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Posts Tagged ‘Sherlock Holmes’

Mass-appeal action-adventure heroes all tend to be cut from roughly the same cloth – virile, accessible, and smart without being intellectual – and so the presence in their midst of a non-acquisitive oddball brainbox without much interest in girls would be striking. The fact that two such peculiar figures are currently major presences in UK popular culture would normally, therefore, be highly unusual.

However, I refer (of course) to the Doctor, from Doctor Who, and Sherlock Holmes, currently appearing in Sherlock (both BBC productions), and the two characters share one further similarity: both are currently in the stewardship of Steven Moffat. As a result, it has actually been argued that there’s no significant difference between the two – one early review of the Holmes project actually described it, dismissively, as Sherlock Who – that Moffat and his colleagues are simply writing the same character in different contexts.

Both the hat and its absence are making a point...

I think anyone who paid attention would accept that this is a gross oversimplification and isn’t particularly flattering to either show. Nevertheless, the connections between Who and Holmes run deep and have done so for a long time. As the junior creation, to what extent is the Doctor based on Sherlock Holmes? And can the makers of Doctor Who learn anything from the endless reinventions of Conan Doyle’s characters?

One of the most telling things, when considering the relationship between the characters, is that a lot of Doctor Who fans are also to some extent Sherlockians. Back when I used to go to the Preston Who Group, one of the many peripheral conversations I overheard was between two friends, one of whom had recently got the complete run of Jeremy Brett Holmes adaptations on DVD. Both were clearly enthusiastic and knowledgeably so. Indeed, an early 90s poll asking who should play the Doctor in a revived TV show or a movie was won by Jeremy Brett. (The question, of course, is whether they were attracted to Holmes because of its resemblence to Doctor Who or vice versa.)

Indeed, there is some history of actors being associated with both roles – starting, obviously, with Peter Cushing, who played Holmes numerous times over a quarter of a century and the Doctor in two 60s movies. Moving the other way, one of Tom Baker’s first major TV roles after leaving Doctor Who was the Great Detective, in the BBC’s 1982 classic serial version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. More peripherally, Richard E Grant played a version of Holmes in a BBC play (also playing Mycroft and Stapleton in other venues), and an alternative Doctor in an internet animation (interviewed about this part he announced his take on the character was that he was ‘Sherlock Holmes in space’…), while current Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch claims to have been offered the role of the Doctor (although it’s unclear when this could have happened). Received wisdom (always a dubious messenger) has it that no-one has been successful in both roles: as I’ve said before, I think Cushing gives us a terrific take on the Doctor, while I find his Holmes can be a bit manic, which is the opposite of the acceptable view!

Explicit parallels between the two characters go back a long way – on screen, the most obvious example is in the 1977 story The Talons of Weng Chiang, in which Tom Baker’s Doctor swans about foggy Victorian streets in an ulster and a deerstalker, teams up with a police surgeon, and at one point encounters a giant rat (though, sadly, not from Sumatra). Most of these are visual cues, though, and fairly superficial. In terms of plotting and tone the story – full of sinister orientals and grotesquely disfigured geniuses lurking in cellars – owes considerably more to Gaston Leroux and Sax Rohmer than Arthur Conan Doyle.

Rather more in tune with the canon, though not on screen, is Andy Lane’s novel All-Consuming Fire, in which Holmes and the Doctor actually meet up and have an adventure together. After a very authentic and enjoyable opening, the book rather turns into a fanboy geek-out and Victoriana mash-up rather in the vein of Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, but its main flaw – and the novel itself acknowledges this – is that as the story proceeds Holmes gets progressively less and less to do. (The novel also just about qualifies as an entry into the thriving Holmes-meets-Lovecraft subgenre, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The Doctor teams up with a stock photo of Basil Rathbone on the cover of All-Consuming Fire.

However, going all the way back to 1970 and the era of Jon Pertwee, script editor Terrance Dicks has frequently recalled a conversation he had with producer Barry Letts, where they discussed the relationship between the Doctor and the Brigadier, which Dicks likened to that of Holmes and Watson. This parallel seems to have struck creative sparks, leading to the creation of the Master as a Moriarty figure (something we shall return to).

