Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 1. A Study in Pink (2010)
You can imagine how the pitch to the BBC went. “Well, we all know about the adaptations of the Conan Doyle stories. They’re very reverential and, in many cases, rather dull by modern standards. We want to bring Sherlock up-to-date! That and the fact we don’t want to be beaten by Guy Ritchie who’s just picked up a shed-load of money for directing a new old-school Sherlock Holmes story.” No doubt, they also referred to Ritchie’s slow-motion convention to break down Sherlock’s thinking processes into digestible chunks. Having little arrows and subtitles appear on the screen to tell us where we should be looking and explaining what we should see is always useful to those of us in the slow lane of the intellectual motorway.
So A Study in Pink (2010) starts off as in A Study in Scarlet with Dr John Watson (Martin Freeman) recently returned from Afghanistan and looking for somewhere to stay in London. A mutual friend introduces him to Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) who’s looking for someone to share the rooms he already occupies at 221B Baker Street, complete with a new Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs). We beautifully recapture the spirit of Holmes’ analysis of John Watson’s watch in The Sign of Four by having the new Sherlock deduce John Watson’s “brother” is recently separated and often drunk by looking at the cellphone he carries. There’s also a very nice rewriting of John Watson’s background. The suggestion he has post-traumatic stress disorder and needs to rest, in part because of his leg injury, is cleverly inverted, first by Sherlock who accuses him of a psychosomatic disorder, and then by Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) who suggests the good doctor should fire Ella (Tanya Moodie) his therapist for diagnosing PTSD. Mycroft suggests the cause of the stress is that our soldier cum doctor is suffering acute war deprivation syndrome. All he needs for a cure is a little excitement in his life. Needless to say, within hours of not actually agreeing to move in with Sherlock, John Watson is jumping across rooftops and running through the streets as if his life depended on it. Not a bad way of shaking off a psychosomatic war injury.
We then get into the meat of the story which poses the question “Can a sequence of suicides be the work of a serial killer?” We also get into the same game played by other authors like G K Chesterton in the Father Brown stories who eventually identifies “The Invisible Man” that can walk through the streets unnoticed. When we get to the fourth suicide, Detective Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) recognises his own talents are insufficient and calls in Sherlock. I note that, in the original story, Holmes knows that Rache is German for revenge whereas our modern Sherlock thinks the victim was going to complete Rachel for reasons which become clear later on. You have to pity this Detective Inspector Lestrade if he’s read the original or the Lovecratian pastiche “A Study in Emerald” by Neil Gaiman. There are many different versions of this same scenario in the Holmes canon. Keeping them all straight in his mind and then trying to second-guess this new Sherlock will drive any self-respecting Lestrade nuts. Sergeant Sally Donovan (Vinette Robinson) casually calls Sherlock the “Freak”, a view shared by local crime scene investigator Anderson (Jonathan Aris) with whom she’s apparently sleeping when respective spouses are away from home. They represent the “official” resentment of the police that an outsider should be allowed to interfere and, worse, steal their thunder.
Anyway, this new set of stories is going to play between the lines of the original stories and one line, in particular, has already been highlighted. In the “Final Problem”, Homes is described as having engaged in a private war against Moriarty. So in this first episode, he first learns he has a fan who has “taken out a hit on him” and, at the end, learns the name of the fan is Moriarty. This immediately takes us out of the original framework which, chronologically, does not introduce the arch-enemy until The Valley of Fear. Given this is to be a complete reinterpretation of the originals, the writing team of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat are free to begin and run with the rivalry between the two men of genius, not counting Mycroft who’s somewhat less proactive.
It seems Benedict Cumberbatch is playing Sherlock as somewhat sociopathic. Looking for something to relieve the boredom of existence, he disassembles crimes out of curiosity. He’s a detective only as an unintended consequence of his need for mental stimulation. If we assume he’s going to be confronted by equally brilliant antagonists like Jeff (Philip Davis), the main issue in each case will be the way in which each genius seeks to occupy his or her mind. The debate with Jeff is a masterpiece. If ever you had wondered how someone might persuade Sherlock to commit suicide, this is the answer. It magnificently plays on Sherlock’s inherent arrogance in believing there’s no problem he can’t solve. In other words, Jeff likes the challenge of analysing people and working out how to persuade them to commit suicide. In all probability, he’s using similar deductive techniques to Sherlock but for expressly destructive purposes. Martin Freeman has also started off well in the difficult role as John Watson. It’s a thankless task to stand with your mouth permanently open in wonder at the brilliance of the man beside you (except in the delightful Without a Clue, of course). Hopefully, this Watson will stop saying, “That’s amazing!” and just get on with running, jumping and, if the situation calls for it, shooting. So far, it’s not that he’s stupid. He just hasn’t had time to adjust to the new reality.
When you put all this together, A Study in Pink is an impressive first outing. There are one or two periods where the pace dropped but, to make up for it, there are also some nice jokes, e.g. this first crime is a three nicotine patch problem. So whether judged as entertainment or a reinvention of the Sherlock Holmes canon, this series starts auspiciously.
For reviews of the other episodes, see:
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 2. The Blind Banker (2010)
Sherlock: Season 1, Episode 3. The Great Game (2010)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 1. A Scandal in Belgravia (2012)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 2. The Hounds of Baskerville (2012)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 3. The Reichenbach Fall (2012)