Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Brainy Is The New Sexy

'In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer — excellent for drawing the veil from men's motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.'
Sir A Conan Doyle - 'A Scandal In Bohemia'

So, unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably noticed a certain amount of fuss over the latest television incarnation of Dr Wh.... sorry, Sherlock Holmes. Well, it's an easy mistake to make isn't it? Both are unbearable show-offs, with lesser companions to contextualise their clever-dickery. Both have brains the size of planets, quirky dress sense and most importantly (SPOILER ALERT) both have the rather useful ability to transcend death and become reborn.

Ignoring the obvious Christ analogies, this trick of recharging/reanimating a withering franchise was quite possibly Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's greatest legacy to scriptwriters, producers and directors. The sleuth's reappearance from the dead after his tussle with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls at least normalised the device of bringing back heroes from seemingly impossible dead ends. From Superman to Ellen Ripley; we owe it all to Sir Arthur.

But back to the timelord comparisons...The genetic makeup of the modernised Baker Street sleuth and the causes of his massive success are largely down to the men who have successfully taken Conan Doyle's original text and coated it with 21st century slickness and gadgetry: Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss. Both wrote for Dr Who (it's worth noting that Sherlock directors Euros Lyn and Toby Haynes also directed the Gallifrean) and both are quite obviously people who, as school children, didn't quite get out enough at break time; preferring to pore over books and other such girly things. Dr Who (at least from the reign of Russell T Davies onwards) has been revenge of sorts of the sci fi geek: Sherlock's furtherance of this gold-plated success has shown that a deep and abiding love plus obsessive familiarity of the principles and twists that made up the mechanics of Sir A's books (and let's not forget that Conan Doyle wrote a lot of sci fi as well) really does prepare one for world TV domination. For, once you get the balance of scientific method and sexual politics right, you have the makings of something unbeatable. As Irene Adler (she of the quotation above) says in A Scandal In Belgravia, the first episode of the recently finished series of Sherlock: 'Brainy is the new Sexy'. And how...

Moffatt and Gatiss have served us up a world where plots and on-screen CGI trickery almost fall over themselves to scream, 'look! I'm being clever!', whether it's with animated texts popping up in the air or via whip smart scripts that combined humour with the most important sleight of hand needed in a detective thriller: subtle exposition. In all three parts of this second series, original plots were hinted at just enough to make the connoisseur chuckle (The Speckled Band became the Speckled Blonde, the appearance of the deerstalker - although in the books Holmes never wore one), recurring jokes rewarded the regular viewer (ie: the constant denial of Holmes and Watson's homosexuality) and above all none of the details were over-explained, although a certain amount of plausibility was maintained. After all: Sherlock is nothing if not the very embodiment of rationalism versus superstition. But that isn't to say that our modernised titular hero had no soul or even any desires.

Take another look at that opening paragraph. Conan Doyle's original existed in a different era: one that worshipped the rational above all. Adler is admired more than other females because Holmes was bested by her; ultimately by escaping with her (unused) blackmail material and with a new husband, to boot. Interestingly, the character of Irene Adler has been used time and again by those who sought to extend the franchise, as a cypher for the one woman (THE Woman) who could get to Holmes' heart. Billy Wilder's The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes is probably the most famous example. But in the most recent incarnation the power play is markedly shifted.

Putting aside recent attempts to brand Moffatt's treatment of Adler as a lesbian dominatrix as sexist, the episode featuring Sherlock's encounter with a woman who doesn't bore him (the one quality he abhors in all of humanity) takes a new turn with the old plot device. Here Sherlock's admiration quickly turns into something approaching mystification. To all intents and purposes, lovelorn, following her supposed death, on hearing that she still lives he literally floats down Baker Street to his front door. We see the one thing that Conan Doyle's hero never displayed - he's confused; dumbfounded at the effect of another human on his world.

But that's not to say that only one episode was sexy. Episode two's take on the Hound of The Baskervilles (plural hounds in this case) was spiced up by default, not only by Watson's chatting up technique, but also by the mere presence of Russell Tovey, BBC Three shorthand for desirability (although his 'stunned taxi with its doors open' act does nothing for me). It wasn't quite as alluring, but luckily the biggest guns were reserved for the finale. Andrew Scott's Jim Moriarty chewed scenery but made something of a mark by luring Sherlock, not with his very own viciously camp charms, but by appealing to Holmes' greatest love... himself.

While it could also be argued that the trio of Moriarty, Watson and Holmes made up a very palpable male love-triangle, ultimately Holmes' downfall was effected by the one thing that was obvious all along: his narcissism. How he loved to show off. It is a portrait of a man who needs unconditional admiration from the whole world but saves the messy stuff for his own head. Moriarty's lustful defrocking of the genius says more about the arch-criminal's need to get his attention, but in the end, as Sherlock (MORE SPOILER ALERTS) watches Watson cry at his graveside, it becomes apparent that other's love for him is merely baffling; for no one loves Sherlock quite as much as Sherlock.

The fact that I've expended several hours and some paltry brain power on a mere detective series confirms to me that this was great telly and superb drama. Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Andrew Scott all shone, although on second viewing I found Lara Pulver's Adler somewhat more stilted than it previously appeared. I must have been somehow distracted...

And that's exactly why Moffatt and Gatiss deserve our thanks. In using such subterfuge, distractions and trickery, they're easily the equal of Moriarty himself. Brainy, sexy nerds. I look forward to series three.

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