Monday, January 20, 2014

BBC's Sherlock

BBC's Sherlock, a modern re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes, is probably the best British series out right now. It just completed its third season, and there are only 3 movie-long episodes per season.

The series in itself is excellently produced, and appeals to people that have never had any interaction with the original Sherlock Holmes canon from Conan Doyle's stories. However, there is a hidden layer underneath the series - a level of information visible to the original Sherlock readers.

The genius of the series is that it echoes the original stories, without trying to copy them, but always being respectful of them. This is apparent in the first episode of the series, "A Study in Pink", which echoes the very first Sherlock story "A Study in Scarlet".

In the original Conan Doyle story (set around 1880), Watson hands his watch over to Sherlock, who deduces the following information just by looking at the watch:

SHERLOCK: There are hardly any data. The watch has been recently cleaned, which robs me of my most suggestive facts. Subject to your correction, I should judge that the watch belonged to your elder brother, who inherited it from your father.
JOHN: That you gather, no doubt, from the H. W. upon the back? 
SHERLOCK: Quite so. The W. suggests your own name. The date of the watch is nearly fifty years back, and the initials are as old as the watch: so it was made for the last generation. Jewellery usually descends to the eldest son, and he is most likely to have the same name as the father. Your father has, if I remember right, been dead many years. It has, therefore, been in the hands of your eldest brother.
JOHN: Right, so far. Anything else?
SHERLOCK: He was a man of untidy habits,--very untidy and careless. He was left with good prospects, but he threw away his chances, lived for some time in poverty with occasional short intervals of prosperity, and finally, taking to drink, he died. That is all I can gather.

Here is how Sherlock explains his deduction to the surprised Watson. This is some of Conan Doyle's finest work:

When you observe the lower part of that watch-case you notice that it is not only dinted in two places, but it is cut and marked all over from the habit of keeping other hard objects, such as coins or keys, in the same pocket. Surely it is no great feat to assume that a man who treats a fifty-guinea watch so cavalierly must be a careless man. Neither is it a very far-fetched inference that a man who inherits one article of such value is pretty well provided for in other respects. 
It is very customary for pawnbrokers in England, when they take a watch, to scratch the number of the ticket with a pin-point upon the inside of the case. It is more handy than a label, as there is no risk of the number being lost or transposed. There are no less than four such numbers visible to my lens on the inside of this case. Inference,--that your brother was often at low water. Secondary inference,--that he had occasional bursts of prosperity, or he could not have redeemed the pledge. Finally, I ask you to look at the inner plate, which contains the key-hole. Look at the thousands of scratches all round the hole,--marks where the key has slipped. What sober man’s key could have scored those grooves? But you will never see a drunkard’s watch without them. He winds it at night, and he leaves these traces of his unsteady hand.

Now, in the modern Sherlock setting, Watson hands him over his cell phone instead of a watch. Here are Sherlock's deductions, echoing the original story:

I know you’ve got a brother who’s worried about you but you won’t go to him for help because you don’t approve of him – possibly because he’s an alcoholic; more likely because he recently walked out on his wife.

When the time comes to explain how he figured this out, Sherlock explains later in the episode:

SHERLOCK: Your phone. It’s expensive, e-mail enabled, MP3 player, but you’re looking for a flatshare – you wouldn’t waste money on this. It’s a gift, then. Scratches. Not one, many over time. It’s been in the same pocket as keys and coins. The man sitting next to me wouldn’t treat his one luxury item like this, so it’s had a previous owner. Next bit’s easy. You know it already. 
JOHN: The engraving. 
Harry Watson
From Clara
SHERLOCK: Harry Watson: clearly a family member who’s given you his old phone. Not your father, this is a young man’s gadget. Could be a cousin, but you’re a war hero who can’t find a place to live. Unlikely you’ve got an extended family, certainly not one you’re close to, so brother it is. Now, Clara. Who’s Clara? Three kisses says it’s a romantic attachment. The expense of the phone says wife, not girlfriend. She must have given it to him recently – this model’s only six months old. Marriage in trouble then – six months on he’s just given it away. If she’d left him, he would have kept it. People do – sentiment. But no, he wanted rid of it. He left her. He gave the phone to you: that says he wants you to stay in touch. You’re looking for cheap accommodation, but you’re not going to your brother for help: that says you’ve got problems with him. Maybe you liked his wife; maybe you don’t like his drinking. 
JOHN: How can you possibly know about the drinking? 
SHERLOCK: Power connection: tiny little scuff marks around the edge of it. Every night he goes to plug it in to charge but his hands are shaking. You never see those marks on a sober man’s phone; never see a drunk’s without them.

The watch/phone analogy here is one of the most glaring examples. However, every episode is filled with dozens of little details that have been pulled from the canon.The genius of the series is that they choose the more interesting and relevant stuff from the original stories and adapt them to the modern world.