Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Outside the Government: A Study in Pink

It’s July 25th, 2010. Yolanda Be Cool vs D Cup are at number one with “We No Speak Americano,” with a duet between Eminem featuring Rihanna, Katy Perry featuring Snoop Dogg, Professor Green featuring Lily Allen, and 3OH3 featuring Ke$ha also charting - in fact, only two songs in the top ten are not collaborative: Eliza Doolittle’s “Pack Up” and JLS’s “The Club is Alive.” In news, the World Cup wound down with England eliminated the day after The Big Bang following a pathetic showing against Germany, and Spain ultimately winning in a scrappy final against the Netherlands. Also, Wikileaks releases over 90,000 internal logs of the US Military to a variety of news sources. 

While on television Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s massive hit Sherlock debuts with A Study in Pink. Why do Sherlock episode by episode? For one thing, because its production is bound up in Doctor Who’s. The shows respond to each other and learn from each other, and are, as countless critics have noted, a bit similar in some key ways. Yes, they’re also different. Hence “Outside the Government” at all. But to be perfectly honest, you learn more about the Moffat era watching Sherlock than you ever did about the Davies era by watching Torchwood. So here we are. Sherlock from the ground floor: A Study in Pink.

The more one thinks about A Study in Pink the more it becomes evident that it is quite a strange thing. What does it mean, after all, to create an introduction to a show featuring one of the best-known and most iconic fictional characters in existence? One cannot meaningfully introduce Sherlock Holmes as a character, as any introduction one makes is going to be immediately subsumed by the impossibly large paratext of a century of Sherlock Holmes. In its own way, it’s the same problem Moffat faced with The Eleventh Hour - how do you launch a program that’s already massively familiar to viewers and where everything you introduce is going to be read in context with years of existing material. 

With The Eleventh Hour, Moffat solved the problem by simply putting the program’s best foot forward and playing to all of its strengths as much as possible - an unapologetic charm offensive that worked. In effect he did everything he wanted to do differently, but in an episode that highlighted only the most superficial of his changes while mostly stressing what had remained consistent. But this was a solution for a program that had been on the air just a few months earlier. The solution isn’t quite going to work here. Nevertheless, A Study in Pink is, like The Eleventh Hour, an exercise in saying “here’s how it is.” It is at times almost television as FAQ - a narratively sequenced list of answers to questions beginning “how are you going to handle…” 

That it works is in some ways remarkable. More than almost anything else Moffat has ever written, this is an episode that relies on nothing save for his gifts at humor and exposition. Moffat rides the fact that he can write entertaining puzzle boxes for all that it’s worth, and to his credit, it was worth a smash hit and a pop culture phenomenon. And fair enough. This show needs Moffat to be as good as he is at writing this exact sort of story. Indeed, the fact that 2/3 of its writing staff isn’t quite as good as Steven Moffat at writing this exact sort of story is, ultimately, where Sherlock goes a bit wrong. 

But that’s not this essay. Nor is this essay a discussion of the first version of this episode, from before the BBC decided to change the show from the 6x60 minute episode seasons it was originally conceived as to the 3x90 minute structure it ended up with. Although it is worth talking about what that change did. The sixty minute version is the pilot of a procedural - a case-of-the-week show that will presumably have big episodes for its premieres and finales and filler stuffed in between. The ninety minute version is something far weirder and more complex that avoids easy characterization.

Obviously it is an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. It sweeps in and owns that fact with an adaptation of A Study in Scarlet that is just faithful enough to highlight its own differences. This foregrounds the episode as a piece of textual play, and moves the nature of the storytelling to a more abstract and cerebral level. In short, it makes it a story in which plot information can be conveyed in unusual ways. The main instance of this is, of course, Mark Gatiss’s performance as Moriarty through most of the episode, a flagrant feint that is set up entirely through references to the larger corpus of Sherlock Holmes. If you somehow come to the episode not knowing that Moriarty and Mycroft both exist as characters then the decision to pretend Gatiss is playing a villain is utterly inscrutable. It is only because the audience can be trusted both to make the mistake and to understand the nature of the correction that this detail works.

But the existence of it means that this is a show that is open and insistent about being thought of as a constructed narrative. There is no pretense of “suspension of disbelief” or any of that malarky. It never lets us forget that it’s an adaptation, and that there are other versions of Sherlock Holmes to  compare it to. And in a variety of ways it engages with that, slipping in elaborate canon jokes and subversions of canonical expectations: having the inscription “Rache” mean the exact thing that the cop wrongly suggested it did in A Study in Scarlet while this time having the cop wrongly suggest the interpretation that was correct in the original, for instance. For those steeped in Sherlock Holmes, this is a veritable playground.

But even for a viewer who only knows the broad strokes of Sherlock Holmes - the ones that are simply default cultural knowledge - there’s a conscious playfulness to this episode. This is in a large part because even if you have only the default cultural knowledge, A Study in Pink is still going out of its way to highlight its fidelity, making sure to introduce all of the major expected elements of Sherlock Holmes in a fairly systematic manner that highlights their status as parts of a narrative system instead of as people. 

