Unlocking Sherlock’s Secrets

Nine more days to the US Premiere of Sherlock on PBS, which means ten more days till the folks over at HappyNiceTimePeople (Wonkette’s prettier sister) start running my recaps. Meantime, the Brits have now completed two thirds of a three episode third season of Sherlock, while we poor Yanks must suffer or become video-outlaws. There was a lovely seven minute webisode as if we weren’t already salivating at the prospect of the return of our boys – Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson. This Sunday, PBS will be throwing another bone our way when it premieres Unlocking Sherlock, a 57-minute retrospective and teaser, featuring interviews with the cast and creators. More good news – it’s already available online LEGALLY at PBS.

What do we learn from this special? First and foremost, the reason there are so many shout-outs and references to the original Author Conan Doyle stories is because series creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are major “fanboys” – so says Benedict Cumberbatch.

There’s a brief history of Conan Doyle’s career, and a shout out to his medical professor, Dr Joseph Bell, a genius diagnostician on whom he based his great detective (though no mention of the television series, Murder Rooms, a fictionalized account of Bell’s adventures, which is available in the usual places.)

Did you know that Holmes and Watson are the most portrayed literary characters ever? There’s footage of earlier cinematic attempts including silents and a version shot on the streets of London with Conan Doyle’s blessings.

Moffat and Gatiss don’t bad-mouth Nigel Bruce for turning good doctor Watson into a bumbler barely capable of tying his own shoes. Prior to Bruce’s portrayal, Watson was hardly a presence in film versions. They admire Bruce’s comedic gifts, but make it clear their wish to go back to the source in their version. Like Conan Doyle’s Watson, their doctor is a veteran returning from Afghanistan (how convenient that the Brits have always been at war with Afghanistan). In trying to elevate Watson, to make him not just the narrator, but the stand-in for the audience and “co-lead,” they’ve created a man who having seen battle, is greatly in need of an adrenaline rush. Sherlock deduces that need. For their Sherlock, John is the most steady and reliable partner in solving crime he could find. As Sherlock tells John after a demonstration of his powers, most people would tell him to “piss off.” John needs Sherlock to bring him back into the fight, but Sherlock needs John as well. For Moffat and Gatiss, it’s a dark bond that brings the two together.

Steven and Mark were also influenced by Billy Wilder’s 1970 film, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which may now seem dated, but is still a must for Wilder aficionados. (You can almost hear Jack Lemmon’s sane-man-in-a-world-gone-mad cadences in Colin Blakely’s Watson.) That version showed people mistaking the duo for a couple, and elevated Mycroft’s role, adding another idea taken by S&M — that the Diogenes Club might be a front for the clandestine activities that Mycroft runs.

Even viewers that notice the references to the original stories might not be aware of how much the series is influenced by other Holmes sources, sometimes to the point of theft, which Gatiss and Moffat gleefully admit. Included is a comparison of a scene in both Sherlock and a Basil Rathbone film. Both show Holmes playing the violin in his flat, and pausing briefly as Moriarty makes his way up the stairs for an unannounced visit.

While the special does not give us any spoilers for the upcoming season, it does spell out Moffat and Gatiss’ intent for the series. They wanted to “modernize,” “blow away the Victorian fog” but not lose what they loved about original-version Holmes. Would it be more fun to be watching the first episode of Season 3? Probably. But this isn’t the worst way to kill an hour in the interim. For those who’ve never seen the series, it’s a good introduction. If you still need a Sherlock fix, PBS is also offering streaming of various Season 1 and Season 2 episodes to further wet your appetite.