Nevertheless this seems to have been a new idea at the time, made possible by the casting of Pertwee himself – Tom Baker described Pertwee as a ‘Holmesian figure’ and this is broadly speaking true. The third Doctor is a commanding, incisive, physical presence in a way that his predecessors were not. This is the main problem with the ‘Doctor Who is just Sherlock Holmes in space’ accusation – at no point in the series’ origins, or for most of its first six years, does there seem to have been a deliberate attempt to specifically ape Doyle’s style or characters.

The Sherlock Holmes influence on Doctor Who only really becomes noticeable with the arrival on the series of a writer with the apposite (but unfortunate, when it comes to clarity) name of Robert Holmes. From Holmes-R’s first contribution to the series, the Doctor becomes distinctly more like Holmes-S – more of an investigator, more proactive, more dominant. Robert Holmes also wrote The Talons of Weng-Chiang and his love of gothic horror and Victorian pulp fiction have been well-documented.

 

Robert Holmes. Secret plan to destroy Doctor Who not pictured.

 

While Holmes-R did not become the actual script editor on the series for another seven years, it’s his conception of the Doctor – aided by the casting of Pertwee – that becomes central to the series. The cloaks and martial arts and the Moriarty figure are all eventually abandoned, but the Doctor remains the powerful, intellectual adventurer Robert Holmes reimagined him as.

This said, it’s interesting that the Doctor-as-Holmes parallel draws more on the popular conception of Holmes than the Doyle canon: most obviously in the inclusion of the Master as an equivalent to Moriarty. As any self-respecting Sherlockian could tell you, Moriarty barely appears in the Doyle stories, only really existing as a plot device to kill the Great Detective off – at the risk of being overtechnical, in the canon Moriarty is a nemesis, rather than an arch-enemy. The Doctor is also usually a rather more amiable figure than the ‘classic’ Holmes – certainly more Basil Rathbone than Jeremy Brett.

It says something about the power and potential of this vision of the Doctor that even after Holmes’ departure from the series in the late 70s, the Holmesian version was retained as the default. The Davison Doctor is arguably an attempt to move the character on, but Colin Baker surely returns to type. Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor is another departure, but much has been made of the startling resemblance that Paul McGann’s eighth Doctor bears, not just to the Doctors of the 70s, but Anthony Higgins’ Holmes in 1994 Baker Street: Sherlock Holmes Returns.

When Russell Davies and the other writers of the revived series announced they were going to create a Doctor in the classic mould, this was tantamount to saying they would be creating a Holmesian Doctor (in both senses). There’s a lot to be said for playing the Doctor this way, but other approaches are available.

And, to draw still another British immortal into the discussion, it’s interesting to compare the Cumberbatch take on Holmes with Daniel Craig’s James Bond. Both work inasmuch as they’re exercises in taking the characters back to their essentials, disencumbering them of all the paraphernalia and unhelpful ‘traditions’ they have accumulated over the years (Sherlock riffs on iconography to some extent, but only in passing). It’s interesting to consider whether this approach might be attempted with the Doctor.

One could of course argue that the conclusion of Matt Smith’s second series saw exactly this happening, with the Doctor ‘reset’ as a lone traveller with his box, quietly saving the universe one planet at a time. Except, of course, this isn’t strictly a full reset – it moves the Doctor back to where he was in about 1977, not 1963. The pre-Holmes Doctor of 1963 is a fundamentally different figure, erratic, at times decidedly unsympathetic, shadowy and strange. It would be very difficult to return to this characterisation without creating severe problems in terms of audience expectation.

Sherlock Holmes is still adored because there’s something in the conception of the character that every new generation falls in love with. Holmes is never really reinvented, just rediscovered: in all the most popular adaptations, the core of the character barely alters. The Doctor is different. He can be a gentleman adventurer, like Holmes – but you can tell stories where he takes a wide number of other less easily-defined roles, too. He can be genuinely reimagined in a way that Holmes can’t: and it’s this mutable quality (not just in terms of actor, but in narrative role) that has given the character his longevity.

