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Posts Tagged ‘Sherlock Holmes’

Never a sniff of Tiptoes, as it turned out. Hey ho. It has been a pleasant five or six years with Lovefilm, though, and it would be remiss of me to be too harsh on the service for its persistent failure to provide one particular probably-dreadful dwarf-themed Matthew McConnaughey rom-com. To the end, the mechanics of how the company decided what discs it was going to send me remained obscure – was it ever anything more than a form of eeny-meeny-miney-mo? I expect I shall never know. It’s hard to discern any particular significance to the final disc that was sent to me, fine and welcome though it is: Billy Wilder’s 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

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As is fairly well-known in interested circles, the version of this film which is generally available includes only a portion of Wilder’s original ideas for it – the initial intention was to make almost an anthology, with four linked stories casting Baker Street’s most famous residents in a different light. Two of the stories were removed at the insistence of the studio (what remains of them are available as additional material), meaning that what remains is a little curious in its structure, to say the least.

The film, naturally, concerns various exploits of Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) and his faithful amanuensis Dr Watson (Colin Blakely). Initially we find them between cases, with Holmes contending with the depression inactivity always brings on in him, and Watson trying to dissuade him from his cocaine habit. Then they are invited to the ballet, where the prima ballerina has a rather eye-opening proposition to make to Holmes. His delicate attempts to evade the entanglement which she has in mind end up seriously annoying Watson. Almost wholly played for laughs, this is indeed a very funny segment, although rather politically incorrect by modern standards (there are many jokes about gay ballet dancers). Plus, it poses the question at the centre of the film: what kind of personal life does Sherlock Holmes have? Is he even capable of an emotional involvement with a woman?

This is developed in the rest of the film, all of which concerns a single, rather peculiar case which Holmes finds himself involved in, albeit unwillingly to begin with. A young woman (Genevieve Page) is delivered to 221B Baker Street late one night, having been fished out of the Thames. The only real clue is that she has Holmes’ address on a scrap of card in her hand.

It transpires that she is Gabrielle Valladon, a Belgium woman whose engineer husband has gone missing somewhere in Britain. Initially reluctant, Holmes finds the case has enough unusual features to pique his interest, the trail taking them to the Diogenes Club and his brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee), and then on to the shores of Loch Ness, while also including a mysterious party of Trappist monks, bleached canaries, the Book of Jonah, and, if not a midget submarine, then certainly a submarine for midgets…

The story is undeniably rather bizarre, but not very much more so than many Conan Doyle tales, and I suppose the key qustion must be whether this is intended as a spoof Sherlock or simply a pastiche. Much of the film is played somewhat tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it is less broad than, for example, Thom Eberhardt’s Without a Clue (my research has just turned up the news that Judd Apatow is doing a funny Sherlock Holmes with Will Ferrell: oh, God), and it has a rather wistful, melancholy quality which is not what you’d expect from a straightforwardly comic film. The movie is somewhat impertinent towards some elements of the canon, but affectionately so, and in the end I would say this was much more a pastiche than anything else.

Certainly, Mark Gatiss and the Unmentionable One, creators of the great Sherlock Holmes pastiche of our day, have spoken openly of the influence of Private Life on their own version of the Great Detective, especially with respect to its presentation of Mycroft Holmes as some kind of spymaster. You could even suggest that Gatiss’ own performance as Mycroft is basically his interpretation of that given by Christopher Lee in this film.

It is traditional to suggest that Robert Stephens gives us a rather theatrical Sherlock in this film, and this is true: none the worse for that, of course, I would say. He’s a rather good one-shot Sherlock, and the same is true of Colin Blakely as Watson; Blakely plays the part for laughs when it’s called for, but also keeps the character grounded and credible in the film’s more dramatic moments.

As well as a piece of Sherlockiana, of course, the film also seems to me to have a curious place in the cultural history of the Loch Ness Monster. Most famously, one of the Monster props made for the film sank to the bottom of the loch and was only rediscovered in 2016, briefly causing a degree of excitement amongst monster hunters. However, the film also presents the monster phenomenon as being well-known in the 1880s, with various characters making reference to it as an established mystery. This, of course, was not the case, with the Loch Ness monster legend only acquiring currency in the early 1930s (very shortly after the release of King Kong, indicatively enough) – the film gives the impression of a lengthy history of monster sightings prior to the 20th century, for which there is no real evidence, and so you could argue it has contributed to the perpetuation of this charming myth. It’s hardly grounds to criticise the film, either way.

This is a lavish, charming, funny film, and not without grace notes of darkness and melacnholy, as noted. Most of these one-shot Sherlock Holmes seem to vanish without much of a trace, with only the film and TV series seeming to linger in the memory – Rathbone, Cushing, Brett, Downey Jr, Cumberbatch. That this one has not, quite, may be a result of what a singularly unusual take on the Great Detective it presents, but it also surely has something to do with the overall quality of a superior movie.