This is further highlighted by the nature of the two lead characters. It’s easy to fall into the trap of treating this as, in effect, a Doctor Who story - one where an ordinary person (John) falls into the world of an extraordinary one (Sherlock). Sherlock, however, resists that, putting the audience ahead of John for most of the episode. Instead it presents two extraordinary men, neither of them people it is easy for the audience to relate to. John’s noble bearing as an army doctor is a part of his character, but this is not used to make him an everyman. Far from it - he’s hyper-competent in his own right and, perhaps more importantly, completely off his head. This is highlighted from the first shot - the very first thing we learn about John Watson is his trauma, and we see the world as an awful, banal cage in which he is trapped. He’s unabashedly shown to be just as much of an adrenaline junkie as Sherlock Holmes is. Even though he’s the sidekick, and he absolutely is, he’s the perfectly finely tuned sidekick.

Just as, of course, Sherlock Holmes is the perfect detective. Which gets to the other innovation of the reshot Study in Pink that wasn’t present in the original, the decision to juxtapose text with the images on a regular basis. This starts, of course, with the cell phone stuff, and is a perfectly clever way of handling the problem of how to have people read text messages (or any other sort of text) on screen. But slowly it morphs to be something else as we see Sherlock’s investigation of the dead body and get the same techniques applied to his observations. Of particular interest is the observation regarding the ring, with the note that the inside is “clean” then becoming an object in the frame that moves with the ring and is even shown backwards when we get the reverse shot, then suspended inside the ring as the corresponding “dirty” observation of its exterior is made. 

The result is that the deductive aspects of the story - the solving of the mystery - is conveyed not just through what happens but through the entire framing of the narrative. Tellingly, this makes the title card just another clue, removing the distinction between “what Sherlock Holmes figures out” and “what the camera angles and scene sequencing tells us about the story” entirely. The mystery stops being the subject of the story and starts being the frame itself, with episodes constructed out of montages of clues and presented information. Another way of putting this is that far from seeing the world through John’s eyes, most of the time, for most of the episode, our viewpoint is closer to that of Sherlock’s, even if it is not at any given moment a straightforward job to understand what it is we’re looking at.

So Sherlock becomes in a large part about the psychology of Sherlock Holmes. Except, of course, as we’ve already discussed, Sherlock Holmes is not presented to us as a naturalistic character. He’s not a human being, he’s a hero. As much as the series may continually return to his human origins, the point of the character is his impossibility. And so there’s something unusual about focusing on his psychology. The usual way to handle this gap, established since 1986 or so, is to focus on the way in which the hero is completely mad, which, fair enough, Sherlock does. But it doesn’t quite make the moves you’d expect. Sherlock is visibly mad, yes, but he’s a romantic madman. The flirtation with the Dark Knight “the hero we deserve” that happens when Donovan suggests that Sherlock Holmes is a psychopath who will eventually kill someone is self-evidently wrong: Sherlock may be mad as a hatter, but he’s not that sort of mad.

Of course, the notion of madness and Sherlock Holmes already has a built-in focus: his drug use. In the stories themselves, of course, this is just a detail: Sherlock Holmes sometimes uses cocaine to help him think. This had different connotations at the time the stories were written, but has increasingly been presented in the modern terms of drug addiction. Particularly landmark is Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which posited that Holmes’s death was in fact a period of mental illness during which he was treated by Sigmund Freud. For Moffat and Gatiss to engage with Holmes in terms of madness and not touch the issue of addiction is nearly unthinkable.

And yet they just about do - an allusion to the possibility that there really might be drugs hidden somewhere in 221B Baker Street (though not somewhere easy to find, clearly) and the nicotine patches scene are the only moments that A Study in Pink even glances in that direction. Instead we get a portrayal of Sherlock Holmes as being addicted in the same way that John Watson is. But where John is addicted to danger, Sherlock is addicted to something else. It is perhaps to puzzles, but no - over time we will learn that those are his skill, not his addiction. His addiction is, ultimately, to adventure. To, in other words, the dramatic structure in which he is a heroic figure. He is addicted to the possibility of his own inhumanity. And, secondarily, he is unable to handle the banal in any concentration. Boredom is intolerable to him. This is the nature of his madness.

And so we get Inspector Lestrade’s fascinating thesis statement for the series - that Sherlock Holmes is a great man who might some day be a good one. It’s taken for granted that heroes are mad and difficult creatures. The focus, however, is on the dysfunction necessary for heroism but on the possibility that for all their madness our heroes are still things that come out of our world. The ruthless jettisonning of every last trace of Victoriana in favor of a show that is not merely present day but aggressively present day, drenched in cell phones and modern London, plays into this, demanding that we consider exactly what it means to dream of a hero existing in our world.

