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Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson solving mysteries in modern London

By web

Section: Arts

November 19, 2010

The writers of Doctor Who’s version of Sherlock Holmes paint him as sexy, intelligent and a quasi-sociopath. In the BBC’s television series, a modernized re-imagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective series, Holmes and Dr. John Watson solve a string of mysteries in contemporary London. The series is smart, compelling and fun, both a tribute to Doyle’s works and a creative mini-series (there are unfortunately only three episodes) on its own.

The main reason to watch this show is for the chemistry between Dr. Watson, played wonderfully by Martin Freeman, and Sherlock Holmes, performed by the marvelous Benedict Cumberbatch. Freeman plays straight man against Cumberbatch’s eccentric detective. Holmes is intelligent and arrogant; he knows he’s smarter than everyone else and he makes no effort in participating in any social etiquette to make other people feel comfortable. When he encounters a mystery, his brain latches onto it; he’s oblivious to the world around him.

Watson represents one of the few people that manages to call Holmes back to earth. He’s the emotional center of the series, while Holmes is its brain. Watson, an Afghanistan war veteran, is struggling for a way to connect with the world again. He feels out-of-place in the workplace and in his own skin. He needs Holmes’ rationality as much as Holmes needs Watson’s empathy. They necessarily balance each other out. Whenever they are in a scene together, it’s impossible to look away.

At first, I was skeptical about how Sherlock Holmes would work in a modern day setting. What’s Holmes without Victorian London? Isn’t the setting a key part of the novels and short stories? The London setting is just as important in the television series as in the books. Holmes still walks the London streets, through Trafalgar Square, in the East End, in China town. The city is shot in vivid detail, the colors are harsh, heavily contrasted, almost reminiscent of film noir. Holmes is still London’s detective.

Producers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss also clearly made an effort to transform the detective into a product of today’s world. In an interview they stated that Holmes is “not meant to be a relic, he’s supposed to be ahead.” Sherlock is tech-savvy. He knows how to break into a password-protected computer and how to send mass texts to the press and the police. However, they wisely don’t allow the technology to overshadow what makes Holmes’ unique—his deductive reasoning.

They portray his reasoning, in part, through a variety of shooting techniques. When Holmes in “A Study in Pink” tries to catch up to a fleeing taxi cab, the viewers are shown a map, which is supposed to represent Holmes coming up with the right route to take. In “The Blind Banker” images of fragments appear and disappear on the screen as Holmes attempts to crack a smuggler ring’s code. The camera also focuses on objects that Holmes recognizes as important clues in solving the cases. These techniques are flashy and entertaining to watch, but Cumberbatch’s rapid-speed talk, his look of concentration and his ability to convey his thoughts in a glance, is what really makes me believe in this series’ portrayal of Holmesian deduction.

The mysteries are clever and tightly plotted. When all of the strands come together, it’s both satisfying and exciting to watch. Each of the three episodes could stand alone with each focused on a mystery, and each running more than an hour, but for the presence of Holmes’ arch rival Professor Moriarty. The character’s relationships are also addressed in each episode, evolving a little with each addition to the series.

If you have a chance delve into the series during Thanksgiving break, they are available online at pbs.org for free until Dec. 9. They’ll leave you wanting more. More mysteries and more Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes.

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