‘How Sherlock Changed the World’ Is Far Too Elementary

[9 December 2013]

By David Maine

This two-part, two-hour series is incredibly annoying, to the point of being infuriating. Largely this is because of potentially great subject matter, horribly mishandled. How Sherlock Changed the World posits that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional creation has had a profound real-world effect on how crime investigators solve crimes, pioneering such innovations as protecting the crime scene, collecting evidence such as fingerprints, studying ballistics and toxicology, and using deductive reasoning based on the wide range of information collected.

Is there really a causal link between Doyle’s fictional character and modern-day crime investigation techniques? This program would have you believe that there is.

It’s an intriguing idea, one that in better hands might make for a compelling couple of hours, or at least a diverting 30 minutes. Sadly, this program fails to be either compelling or diverting. Instead, it is a bloated and filler-stuffed waste of time, one that takes perhaps 15 minutes of factual information and stretches it to the two-hour mark by means of eye-glazing repetition, time-wasting cross-cuts, detours into unrelated true-crime stories, and snippets of the BBC’s popular TV series, Sherlock.

On the surface of it, there is some reason to consider Holmes as a genuine trailblazer in the theory behind forensic investigation. Prior to 1886, when the first Holmes story was published, policemen were apt to destroy evidence rather than treat it with the care it deserved, and there was a lot that got overlooked.

The way this program makes its point, however, is to have a series of talking heads inform is that Holmes was a genuine trailblazer in forensic investigation due to the care with which he preserved evidence and the way he didn’t overlook anything. This goes on for a couple of hours, interspersed with low-budget re-enactments of a hook-nosed Holmes standing over a dead body, chastising the local constabulary for failing to preserve the evidence. Everybody keeping up? Oh, good.

The story gets rather more interesting when actual criminal investigators appear to discuss this or that investigation, which has some bearing on the topic at hand—ballistics, blood spatters and so forth. However, it seems dubious to credit Holmes with the fact that a clever detective was able to observe unusual blood spatters, for example, indicating that the murder victim was vomiting blood due to alcoholism rather than bleeding from an assault.

Because Holmes is a fictional character, re-enactments and extracts from the novels are often used to suggest the themes the producers wish to get across. Sadly, however, the program relies on the same two or three scenes played over and over – a classic technique of padding out flimsy material on a low budget. (If it seems like I’ve mentioned the filler before, it’s because I have: much like the program itself, this review has little material to use as a basis, so it relies on repetition in order to meet the required length.)

Perhaps most infuriating is the program’s bland refusal to address its central thesis: did Doyle’s books in fact make an impression on criminal investigation? Many of the talking heads make the point that this or that element in foresics was pioneered in the novels, but the claim that the stories exerted a genuine influence over criminal investigation is not supported by one iota of evidence. (I did it again, didn’t I?)

In between breathless revelations like “If you find blood at a crime scene, something bad has happened here” and other equally cringeworthy comments, the program even undermines its own claims. If Doyle’s books had such a huge impact on criminal investigation, then why did the first UK forensic science lab not appear until 1935, some 50 years after Holmes made his debut? Why did the study of ballistics lag 40 years after Sherlock’s initial explorations? Such gaps in logic would be clear to a bright high school student, but apparently slipped past the producers of this nonsense.

No sooner does one talking head declare that “People reading this [Holmes’ blood-identification test] must have seen it as science fiction… surely these were just fantastic ideas” than the stentorian narrator intones: “Although fictional, Sherlock’s leaps in investigative science spurred scientists to do it for real”. Hey, you want some evidence for that? No time for that here, sorry.

There’s much more in this vein. Occasionally the program veers into being interesting, as investigators discuss the particulars of murder cases both famous and obscure. There is a certain grisly fascination in such atrocities. That’s not what the show promises to discuss, however. For viewers who have an interest in such things, this program offers fleeting moments of interest. Further interest comes in the form of brief newsreel footage of Doyle himself as he discusses his early life and influences. These moments go by quickly, though.

Anyone interested in Sherlock Holmes can safely ignore this snoozefest. PBS often offers stimulating, well-produced programs that expand viewers’ understanding of the world. How Sherlock Changed the World is not one of them.

There are no extras on the DVD. Just as well.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/176991-how-sherlock-changed-the-world/