It’s easy to wander back to The Dark Knight when talking about this stuff, but also seemingly inevitable, because it proved such a definitive take on heroism for a particular era, imitated tediously across media. The “deconstruct your heroes” trend may have begun in 1986, but it’s The Dark Knight with which it becomes the default approach to big, heroic characters. And notably, Sherlock was developed in the wake of The Dark Knight. But here we have the story in reverse - the dark and tortured hero learns to be human. It’s not a story about the awful price of heroism, but about the fact that the ordinary and the heroic can be connected and brought together.

This is, of course, increasingly standard territory for Moffat. Indeed, there’s a sense in which he’s been writing this basic story for most of his career. Joking Apart and Coupling are both about brilliant but difficult men learning to interact more functionally with the world. The River Song arc eventually settles into this dynamic, and really, all of his “the Doctor learns about girls” stuff is a variation on it. Which, given the interviews in which he’s talked about realizing how much his clever/witty/snarky demeanor is an awful bore, clearly carries some autobiographical weight. 

But there’s a real sweep to it - a commitment to retaining the sense of scale that The Dark Knight traded on, only without its pessimism. It comes at the idea that there is something broken about heroes from a different angle - the one of creative madness. This is of course a sizable topic - we did just talk about Vincent and the Doctor. In many ways A Study in Pink is a response to that - an attempt to interrogate the trite linkage of madness and mental illness, and to give us a character whose madness and his greatness are completely inseparable.  


So there’s a mad hubris here. Moffat, clearly a smart man in his own right, is writing Sherlock Holmes as a self-insert. But given Moffat’s past use of this sort of self-insert as an auto-critique, this hubris is oddly, cheekily endearing. It may be a self-insert, but that’s manifestly not all it is. It’s also an interrogation of an entire rhetoric of major cultural heroes. The hubris would be unbearable if this were cliched and trite, but it’s not. A great man trying to become a good one isn’t an oversignified story. It’s not a story we tell nearly often enough. A Study in Pink goes through a great many steps of showing us the familiar components of Sherlock Holmes, all in an effort to try to explain why it’s worth putting these together in a new way yet again. But by the end it’s managed it. This isn’t something we’ve seen before. And it’s terribly well done. The ninety minute episodes and the breathtaking direction (the decision to reshoot the whole thing with Paul McGuigan, a proper film director, was a huge and crucial one) give a sense of grandeur to it, and the script gives everyone a strong platform to build on. It feels innovative and interesting at the same time. For a first episode, that’s job done and then some.

56 comments:

  1. You could if you wished use as evidence the fact that the question 'which of these two pills is the poisoned one?' is presented as a trap in itself, regardless of what the answer is. We're not even told that the true answer is both and that the taxi driver has build up an immunity to iocaine powder. (I think the taxi driver denies that at some point though he could be lying.)

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    1. Or it could be something simpler -- the cab driver simply palms the pill he pretends to take. Sherlock, after all, was the first of his victims who even noticed that it wasn't a real gun and would surely have been the first to have had the presence of mind to notice such a simple deception.

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  2. The two approaches to Doctor Who by Davies and Moffat were best summed up by Twitter, believe it or not. For the Davies era, it was marvellously summed up by Joe Hill (son of Stephen King and a great fan of Doctor Who, if that doesn't boggle the imagination) where he said words to the effect that the central idea throughout was the cost of falling in love with the divine.

    For Moffat's approach, I have to admit I can't remember who said this, but it was along the lines of geniuses with borderline social and behavioural problems learning through others how to become more human. And in that respect, you've totally hit the nail on the head with the comparison of Smith's Doctor with Cumerbatch's Sherlock-- both need Amy and Watson.

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    1. If I ever meet Joe Hill, of course I'm going to say "you gotta be Joe King!" because I'll never let a pun go unspoken.

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  3. Perhaps it comes from his sit-com work, but to expand upon the way Moffat tells the Great Man Becomes a Good Man story is to have it flow from the character interaction rather than the plot. Most dramatists will use the story at hand to inform the character of his misdeeds. Buffy is having problems with her boyfriend and just so happens to get involved in a case involving two sparring demon lovers and learns a valuable lesson kind of thing.

    Moffat seems to just enjoy letting people interact. If a character misbehaves, then there's some entertaining banter which ultimately leads to some sort of resolution. To flash-forward to the most recent season (in a story co-written by Moffat), Sherlock was surprised when his return was met with anger rather than excitement, and had to figure out what he did wrong. There's no magic moment during the plot where he says, "ah, now I get it because this piece of information helped me solve the case", the character arc runs on the side of whatever plot happens to be there at the time. It's his interaction with other people during the case which brings about his personal resolution.

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    1. True. Although where Buffy was innovatory that the two sparring demon lovers are a metaphor for Buffy's problems, rather than a case study of demons who have the same problems. Not that Sherlock does that either, and these days that metaphorical level is a bit laboured (a sign of Buffy's influence).

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    2. I also agree with you, and I want to say that this third season, to me, is the strongest in terms of this character interaction mattering more than the plot/mystery itself. For some reason, I see the first two seasons as being more about the mystery or conundrum that Sherlock is faced with, but the third season seems to have so many character moments that they overwhelm the plot in some ways. Maybe the nature of the break between the second and third seasons being a difficult, long one with Sherlock's return a strong part of this third season.

