Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The New Sherlock: Great Stars, but terrible plots

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most popular fictional characters ever created. He was first introduced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the novel, A Study in Scarlet, in 1887. The first story was followed by many serialized adventures, many of which have been made into movies. Every mystery writer after Holmes has borrowed from the master. Today's tv programs rely on forensic science methods first introduced by Doyle.

One series that doesn't rely on Conan's detective--except for his name and a superficial resemblance to his methods--is the new BBC Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the legendary sleuth. I recently watched the first episode, A Study in Pink, and came away feeling cheated, as if the writers of that show had pulled a sleight of hand trick.

In fact, they had. Cumberbatch's impersonation of Holmes is fine, and he makes some excellent deductions about a missing pink suitcase. But the deductions do not help him solve the crime. The criminal delivers himself into Holmes's hands by picking him up in a taxi from 221B Baker Street. The original Sherlock solves crimes. The modern Sherlock waits for the criminal to solve the crime.

The criminal in A Study in Pink is sufficiently creepy, and has a high opinion of his own intelligence, but he wouldn't have been a match for the original Sherlock. Cumberbund's Sherlock, however, nearly lets himself be murdered by the villain, who has killed others before. Sherlock is apparently about to drink poison to prove that he can outwit the murderer. The murderer places two pills on the table, one filled with a deadly poison, the other a harmless placebo.

There is a strong odor of deja vu about this scene. It's taken directly from the Princess Bride, where Vizzini is tricked into a guessing game by Dread Pirate Roberts. Vizzini never had a chance in the game because Roberts tricked him by putting poison into both goblets set before them. Roberts had gained an immunity to iocaine poison before suggesting the duel.

Such a denouement would be worthy of the original Sherlock, although he was probably too much of a gentleman not to give his opponent a sporting chance. But the modern Sherlock does not control the situation, the murderer does. Sherlock is supposedly tempted to take a pill, trusting in his superior intelligence to pick the harmless one. But this is something the original Sherlock would never have done. If that Sherlock found himself in a similar situation, he undoubtedly would have deduced which pill to take by its color, or its scent, or something equally scientific.

The modern Sherlock is apparently ready to gamble his life on a 50-50 bet. Even the most inveterate gambler would never take odds on that wager! He would be guided by the gambler's maxim, never bet more than you can afford to lose. Sherlock is saved by a deus ex machina, when Watson takes a risky shot with a pistol across the street, through 2 glass windows, and over Sherlock's shoulder. At least Watson is no idiot. He takes the risk, but relies on his marksmanship more than his luck.

The new Sherlock survives A Study in Pink thanks to Watson's skill with a pistol, not the detecting skills of the world's only consulting detective. The tv production relies on digital special effects to hold its audience, much like CSI and the other forensic investigation shows. The colors are lush and London is still London, but the plot is not nearly as clever as it would like us to believe.

The point was driven home again by the first episode of the current series, where Sherlock Holmes saves London from a terrorist attack. Once again, clever detection plays little role in solving the crime. Holmes appears to stumble on a subway car that is loaded with explosives.

"The bomb isn't in the train," he announces to Watson. "The train is the bomb."

It's a nice play on words, but entirely meaningless. Clearly the explosives have been placed in the train, else how did they get there. At this point the scriptwriter saves Sherlock and Watson with one of the hoariest plot devices of all time. The bomb in the train has a clock that can be seen ticking down to zero. Granted, the device of the heroine tied to the railroad tracks is older, but not by much. James Bond, who was like Sherlock Holmes except that he worked for the government and killed people, faced the ticking time-bomb in Goldfinger, 50 years ago this year. Earlier examples probably exist.

But the ticking time bomb with a digital display never existed. Why would a bomb have such a device, except in a movie? Who would need to read it, except a fictional detective about to be blown to bits? Modern bombers use radio signals from cell phones to detonate their devices, or other equally modern techniques. The modern Sherlock does not have to face such villains.

The modern Sherlock has a good excuse. His writers are being playful. They're playing with the legend. Blowing up parliament can be funny, you see. The modern Sherlock even plays a game with Watson, pretending that he doesn't know how to defuse the bomb. Then he flips a switch on the case and the clock stops.

"Bombs always have an off switch," he explains to Watson, who is just as irritated at him as the viewers should be.

Bombs don't have an off-switch, but televisions do. I wouldn't be surprised if Sherlock fans soon grew tired of a Sherlock Holmes who doesn't detect and a plot that holds no mysteries. There is a reason why most of the Sherlock Holmes movies are based on plots by Sir Arthur. He was the best.

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