I’m not a hardcore Sherlockian, but I am a fan. I first came to the great detective through a comic book adaptation of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” and followed that to the original stories. Since at the time they were still under copyright, I was spared the plethora of half-assed pastiches we’re now awash in; the only non-Doyle story of any note was Nicholas Meyer’s estate-approved The Seven Per Cent Solution.
I’ve watched the BBC Sherlock with the same growing dismay as the recent seasons of Doctor Who, and for the same reason. When Sherlock began, it was clever and quick on its feet, compressing a season’s worth of inventiveness into three episodes. Inevitably, though, it slid into self-referential worship, and the Holmes/Watson relationship became not a friendship but an ongoing scolding, much the way Clara interacted with the Doctor.
The recent Sherlock holiday special, “The Abominable Bride,” was particularly egregious. At first it seemed to be a jaunt, with the cast transported to the 1880s of Doyle’s stories. About an hour in, though, it all became needlessly meta. The cleverness of the early episodes was now replaced with navel-gazing.
To get rid of the sour taste, I rewatched probably my favorite Holmes movie, Murder by Decree. In this Holmes-meets-Jack-the-Ripper tale, Christopher Plummer plays the warmest Holmes ever, and is perfectly complemented by James Mason’s irascible, ever-proper Watson. And most importantly, they convey a genuine friendship, something Sherlock has never really done.
Plummer takes Holmes’ impatience with those less intelligent and skews it from annoyance to amusement. In doing so, he loses the edge of contempt that is the core of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance. This is a Holmes who actually empathizes with the victims of crime, not one who sees them as mere pieces in a mental puzzle. And Watson is equally as sure of his place in the world; in an early scene, he rallies an opera crowd when a group of anarchists begin shouting abuse at the royal box.
But what sells the friendship is the way they make each other laugh. In their first scene, Watson refers to Holmes as “the prince of detectives,” and when Holmes inquires who might be king, Watson deadpans, “Lestrade, of course,” which breaks them both up…well, breaks them up in a proper British fashion. They laugh together many times in the film, in fact
The BBC’s Sherlock will probably continue for several more seasons, but like Doctor Who, it’s lost its charm for me. Holmes, like the Doctor, should be fun and exciting, not grim, depressing and cold. Murder by Decree gives us a Holmes who’s intellect is matched by his compassion, and I’ll take that over a high-functioning sociopath any day.