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    3. Everyone always points to Buffy as being innovative on that front. I'm not sure it is; there's a strong case to be made that it's actually a return to a lost element of the folkloric origins of the monsters, not anything new at all. Particularly where vampires are concerned, as they are often a reification of culturally transgressive sexual desires. (The book In Search of Dracula covers this idea, in both folklore and pop culture, quite well, predating Buffy by a couple of years.)

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    4. The innovation in Buffy is firstly that the writers want the audience to recognise what is going on. You can analyse Dracula as an expression of culturally transgressive sexual desires or anxieties about immigration. But the point of those kinds of ideological codings is that they operate at a level where one has conscious deniability. The point of disguising culturally transgressive sexual desires as vampires is that you get them in disguise. Whereas Buffy is not disguising what it's doing.
      The other thing Buffy is doing is genre mixing. The characters in Dracula can afford to be relatively flat because the emotional weight is being borne by the symbolism. Whereas Buffy hs rounded characters and emotional symbolism backing each other up.

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  4. This starts, of course, with the cell phone stuff, and is a perfectly clever way of handling the problem of how to have people read text messages (or any other sort of text) on screen.

    This device was pioneered on the youth-oriented soap opera Hollyoaks, which has had a number of clever ideas that it never gets credit for.

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    1. As well as providing a seemingly endless supply of serving wrenches and slave boys to Game of Thrones.

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  5. "There is no pretense of “suspension of disbelief” or any of that malarky. It never lets us forget that it’s an adaptation, and that there are other versions of Sherlock Holmes to compare it to."

    There we go. One thing I've seen tossed around as a criticism of Sherlock is that it's not realistic in X, Y, or Z ways. And my own argument has always been that the show is less about Sherlock Holmes than it is about SHERLOCK HOLMES. It's about the myth, the idea of Holmes rather than the character (who, after all, doesn't exist--in fact, he's more nonexistent than almost any other fictional character).

    Of course, I'd also argue that at this point all iterations of SH are essentially about the Holmes Myth rather than the characters or the stories. Heck--even the stories, the original ACD stories--are at this point more about the myth they created than whatever-they-were when they first appeared in print.

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    1. True. The other day, I decided to look at 'The Man With the Twisted Lip' story, because that had been the name of an Elementary episode, and I recognized it as the opener to His Last Vow...hahahaha, I could not read anymore at the point, I was slightly giddy with the way the sudden change happened. Sherlock, even in ACD, is a bit of an imp.

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    2. "Heck--even the stories, the original ACD stories--are at this point more about the myth they created than whatever-they-were when they first appeared in print."

      From possibly Hound and certainly "The Empty Room" -- the moment when ACD realised that Holmes wasn't allowed to be dead, whatever his opinion on the matter might be -- there's a case to be made that the stories were about the Holmes Myth even when ACD was writing them.

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  6. "The “deconstruct your heroes” trend may have begun in 1986, but it’s The Dark Knight with which it becomes the default approach to big, heroic characters."

    Though this is a side-trip for Tardis Eruditorum, due to the common creators involved, it's also touching on something I assume is coming down the pike for Last War in Albion. 1986 being, of course, the year Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were published, though I'm not sure the latter is actually intended as a deconstruction. The Dark Knight movie trilogy seems to me more grounded in Moore's The Killing Joke conception of Batman being as insane as the Joker, which I don't think Miller subscribes to in DKR, as insane as that Batman might appear to us. (There's also a healthy dose of the look and feel of Miller's Year One in Batman Begins.)

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    1. I am of the opinion that the reason Marvel's recent films have been so much more successful than DC's is in large part because DC is still obsessed with deconstructing their heroes (in large part, I think, because of a certain level of embarrassment over lingering Silver Age silliness). The Marvel films just get the origin over with as quickly as possible and get on with telling a story. My greatest fear is that the next Batman film will spend 40 minutes retelling Batman's origin story for the fourth time.

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    2. I mean, I'd describe that by saying that DC is interested in trying to tell dramatic stories that happen to feature super heroes while Marvel is happy to do continuous hollow action movies that please everyone by being safe and ambitionless, but I think we both agree on the actual phenomena if not the adjectives we attach to it.

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  7. I think it was really smart for them to focus on the psychology of Sherlock rather than the mysteries themselves, as Sherlock Holmes' mysteries have always been inscrutable. They have always involved some weird detail or information that the viewer would never know or be able to figure out. Because of that, watching how Sherlock solves them is far more interesting than the answer itself.

    Unfortunately, this episode in particular fell really flat for me in that realm. Watching Sherlock figure it out was fine except for the fact that both my husband and I knew "who did it" a good half-hour before Sherlock figured it out and that's not supposed to happen! It seemed so obvious to us from nearly the beginning that it really undercut Sherlock's brilliance as an unsurpassed genius. British folks, is this a British vs. American thing or was it obvious to everyone? Fortunately, future episodes fixed this particular issue.

    David Anderson, I had the exact same reaction about the poison and for the same cultural reference reason.