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They say that one of the hallmarks of a truly great fictional character is that they have a sort of chimerical quality, being almost infinitely open to new interpretations. If so, then Sherlock Holmes definitely qualifies – over the years, as well as relatively ‘straight’ adaptations, we have been treated to Young Sherlock, Coke-fiend Sherlock, Gay Sherlock, Superhero Sherlock, Borderline-Aspergers Sherlock, and – most improbably of all – Stupid Sherlock. It was only a matter of time before Old Sherlock turned up, which has now happened in Bill Condon’s Mr Holmes.

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Sir Ian McKellen brings all of his skill and star quality to bear as a frail and failing Great Detective, long retired to the Sussex Downs and the study of bee-keeping. The year being 1947, he has outlived all of his contemporaries, and is very reliant on his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney, very nearly doing an ooh-arr accent) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker).

Holmes’ struggles to cope with the infirmities of old age take a number of forms – research into strange medicinal compounds, for one, in the hope this may revive his mental faculties, but also attempting to write a true account of his final case (Dr Watson having provided an inaccurately happy ending, as usual). The case concerns a worried husband, a troubled wife (Hattie Morahan), and hydrocrystalophone lessons, but Holmes’ own shortcomings as a judge of human nature also play a central role. Can Holmes remember what actually led to his retirement, and will it help him come to terms with himself?

My first thought, when hearing about the premise of Mr Holmes, was that it was a great idea for a movie, but when exactly would it be set? The poster, depicting McKellen in Edwardian or Victorian gear, did not bode well. However, Sherlockian purists – I wouldn’t call myself one, but I’m certainly some kind of fellow traveller – can relax. Well, up to a point. Doyle’s only precise reference to Holmes’ age has him a sixty-year-old in 1914, which Mr Holmes faithfully adheres to by making him 93 in 1947. On the other hand, Doyle also had Holmes retire to Sussex in 1903, whereas the film shows him still practising in Baker Street after the First World War. (Let’s not get into the whole issue of when and how many times Dr Watson got married, which the film also gets itself tangled up in.)

Looking on the bright side, this gives McKellen, who (if you were wondering) is 76, the chance to play Holmes at the age of 64 as well as 93. I would say this was certainly a case of a great actor having a crack at one of the great roles, rather than an era-defining Holmes: McKellen being McKellen, he brings his customary drollness, playfulness, and sardonic wit to Holmes – he’s always quite clearly the smartest man in the room, and knows it, but perhaps he’s just a bit too pleased about it. Certainly you can’t imagine him spending two days in a depressive funk. Regardless, it is a great performance, and the central column around which the rest of the film is constructed.

In any case, the film carves itself out some room for maneuver by adhering to the customary trope that Watson’s stories featured a slightly fictionalised Holmes, and that this is the slightly-different genuine article. So the deerstalker and pipe were just inventions of the illustrator, Holmes and Watson lived somewhere other than 221B, and so on. Holmes being aware of his own legend makes for some nice moments, especially when he goes to see a film based on his adventures (the big-screen Holmes is not played by Basil Rathbone, as you might expect, but a game Nicholas Rowe – the deeper joke being that Rowe himself played young Sherlock in the 1986 film of that name, in which he was cast apparently because of his resemblance to Rathbone!).

All of this is really peripheral stuff, only really of interest to die-hard Sherlockians: what is the film like as a piece of entertainment? Well, describing it as an account of Holmes’ last case, as some of the publicity very nearly does, is a bit misleading – I went to see the film with a friend who was expecting a conventional crime thriller, and what they got was something disconcertingly different. Mysteries are solved, but not really crimes – what the film is really about is Holmes’ relationships with those around him. The film is structured so that most of the iconic figures from the canon don’t really appear – no Watson (not really), no Mrs Hudson, no Lestrade, no Irene Adler or Moriarty, the only exception being Mycroft (Holmes’ older brother is played by the 62-year-old John Sessions, but let’s not go there) – and so it revolves around his dealings with the Munros, the figures in the case, and a Japanese family. (A very striking subplot concerns a visit by Holmes to American-occupied Japan, such an unexpected juxtaposition that it instantly becomes fascinating.)

It is very much a character piece rather than a thriller or detective story, and a thoughtful and touching one, with the relationship between Holmes and Roger being especially poignant. The different subplots drift past each other, striking odd and unexpected connections, but the film is really driven by its performances, which are excellent.

Another way in which the film is a recognisably 21st-century take on Sherlock Holmes is its decision to interpret Holmes’ lack of interest in human emotion as being symptomatic of some kind of personal flaw, rather than simply a personal choice. Doyle certainly didn’t seem to be writing about someone sociopathic, but that seems to be the default interpretation of the character these days, and it’s certainly one which Mr Holmes adheres to. Then again, if you’re trying to do a personal drama about a character who’s essentially a thinking machine, I suppose you have to find some kind of chink in the armour.

The film is handsomely mounted, with polished direction and a fine score, and the actors are served well by the script. As a fan of the character, I enjoyed Mr Holmes a lot: it shows just the right amount of respect for the source, while still finding a way to tell its own story distinctively. A fine, thoughtful, mature drama.

