Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous literary characters in existence, and considering that he’s just a regular man, is incredibly recognisable no matter who is playing him. You could stick a deerstalker hat and magnifying glass on a bare shelf and someone would look at it and say ‘oh, Sherlock Holmes’. With how iconic the character is it’s no surprise that a new adaptation comes around every decade or so, but none have quite taken the world by storm the same way that BBC’s Sherlock did back in the summer of 2010.
The series came about during a conversation between long time friends and creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, who were on a train together at the time. The two of them talked through their love of the books, and the different adaptations that had been made over the years, and thought that it could be fun to try and update the classic Victorian tales for a modern world.
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They pitched their idea to some BBC executives, and were given the go ahead to make a 60 minute pilot episode. The series cast Martin Freeman as John Watson, who was probably best known for The Office at the time, and the relatively unknown Benedict Cumberbatch at Sherlock Holmes. Whilst we can now look at this casting as something good, at the time people couldn’t believe that the BBC were spending so much money on a series with two ‘nothing’ actors. But more on the actors later.
The Sherlock team produced an hour long pilot episode loosely based on the first Sherlock Holmes story, ‘A Study in Scarlet’. This episode is still available on the series one DVD, and is well worth the look because it’s probably the best version of Sherlock around. Based on the strength of this pilot the series was green-lit, but with some slight changes. The show was only going to get three episodes, but each would be 90 minutes long. This is where the series began to run into problems.
The first episode was entirely re-shot, both to account for the new run-time, and to make use of the bigger budget available. The episode was padded with some unnecessary scenes, like the introduction of Mark Gatiss’ Mycroft Holmes to try and make some mystery and potential conflict that went nowhere, and to shoehorn hints of Moriarty (Andrew Scott) into the episode. Despite these changes, the first episode of the series, ‘A Study in Pink’, is still probably the best episode of the entire show, because it’s the closest to what Sherlock Holmes is supposed to be.
The first episode shows Sherlock being given a mystery and actively trying to figure out who the killer is. He makes mistakes along the way, letting the killer go at one point because he’s operating under a false assumption, but ultimately we see a little of how he does things. He picks up on small clues and uses his vast intelligence to try and make deductions.
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However, as the series goes on this begins to fall by the wayside, and Sherlock solves mysteries because he just knows everything. He gives us the answers, sometimes without telling the audience how he reached those conclusions, and at other times having used information that the audience were never given. Mysteries are supposed to be fun because they give the audience the chance to try and work things out, but Sherlock seemed to forget that as the first series went on, instead making it more about how amazingly smart the lead was. And boy was that an issue by the time they got to series four.
This isn’t the only major problem with this first series, however. There’s also Moriarty. Professor Moriarty is one of the greatest and best known literary villains of all time. This is despite him only ever appearing in two stories. Gatiss and Moffat try to force the character into every episode of series one, though, having him pulling the strings behind everything just to mess with Sherlock it seems. That’s despite him making a point of saying he doesn’t want Sherlock getting in his way. There’s a huge inconsistency to the character in the way he’s written. They’ve turned a calculating genius into a bit of an idiot. And dear god, talk about queer coding. I’m not bashing Andrew Scott here, as he’s a good actor who was only doing as he was told, but the sheer amount of camp in his performance is so over the top it becomes both distracting and insulting.
I’m sure this is the point where you’ve either switched off or are just grumbling at me for writing about a series I’m not a fan of. But I am a fan. I like this series, to a point, and adore Sherlock Holmes in general. My biggest issue is that the series was run by two people who just don’t seem to understand what makes the characters and stories great, and just wanted to show how clever they are.
The series isn’t completely bad though. They have some great production values and do some very clever things with presenting information to the viewer, such as having text messages flash on screen or displayed on a part of the set rather than cutting to a phone. Yes, the show got more extreme with this as time went on, but series one has a great balance and uses it well.
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Sherlock also gave us Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson, who is hands down the best version of the character ever put to film. Yes, she has moments where she gets a bit silly (looking at you again series four), but for the most part she’s a great mother figure to the two man-children that are Sherlock and John. She’s also the member of the cast who was best known when the show came out, and her casting definitely helped get the series some attention.
Despite some of the issue that I’ve covered here, series one of Sherlock took the public by storm, and made it one of the biggest hits the BBC has ever had, as well as making the series’ stars into hot commodities. I’m confident in saying that Benedict Cumberbatch wouldn’t be a household name without this series.
Yes, it’s flawed, and the flaws here become huge problems later on, but series one is still the best the show ever was, and has some genuinely good moments in it too. If you haven’t already seen it, I hope that this article doesn’t put you off, and that you’ll go give the show a go yourself.
Sherlock first aired on the BBC on 25th July 2010.