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Sherlock Holmes Now
When you think of Victorian era England you think of Oliver Twist and Ebenezer Scrooge. Of Jack the Ripper and Mr Hyde. It is the era of Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens. There is so much literature and historical events that will forever be associated with that place and that era. One of those characters would be Sherlock Holmes. When you think of Holmes you immediately think of horse drawn carriages and cobblestone streets. This is the era where Holmes belongs. Moving Holmes to the modern day would be as foolish as moving Billy the Kid to modern day Los Angeles. And yet, that is exactly what Hollywood had tried to do since the 1940s, move Sherlock Holmes out of stuffy Victorian England and into modern times.
Sherlock Holmes was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's greatest achievement. even so, Doyle had grown so tired of his creation, and twice attempted to permanently get rid of him. In 1893 Doyle shocked his fans by publishing The Adventure of the Final Problem. Holmes meets, for the first and last time, his greatest nemesis, Professor Moriarty. The story ended with Holmes and Moriarty fighting on a cliff above the Reichenbach Falls, and subsequently both falling off the cliff to their deaths. With Holmes dead, Doyle was free to go on to write historic novels. Holmes remained dead for another ten years before Doyle felt compelled by public pressure to bring him back. In the 1903 story The Adventure of the Empty House it is revealed that Holmes had faked his own death. 1917's His last Bow was written as Holmes' final case, set in 1914 on the eve of the first World War. having retired as a detective ten years earlier, Holmes and Watson had from then on been working as spies for the British government. His Last Bow ends with Holmes retiring as a detective for good, taking up the hobby of beekeeping to keep him occupied. But even retirement could not keep Doyle from writing more Holmes adventures. More stories emerged in the 1920s, with plots that dated back to the 1890's and early 1900s.
Doyle never got another chance to kill off Holmes. He died in 1930 of a heart attack at the age of 71. This left the fate of Holmes and Watson unknown, other than Holmes retiring in 1914, and Watson having not written any memoirs beyond 1917. For all anyone knew, both Holmes and Watson cold have survived Doyle well into the 1950s. Adventures of Holmes and Watson continued with Doyle's son Adrian who wrote another dozen short stories after his father's death. But it was in the emerging entertainment of motion pictures and later television where Holmes continued in hundreds of new adventures. He has been called the most prolific screen character in motion picture history, beginning with Sherlock Holmes Baffled in 1900.
In 1939 20th Century Fox produced an adaption of The Hound of the Baskerville, the first of many films to feature actor Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. John Watson. The series soon moved to Universal where it was decided that they wanted the latest story to take place in modern times. Based on His Last Bow, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror ( 1942 ) had Holmes tracking down Nazi spies. By the fifth film in the series, Sherlock Holmes in Washington, the great detective was solving crimes in the United States. The reasoning for moving Holmes into the then modern times of the 1940s was part of the war effort. Universal wanted screen heroes fighting Nazis. And in the 1940s it was not inconceivable that Holmes and Watson would still be alive and aiding the Allied forces in capturing spies. But they would have been in their early 90s. Not inconceivable that they both would still be spry, but it was a stretch to think they both still looked like they were in their 30s. Universal tried to explain this with an opening title card. "Sherlock Holmes, the immortal character of fiction created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is ageless, invincible and unchanging. In solving significant problems of the present day he remains ~ as ever ~ the supreme master of deductive reasoning." Conan Doyle had published stories of Holmes in a 40 year period between 1887 and 1927. The first adventure was set in 1881, and the final in 1914. It was not inconceivable to audiences in the 1940s that the gaslight era that Holmes came from was not too long ago. Many rural regions of the United States were still in the gaslight era, and would not see any modern upgrade until after the end of the war. Sherlock Holmes still around in moder times was an acceptable concept.
