Nov 18 2010 2:24pm

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

Sherlock on BBCIf 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, Opium Magazine, Clarkesworld Magazine, and recently The New Inquiry. His favorite Holmes story is “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.”

1. wandering-dreamer
"Now, let’s just hope Moffat and Gatiss are planning a Doctor Who/Sherlock crossover…"
YES, THIS. I've been watching the series with two friends (one of whom is also a DW fan) and we agree that a DW/Sherlock crossover would be amazing and probably work alright (although RTD was more fond of crossoveres than Moffat seems to be....).
2. Hal Duncan
So, um, Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet is science fiction, since it takes place in an alternative reality where Shakespeare never wrote that play? So, um, Eastenders is science fiction, since it takes place in an alternative reality where Eastenders isn't on the BBC every weekday (or every other weekday, or whenever)?

I'm with you on the enthusiasm -- with a few reservations about the second episode, I loved the new Sherlock -- but it's as science fictional as that old BBC Miss Marple series -- set in the present-day as I recall -- where the eponymous sleuth shockingly didn't solve the crimes by, you know, reading the Agatha Christie novel the episode was based on.
3. MarianM
I really enjoy this show and thanks for the heads-up that it is available online.

Your description of the surreal nature of the show mirrors how I described it to my coworkers. What is really strange is that this is a universe that never heard of deductions but does have forensics teams that show after the crimes. What exactly do they do?
Ryan Britt
4. ryancbritt
Hal: Fair point, though I think my knee-jerk response wouldn't be a negative one but rather -"Sure, why not?" or "Yeah, I see where you're coming from...EastEnders is Sci-fi!"
5. CapeMonkey
It should be noted that the hidden cameras Mycroft uses really are all over London and the UK. Sherlock may be science fiction, but that's only because life is sci-fi now.
6. Sihaya
No, I'm going to have to go with Hal on this one - a show isn't science fictional simply because it avoids recursiveness.

It might be *reverse* science fictional, though, for Sherlock to live in a world in which no one knows that a pig carcass will suffice for alot of cadaver tests. Sheesh.
Alex Brown
7. AlexBrown
Right now my fave thing is following the two of them on Twitter. It's Stephen Moffatt writing both accounts and it's awesomely hilarious and wonderfully charming - and very meta - to follow a fake arguement about tea and noodles between two fictional characters as written by the man who developed their tv show.
Claire de Trafford
8. Booksnhorses
This is a great series - can't wait for the next one. Benedict Cumberbatch is channelling Tom Baker; someone knit him the scarf. Thanks for the heads up re Twitter and the blogs.
Michael Grosberg
9. Michael_GR
Do you know that wonderful definition of Science Fiction, "I know it when I see it"? Well, I'm just not seeing it. Sorry. It's not even as SFnal as CSI:NY (in which the cops have holographic virtual autopsies and tricorders and whatnot). Is it any good? proobably, although I think the episodes are too long. But really, having absurd premises that are incongruent with the world as we know it doesn't make it SF. Murder She Wrote isn't SF just because it has this weird premise of a mystery writer who seems to attract murders wherever she goes. I mean, you just don't encounter that many crimes by chance , right? The obvious conclusion is that she projects some sort of derangement field that causes others to murder.
10. Harry Payne
I'm glad this series is probably set in an AU. The idea of our dimension still riffing off Mysterious and Fiendish Chinese (episode 2) had me squirming.
Ryan Britt
11. ryancbritt
Michael GR- I think a case could totally be made for shows like CSI being a kind of science fiction. I mean cops shows use the science of forensics in a fictional way. If one were to remove that "science fiction" from the structure of shows like CSI, it would cease to be the kind of show it is.

I find Holmes to be similar simply because "the science of deduction" is inherently a fictional construct.

As far as my alternate universe assertions, I think that because the Holmes stories had such a huge impact on popular culture, that any universe in which they weren't written would be a very surreal one. I think this show inhabits such a universe.
Aziz Poonawalla
12. azizhp
It's not that "the science of deduction" is fictional, it's that it is reductionist. It's on par with the Star Trek transporter in a sense. Only, the transporter has the Heisenberg Compensator (seriously! ask Mike Okuda) whereas Holmes' deductions only have narrative focus to sustain them. Holmes'deductions always serve the narrative's needs, but in reality the clues he picks up on are inherently ambiguous.

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