Sherlock Holmes has endured because he never needs to change. The Doctor has endured because change is fundamental to his nature – he may frequently resemble Holmes, but it’s not essential that he does. And if these occasional convergences between the two form a tacit acknowledgement on the part of the Who writers of the genius of Conan Doyle, I don’t think anyone would take much exception to that.

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Back we go again to that beloved world where old war wounds migrate, snakes are partial to milk, martial arts styles are somewhat fictitious and first names are oddly mutable: yes, it’s time for a look at Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, directed as before by Guy Ritchie. Portraying the immortal characters involved are, once again, Robert Downey Jr as Holmes, and Jude Law as Doctor Watson, while Eddie Marsan, Rachel McAdams, Kelly Reilly and Geraldine James briefly reprise their roles from the first film as Lestrade, Irene Adler, Mary Morstan and Mrs Hudson respectively. New to proceedings this time around are Stephen Fry as Mycroft, Paul Anderson as Sebastian Moran, and Jared Harris as Professor Moriarty.

Only very loosely following on from the previous movie, this film finds Moriarty behind a Machiavellian plot to start the First World War twenty years early (pretty much the same plan he had when he appeared in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, but I am in no position to criticise his lack of imagination as I used the same joke on that occasion too). Holmes and Watson are, of course, on the case, only mildly distracted by Watson’s looming nuptials. Their pursuit of the master criminal leads them across Europe, from Paris into Germany, and beyond, to a final confrontation high in the Swiss Alps.

The story is a very, very, very loose adaptation of The Final Problem, but you have to be on the ball to really spot this, as the signs are mostly hidden beneath many layers of comedy squabbling between Downey and Law, and also spectacular action set-pieces. Nevertheless this is still an improvement on the wholly original and somehow slightly unsatisfying story from Sherlock Holmes. And it’s very apparent that the writers have done their research and really delved deep into Conan Doyle’s works – there are so many little details in this film which add nothing to the story, but will mean the world to Sherlockians (Holmes’ birth year is got right, as is the name of Moriarty’s most famous work), that it would be very difficult to give this film a completely hard time.

Nevertheless, I still don’t think either of the Ritchie films are really premium Holmes, though for a while I struggled to settle on why. I don’t think it’s entirely down to the presentation of the two leads (though I do find Downey’s Holmes to be a bit too mad and dishevelled, and Law’s Watson a bit too irascible, for either to really convince), but more the way that the scripts of these films cheerfully detonate the structure of the original stories. You know – Holmes and Watson are enjoying breakfast in Baker Street, someone arrives with a seemingly-inexplicable problem, Holmes springs into action, etc, etc. Holmes as a martial artist and self-employed gentleman adventurer is by no means utterly inconsistent with Conan Doyle, but the very texture of the stories in these films is not recognisable as that of the classic Holmes canon.

Indeed, in this film there’s a sequence where Holmes and Watson have to machine-gun their way out of an enemy base which is much more like a Bond film than anything else. The action in this movie is well-mounted and the whole thing has been lavishly put together, with sumptuous production values and cinematography. And the movie is stuffed with moments verging on the brilliant – every time Holmes and Moriarty have a scene together, for example – even if things do occasionally get a bit silly (some of Holmes’ disguises stretch credulity to its utmost limits).

And whatever you may make of the two lead roles, there is some fantastic acting going on here – Noomi Rapace is a bit underused as the female lead, but Stephen Fry is terrific as Mycroft (revealing yet another new side to his talents), and Jared Harris is even better as Moriarty.

Our time is curiously blessed – received wisdom has it that in years gone by, every generation had one and only one Sherlock Holmes worthy of consideration, whether that be William Gillette, Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing or Jeremy Brett. And yet we are lucky enough to have both Downey’s version of the character and Benedict Cumberbatch’s to enjoy, the latter in Sherlock.

Sherlock comes back on TV in a few weeks, promising its own take on The Final Problem, and it will no doubt be interesting to compare the two. Sherlock may not have the big Hollywood money behind it, with the associated production values, but in terms of wit and intelligence and – above all else – fidelity to the original stories, for me it outguns the Guy Ritchie movies in virtually every department.