 

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If you want to carve out a niche for yourself as a great Sherlock Holmes, you should probably be aware that it will be a long haul. Dozens of actors have played the great detective over the years, including some very famous ones: Roger Moore, Christopher Lee, and Charlton Heston amongst them. And yet, when the average person is asked to name a classic Sherlock, they will almost certainly – once they’ve mentioned Cumbersome Bandersnatch – go on to list Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, and Peter Cushing. All of these guys spent years or even decades playing Holmes: I suppose the fact that Rathbone and Brett didn’t really have another leading role of equal magnitude is a factor, too.

Relative obscurity doesn’t mean that some of these one-shot Sherlocks didn’t have touches of greatness about them. One candidate with definite potential, although this may be because he was primarily a theatre actor, was John Neville, a performer possibly best-known these days for the title role in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (I once heard Jon Pertwee claim that Neville’s management basically stole the role from Pertwee for their man through wily politicking, though that’s by the by) and also a recurring turn in The X-Files. He played Holmes in James Hill’s 1965 movie A Study in Terror.

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As the movie opens, the inhabitants of late-Victorian London are (as usual) quaking in their boots as a series of strange and ghastly events unfolds. Someone has taken to murdering Whitechapel prostitutes and then mutilating their corpses with surgical equipment. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (Donald Houston) are following the case with their usual interest, but are not actually involved – until a case of surgical instruments arrives in the post at Baker Street, postmarked Whitechapel, and with the main scalpel notable by its absence…

‘Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper’ is, when you think about it, a fairly obvious pitch for a movie, so it’s not surprising that a production like A Study in Terror eventually got made. That it took so long is probably due to taste concerns – this is, as I always say when writing about Ripper movies, a case of a brutally misogynistic serial killer being parcelled up as jolly entertainment – and, I suspect, the success of the period genre movies being made by Hammer at about the same time. A Study in Terror isn’t a Hammer movie – the budget is clearly bigger, and the cast list much starrier – but there are indications of the style here and there, especially in the set-piece killings.

Probably just as important as a point of reference for A Study in Terror is another film made a decade later, Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree. This is probably a better-known one-shot Sherlock movie, starring Christopher Plummer and a host of A-listers, but it again revolves around the ‘Holmes vs the Ripper’ idea. The main difference is that Murder by Decree was ginned up especially to put across one particular theory claiming to be a genuine solution to the Ripper murders, while A Study in Terror is essentially not much more than a piece of entertainment (please note I am studiously avoiding the ‘ripping yarn’ pun).

While there are a couple of ways in which Study seems to anticipate Decree – the ‘solution’ of the crimes involves the British aristocracy, and the film has a sort of social consciousness when it comes to the squalour of parts of London in the 1880s – it’s much less concerned with historical or forensic accuracy (the Ripper’s victims retain their real names, but are killed in the wrong order). Plus everyone is a bit too well-turned-out, everything is a bit too clean and colourful, for this to really convince in terms of the period setting: the setting and characters in Oliver! look more authentically dingy than they do here.

Not to say that this is a bad film, by any means: the plot is pleasingly convoluted, though I think I detect the odd hole here and there, and there is, as I said, a very impressive cast on hand – Frank Finlay plays Lestrade, a role he would reprise in Decree, and this is surely the only production in history for which Judi Dench and Barbara Windsor both receive an acting credit (sadly, they never share a scene together). Holmes gets to make some proper heavy-duty deductions, too, which is also very pleasing.

Actually, Neville and Houston are pretty good full stop as Holmes and Watson: they are clearly very influenced by the Rathbone and Bruce characterisations, but at least Houston’s Watson is just a little bit pompous rather than a complete turnip. Neville doesn’t really get a chance to project the obsessive darkness others have found in Holmes’ character, but in addition to Rathbone’s kind style of vigorous geniality, there is a trace of the kind of asceticism Peter Cushing brought to the part.

I suppose it is also to the film’s credit that this does feel rather authentic as a Sherlock Holmes story. Many pastiches don’t – some supposed adaptations, too, for that matter – for the simple reason that they treat the Holmes stories as though they were Classic Literature with the capitals intact, and their filming like the making of a costume drama. The original stories are genre fiction, and at times not that far removed from quite outlandish pulp fiction – it’s notable that there’s barely a reference to the actual Ripper murders in the original Conan Doyle, despite the fact they happened during the period when the first Holmes stories were originally being published.

One thing you can’t deny about A Study in Terror is that it honours the pulpy roots of Holmes, albeit in an occasionally roundabout way. Holmes gets a couple of proper action sequences and the story contains the requisite levels of the outlandish and bizarre. As I said, there are even moments of pure exploitation-horror, most notably the sequence in which Edina Ronay is killed: shot in long takes from the Ripper’s viewpoint, it’s undeniably powerful, even as it betrays the influence of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.

So in the end I would say that A Study in Terror is a pretty successful attempt at a Holmes pastiche. It’s still obviously modestly-budgeted, rather than a major production, and it’s very clear that it was conceived of as a high-class genre movie – but these things in themselves aren’t the stuff of substantive criticism. You could perhaps express a slight demur at the very concept of the film, and there are perhaps a few minor issues with plotting and tone, but on the whole this is a very decent movie, worth checking out if you enjoy a classic-style Holmes.

