that - made this part of the episode intensely frustrating.

The need to make every crime both an intensely personal affair and on a gargantuan scale affecting thousands of ordinary people results in plotlines which are both intolerably byzantine and extraordinarily flimsy.

Finally, the business with Sherlock's parents showing up at his flat was so unnecessary that I struggle to understand why it was included at all.  Granted, it didn't really hurt to include them (other than that it might be straying dangerously close to making people see Sherlock's character as more "human", I suppose) but it added nothing to the episode in any way, and was therefore a total waste of time.

So, there you have it.  As ever, the acting was superb - Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman work as brilliantly together as always - and there was plenty of action and suspense to keep viewers hooked.  However, I worry that the writers are overcomplicating things just for the sake of it - I think they should revisit the omnibus edition of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, before they forget what Sherlock Holmes is supposed to be all about.