Thursday, 17 May 2012

Changing Sherlock: CBS go 'Elementary'

There has been heated discussion about the decision of the American commercial television network CBS to pick up Elementary, a show that is very much reminiscent of BBC's Sherlock: we have Holmes and Watson, and they are in the twenty-first century. Steven Moffat has been heard to complain about CBS's decision to produce a show so similar to Sherlock. Originally, the Sherlock production team was approached by CBS with a request to remake Sherlock for the American market, but they were turned down. According to Steven Moffat, despite being rejected, CBS 'decided to make [a show about Holmes in the twenty-first century] anyway'. While it is understandable that the writer of a show about Holmes in the twenty-first century would feel a certain amount of indignation and protectiveness over their idea getting picked up by a different network, the fact remains that the base for the script of Elementary was written in 2000, and that Sherlock owes its popularity not only to its good writing, but the fact that it rode in on the coattails of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes film, showing impeccable timing.

After various promo pictures of Watson and Holmes floating around the internet, last night CBS released a preview video for Elementary, starring Lucy Liu as Joan Watson and Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes. In an interview with The Insider, Steven Moffat was quoted to say: "[Mark Gatiss and I] welcome it, but don't damage the brand."

Speaking of the Holmes brand being damaged, it should be taken into account that Holmes fought against Dracula, the forces of Cthulhu, robotic dinosaurs created by his fictional older brother, went against another fictional older brother alongside the Doctor, and that he was also a dog and a mouse. None of these adaptations have damaged the brand, and it is presumptuous to assume that future pastiches will: with adaptations, there is no should or ought to, and the fact that the writers can play around with the original characters is exactly what makes adapting (and fan fiction) so appealing.

In the same interview, Moffat also added: "[Elementary have] got three big changes: it's Sherlock Holmes in America, it's Sherlock Holmes updated and it's Sherlock Holmes with a female Watson. I wonder if he's Sherlock Holmes in any sense other than he's called Sherlock Holmes", which echoes the concerns of many fans of BBC's Sherlock.

First of all, concerning setting the series in America: although it is true that London is basically a character in its own right in the canonical stories, during Victorian times Britain was the biggest empire of the world, and London was just as, if not even more, culturally and racially diverse than it is now. Sherlock Holmes is far from being exclusively the domain of the middle-class heteronormative white male. Holmes and Watson have dealt with Americans, Indians, the Chinese, Italians, Australians, and countless other ethnicities which I am probably forgetting. If you want a culture clash, you need not look further than nineteenth century Britain. Some of the stories which have Holmes deal with a foreign presence are: The Sign of Four, Valley of Fear, The Yellow Face, The Five Orange Pips, The Greek Interpreter, The Illustrious Client, and others. Displacing Holmes in America would in no way diminish the quality or the authenticity of the characters, or make him less of a Holmes.

Elementary promo picture
As to putting Holmes in the twenty-first century, he has already been introduced to the twenty-second century. Everyone was sceptical about Sherlock originally, and the decision of the creators to place the detective in modern day London, and yet it proved to be a brilliant move, winning the show several prestigious TV awards.

Complaining about Watson being turned into a woman of colour, as many fans of Sherlock have done, is another issue. Conan Doyle wrote Holmes and Watson as men because it was the natural thing: women didn't serve as officers in the army, and they were not doctors in Victorian times. It would be very difficult for a woman to have independent means enough to be a consulting detective and to live on her own, unless she was a widow or she was protected (both financially and in other ways) by an older, male relative like a father, grandfather or uncle. Doyle was twenty-seven when he wrote the first Holmes story, and he wasn't progressive in his writing and perception of women until later in life. Also, platonic male friendship of the kind that Holmes and Watson had was held in high esteem in Victorian society: men loved to read about it, and it gave them something to aspire to in their own relationships.

Those are all the social implications of gender and the perception of masculinity in Victorian society. However, if we strip the friendship between Holmes and Watson down to its bare bones, there is nothing gender-dependant about their friendship that immediately jumps out. They respected and loved each other because of their intellect, bravery, and quick-wittedness. These traits are not bound exclusively to the male gender, or a male friendship. Writing a female Watson is a double edged sword, and personally I have to say that I am worried: not because it is a female Watson, but rather because how she, and her relationship with Holmes, will be portrayed.

Finally, the only thing left to say about Elementary is that it should be given a chance. It is a very risky venture and it has equal chances to success or fail, but we won't know whether it's done the former or the latter until the first episode airs on CBS this autumn.