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As Peter Capaldi receives his first official DWM cover, all the agitation and uncertainty of the summer seems to be fading away, and it feels slightly strange to look back and recall some of the wilder discussions and stronger sentiments which were in currency. Nevertheless, fandom did seem unusually exercised this time around. I myself distinctly recall that moment where we were treated to a close-up of ‘the new Doctor”s hand prior to his name actually being announced, and my flood of relief at seeing it was obviously that of a man.

The calls for the Doctor to be regenderated seemed much louder this time than they have been in the past; I don’t recall any but the most cursory discussion of the possibility prior to Eccleston or Tennant being cast, nor in 2008 (though admittedly I was a bit out of the loop at the time). This time round, it turned into a bit of a Thing, even warranting a DWM article on the topic.

Funny. But not real.

Funny. But not real.

I talk about a ‘discussion of the possibility’ but what really struck me about the various outpourings on the topic was just how little discussion was actually taking place: this was such a polarising issue, people either saw the idea of a female Doctor as perfectly unremarkable and a natural development for the series, or a ludicrous bastardisation of the entire character and concept, with no middle ground or room for debate. Did people snipe? Did they accuse? Did they name-call? Yes, yes, and yes. Did they discuss? Not so much.

Personally, and this isn’t really important to anyone but me, I am in the ‘terrible idea – never, ever’ camp, along with most of the other old-school viewers of the programme whom I know. It does seem to me that most of the advocates of the regenderation are people who have come to the series in the last ten years (a few big names like Gaiman and Cornell notwithstanding). Quite why this should be is something I am reluctant to offer an opinion on.

What does strike me is that this more than anything else this resembles some sort of religious schism, with both sides completely entrenched and absolutely certain that their beliefs are correct. I used to feel vaguely disturbed by news reports of Creationist pressure groups attempting to ensure that no Darwinist candidate ever secured the presidential nomination – however, now I am completely okay with the idea of making sure any future showrunner is ideologically sound on this topic (which rules out Neil Gaiman, for one).

However, however, however: when it comes to this sort of radical reinterpretation of a character, I have become aware that I am woefully inconsistent. I had a bit of a problem with the gay Green Lantern DC introduced last year, not because I object to gay superheroes (or indeed gay people in general) but because I thought the whole thing was very cynically promoted. I have no issue whatsoever with Miles Morales, the Afro-Hispanic Spider-Man Marvel have introduced as an alternate version of the character. I’m not even particularly exercised by the feminisation and change of race of Dr Watson in the American TV version of Sherlock Holmes – I think it’s another dubious and arguably cynical idea, and it’s not a show I would ever sit down and watch, but it doesn’t ignite the explosion of outrage and despair within me that I’ve no doubt the announcement of the twelfth Doctor being a woman would have.

I don’t think I’m a misogynist any more than I am a homophobe or racist, so why should this be? I don’t particularly want to go through the reasons why I think the Doctor is essentially male, mainly because this doesn’t seem to be an issue much lending itself to reasoned discussion. But I do think this can potentially tell us about some of the things that makes Doctor Who special as a concept and the Doctor special as a character.

The clue is that there have been female versions of the Doctor in the past, of course, and they left me notably non-outraged – the ‘ultimate’ Joanna Lumley Doctor from The Curse of Fatal Death, and the equally final Arabella Weir Doctor from the Doctor Who Unbound series. The difference, of course, is that both of these versions appear in comedy skits based on the series – Lumley, certainly, arguably so in the case of Weir – and are outside the main continuity of the show.

I’m sorry, I usually try and avoid the C-Word like the plague, but I’m going to have to talk about the concept of Canon. Canon presupposes that there are two kinds of Doctor Who story – ‘real’ ones, which all connect to tell a single, consistent story running from An Unearthly Child to The Name of the Doctor and onwards, and ‘unreal’ ones which are somehow even more fictional than the rest. The Lumley and Weir Doctors are both non-Canon, obviously; were Matt Smith to transform into – I don’t know – Miranda Hart, she would be the first Canon female Doctor.

I am much more relaxed about the concept of Canon than I was a couple of decades ago – did the New Adventures count? Did the early Big Finish stories count? Then again, these days I tend to dismiss everything beyond the actual TV series as apocryphal and leave it at that. But Doctor Who’s idea of Canon is different from that of other, broadly comparable series and institutions.

Partly because this is Doctor Who originated as a TV show rather than, say, a series of books and stories. One can meaningfully talk about ‘the Sherlock Holmes canon’ in terms of the stories actually written by Doyle (as opposed to all the pastiches written by other people since). This exists as a sealed bubble and has done since the death of Doyle in 1930. The same could be said of the Cthulhu Mythos, since the death of Lovecraft, and the Conan saga, since the death of Robert Howard.

Doctor Who doesn’t have a single creator in that manner – it’s been handed on from writer to writer with no-one truly having a claim to being the single key figure in its development. However, this is equally true of characters in other media – for example, comics superheroes, many of whom have histories even longer and more complex than the Doctor’s.