But, that said, this movie is an enjoyably frenetic and inventive way of spending a couple of hours, and certainly better than the first one. Is A Game of Shadows a classic interpretation of the Sherlock Holmes mythos? Absolutely not, but then I’m not sure it was ever intended to be. Is it a fun and satisfying piece of blockbuster entertainment? Yeah, pretty much – so I suppose we should settle for that.

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It has been announced that Anthony Horowitz, creator of the popular and acclaimed Alex Rider series of novels (and also notorious piece-of-TV-SF-junk Crime Traveller), is to write a new Sherlock Holmes novel (given the historic difficulty of sustaining a novel-length story centred on the Holmes character – even Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t manage it – one wonders if Horowitz knows what he’s let himself in for. But I digress). This draws me back to a topic which I’ve touched on before here, albeit briefly: the phenomenon of the ‘zombie franchise’. This snappy piece of terminology (which, to be honest, I’ve just coined myself, and really hope catches on) is how I like to refer to the situation where the original writer of a character or series passes away, only for the publishers to farm it out for somebody else to continue.

Lest anyone be confused, I don’t consider this to be the same thing as fan fiction, which is where admirers of a particular character or setting feel inspired to write their own unofficial additions to the canon. This sort of thing has a long and occasionally distinguished history, although it’s many years since I’ve enjoyed the mixed sensations of comfort, excitement, and guilt that I always get when slipping into the warm waters of Fanfic Lagoon.

No, I refer to – well, this sort of thing: Night of the Triffids by Simon Clark, And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer, Licence Renewed (and many others) by John Gardner, The Bourne Upset (no, I kid you not) by Eric van Lustbader, Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley, The Winds of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson … what, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom? Enough examples already.

These are all professionally-published sequels to famous novels, but (and this is the crucial thing) not by the original author – normally because the author in question has had poor taste enough to die before running his creation into the ground. And they make me nuts. Not just because they’re more-often-than-not lousy (I haven’t read all of the above, but the ones I have were substandard, not just to the original but as works of fiction generally), but because of what they represent.

But first, let’s make a vague nod in the direction of balance and see how one might attempt to defend this sort of thing. (Writer thinks himself into headspace of publisher/agent.) Well, the families of the deceased author in question have all agreed to the sequel being written and are frequently closely involved in the project (to the point where Brian Herbert has now written more Dunes than his father). There’s still a demand for stories set in these worlds, and we’re just meeting that demand. Also, it’s bound to stir up some new interest in the original books when the sequels come out…

Hmm, well. Not convinced – not convinced at all, to be honest. I don’t wish to impugn any of the authors’ families, as I’m sure their motives are as varied as the individuals involved, but I can’t help but suspect that, were one to peer into the eyes of any of the individuals involved on the publishing side, one would see a $-sign looking back at you. ‘We’re just meeting a demand’ has been the defence of numerous peddlers of substandard, overpriced, ethically dubious, or downright harmful material down the centuries, from slave traders to drug dealers to the publishers of Hello! magazine. As for ‘stirring up new interest in an old book’ – for interest, read sales, and there’s your $ sign again.

Not one of these new books has done anything to enhance the reputation of the original – usually you’re damned lucky if the original isn’t slimed by association. They are cash-ins, approved cash-ins, admittedly, and not all totally lacking in merit – but still cash-ins. At the time And Another Thing… was released I was accused of over-reacting when I described it as ‘literary grave-robbing’, but I stand by that.

The thing which really annoys me about the zombie franchise phenomenon is that, on the face of it, it treats the original writer as somehow incidental to the success of his or her book. I suppose it’s a tribute to their skill and imagination in creating a world so vivid and believable that it seems to be a real place they just stumbled into, and then returned bearing stories with them. Why not pay another writer to go there and bring back what he finds? Except, of course, that isn’t how it works. The best you can hope for are shadowy imitations and self-conscious aping of the original ideas and style. A tribute this may be, but it’s also a back-handed compliment of the harshest kind.

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