Dated Modernism #1: BBC’s Sherlock

Not gonna lie:

Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss – were – heroes of my early twenties. Still are, to a degree.

I had been an ardent reader of anything mystery-related all my life (especially anything featuring ghosts and vampires), and started devouring the Sherlock Holmes novels when I was about 12. Just when I had eaten my way through everything canon and, for lack of anything other than fan-fiction, began moving on to the more or-less successful attempts of modern writers to continue the legacy of Baker Street 221B.

If you care to watch the episodes today, you will notice sound imbalances, the material being too dark and underexposed for today’s high-res screens, the harping on about SMS as the pinnacle of communication feeling hopelessly dated, the one-liner heavy dialogue feeling awkward, stilted and pretentious. Not to mention that some episodes were, in their portrayal of certain characters, already somewhat questionable at their release – this goes particularly for the stereotype-laden mess that was The Blind Banker. The series reached its peak reception upon the finale of season two, basically re-enacting the social uproar that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle received with the release of The Final Problem and his swift and brutal decision to kill off his own creation – one he had arguably gotten quite sick of. Even the fans’ reaction to the uncertainty of how (not if) Sherlock had survived the fall mirrored the hysterical flood of theories filling everyone’s social media feed. The series was a phenomenon, and once you were in the rabbit hole, there was no escaping the madness.

Fans in mourning

When the original The Final Problem got printed in December 1893, all of London entered a state of mourning, and generally acted as if it had been a real person of public interest who had died in the Reichenbach Falls. Unstoppable angry letters, chanting people demonstrating in front of the Strand Magazine that published the stories, fans wearing black armbands to pay their respects to the fallen hero – Doyle had unwittingly created the first fandom craze in history.

The uncannily parallel modern equivalents to this were the hashtags #ibelieveinsherlockholmes and #sherlockisalive, complete with custom-made jewelry you could (and still can) purchase on Etsy.

Sherlock Holmes had, in a way, become more real than his own creator, who longed for a way to be done with detective stories and write about his true passions – spiritism and surprisingly graphic, gothic horror novels. The latter might have earned him a place in the ranks of the titans of the macabre by itself, had it not been outshone by the glamour of the pipe-smoking sleuth he had based on his brilliant, but eccentric mentor Dr. Joseph Bell.

Long story short, Doyle eventually caved in, if for nothing other than to keep himself fed and clothed, and wrote a continuation of the stories.

Sherlock Holmes returned in The Empty House, as a changed man. Might he have hated his oversaturated character for what he had become – a fad, a best-selling institution – Doyle eventually arranged himself with his uncontrollable creation and even mentions “the old fellow growing on him” in his later days. He even envisioned a peaceful, amicable ending to the detective’s life of danger, mania and cocaine addiction by letting him retire to a nice, cozy cottage on the English countryside, where the old genius would dedicate all his remaining time on earth to the humble science of bee-keeping (There is a decent movie about this period of Holmes’s life – starring Ian McKellen as the aging detective battling dementia). However, Doyle died before he could actually write this ending to the stories, paving the way for thousands of authors who now live off his creation.

From IOU to IDK

The reason why Moffat’s and Gatiss’ reinvention of Holmes stuck out was that it focused on the timelessness of the detective stories themselves. “To hell with the crinoline” and “fetishize modern London” were key factors in reimagining the dusty Victorian costume pieces for a generation that had been raised on the internet. Sherlock, along with Supernatural, was one of the first shows to continuously break the fourth wall by directly weaving the rampant shipping of the male characters into the actual show, readily embracing its fandom with a self-conscious type of humour and dialogue that felt fresh, new and, for the LGBTQIA+ part of the audience, like a bit of home.

But, like everything that needs to be too perfect for too long of a time, their popularity as the dynamic duo of star showrunners able to turn everything into success faded. In 2015, after Matt Smith left Doctor Who. Moffat continued writing for Who while still doing Sherlock at the same time, and the show that took the resulting loss in quality was – the latter, at least until Matt Smith left the show and regenerated into Peter Capaldi.

Whilst being a stellar choice for the dark-and-gritty Doctor he would have had the acting experience and gravity to portray, Capaldi ended up stuck in lukewarm scripts that turned him into a side character of his own show – while strangely elevating his companion Clara to an unbearably Mary Sue-ish creation, too perfect, glossy and over-sensible to be relatable as a character (which her lack of a concise backstory did little to balance out). Moffat’s writing, always a bit on the pretentious side, became stilted and uninspired in Who, while spiralling into utter absurdity in Sherlock. The plotlines had always been over-the-top enough to warrant qualifying as a distinct narrative style, but became crazier, weirder and even genre-breaking in an attempt to provide fans of the show with new twists and turns they could not have seen coming – a desperate move to cover up all the IOU clues deciphered by fans earlier leading absolutely nowhere.

The replacement for the lack of ideas the authors were experiencing was action and running, which did little to cover up the obvious problem that the writers did not know anymore what to do with the characters. Their legacy as having to produce groundbreaking stuff with every episode turned into a recipe for failure.

Even high stakes became anticlimactic, and started to feel like failed comedy. Like the whole thing with Sherlock stopping the blowing up of the Tower of London via an off-switch on the bomb-wired underground train. Or the use of his drug addiction as a plot device. Or the revelation that Mary Watson (of course, also a genius) had been a mercenary in her previous life, which did not salvage the fact that she was rather unceremonially killed off by throwing herself in the way of the bullet aimed at the main character.

Or, you know, Jim Moriarty being nothing but a puppet to the Holmes brothers’ suddenly existing sister Eurus, kept in an Alcatraz-like structure named Sherringford, revealed to be the mastermind behind everything the boys have been fighting so far via a magical ability to just convince people, something the series itself has unlearned how to do in just two seasons. And, finally, the final episode turning into what could also have passed as an installment of the SAW franchise. I was witnessing the graceless death of my formerly favourite show, and just wished for it to be over already.

A Merciful Death

The ending, while giving fans what they wanted (Sherlock and John basically founding a rainbow family by raising John’s and Mary’s daughter at Baker Street 221B, while Molly Hooper supposedly moves in with them), did little to cover up several gaping plot holes and that had been left unanswered, and the many things that just… didn’t make sense, much less so in the grand scheme of things the series had once tried to establish. It fell apart like a too-ambitiously built, planlessly constructed house of cards. The Victorian(ish) special The Abominable Bride, while somewhat of a breath of fresh air, similarly stumbled over its own Sherlock-ception plot twist, and did not last long enough to change the fact that the golden days of this series had long been lived through.

It could have been worse, though.

They could have kept going. Thankfully though, they didn’t.

Because this show deserves to be left in peace for what it achieved in its early episodes – turning something old into something new.

Meanwhile, Doctor Who, probably the most notorious show on the planet for successfully re-inventing itself for more than half a century, has taken the road towards a point of no return – in the hands of an author with little experience in writing SciFi, and judging by his handling of the series so far, no real interest in learning about the vast and endless possibilites of writing SciFi stories in the first place – and not treating the audience like a bunch of buffoons.

With their signature franchises out of their hands, what were Moffat and Gatiss going to reimagine for the modern world next? Frankenstein? No – that one, of course, had been done already.

Instead, the duo has embarked on another re-hash of a piece of gothic world literature – Dracula (2020) – which we will discuss in the next issue.

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