Sherlock Holmes Meets the 21st Century



It says a great deal about the enduring power of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes that modern adaptations of the character basically confine themselves to homage. We have an anti-social but brilliant doctor working in contemporary New Jersey in House and anti-social but brilliant detective working in New York in Law & Order: Criminal Intent. But even in the new movie franchise starring Robert Downey, Jr., Holmes wears tweed, travels by hackney, and chews his pipe: Holmes and his era are not soon parted.

But as Sherlock—a brilliant BBC One modernization that will begin airing on PBS Sunday at 9 pm—demonstrates, bringing Holmes and Watson into the 21st century ought to have been, well, elementary. The BBC has made three 90-minute movies created by Doctor Who veterans Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt and plans to make more episodes of the same length.

Among the analogues that are obvious in retrospect is the update of the events that first unite Watson and Holmes. The literary Watson was injured during his service in the Battle of Maiwand in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. After a long convalescence from fever and a period of dissolute life in a Strand hotel, he finds himself a highly amusing flatmate in the person of Sherlock Holmes.

This time around, Watson's sustained his injury in Afghanistan again, but as part of British forces supporting the post-9/11 American invasion. Perhaps fittingly, given that depressing repetition of history, Martin Freeman's Watson is a wiser and sadder than his literary predecessor. Rather than a lingering fever, he has an unhelpful therapist who encourages him to blog. But he still has a handy service weapon and a wholly inadequate military pension. He's isolated by his service rather than ennobled by it: there are no other veterans in his life, and his therapist misdiagnoses him and doesn't help him get out into the world. "You're a war hero who can't find a place to live," Holmes says in one of their early conversations, underscoring Watson's alienation from his remaining relative, his alcoholic lesbian sister.

Freeman's turned-down mouth and turned-up nose have often served to cast him as a sweetie, as he was in the original version of The Office, or a naif, as he was as Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. But in Sherlock, Freeman imbues those features with a real grimness. He lacks some of the original Watson's capacity for amusement, but he isn't a post-traumatic wreck. He's got a yen for action that paces Holmes' own. In his flatmate, he finds not simply an entertaining curiosity but a revivifying partner.

Watson's Afghan service isn't the new miniseries' only deftly tweaked update to Conan Doyle's creation. Sherlock's brother Mycroft Holmes, a lazy genius employed by the government and described in the stories as "the most indispensable man in the country," is now a figure of considerable importance in the British surveillance system. Instead of the urchins who filled the ranks of the Baker Street Irregulars, a Banksy-like graffiti artist shows up to offer advice and pass the blame for his latest piece to Watson in the second episode, and an enterprising homeless woman appears in the third. And the long-suffering Mrs. Hudson now has enough black humor to cluck at the man keeping a skull in her apartment, "I'm your landlady, not your housekeeper," and to cut him a break on the rent because he helped speed the execution of her late husband.

But these references to contemporary events are only part of why the decision to move Holmes to contemporary London makes so much sense.

At the heart of Holmes' deductive brilliance are two somewhat divergent tendencies: a devotion to the expanding scientific knowledge and mastery of the trivial. When we first meet Holmes in both Conan Doyle's stories and this adaptation, he's beating corpses in a mortuary to see how long after death they continue to bruise. All of today's fictional portrayals of modern, scientific, and psychological detection owe a debt to Sherlock Holmes. It's only fair he should get a shot at taking advantage of scientific progress in solving a new set of crimes—or paternity cases on talk shows. "Of course he's not the boy's father!" Holmes splutters, watching television. "Look at the turnups on his jeans!"

But, as was true of the character in the original stories, Holmes' explorations have no conventional goal or course.

"He was not studying medicine," Watson explains in A Study in Scarlet, on which the first episode of Sherlock, "A Study in Pink," is based. "Neither did he appear to have pursued any course of reading which might fit him for a degree in science or any other recognized portal which would give him an entrance into the learned world."

The things Holmes didn't know in 1887 he still refuses to know today. "Ordinary people fill their heads with all kinds of rubbish," Holmes complains in the third episode of Sherlock, justifying his ignorance about the Earth's rotation around the sun. "But it's the solar system!" Watson protests.

In a sense, Holmes is perfectly suited for life in the Internet age, an era when specialized, obsessive knowledge makes the fanboy, or policy blogger, king. Holmes' monographs on cigar ash may be less strange today than they would have been to Victorian readers, but that's only because it's easier to form communities around obscure interests and information than it used to be. We live in a time when knowledge doesn't have to be inherently and regularly useful to bind people together. As Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch is a wonderful whip-thin, Aspergerian, asexual type, like Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory but with more charisma. With his multiple fascinations and expertise, his disinterest in men or women or anything unrelated to his work, Holmes is no longer an occasionally necessary Victorian oddity. He's king of the modern nerds.

It's this subtle alchemy, a re-imagining where Holmes is more a man of his era and Watson less, that makes Sherlock true progress. Holmes and Watson so defined the 123 years of crime fiction that came after their arrival into the world that it's no fitting honor to the characters merely to skip them forward in time to take their place among Dr. House and Detective Goren and their respective beleaguered partners. But Sherlock stays ahead of its contemporary peers in its nods at the war in Afghanistan and British surveillance policy, its social comedy of friendship and attraction, its progress from the city's galleries to its underpasses. However much Holmes wants to focus the range of his experiences and Watson to expand them, between them they give us all of life and all of a vastly more complicated London than the one they ruled together all those years ago.