    As for whether the show is about Sherlock learning to be a good man, I think they are on the right track here, but it really derails in later seasons.

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    1. This is pretty much the problem of all the Holmes stories I've read. Either the clue is dead obvious and Doyle pretends its not or Sherlock just pulls the answer out of the air.

      The solution in the original story is both staggeringly obvious and completely out of left field... followed by a lengthy culturally insensitive postscript about how evil Mormons are.

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    2. I realised the criminal's job half way through as well; but if you've read Study in Scarlet you'll know that's the criminal's job. And I think the episode is nudging the viewer into guessing even if they don't know. (I think the actual bit of dialogue in which Sherlock thinks it through but fails to draw the conclusion is in fact using a device from a Father Brown story). I'm not sure if it's the right choice for Moffat to make, but I find it hard to believe it wasn't a deliberate choice.

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    3. Yeah, the problem of the audience solving the mystery before the detective in the show does...I think it's a quite common one, or at least it is for me. Leads to some boredom and exasperation with the show's characters.

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    4. I think it was really smart for them to focus on the psychology of Sherlock rather than the mysteries themselves…Watching Sherlock figure it out was fine except for the fact that both my husband and I knew "who did it" a good half-hour before Sherlock figured it out and that's not supposed to happen!

      With the greatest respect, aren't you contradicting yourself here? If we're being asked to focus on Sherlock's psychology, and perhaps pop-psychoanalyse him, solving the mundane clues ahead of him tells us something more about the way his mind works than simply 'he's good at detecting and solving puzzles' which is what everyone knows anyway.

      British folks, is this a British vs. American thing or was it obvious to everyone?

      It was certainly obvious to me (I'm British btw) but I assumed that to be deliberate. IIRC there's a a pointed shot of a cab driving right past the cafe window as Sherlock is piecing together the clues which will lead him to the cabbie. As I said above I think this may be the first clue from Moffat that this is not the Sherlock of our fathers. The game may be afoot but it isn't playing by the standard rules. Or, to paraphrase another Moffat script.
      "I'm a detective. But probably not the one you were expecting!"

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    5. Anton, no. If I know that the mystery is totally not solvable, I'll be paying attention to the process that Sherlock uses to solve it rather than trying to pick up and think about the specific details during the show. However, I just found the fact that I knew what the answer was and he didn't really distracting because I kept wondering how on earth he didn't pick up on it. I think it would have been different if the show called him out for missing it, somehow pointing out that it was obvious, but I never really felt like it did.

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    6. What it did do was make clear that, much like Moffat' s Doctor Who, the usual 'rules' for experiencing this kind of genre fiction were off the menu. Passive reception just won't do here. I too was puzzled by Sherlock not picking up on the obvious fact that a driver of a London black cab would be a prime suspect. A detail that was clear enough to me, not an afficionado of Doyle or even a fan of detective stories, and surely glaringly obvious to genre savvy viewers. If Sherlock can be behind the game what is going on? I can't believe this was a failure in the writing as Moffat is demonstrably capable of creating workable narrative puzzles which are soluble at precisely the moment he chooses to be best for dramatic tension and impossible riddles which are only comprehensible when some previously hidden fact is revealed. Apparantly the 'cabbie' solution is a direct lift from the source text A Study in Scarlet (I haven't read it) so Moffat would also be aware that many Doyle literate viewers would be ahead of Sherlock too. Given this I can only believe that the 'failure' of Sherlock' s skills here is a deliberate wrong-footing technique by the writer which needed no subsequent diegetic explanation.

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  8. "In the stories themselves, of course, this is just a detail: Sherlock Holmes sometimes uses cocaine to help him think. This had different connotations at the time the stories were written, but has increasingly been presented in the modern terms of drug addiction. Particularly landmark is Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which posited that Holmes’s death was in fact a period of mental illness during which he was treated by Sigmund Freud."

    The idea Freud treated cocaine addiction just adds absurdity to the idea of treating Sherlock, in his original Victorian setting, as an addict. I mean, there's nothing bad with giving stories a modern day reading, and there's not really much to gain in being as historically accurate as possible. But when you think about how Freud used to study cocaine and prescribe it as an analgesic before his psychoanalysis, and was a known user himself, the whole thing just becomes ridiculous.

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    1. I think Freud is actually treating Holmes for his Moriarty obsession - which turns out to have arisen from a childhood trauma involving his mother.

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  9. The flirtation with the Dark Knight “the hero we deserve” that happens when Donovan suggests that Sherlock Holmes is a psychopath who will eventually kill someone is self-evidently wrong: Sherlock may be mad as a hatter, but he’s not that sort of mad.

    !!!!!

    Indeed, the fact that 2/3 of its writing staff isn’t quite as good as Steven Moffat at writing this exact sort of story is, ultimately, where Sherlock goes a bit wrong.

    That's probably fair, though I must admit the only Gatiss episode of Sherlock I'm not that jazzed about is the Baskervilles one. The others I found pretty enjoyable on the whole, at least as regards the script itself as opposed to the directions the plot took.