But not so in the 1970s. When the Rathbone & Bruce series of Sherlock Holmes films came to an end, further films made of the great detective took place back in Victorian England. By 1971 Holmes would have been an unreasonable 117 years of age. At that time the oldest living human on record had checked out at age 113. So why not just accept the Universal studios concept that Holmes and Watson were ageless? They were already doing this with other characters. Superman, who arrived on Earth as an infant around 1918, never ages out of his late 20s. In 1971 he and Lois Lane should have been in their 50s. Tarzan should have been in his 90s, but was still swinging around the jungle like a teenager. Superman, Tarzan and other long time characters could easily get away with being ageless because no one could ever really place the years of their back stories. Superman could have easily arrived on Earth in the 1950s as far as readers were concerned in 1971. But the stories of Sherlock Holmes were so well written that his readers tended to believe he was real, and as such so were the accounts of the mysteries he solved, which were almost all set in the late Victorian era. He was stuck there, and that was that.
Or it was that until 1971. It began with the play They Might Be Giants, followed by the 1971 screen adaption. George C Scott was Justin Playfair a millionaire living in New York City. Unable to cope after his wife's tragic death, he begins to believe he is Sherlock Holmes, and that unexplained tragic accidents must have been caused by his nemesis Professor Moriarty. Enter the psychiatrist played by Joanne Woodward, who's name happens to be Mildred Watson. Mildred tags after Justin as he imagines he is on the trail of Moriarty. This was by no means an attempt to bring Holmes into the modern world, but instead a way of updating the tale of Don Quixote. While the film bombed at the box office, it did stick around long enough for television producers to notice it and steal it's plot. The idea was for a series called Alias Sherlock Holmes. Larry Hagman played a clumsy Los Angeles motorcycle cop named Sherman Holmes. Since he is often mockingly compared to the great detective because of his last name, he decides to read a Sherlock Holmes novel. But while sitting next to his bike and reading it, the kickstand gives way and the bike falls on his head. When he awakens from his coma he believes that he is Sherlock Holmes, not only picking up Sherlock's mannerisms and accent, but somehow acquiring his amazing deductive abilities. A female psychiatrist named Joan Watson ( Jenny O'Hara ) is assigned to him, and he naturally assumes she is his old pal Watson. The pilot episode was shown as a television movie called The Return of the World's Greatest Detective, but never went beyond the initial airing.
While Alias Sherlock Holmes failed as a series, it did establish the ground rules as to what Hollywood producers wanted in a Sherlock Holmes television series. One, it had to be set in modern times. Two, Holmes must be in America. And three, Watson had to be female. In 1987 a second television series was launched on CBS that filled all three criteria. The Return of Sherlock Holmes was once again presented as a backdoor pilot telemovie. Jane Watson ( Mararet Colin ) was a descendant of John Watson, her family now living in Boston. Jane had become a private detective, but lack of clients had left her close to broke. She decides to sell her only asset, the deed to the family manor back in England. But while there to inspect the property, she discovers a secret room that contains the frozen body of Sherlock Holmes ( Michael Pennington ) and instructions how to thaw him out. Holmes had the bubonic plague, given to him by the brother of Moriarty. Since there was no cure, Watson decided to put Holmes in suspended animation until a cure could be found. Fortunately there was a cure in 1987, and after a trip to the hospital Jane convinces Holmes to go with her back to Boston where he ends up helping her solve a case. CBS decided not to pick it up as a series, but six years later used the same concept for a second television pilot. 1994 Baker Street: Sherlock Holmes Returns ( 1983 ) did not introduce anyone named Watson, but still gave Holmes a female sidekick. Dr. Amy Wilson ( Debarah Farentino ) is visiting an elderly patient named Mrs. Hudson, a decedent of the original Mrs. Hudson who now lived in an old house in San Fransisco. Wilson discovers a secret room in Mrs. Hudson's basement with a cryogenic chamber and accidentally thaws out Sherlock Holmes, who had instructed the Hudsons not to thaw him out until the year 2000. Holmes had apparently solved every mystery in his era, and had grown so bored that he decided to freeze himself so he could solve crimes in the future. Once again CBS decided not to pick up the series.