The concept of Canon is a much more flexible one when it comes to comics characters – of the big companies, DC Comics in particular is wont to aggressively re-write the histories of its characters on a regular basis. There’s less an idea of Canon here than one of an archetypal concept of each character – individual story developments may lead to a gradual drift away from this, but sooner or later the character will be reset back to this point. As a case in point, there was some brouhaha in 1991 when Lois Lane discovered that Clark Kent was really Superman, and even more in 1996 when the couple actually married, but as of 2013, in the comics at least, they are not and have never been married and she does not knw his identity.

How is this possible in the same narrative? Well, it’s not, and this isn’t strictly speaking the same narrative. I remember a time when people only ever used to reboot computers, but now it’s always happening to continuities: resetting the clock to zero (or, the archetypal set-up) and allowing writers to tell stories with a minimum of constraints in terms of historical baggage. It’s happened to Superman, Batman and Spider-Man in their most recent movie outings; it’s happened to Godzilla about six times (usually with the respectful proviso that the original 1954 movie remains as the foundation stone of the series); something broadly similar (yet, to my mind, uniquely unsatisfactory) happened to the Star Trek universe when JJ Abrams got his hands  on it.

One of the advantages of this kind of reboot is that it instantly sets the original continuity apart – it doesn’t quite turn it into the equivalent of a definitive canon, in the sense of the Doylean Holmes canon – but it does mean that creative people are less likely to be excoriated for making radical changes to characters. I’m happy to ignore Elementary, with its modern setting and female Watson, because it plainly is just a slightly weird alternate take on the original Sherlock Holmes characters and doesn’t attempt to pass itself off as a genuine continuation of the characters.

Hey, if it floats your boat...

Hey, if it floats your boat…

There have been plenty of alternative versions of Doctor Who – the comic strips, the Cushing Doctor, the Trevor Martin stage Doctor, the Unbounds, and so on – but one of the things about it which is perhaps more surprising than many people realise is that the continuity of the TV series has never knowingly been rebooted: a single narrative thread does indeed continue unbroken, from 1963 through to the present day.

That this has happened is actually roaringly unlikely: Philip Segal’s planned American TV show would have started over again, while at least one of the other proposed versions from the 90s would have seen the ‘canonical’ seventh Doctor handing over to an alternate Doctor from a parallel universe. BBC executives at one point wanted Tom Baker to regenerate into Paul McGann in 1996, which would presumably have created a new continuity with a different fifth Doctor. Mark Gatiss’ pitch to revive the series around the turn of the century would have been a clean reboot of the series from scratch with a new first Doctor.

But Doctor Who has not – so far – been rebooted. I think this is largely down to the fact that the people at the top of the show are fans and love the heritage of the programme as much as anyone – ‘…worst of all, it’ll be a reboot. No thanks’ (Rusty Davies, discussing the possibilities of the 2005 relaunch), ‘…it should be one big long story, not two different versions’ (Steven Moffat, dismissing the idea of a US-made Doctor Who running in parallel with the current show).

There is, I suppose, a strong case to be made that most of the reasons leading to other TV and film series being rebooted do not apply to Doctor Who: the facts that the show is infinitely recastable – that this is actually incorporated into the narrative –  and unlikely ever to run out of ideas are two of the main reasons why it has lasted half a century.

And yet, in a strange way, this also makes the series uniquely vulnerable. Doctor Who doesn’t have a closed canon like Sherlock Holmes, while any archetypal version of the Doctor is a hugely nebulous thing at best. If the BBC does a bad version of Sherlock Holmes, as it has a couple of times over the years, one can simply dismiss it as a poor adaptation and look forward to the next one, which will be an entirely separate entity. Should they make a similar creative misstep with regard to Doctor Who – and here it’s very difficult to resist mentioning Colin Baker’s costume – then the series is stuck with it in perpetuity.

Steven Moffat dismissed the prospect of an American-made, parallel series. I don’t know, but I think I’d rather be showrunner on that show than the British one – it would be a terrific opportunity to revisit the mythology and characters, free of the demands of continuity. I wouldn’t even be against the idea of the Doctor being female some of the time in this sort of show, provided it was seeded into the format properly.

And the existence of a second version of the series running in parallel might go some way towards firming up the archetypal concept of Doctor Who as something existing beyond the confines of any particular incarnation (by incarnation here, I mean TV, films, books, and so on). The existence of two equal valid versions of Doctor Who would be more likely to lead to more – the concept transcending its TV origins to become a genuine cultural icon across different media, which it currently is not. The only casualty would be the existence of a single unified continuity – and given that the continuity we’ve got largely doesn’t make sense anyway, would that be so great a loss?

I started by talking about a schism between Doctor Who fans and find myself discussing the possibility of destroying any idea of Doctor Who as a coherent narrative – and doing so as though this were potentially a positive thing. Whether or not this happens is, I suspect, largely down to who is curating the show at the BBC and their attitude towards the idea of Canon. It would be very interesting to see a modern version of the show not overseen by a card-carrying long-term fan, for this reason and many others.

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Is there a more richly mythologised period of recent history than the Victorian era? This is the period of time which gave us the Wild West, immortalised in hundreds of movies and novels, but closer to home (for us in the UK) is the concept of Britain as an imperial nation, and the source of hundreds of characters from fiction both literary and pulpy. Indeed, our conception of Victorian Britain is surely largely defined by its presentation in novels and films, with the boundaries between real life and fiction becoming oddly mutable as a result.

