A Baker Street Irregularity: Why the BBC’s new Sherlock is Science Fiction

If Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark had blogs, those blogs wouldn’t tell us anything, because the blogs of superheroes would be super-slanted and biased in order to protect their public personas and secret identities. But what if Alfred or Pepper Potts wrote a blog about the daily exploits and machinations of their bosses? Wouldn’t we get a slightly more honest picture of these super-people? It seems likely that the lives superheroes seen through a blog would take on the emotional characteristics of a reality TV show. Not the truth per se, but a kind of access ordinarily unavailable. So, what about a reality TV show featuring Sherlock Holmes? Well, Dr. John Watson just got a blog, and here in our universe, via BBC’s new mini-series, Sherlock, we’re able to “read” it. And the results are fantastic.

In truth, the triumph of Sherlock is not its departure from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s texts, but rather its meticulous translation of the work to a contemporary setting. The original canon of the Holmes stories are similar to a reality show for the very reason that we come to know the great detective not through his own statements and assertions, but rather through the eyes of someone else.

Holmes and Watson by Paget

Watson is sort of the “camera” in the old stories and the reason why both the original stories and the new mini-series are so compelling. In the first novel, A Study in Scarlet, it is asserted right away that Sherlock Holmes is larger than life, but we, and Watson, don’t know that. When Watson begins chronicling his adventures with Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock briefly becomes smaller, as we feel, for an instant, more intimate with the character. After all, Watson has just moved in with the man. However, that new intimacy becomes quickly distorted when Doyle reveals that Watson is publishing the stories of their time together for mass consumption. The notoriety of Holmes then becomes doubled; he is famous to the police for screwing with their investigations, and then famous to the public because of Watson’s slick prose.

Sherlock on BBC

After the first episode of Sherlock, “A Study in Pink,” everyone reads Watson’s blog. In fact the opening scenes of the show establish that his therapist has told him to start writing a blog. The doubling effect of an intimate/distant narrative hits us immediately with the new show, just like it did a century ago.

But how is all connected to science fiction? Earlier this month, over at Clarkesworld Magazine, I wrote an extensive article on Holmes and his relationship to the genre. Through the course of my interviews and research, I discovered a lot of the connections to have to do with how the character behaves and how he’s viewed by fans.

Fourth Doctor

The notion of Sherlock being a sort of cerebral superhero came up a lot. He does seem a lot like Mr. Spock or The Doctor when viewed through a certain lens. However, there might be something even more alien about Holmes than Data, Spock, or The Doctor put together. Doctor Who show-runner and co-creator of Sherlock, Stephen Moffat explains in this brief interview below.

So, according to Moffat, the connections to Holmes have been an integral part of The Doctor’s character for a long, long time. But that fact plus having Moffat and Mark Gatiss writing the show, doesn’t quite make it science fiction alone. For me, the science fictional nature of Sherlock is far more imbedded into the show than some inspirational connections. The very premise is science fiction. This is because intrinsically, Sherlock takes places in an alternate universe. This is a universe in which a modern day 2010 London never had a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writing stories about a man named Sherlock Holmes and his friend and biographer Dr. Watson. It’s no wonder the police in this dimension need Holmes so badly—they never grew up reading about him! They never learned “the science of deduction”!

Sherlock on BBC

My favorite way this manifests itself is in the character of Lestrade. Unlike the Doyle stories, this Lestrade is far less reticent to call upon Holmes, and trusts him more openly. He is a cop living in this alternate dimension. The notion of a consulting detective, and a logical, deductive eccentric never existed in this world. And so, Lestrade is desperate for help from the outside.

Naturally, there is a healthy dose of science fictional gadgetry populating Sherlock, giving the show a sort of “techy” feel. The ease at which Mycroft Holmes is able to track Watson through the city using various hidden cameras reminds us of The Master in the Doctor Who episode “The Last of the Time Lords.” Moriarty’s complicated bombs in tandem with hidden snipers are very James Bond. But overall, the science fiction seems to stream from diving down the rabbit hole of this alternate dimension and seeing what a Holmes and Watson of “the future” would be like.

The show is also brilliantly cast. Apparently Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) was in consideration to play The Doctor, and it definitely shows. Even his gait suggests he’s going to pull out a sonic screwdriver at any second. Martin Freeman as Watson is just perfect and is perhaps better than Edward Hardwicke was back in the old Granada version of Holmes. As I mentioned before, I love Lestrade in this version and Rupert Graves is awesome. He really grounds the show with a sort of warped believability that allows you to accept various absurd premises without worrying too much.

Sherlock on BBC

Ultimately, if you like science fiction and you like Holmes, there’s no reason to miss out on this. Things do get a little muddled in the second episode, but the whole ride is definitely worth it. All three episodes of the mini-series are streaming on the PBS website until December 7th, where you can also read Watson’s blog.

Now, let’s just hope Moffat and Gatiss are planning a Doctor Who/Sherlock crossover…

Ryan Britt’s writing has appeared with Nerve.com, Opium Magazine, Clarkesworld Magazine, and recently The New Inquiry. His favorite Holmes story is “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.”


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