“Afghanistan or Iraq?” Mere seconds after being introduced to Dr. John Watson, Sherlock Holmes deduces he is an army doctor, injured on the battlefield. He just isn’t sure which one. Watson is dumbfounded when Holmes continues: the injury is now psychosomatic and though he is in financial trouble, Watson can’t turn to his sibling, an alcoholic, because they are estranged. The sleuth is right, of course. He’s rarely wrong.
That’s the start of the charming and luxuriously complex reimagining of what co-creator Steven Moffat (Dr. Who’s showrunner) calls “the biggest hit in fiction”: Arthur Conan Doyle’s mystery stories. In a daring move, Moffat and his creative partner in crime, Mark Gatiss, wrench Holmes from the constricting, archaic world of Victorian London, where he’d become “a dusty relic,” and plant him firmly in the 21st century, all the better to see the “modern, scary, cutting-edge young man” of the early books. Smartphones replace telegrams while an online blog subs for Watson’s journal.
This new Sherlock—which airs commercial-free on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery! starting Oct. 24—moves at a speed that rivals Holmes’s frenetic synaptic pace, enhanced by wearing three nicotine patches simultaneously. (“Impossible to sustain a smoking habit in London these days,” Holmes laments.)
Cheeky humour, so sorely lacking in most reincarnations, permeates the series. “We’re treating it like a living thing as opposed to a monument that you have to revere and look after,” Moffat says. So he has the arrogant sleuth jumping for joy when Insp. Lestrade asks for help: “Four serial suicides and now a note. It’s Christmas!” And after being labelled a psychopath, he snaps: “I’m a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research!”
Holmes (the transfixing Benedict Cumberbatch) might have psychological issues, but he’s worthy of the first episode’s bizarre riddle: men and women are voluntarily killing themselves with identical poison. Holmes knows it’s murder but can’t prove it. The hunt is on. “He’s addicted to puzzles, he’s addicted to danger,” Moffat, a devotee of the fictional crime-solver since he was a boy, explains. “So if you give him a dangerous puzzle and a challenge that could test him to the limit, he can’t help but say yes to it.”
For all of Holmes’s brilliance, he’s too ruthless and uncaring of others to be the heart of the series. That belongs to Watson (played to harassed, bemused perfection by Martin Freeman). “If the most perceptive, most insightful man on Earth nominates you as his best friend, then you must be one hell of a guy,” Moffat says. “He is incredibly competent, incredibly truthful, incredibly honest and incredibly good.” They are the ultimate bromance. Holmes is “on the verge of being dangerous if he doesn’t learn to connect with people,” while Watson is troubled and broken after the horrors of Afghanistan. “These two men complete each other.” Yet this Watson isn’t a soft touch. He’s got a steely resolve that catches even the master of 221B Baker St. off guard.
The three-part series is notable not only for the outstanding writing and acting but also because of an “extraordinarily brave” decision by BBC executive Ben Stephenson, explains Rebecca Eaton, executive director of Masterpiece, which co-financed the production with the BBC. After watching the 60-minute pilot and realizing a longer version would push it from good to great, Stephenson ordered three 90-minute episodes: the plot became even more intricate and the characters, especially secondary ones like Scotland Yard’s Lestrade, expanded. In a signature for the series, text messages and even London street maps appear as graphic overlays, all the better to keep the plot moving at a blistering gait.
Along with all its modern touches, the creators have jettisoned the affectations that weighed down many Sherlock incarnations. “Elementary, my dear Watson,” morphs into today’s “simple.” The same goes for his bareheaded appearance. As Moffat comments dryly: “A modern young man who wore a deerstalker would look a right dickhead, wouldn’t he?” And that, most assuredly, will not do.