Television producers were bogged down in trying to explain how Holmes had traveled through time to today. A 1973 episode of the BBC's Comedy Playhouse featured a story called Elementary My Dear Watson which had Holmes ( John Cleese ) and Watson ( William Rushton ) solving crimes in the 1970s. The fact that they were characters from the Victorian era was part of the joke, and no explanation as to how they existed in this era was needed. Four years later Cleese revisited Sherlock Holmes with the telemovie The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It. This time Cleese played Arthur Sherlock Holmes, the grandson of Sherlock, and Arthur Lowe was Dr William Watson, the bumbling grandson of John Watson who has bionic legs. While this second Holmes adventure was also a parody, it did introduce the idea of bringing Holmes into the modern era through a decedent. That same idea would be picked up 20 years later with Adventures of Shirley Holmes, a made for kids series that ran between 1996 and 1999 that featured Meredith Henderson as the great grand niece of Sherlock. Another kids show that aired around the same time called Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century was a cartoon that skipped the present and brought Holmes into the future. Someone has cloned Moriarty and the master criminal has become a major threat. Scientists decide to use their advanced technology to bring Sherlock Holmes back to life to track the Moriarty clone down.
If anyone could solve the problem of bringing Sherlock Holmes across time to the current it would be writers for Doctor Who. The popular science fiction series featured a time traveling alien known as The Doctor who could have easily taken Holmes and Watson into his time machine and deposited them in any era. Doctor Who writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat began discussing Sherlock Holmes on a train ride to a Doctor Who production meeting, and came to the realization that Doyle had never specifically set Holmes in any era. When the first novel was written the events had been set two years previously, as did most of the Sherlock Holmes stories. These were reminiscences of Dr. John Watson written within a few years after their events. When Doyle wrote the stories they took place in what was then contemporary times. But having established a dates in the early stories, it became clear that Holmes would be at retirement age by 1917, so Doyle simply began writing stories that were dated years earlier. Other famous detectives had the luxury of being timeless. The elderly Miss Marple was introduced in the late 1920s, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys introduced the same decade. While Marple seemed to defy the grimm reaper by remaining elderly and alive for decades, Nancy and the Hardy's never aged beyond their teenage years. Mike Hammer's first story took place in 1947, Ellery Queen in 1923, Nero Wolfe in 1934, Philip Marlowe in 1939 and Hercule Poirot in 1920. None of these detectives were ever permanently locked into the eras they were introduced, and as a result movies and television series based on them usually took place in contemporary times.
But Holmes had developed a loyal following of enthusiasts who saw Doyles stories as the cannon, including the years the stories took place. Four years after the death of Conan Doyle a group of Holmes fans founded The Baker Street Irregulars, an organization devoted to studying the Sherlock Holmes books written by Doyle. In other words, nerds. And once any fictional character develops a loyal following of nerds, the cannon tends to be locked. The Holmes cannon had been written as if it were actual historical events, so the era where they took place took importance. The one time anyone had broken with that era was during the 1940s. But the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce films had other deviations from the cannon. Watson was portrayed as a bumbling idiot, an image that would stay with that character for decades. The series made many other annoying deviations, such as elevating Moriarty to a recurring arch enemy of Holmes when in the actual cannon Holmes only crossed paths with Moriarty once. While the Rathbone and Bruce films became the gold standard of Sherlock Holmes screen adaptions, it was well known among film producers that fans of the books were not at all happy with them. Perhaps for this reason future adaptions of Sherlock Holmes honored the cannon by keeping Holmes within the Victorian age.
Gatiss and Moffat challenged the idea that Holmes could only be set in the Victorian age with a new series called Sherlock. Here Holmes ( Benedict Cumberbatch ) and Watson ( Martin Freeman ) are the same exact characters as found in the Doyle books, only updated to 2010. Sherlock was a hit for the BBC. But more important it was accepted by Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts. By setting Sherlock Holmes in the present, Gatiss and Moffat did not need to come up with a gimmick that brought Holmes into the present. This is what had hampered the other Holmes series. Instead of getting right to the mystery, the first half hour of the pilot dealt with explaining how Holmes made the jump through time. By the time the actual mystery is presented, most of the audience had lost interest.