    If there's something I don't like about Sherlock, it's the slightness of human motive. This may be entirely true to the stories -- it's been a long time since I've read any of them -- but I found it disappointing. Several times we see montages of more "domestic" cases that Sherlock solves in the blink of an eye; it's rather telling that neither he nor the show has the slightest interest in spending more than a moment on "ordinary" crime with a motive and an emotional hook. Perhaps part of the point is that the almost-motiveless crime is a bigger challenge to solve.

    This first episode is a good example, where before I figured out what kind of show it was going to be, I kept expecting the culprit to be someone who had done what he'd done for some psychological or biographical reason, when of course it turns out he's a clever man doing the bidding of someone even more clever, motivated primarily by the desire to be clever.

    That is, just as so many of the larger arcs of the Moffat era of Who turn out to be driven by villains who are mainly about fucking with the Doctor, lots of Sherlock seems to be driven by (at least) one villain who is mainly about fucking with Sherlock.

    Personally I find that kind of boring, though fortunately Moffat is able to make both shows so entertaining on so many other levels (and his casting choices can't be underestimated in their contribution to that) that I have no desire to stop watching. If that one element were locked in as well, they would both be great shows rather than simply good ones.

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    1. I must confess: I LOATHE the show's interpretation of Moriarty. It was everything I hated about Simms' interpretation of the Master but even hammier. You can be the world's best criminal mastermind or you can be a psychosexually obsessed stalker of the world's best detective, but realistically, you can't do both.

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  10. Confession: This is the only episode of Sherlock I've seen. Now that I've caught up on Game of Thrones, perhaps I should rectify that.

    Anyway, the thing that immediately struck me about the floating text is how video game-y it is. (It particularly reminds me on the one hand of the old SCUMM adventure games, and on the other of that crappy French game whose name escapes me--the one with the Origami Killer?) It sort of highlights the way Sherlock treats the world and people around him as a puzzle box (which, being a Moffat story, they are), because of course the modern equivalent to a Victorian puzzle box would be a video game, wouldn't it?

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    1. crappy French game

      Heavy Rain?

      I liked that game, but I can understand why a lot of people wouldn't. That's a game where there's a lot of elaborate contrivance but it is almost justified by a human motive which, though far-fetched as it would have to be, struck me as at least reasonably plausible if you don't examine it too closely. I wouldn't have minded seeing at least one plotline like that in a Sherlock episode; maybe they did one and I'm forgetting about it?

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    2. Yes, that's the one.

      I have serious issues with it both on the crappiness of the gameplay and how SPECTACULARLY cliché the resolution of the mystery is. (The resolution also causes a couple of earlier scenes to make NO SENSE from a character-motivation standpoint and invalidates the only halfway interesting relationship in the entire story.) Plus, at this point I have zero patience for a game that doesn't at least *try* to be less misogynistic than the industry norm.

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    3. (Caveat to above: I will admit I only played the game for about an hour before I gave up on it. However, I have seen the entirety of the game in Let's Play form, so I feel qualified to talk about the story.)

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    4. I think your comments on it are entirely fair, and I enjoyed it despite all those things and not because of them.

      The scene you probably played and are probably thinking of primarily with the "misogynistic" comment was extremely uncomfortable. My girlfriend watched me play through that part and it's mainly what she remembers about the game. On the other hand, maybe it's just me, but I couldn't help identifying really strongly with that character while playing that scene, and while it starts off voyeuristic, it ended for me in really intense empathy. I don't know that that counts for anything, but it was an experience I've never had in a video game in quite the same way and I found it meaningful.

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    5. That scene (pretty sure we're talking about the same one) was one of my major issues with the game, yes. Also the fact that other than that scene, the character in question's only other major scene on her own involves the same sort of threat, and otherwise she exists solely to introduce extra gameplay segments for another character.

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    6. I couldn't help identifying really strongly with that character while playing that scene, and while it starts off voyeuristic, it ended for me in really intense empathy.

      I think I know which bit you mean and I felt the same way (indeed it's a shame this didn't come up on the last entry given how relevant it is). The resolution of the main mystery was pretty ham-fisted though. I suppose my overall problem with the game it that it tries to serve two objectives - to be a melodramatic neo-noir, and to force the player to identify more closely with the characters by making them do lengthy mundane things before giving them the big moral dilemmas; and the two rather undercut each other because, fun as Jayden's google-glasses-that-can-analyse-DNA-in-real-time-just-by-having-him-glance-at-something is, it obviously belongs in a very different story to the "Press X to Jason" bit and its immediate aftermath. (I really want that apartment, though.)