Certainly there’s no shortage of more recent metafiction in which these Victorian icons meet, in varying combinations – the champion probably remains Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, in which Dr Jekyll and Dr Moreau share their notes and Griffin, Moriarty, and Bill Sykes are part of the same criminal syndicate, while Hammer’s remarkable Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde sees the – er- conflicted researcher encountering Burke and Hare the grave-robbers (who have inexplicably relocated from Edinburgh to the East End).

What both these works have in common is that they tie in to the real world, by virtue of including another character who – in a strange way – straddles the boundary between fiction and reality. Anno Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde both present ‘solutions’ to the mystery of Jack the Ripper. This isn’t necessarily surprising, as the Ripper murders are one of the great mysteries of recent times, and TV shows from Kolchak to Babylon 5 have all had a go at ‘solving’ it. Most of these attempts are not intended seriously – but one of the mash-ups was, at least partly, and it remains an interesting film in other ways too.

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Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree was released in 1979 and is set in London at the time of Ripper murders. The police appear to be baffled by the spree of savage killings, which makes it all the more peculiar that they have not followed standard practice in such situations and retained the services of London’s greatest investigator, Sherlock Holmes (here portrayed by Christopher Plummer).

However, a group of Whitechapel businessmen, conscious of the effect the ongoing panic is having on trade in the East End, approach Holmes with an eye to hiring him themselves. With the faithful Doctor Watson (James Mason) at his side, Holmes sets out on the trail of the Ripper, little realising it will lead him to the highest echelons of the British establishment…

Well, if you’ve seen From Hell, you will already know the solution to the Ripper crimes which Murder by Decree endorses: in fact, if you extract all the Sherlockian material from this movie, you do end up with something not too different to From Hell in many ways. The theory in question is certainly an interesting one (and arguably makes more sense than blaming a famous artist who was out of the country when some of the murders were committed, as one celebrated author has done). As a means of communicating this theory in a digestible and engaging way, Murder by Decree is clearly successful. But what about its merits as a film?

Certainly, the production values are quite impressive, although some of the modelwork and matte paintings used to create Victorian London give the place a fairytale quality which may not, strictly speaking, serve the story all that well. The tone of the thing is interesting: for much of its length it plays like a late-period Hammer horror, not short on Kensington Gore, with the Ripper’s coach emerging from a wall of fog in slow-motion like something from a genuine nightmare. The climax plays like a more conventional action movie, with Holmes and the Ripper engaging in personal combat, but even after this comes a lengthy (and rather talky) scene in which Holmes explains how he figured out what’s been going on to the cabal at the heart of the conspiracy.

That he’s managed to do so at all is quite impressive, partly because, in many ways, the plot of Murder by Decree is all over the place – the genuine facts of the Ripper killings are touched upon, but also added to the brew are Anarchist politics, Freemasonry, social comment and even a dash of the paranormal, courtesy of the inclusion of a psychic who identifies the Ripper’s address. It’s also a bit of a feat considering that, prior to this in the movie, the Great Detective has made none of the brilliant deductions he is most famous for, his methods seeming to rely on a mastery of forensic science, his own personal charm, and simply being in the right place at the right time.

Christopher Plummer is a fine and often-underrated actor, but his problem here is that he’s playing a Sherlock Holmes who doesn’t bear much resemblance to the character Conan Doyle was writing about. The trappings are all there – the pipe, the violin, the chemistry set – and he’s never out of his ulster, but this is just superficial. The character seems to be more drawn from the Basil Rathbone version – he’s a jovial, energetic leading man, indulgent of Mason’s crusty, mournful Watson (I hate to say it, but Mason is too old, both as a Watson to Plummer – the actors are twenty years apart in age – and as Watson in general, given the good doctor would have been 40 at the absolute oldest in 1888). This is very much Holmes’ story, as Watson doesn’t get a great deal to do.

You might argue that there are taste issues to consider here, considering we’re talking about a film which takes a much-loved literary hero and mixes him up with the activities of a very real, horribly brutal and misogynistic serial killer – you wouldn’t show Inspector Morse catching Fred West, for instance. Certainly the murders here are much fouler than anything in Conan Doyle. But the film earns itself some credit for not buying into the picture-postcard view of Victorian London common to so many Holmes adaptations. The prostitutes of Whitechapel lead a convincingly horrible and wretched existence, and – provided you buy into the central thesis of the movie – the sympathies of all involved are clearly with the London underclass rather than the establishment.

The first time I saw this movie, I thought a sequence in which the plight of one of the girls moves Holmes first to tears and then to a violent rage did not ring true to the character. And it doesn’t – to Conan Doyle’s Holmes, at least. But in the context of this film, it does make sense. Using Holmes to express a sense of moral outrage at the corruption and hypocrisy of the British establishment is a novel direction to take him in, but in terms of this film, at least, it does work. This, if nothing else, elevates Murder by Decree above the level of simply being nasty exploitation.

