It’s Technology, My Dear Watson: Sherlock for the 21st Century

Forget the clothes and the present day London sets, the sign that BBC One’s new series Sherlock, is not your mother’s Holmes is the mobile. More precisely, it’s the texts that the famous detective sends in the opening scenes of the first episode.

Faced with a series of suicides that appear related, the police are holding a press conference. While Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) discusses theories on the case, the journalists’ phones begin to buzz and the word “wrong” appears several times across the screen as a sort of floating subtitle. Sherlock doesn’t like what he’s hearing and he’s embarrassing the cops, sms style.

The use of subtitles—they appear whenever Sherlock is texting or searching the Internet on his phone—is gimmicky but it’s also a fun (if not obvious) way to update the Holmes’ stories. Another way the series makes the detective current is casting Benedict Cumberbatch whose energetic performance takes Sherlock from gentleman sleuth to self-admitted “high functioning sociopath”. When this Sherlock is bored, he grabs a gun and uses his living room wall for target practice. When he’s not, he conducts experiments on corpses. Nicotine patches have replaced the pipe and 221B Baker Street is more shabby than chic.

Of course, Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t be the same without his diary-writing companion Dr. Watson. In the updated version, John Watson (Martin Freeman) is now a blog-writing ex-Army doctor recently returned from a tour of Afghanistan who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He meets Sherlock through a mutual acquaintance and, in need of a roommate and some distraction in his life, joins the manic detective on his cases. Watson is alternatively amazed by Sherlock’s insights, delivered by Cumberbatch with both speed and arrogance, and frustrated by his roommate’s lack of empathy. Responding to the suicides in episode one, Holmes gleefully remarks: “Four serial suicides and now a note? It’s Christmas!”

While the suicides in the first episode are an interesting plot device, the solution to the mystery feels like the writers dropped the action into an episode of Fringe. Still, Sherlock is fast-paced and the chemistry between Freeman and Cumberbatch works to keep this darkly amusing version of Holmes from becoming unlikeable. By the third episode, the last of the 90-minute episodes of season one, Moriarty (Andrew Scott) enters the picture. Again, the plot feels like something else, this time it’s Die Hard 3, but the promise of more clashes between the consulting detective and Moriarty’s “consulting criminal” is more than enough to keep me interested in season two. Maybe by then, Sherlock will be Tweeting.

For viewers in the United States, Sherlock will be shown on Masterpiece Mystery! on PBS, 24 and 31 October and 7 November, at 9PM EST.

RATING 7 / 10