Friday, October 29, 2010


I'm not nearly as down on the idea of redoing existing stories in new forms as some people are. Sure, retreads can be pointlessly derivative, but so are a lot of "new" stories, and the same skills that help me figure out which ones are worth my time in one group work in the other. As long as you have something new to do with the old characters, settings, or plotlines, I'm willing to give it a try.

Stories that move Sherlock Holmes to the current day are nothing new. Yet as obvious as the idea is, virtually every example that comes to me either diverges greatly from the source material and characters, preserving only some aspects (such as House, which gave away its inspiration by having House's address be 221B in the early seasons, but which changes more than it preserves); or it translates the Victorian London Holmes to another time. Literally translating the existing characters and types of stories into the modern age, then adapting them only so far as necessary to fit the time, is much less often attempted.

The BBC has recently produced a three-episode season (only on the BBC can that small a mini-series also be a season!) of Sherlock, which does precisely that. In a world where, presumably, Doyle's stories were never written, but which is otherwise identical to ours, a young man by the name Sherlock Holmes lives at 221B Baker Street in a flat rented from Mrs. Hudson, and soon takes on a roommate, one Dr. John Watson. However, as this is taking place in the 21st century, Watson bears an injury from his service in Afghanistan and writes a blog, Holmes uses nicotine patches and has mastered the art of hacking the phone system, Mycroft's work for the British government involves the more modern issues of government's role in people's lives, and LeStrade has to struggle to deal with the press -- okay, that part's not as different as you might expect.

I watched the first episode last night and was considerably impressed. They've achieved that difficult balance very well. On the one hand, the characters feel entirely true to the original material, and on the other, they feel like they belong in the time in which they live. This is the Holmes and Watson that would have occurred had the same personalities and talents been found in people born in this era, and somehow found themselves led by fate to doing similar things. We can see the similarities -- Holmes's drive for mental challenge, his odd balance of agonizingly exacting discipline on things that matter to him with complete disregard and sloppiness on everything else, and his talents and their refinement, most notably -- and the differences -- the way his brusqueness and disregard for social convention play out in an era of mobile phones and the Internet.

They've also developed an interesting technique of using "pop-up text" both to convey the images on people's mobile phonesand computers (thus giving us a more natural view of the people reading the phone than the usual close-up on a tiny screen we get in other shows), and to show some of the inner workings of Holmes's mind as he searches for clues, which proves very effective: similar to, but entirely distinct from, the slomo/fast technique used in the Guy Ritchie movie.

The show felt engaging, exciting, new and yet familiar, and fresh. I will definitely keep watching if they can keep this up.

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