Murder by Decree was hailed by the New York Daily Times’ critic as the best Sherlock Holmes movie ever made. I would certainly argue with that, on the grounds that in many ways this is a very inauthentic presentation of the character. But, if we think of it instead simply as a movie featuring Sherlock Holmes, then I’m inclined to cut it a good deal more slack – it has interesting ideas, decent production values, a very strong cast (David Hemmings, Frank Finlay, John Gielgud, Genevieve Bujold, and so on), and its heart is in the right place. (Which is more than can be said for the Ripper’s victims.) One of the classier Holmes movies, and possibly the classiest Ripper movie of the lot.

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I think it will come as no surprise to regular readers hereabouts that, of late, I have become as indifferent as I’ve ever been about the Doctor Who currently in production – and given that we have one of the best Doctors ever, being overseen by one of the best writers ever, this is a bit baffling. Nevertheless the last mini-season left me cold, mainly because of too many episodes where gimmicks or spectacle or the pursuit of the high-concept seemed to have taken priority over proper, solid plotting and storytelling. The last Christmas show was one of the most insipid things I’ve ever seen – it’s not available in a DVD box set as I write (the Christmas show usually gets lumped in along with the following series) which actually had me momentarily wondering if I actually could be bothered to buy it. (But only momentarily: readers, I have Time and the Rani and Warriors of the Deep on DVD. Story quality is not an issue set against the power of fannish completism.)

And so I sat down to watch The Snowmen with expectations dialled down as low as they have ever been, probably, fairly glum and somewhat indifferent. An hour later I was beaming and cheerful, because it seemed to me that it was the best episode in eighteen months and the best Christmas show since The Runaway Bride. I have to say that I distrusted my own reaction somewhat – could it be that reduced expectations had played a part in making this episode look so good? So I watched it again a few days later, expecting to not to have nearly as much fun second time around. Well – true, a few things did jump out at me as dubious that hadn’t done the first time. But hardly any; this episode still looked and felt great.

'They used to say I was hansom, but now I'm more of a growler' etc, etc.

‘They used to say I was hansom, but now I’m more of a growler’ etc, etc.

Is it as simple as the fact that there was just a nicely twisty-turny but nevertheless coherent story going on behind the introduction of the new companion? Was it just the inclusion of a decent, thought-through bad guy? Could it have been the the-clues-were-there-why-didn’t-I-see-it-coming-fanboy-pleasing twist? (Actually, watching the episode on my sister’s hi-def TV I was able to read the small print on Simeon’s business card very early on and worked it out then, but I still didn’t spot the significance of the Doctor’s tin until the end of the episode.) Was it the new TARDIS interior? (It seems to be growing to resemble the Cushing version inside and out.) Surely it can’t have been just the fact that the bass-line is back to a position of due prominence in the theme arrangement?

In the end I don’t really care. If this is a sign of the quality we can expect over the next twelve months then this year may even live up to the collective expectations of fandom. At this moment in time I am back on board with my confidence fully restored (for all that the Doctor’s resolution to retire barely lasted beyond the opening credits, and Moffat seems to insist on writing every major female character as relentlessly flirtatious).

However, a few points to ponder. (Spoilers follow!)

The Snowmen went out of its way to establish that, in Who-world, Sherlock Holmes is and always has been a fictional character. Fair enough, but Moffat saying ‘this has always been the case’ made me think – has there ever been an explicit stating of this on TV in the past? I can’t think of one off-hand. I can sort of understand why Moffat wants to put an end to all the ‘do a crossover!’ chatter, but given Sherlock has a contemporary setting why go on about the original Strand stories like this? I am probably over-thinking as usual. (Of course, no-one in 1892 would have recognised the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes costume, given this story is set well before William Gillette started playing the character dressed like that.)

I’ve no idea what the current consensus is as to the status of the Virgin novels, but we can cross All-Consuming Fire off the list of apocryphal possible-stories now (this novel introduced the detective and his partner whose adventures, lightly fictionalised, formed the basis of the Sherlockian canon – obviously Vastra and Jenny take their places now). The same novel, incidentally, provides an alternate origin for the Great Intelligence – identifying it (rather improbably) with Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothoth – which is likewise superceded by the events of The Snowmen.

Speaking of which, Moffat might possibly have stuck a line in about the newly-created Intelligence being banished to the fifth dimension, or somewhere similar outside normal time and space – given that first contact between the Intelligence and the monk Padmasambhava is implied to have occurred some time in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, there’s an apparent glitch here (also, the old boy would have to be welding like a demon to get all those robot Yeti built between 1892 and 1934).

Other recurring-monster news – four years have gone by, from Vastra, Jenny and Strax’s point of view, since their trip to Demon’s Run (assuming that the reason Jack the Ripper ceased operating in 1888 was simply because Vastra ate him). If the material in the 2011 Brilliant Book is canon, Vastra and Jenny have been associating for at least eleven years now. (I wonder who performed the wedding?) Neve Macintosh is so good as Vastra that I’m a little sorry she’s not the new companion. She gives the character a poise and authority that’s very impressive – this is someone who works with the Doctor as an equal, rather than an assistant. Still, I wonder if the prominence of this character means we won’t be seeing the Silurians back as an adversarial race in future. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the back-story of this race has got increasingly mangled since they were revived in 2010 (I may return to this topic in future).