      How you feel overall might have something to do with which ending you get. I messed up and got what I later found out was probably the second-worst ending, but its relentlessly downbeat nature had a tragic inevitability to it, a bit like the ending of Se7en. (Trying to avoid big spoilers, but something about only the sex-worker surviving right to the end rather appealed to me)

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    7. I feel like video games currently have a similar problem to TV thirty years ago: the highest achievement they can imagine aspiring to is being like a bad movie. Ever since the move to optical media in the mid-90s, there's increasingly little attention paid to the things games can do that movies can't, and as a result little exploration and refinement of those areas. Oh, there's definitely been a few stabs in that direction (the ending of Bioshock and the , the way Shadow of the Colossus slowly implicates the player in (one side of) the problematic aspects of the classic kill-the-monster-save-the-girl narrative, the way the ending of Braid implicates the player in the other side of the problematic aspects of that narrative) but mostly it seems like games are content to keep repeating the same late-90s ideas over and over while aping whatever's going on in film.

      But I guess this isn't really the time or place for my Why I've Drifted Out of Gaming manifesto.

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    8. Previous comment was supposed to talk about how the ending of Bioshock examines and problematizes the illusion of player freedom in a video game. I apparently forgot to finish that thought.

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    9. Actually I think the games you mention make a good case for why gaming is better than ever. I can't think of too many games in prior ages that were that self-aware and thoughtful. Further interesting examples would include Amnesia (though you twig what's going on pretty quickly) and Gone Home (barely a game, yet I think about it all the time and can't thank Philip enough for recommending it).

      Of course, there's a question of whether self-aware and thoughtful is a substitute for interesting gameplay. My beef is that as it's become more and more possible for games to seem more and more realistic -- to feature high-resolution visuals and "natural" movements to control human characters -- in some ways they've become more restricted in what they can do and limited in the stories you can tell. One of the fun things about games is that they let you do things you can only do in a game, which is why a game like Braid* almost has to be retro and somewhat 2D in its visuals. I can imagine a 3D version of it, but I'm not sure it would be better.

      Bringing it back to Sherlock: I think your comparison is apt, and I think some of the points we've discussed in this thread might actually be more relevant than they appear.

      * Full disclosure: I still haven't finished Braid. I want to, but it's pretty unforgiving to those of us who have never been that great at platformers.

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  11. The thing I find most interesting about Sherlock Holmes is that, ultimately, he's a cheat. The way Doyle writes the stories is that Holmes knows whodunnit from the start - because Doyle wrote them like that. The logical deduction stuff stems from knowing the conclusion and drawing the evidence to fit.
    Very few adaptations of Holmes seem to grasp this central idea - indeed, I might argue that one of the best versions of Holmes ever put on screen is Columbo, who already knows whodunnit and (in the best episodes) merely lets the murderer convict themselves.
    In a sense this is because Doyle obviously had few predecessors, but there's a clear distinction between Holmes and what we might consider to be more classic detectives like Poirot or Wimsey.
    Moffat's Sherlock is certainly closer to Doyle's original but they do keep insisting on making him into an actual detective sometimes - the worst bit of The Sign of the Three was the absurd bit where he is trying to deduce something at the reception. (Curiously, the bit in Study in Pink where everyone in the audience is shouting "it's the bloody taxi driver" is actually complete misdirection, since that bit of the story is about Sherlock trying to force Watson to become whole by making Watson "solve" the mystery himself.)

    Anyway, my own personal bugbear is the question as to why the hell nobody has ever done a version of Holmes where he lives in the right house?! Every single version ever (even the superlative Brett) has him living at something that is always labelled (usually on the fanlight) as 221b. But the house itself is clearly number 221. Mrs Hudson lives in the ground floor flat, which would be 221a, and Holmes (and Watson) are on the first floor, in 221b. Why is this so difficult for anyone to understand..?

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    1. I agree that Holmes often knew who he was after from the start, but I think that wasn't the case often enough to not claim it as a central characteristic. It would be nice to mix it up every now and then. I loved Columbo for the reason you cite: it wasn't a "whodunnit" but rather a "howsolveit."

      Thank you for being the only other person I've encountered who is bothered by the apartment letter being on the outside of the building. I'm certain that the actual building now has 221b prominently displayed, but equally so the number plates for the other buildings on that street don't list apartment letters.

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    2. I apologize for my first sentence getting away from me a bit there. To be clear: I don't feel Holmes knows the answer from the start so often that it's his standard method. He certainly knows on several occasions, though.

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    3. The actual building is an office complex, but there's a Holmes tourist tat shop on the next block with 221b on the front.

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    4. Scurra-...the house itself is clearly number 221.... Why is this so difficult for anyone to understand..?

      The commentary for A Study in Pink discusses this point, revealing that it was 'understood' but deliberately rejected for aesthetic reasons. And for a show with "no pretense of 'suspension of disbelief' or any of that malarkey" I wouldn't expect anything less.

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    5. Columbo's based on Porfiry in Crime and Punishment much more than on Holmes.

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  12. In the original stories, Watson expresses that he feels Sherlock's cocaine use is unhealthy, and is relieved when he seems to quit. Given that context (which came as a bit of a shock to me having grown up in a world where cocaine is SERIOUSLY BAD), I think the replacement with cigarettes is absolutely perfect. Yeah, they're bad for you, but we don't think smokers are especially bad people.

    Likewise, I think the use of cell phones and text messaging is the perfect analogue to the near constant telegrams Holmes sent and received in the original stories.

