by Eric Freeman
Tonight at 9 p.m., PBS will air the third and final installment of the short series “Sherlock,” created for the BBC by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatis, both of latest-iteration “Doctor Who” fame. “Sherlock” stars the stereotypically named Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of Sherlock Holmes and “The Office”’s Martin Freeman as trusty sidekick and audience surrogate Dr. John Watson. The mechanics of the show should be familiar to anyone who’s ever encountered Holmes in literature, radio, television or film. A series of murders and crimes confound all authorities and laymen. Enter Sherlock, master of logic and deduction. He knows all, finds clues others can’t, and ties every bit of information together in a nice little bow of a solution. It’s all very entertaining, clever and even emotionally involving, more in line with Kenneth Branagh’s “Wallander” series than the old “Rumpole of the Bailey” mysteries my parents watch religiously. Except now Holmes lives in contemporary London and seems like the kind of borderline-autistic bookworm who wouldn’t be terribly out of place on “The Big Bang Theory.” He doesn’t get that a date is a two-person enterprise, though at least he still hardly ever tells Watson where he’s going. But why update Sherlock and Watson at all?
For one thing, the most essential traits of the character still resonate with audiences. Viewers can’t get enough of barely functional detectives with no lives outside of their work. The modern television landscape is populated with all manner of Holmes facsimiles: Dr. House on “House” (yes: house/”homes”), Dr. Cal Lightman on “Lie to Me”; you could even make the case for Bones on “Bones.”
But the traditional Holmes differs from most of these characters in one important respect: he is an expert in everything. House knows that every disease isn’t lupus, but put him on the trail of a gang of Chinese smugglers and he’d be useless. Holmes, on the other hand, knows the effects of beating someone senseless in sub-zero temperatures and stands as an authority on intricate cryptographic systems. There is no case which alludes his faculties, because he can think through anything and has the physical abilities to face criminals in hand-to-hand combat. He’s like David Caruso on “CSI: Miami,” just with enough wit to not have to rely on one-liners.
Yet for the original Holmes, one aspect of his skillset appears quite antiquated. When A Study in Scarlet, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Holmes novel, was published in 1887, this brand of encyclopedic knowledge was indicative of a growing sense of scientific optimism. Coming on the heels of the scientific revolution, Sherlock and other fictional detectives were characters whose gifts depended on both the scientific method and the fruits of scientific discovery. He was in that sense thoroughly modern, a man who trusted and depended on the latest innovation (and all that had come before, as well) to solve cases. What he described as elementary was in fact on the cutting edge. Science and its ever-expanding knowledge base clarifies and explains the world. Through science, Holmes creates a more harmonious and explicable world.
The new Sherlock, however, lives in an information age where encyclopedic knowledge is relatively unexceptional. With global search engines and Wikipedia, even people with poor memorization skills can enlist an army of facts with a few keystrokes. Remember the iPhone commercial where a disembodied pair of hands identifies a bird merely by its chirping? In the Victorian era, only Holmes would have that kind of information. Now anyone with access to the App Store is in good shape.
This leveling of the factual playing field is not necessarily a positive development. We have seen the outcome of the scientific revolution, and it’s unfortunately a bit of a mess. Cue a host of technophobic cliches: there’s no privacy, information is freely revealed with no regard for whom might get hurt, employers can reach workers at any hour in any location, our attention spans are pulled in too many directions by exponentially multiplying points of interest. There is too much informational feedback, and we cannot deal with it all.
The new Holmes is as much a critique of knowledge as his original self was an embodiment of it. And he plays equally important roles in solving London’s crimes and in man’s relationship with this new digitized world. In the first episode of the new series, Holmes visits a murder scene that confounds Scotland Yard. The word “rache” has been scratched into the wooden floor by the dead woman — it becomes instantly clear to all that she has been poisoned and attempted to spell out a final clue, in much the same way as the dead curator at the beginning of “The Da Vinci Code.” Police investigators have found that “rache” is German for “revenge” and attempt to parse its meaning. But only Holmes looks deeper and intuits that “rache” is actually an unfinished “Rachel.” Within a manner of seconds, Holmes also rifles off a number of personal details about the dead woman — that she is a serial adulterer, that she carried a suitcase, that she was only in London for one night — simply by looking at her ring and the water spots on her stockings.
These are personal details that eluded every other investigator in the room. Apart from showcasing Holmes’s intellect — which has always been a part of the character — they prove that he is especially adept at picking out personal details and turning them into facts that cannot presumably be found just by digging in the deceased’s Facebook profile or Twitter account. To put it another way, he’s refreshingly analog in a world where information has become increasingly digitized. He retrieves information that eludes the technology-reliant investigators.
Sherlock’s elegant solutions to crimes only amplify his human qualities. When information is readily available, it often just exists, sitting in a data bank for everyone to see and not touch. The
animating intelligence of a brilliant detective is therefore necessary to give that information context, to provide a connective meaning that ties every clue together. As in the original stories, Holmes acts as a positive ordering agent. But in an information-rich and disordered world, his skill of clarification takes on greater importance than it could in Victorian England. Holmes has always solved cases by synthesizing as much information as possible, but 19th-century society was ultimately built on familiar associations. In the modern world, the act of synthesis connects increasingly disparate and unrelated worlds. Holmes creates an interrelated network where one did not previously exist.
Conan Doyle’s world is ultimately simple — while Holmes is an ordering agent, the nefarious villain Professor Moriarty creates a criminal underworld that’s ultimately just as organized. But in modern society, everything is so undifferentiated that the true villain of the new series is not the unseen Moriarty — who up to now has not factored into the proceedings for more than a few minutes — but the ever-present state of information overload and a lack of a universal societal fabric. It’s no shock that Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, who in the literature stands as a deductive genius with little care for positive social change, is portrayed in the series as an unfeeling government official who deals in surveillance and desires raw data for its own sake — there is no narrative, only facts. Next to him Holmes is a superhero, not just a detective. In that incarnation, he is the only thing keeping everyone from falling into the abyss.
Our postmodern Holmes is not the person as thinking machine, which he often appears to be in the original stories, but a distinct antisocial personality who also happens to be exceedingly amazing at solving crimes. His brusque manner with people isn’t off-putting to the viewer, but endearing: it proves that he’s a person. As played by Cumberbatch, Holmes is charismatic even as he treats an adoring morgue worker like a speck of dirt. His reluctance to engage in profound emotional relationships with people is positive if only because, unlike a computer, he acknowledges them in the first place.
The creators of “Sherlock” don’t seem to understand that the central conflict of the show is between Holmes and the world around him, not between Holmes and Moriarty. Even if Holmes brings down the Moriarty criminal network tonight and saves the day, he can’t do anything about the fact that Watson was injured in action during a boondoggle of a war in Aghanistan, or that the bankers in the second episode have no scruples, or that the dead woman in the first case can only memorialize an aborted child by setting its would-be name as her email password. Contemporary London is a complicated, difficult information society, with problems that go far beyond having a really effective bad guy as a resident. Holmes can explain the stories of a few select victims. But what good are his efforts when there are an infinite number of infinitely accessible cases to be solved?