The same could also be said of the Sontarans. Admittedly, a lot of the brilliant work done in reinventing this race in The Sontaran Stratagem was almost instantly undone in The Poison Sky (which appears to suggest that they’re only the greatest soldiers in the universe as long as whoever they’re fighting can’t shoot back at them), but they’re still a rather more interesting and impressive proposition than the revamped version of the Cybermen (and I would just add that if Neil Gaiman can’t write a great Cyberman story, no-one can – if Gaiman blows it, retire them until the next big anniversary, as they have clearly shot their bolt). However, having a prominent recurring Sontaran as comic relief sort of undercuts that. I can see that, in a very Robert Holmes-y sort of way, Steven Moffat is more interested in writing about characters than races of alien monsters, but he doesn’t want to mess up too many of the big name monsters. A full-on story with hostile, threatening Sontarans would be a good idea sometime soon.

Possibly I am getting much too wrapped up in minor details. But it’s a joy to be doing that rather than complaining about script holes, improbable plot contrivances, or story logic coming a distant third to spectacle or melodrama. I hope I can carry on buriyng myself in the details throughout 2013.

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The Sherlockian films starring Rathbone and Bruce as Holmes and Watson seemed to be on all the time when I was young, but they seem to have fallen out of fashion somewhat in recent years – one can only hope that the fulsome praise lavished on them by Moffat and Gatiss, and the credit they’re given as an influence on Sherlock, will bring them to the attention of a younger audience.

One with more to interest this constituency than most is The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, made in 1939 and directed by Alfred Werker. This was the second Basil Rathbone Holmes film, and the last to take place in anything approximating a period setting (the Second World War, which entered the public consciousness in the same week as this movie’s release, would prove to have an influence on Rathbone’s subsequent Holmesian career).

Anyway: it all kicks off in the London of 1894 with the nefarious Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) in the dock, accused of murder. Sherlock Holmes knows he’s guilty. The jury know he’s guilty. The judge knows he’s guilty. (Moriarty knows he’s guilty too, but sensibly keeps his mouth shut.) But there’s no proof, and being upstanding, cricket-loving British folk they are obliged to let him go. Holmes arrives on the scene with evidence just after the nick of time has passed, and the two arch-enemies share a pleasant cab ride.

Holmes confesses to Moriarty he’d like to extract his brain and donate it to science. Moriarty takes this rather well and in turn confesses to Holmes that he’s getting bored of life as a master criminal – he’s going to commit one more really big crime, so audacious and shocking that its success will destroy Holmes, and then retire to spend more time with his algebra.

And so the stage is set – however, and I’m by no means the first to point this out, at this point the structure of the film turns out to have a serious flaw in it. Moriarty’s plan, which is as fiendishly clever as his rep would lead one to expect, is to carry out a major but relatively dull crime (stealing the crown jewels – see what I mean about the Sherlock connections?), having first ensured that Holmes is looking the wrong way by throwing a really macabre and weird mystery into his lap that’s of no special significance.

It’s this story that takes up the bulk of the film, and it concerns Ida Lupino as a troubled young woman, her possibly-dodgy lawyer fiance, lucky chinchilla feet, Andean funeral chants and a bolas-wielding Inca gaucho hitman with a club foot. Although original to the play this movie is based on (written by William Gillette, the first Sherlock to wear a deerstalker), this plot is authentically Doylean in both its atmosphere and many of its details.

On the other hand, we’re always aware that it’s nothing more than a very intricate blind contrived by Moriarty and as a result it never completely engrosses. Holmes, obviously, also figures this out, but quite how – other than because the script requires it – is never made clear. The whole climax of the film has a slightly rushed and perfunctory air about it, which is shame given how lavishly solidly its opening section is.

But never mind, there is much to enjoy here – Basil Rathbone’s dynamic, rather genial Detective, Nigel Bruce’s pompous and slightly petulant but still rather endearing Watson, and George Zucco’s silkily sinister Moriarty. Moriarty is revealed to have a touch of the green fingers on this appearance, which somehow doesn’t feel quite right, but it’s hardly a major element.

One serious plot-hole doesn’t get mentioned – the bizarre death Moriarty arranges as a distraction for Holmes is, apparently, eerily similar to one which occurred ten years previously. Now, does this just mean Moriarty really plans ahead? Or does he just keep up with the True Crime section of his local bookshop, where he read about this crime and figured out how to replicate it? The other alternative is for him to borrow HG Wells’ time machine and pop back to do it himself – not quite as implausible as it sounds, given that the film’s most off-the-wall moment has a heavily disguised Basil Rathbone performing a high-energy song-and-dance version of ‘I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’ (for no reason required by the plot), a song not written until 1907.

Different people want different things from their Holmes adaptations, whether that means painstaking accuracy to the canon, scintillating plotting and dialogue, or broad character comedy and visual pyrotechnics. The virtues of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes lie in its broadly faithful performances and characterisations, its convincing period setting, the atmosphere Werker creates, and its breezy pace. There have been much bigger and more colourful Sherlock Holmes movies, but few which have combined fun with fidelity with quite such success.

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