    The only thing that I find strikingly different is that in the show we get to see the clues Holmes finds, though he doesn't fit them together for us until the end. Many of the stories ended with Holmes coming in and saying "by the way, here's a ton of evidence that clearly points to the criminal that was in no way shared with the reader, so haha you can't have solved it nor do you get a pleasurable sense of 'oh, I see what you did there.'" That change I'm quite happy with, because I hate when detective shows withhold information from the audience. However, I'm fine with Moffat having Doctor Who mystery reveals that don't play upon any previously broadcast evidence. With the Doctor it's another sudden turn in a thrill ride; with Holmes, it's a cheat.

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  13. Absolutely excellent essay, Phil.

    Totally agree that you learn more about Moffat from Sherlock than you do about Davies from Torchwood, so very glad you are giving it this much coverage.

    In fact, I think I see (some of) where you are headed now, in terms of both Sherlock and Who, and therefore very much looking forward to your coverage of both over the next few months.

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    1. 5tephe - "Totally agree that you learn more about Moffat from Sherlock than you do about Davies from Torchwood"

      I don't even think this rationale for covering Sherlock episode-by-episode was necessary. Surely it is just as much of a spin-off as Torchwood.

      The production team is similar. The fan-base largely shared. We see just as many familiar faces (whose characters are as similar to their DW counterparts as Torchwood's ever were). We see just as many familiar places (and when it goes as far as The Sontaran Experiment this starts to feel deliberate). The tone of current Doctor Who is carried over. And most importantly of all it directly influences, and is influenced by, the primary show.

      The only real sticking point is that Sherlock Holmes has been confirmed to be fictional within Doctor Who. But between the canonisation of fiction in The Mind Robber and the textual-awareness of Sherlock, that's not as large a hurdle as trying to reconcile Miracle Day.

      Sherlock is produced as a spin-off; it is largely received as a spin-off; and God willing if I ever win this Wikipedia edit war it will be a spin-off.



      (Yes, I am being cheeky. Yes, I do recognise that this will never be true in reality - only on my DVD shelf. And no, there's no edit war brewing. Sherlock isn't even mentioned on the talk page. ...sigh)

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    2. Who are the familiar faces? I suppose Gatiss has had a couple of guest starring roles on Who, and there's a handful of other actors who've guest starred on both, but that's got to be true with almost every British show - there's probably more overlap between Who and Game of Thrones, say.

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    3. The only real sticking point is that Sherlock Holmes has been confirmed to be fictional within Doctor Who.

      "Sherlock Holmes solved the case before I could, as I recall."

      "Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character," Trix pointed out.

      The Doctor grinned. "My dear, one of the things you'll learn is that it's all real. Every word of every novel is real, every frame of every movie, every panel of every comic strip."

      "But that's just not possible. I mean some books contradict other ones and -"

      The Doctor was ignoring her.

      --Lance Parkin, The Gallifrey Chronicles.

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    4. The Seventh Doctor, in reference to Sherlock Holmes:
      "Just because someone isn't real, it doesn't mean you can't meet them."

      --Paul Cornell, Timewyrm: Revelation.

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    5. @John

      Perhaps "just as many" was the wrong choice of words for the argument I wasn't seriously making.

      But looking into it, IMDB shows an overlap of 24 actors between modern Who and Sherlock, versus an overlap of 36 with Torchwood. If we take running time into account, then Sherlock has 1.78 per hour to Torchwood's 1.02.

      As for notability, while Sherlock doesn't have any series regulars to its name, it does have a number of immediately recognisable faces including Adelaide Brooke, Alonso, Riddell, Lazarus, Lucius Dextrus, Chan-tho, Mia Bennett, Mr. Jefferson, Abi Lerner and Foon*.

      You are welcome to state your case for Game of Thrones being a Doctor Who spin-off.

      *Alright, that last one wasn't immediately recognisable, but I did spend an awful lot of The Sign of Three trying to work out who she was.

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    6. Whose daughter around here was it who said "There are only two ways you can get to all the worlds: the Faraway Tree, and Doctor Who'shouse."?

      Genius. Someone give that girl a doctorate.

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    7. And let's not forget All-Consuming Fire by Andy Lane! That whole book was about Sherlock and the Seventh Doctor meeting.

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    8. Game of Thrones-wise, Iain Glen, Julian Glover, Liam Cunningham, Donald Sumpter, Diana Rigg, David Bradley, Harry Lloyd, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ian Hanmore, Jamie Sives, Joe Dempsie, Lucian Msamati, Mark Killeen, Robert Pugh, Tim Plester, Tobias Menzies, and Ron Donachie have all appeared in both (Glover and Sumpter only on the classic series, although I think Sumpter also appeared in The Sarah Jane Adventures). Plus Finn Jones appeared in the Sarah Jane Adventures episode that Matt Smith was in. And Emilia Clarke and Matt Smith will be co-starring in the new Terminator movie.

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  14. Oh good, SM's other series of shaggy dog stories with no likable or credible characters. We are already in hell.

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