The BBC had successfully established a truly timeless Sherlock Holmes, and others noticed. In 2009 Warner Brothers released the first of a series of Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson. The films were a success, which once again got CBS interested in their own Sherlock Holmes series. And although the successful Sherlock Holmes films took place in the Victorian era ( although with a slight steampunk element ) CBS still wanted their Holmes series to take place in the present. This time they decided to follow the lead taken by Sherlock, and present a contemporary Sherlock Holmes. The modern retelling of Holmes did away with the time travel element, but CBS also wanted Holmes based in the United States and a female Watson. In the series Elementary we are introduced to Joan Watson ( Lucy Liu ), a former surgeon who has since become a "sober companion", or basically a hired babysitter who tags along with a recent out patient from rehab to make sure they do not relapse. She has been hired by the father of Sherlock Holmes, a former consulting detective for Scotland Yard who had recently gone through rehabilitation for his own addictions. Sherlock's father is apparently wealthy and owns a number of properties in the United States, including the New York City brownstone Sherlock is now living in. If Sherlock does not agree to live with his sober companion for a few months then his father threatens to cut him off. Holmes reveals that he has just begun work as a consultant for the Police Department, and Watson ends up tagging along on his investigations. Elementary goes way off canon here. This is a different Sherlock Holmes. He sports tattoos, frequently hires prostitutes, and spends a lot of time in Chat rooms. Characters from the original stories frequently turn up, such as the blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton and Sebastian Moran who this time is a serial killer. Mrs Hudson shows up midway through the series and is hired by Holmes to clean the apartment once a month. And of coarse there is Irene Adler and Moriarty.
If one can accept that the writers have completely abandoned the Conan Doyle cannon, then Elementary can be enjoyed. After all, so many other adaptions, including the latest Sherlock Holmes movies, have abandoned the cannon. Only the Granada television series came close to staying faithful to Conan Doyle's words, and even then that series took a number of liberties. Myself, a long time fan of Sherlock Holmes, I find it easier to accept the series when you think of the characters as reincarnations of the originals, or as an alternative universe version. Some Holmes fans have complained that this series has gone so far away from it's source material that it has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes other than the lead characters sharing the same name. But as long as you accept it for what it is, a deviation from the original, then there is much for a serious Sherlock Holmes fan to enjoy. Although there is one troubling element for me. The insistence that Watson be female. Do the producers intend for Sherlock and Watson to become romantically linked some time in the future? Never the less, this new version of Sherlock Holmes turned out to be a hit for CBS. So they must have done something right. And for those who prefer the original Sherlock Holmes, the Granada series pretty much covered the best stories.
As I write this, a lawsuit has been filed against the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The original Sherlock Holmes stories are now in public domain, and with that, theoretically, so is Sherlock and Watson. But the final Sherlock Holmes stories, the ones Doyle reluctantly wrote in the 1920s after he had already retired his most famous creation, are still copywrited. Because of this the Conan Doyle estate is still claiming ownership of the character. But Sherlock Holmes enthusiast Leslie Klinger believes that Sherlock Holmes and most his supporting characters are in the public domain, and has filed suit against Conan Doyle's family to declare Sherlock Holmes legally in the public domain. Up to this point all television and movie producers have needed to ask the Doyle estate permission to use the character, and pay them a hefty licensing fee. If Sherlock Holmes is declared legally public domain then it is very likely that there will be a glut of Sherlock Holmes on television and in the movies. Not only competing Sherlock Holmes movie series, but perhaps competing network television series as well. And now that Sherlock Holmes has been established as an ageless character, he could turn up anywhere. Even on the Law & Order franchise.