I don’t know if anyone reading this has seen the BBC miniseries Sherlock that came out last summer, and last October in the US. Firstly, if you haven’t it’s phenomenal television (the second episode lags a bit but who’s counting?) and you should check it out. But it’s also an interesting new representation of Sherlock Holmes in a modern setting.
And the setting is a major part of it – we can easily discuss the Arthur Conan Doyle stories in terms of surveillance in a new urban setting, coupled with an evolving police force. In the stories, and in this miniseries, the need for Holmes, the innovative, imaginative (and, in this interpretation, “high functioning sociopath”), and only consulting detective in London, could be said to stem from the fact that the police force cannot keep up with the new wave of crime in the growing urban landscape. Not necessarily the scale of crime, but its changing nature in a modernizing world.
In any case, the BBC’s Sherlock gives the stories a remarkable relationship with the setting of London. They traverse the city in cabs with sweeping aerial shots of a fast-paced, glamorous city contradicting the wet, dingy alleys they seem to find themselves running through, and the starkly ordinary people who get mixed up in their cases – the first episode hinges around a cab driver, another involves a grandmother held hostage in a housing development as a way to deliver clues to Holmes. He uses fifty pound notes and a network of homeless, invisible persons to do reconnaissance work for him. Often as Watson and Holmes travel across the city, a split screen shows Holmes’s rationally reasoning face against a backdrop of London sweeping past.
Technology is interesting as well. Even though this is modern London, and the modern police force, there is remarkably little use made of the actual surveillance in Britain – CCTV is rarely of any use in these cases, which is usually why Holmes has been called in in the first place. The detectives are not incompetent, but they are unable to imagine past what might be found in easily capture-able or photographable evidence. Holmes’s ‘camera’ mind, more interpretive and reasoning than both the police and their technology, is represented on screen in some cases in ‘Sherlock-vision’ scenes, where we get to experience flashes of indexed information passing through Holmes’s mind as he investigates his surroundings. Frequently these involve text messages and smart phones, and us viewing what it is he’s typing onto his iPhone on screen next to his face.
And in terms of observation, Watson’s role is re-imagined from a mere chronicler of adventures to a blogger. He rewrites their cases as similarly titled blog posts (“A Study in Pink” as opposed to “Scarlet,” for the murder of a woman in a pink coat) for the general public to read. In an interesting comparative twist, Holmes too is a blogger, but his blog is one less of narrative than of objective and informative reporting – a twist on the way in which Holmes both observes and sees, while Watson is said to merely see in “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Instead, Watson twists their real life doings into amusing and plotted-out narratives, while Holmes uses his blog in the pursuit of scientific inquiry, communicating with nemeses, and seeking out interesting cases.
In many other ways that I haven’t even begun to explain, Sherlock is smart and visually stunning. Through the medium of television, it is interesting to see portrayed the relationship of the detective story to an urban setting, and to have a visual representation of the way Sherlock Holmes collects information and knowledge, as opposed to how ordinary humans do. For a class on visual culture, I very much recommend this adaptation.