Screenplay by Steven Moffat.
Whenever I see this episode, I’m immediately taken back to a holiday in Devon in 2010. I was staying in a hotel on the day this episode aired, and I watched it purely because it was written by the man who was about to take over Doctor Who, Steven Moffat. Earlier that day, I’d been down into Paignton (wonderful place – promenade, palm trees, lots of shops with models of old cars and things) to inspect Sherlock Holmes by purchasing a reprint of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, making A Scandal in Belgravia and The Red Headed League the first two Holmes stories I experienced. The Red Headed League in particular made a fascinating read and was the adventure that convinced me of Holmes’ genius. That afternoon, given Torbay’s high sun levels, I sat in the garden writing Sherlock Holmes fanfiction (it was a crossover with The Sims 3, please don’t judge me) in a small, blue notebook with a new, red biro, both of which I’d also purchased that day. I felt somewhat like Agatha Christie, who also used to write murder mysteries in her Devonshire garden.
But then came the evening, and I settled down to watch Sherlock: a Study in Pink on the TV in the hotel room. While this review has generally been an anecdote and sounds more like an ad hominem than anything else, it’s because this episode has a special value for me, and represents the way motion pictures can impact people and make a significant, positive difference in their lives based on the memories that surround them and are generated by them. What you watch is never nearly as important as the details of how you came to be watching that specific choice, with those specific people, and in that location. Given I’d travelled to South East England from the North, it matters to me, because it makes me remember how large the world is, and how I could have instead been living in, say, Australia watching a totally different drama with different people that I fell in love with just as much. But I didn’t. I am me. The reason I’m taken back like that is because, even in memory, this episode remains exactly the same as how I feel about it having rewatched it today. It manages to maintain that consistency. It doesn’t happen and then finish, it stays with you.
However, I do feel as though I should actually get to reviewing the episode in question, and so I shall.
Sherlock: a Study in Pink had to not only introduce the format and characters of Sherlock, but also convince us to appreciate its modernised status. It’s good at that. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d get with it, but it’s the first ten minutes of the episode that sold me. Because it introduces its eponymous protagonist so well; we don’t really see him for the first five minutes, and as soon as he does come on screen, he doesn’t really stop talking. For some reason, Moffat chose to make him a psychopath – don’t ask me why – and that makes the sane one John Watson. That’s the character Arthur Conan Doyle used to introduce us to his world by telling the Holmes stories mostly through Watson’s diaries, and the same decision is made here, only with a blog not a diary. I tried having a diary once. Then this happened. But Watson having a blog shows exactly the kind of thought process that’s gone into this. Moffat isn’t just retelling Holmes’ adventures, he’s integrating contemporary differences into his career as a detective. The modernisation isn’t just a twenty-first century dressing, it’s influenced everything about his world. It actually is a modern version of Sherlock Holmes, rather than an open-air reenactment.
Which brings us to his use of technology. If Holmes is a genius, he’d understand how to really use tech, to the point of being almost symbiotic with it. But it’s not the way he uses technology that impresses, more of its visual interpretation. We can see a minimalist menu on screen, with text actually being transplanted from the device to the audience. It’s honestly a mystery that nobody’s done this before – if sound can be diegetic, why not text? I often criticise “motion pictures” for having text to explain details to the audience that could be shown in the story, and I never read subtitles. But here, that text is actually significant, and ties-in to the way Holmes’ deductions are explained through captions relative to the deduced subject, with editing used to show his thought process. It turns out he really is symbiotic with technology, as he’s almost a machine himself. He sees everything as functional. He never likes receiving unneeded data (even telling people to look away from when he’s thinking), and works everything based on income of facts.
Modernising Holmes took more than just having his stories take place in relatively the same way, just in modern-day London. Instead, he was influenced by how heroes are now seen in culture and popular fiction. They’re no longer thinkers, they’re fighters. Whereas originally, Watson was quite stupid, e.g., a soldier, he’s now praised by the narrative for being clever. Whereas Holmes is almost like a terminator. Deduction is represented as his super-power. He’s even been given what John Barrowman called a “hero coat”. He looks like a modern day action hero. Even his use of phones and hacking resemble Christopher Nolan’s Batman. Indeed, the best part is the taxi chase, with a London route map showing the memorised city cartography in his head. This is the tale of a cyborg detective with a Human sidekick, but their jobs are inverted. The Human’s the solider, and the cyborg’s the thinker.
It really brings across the whole odd-couple element.
And can we just stop for a minute to appreciate the quality villain of this episode in the form of Jeff Hope? He has to be one of the most original, inventive and convincingly sociopathic antagonists that there are. A cabbie who kidnaps his passengers, takes them to a quiet place for a murder and convinces them to kill themselves just by talking to them. He’s Holmes’ perfect opponent and not even James Moriarty could top him. In fact, I didn’t even know who Moriarty was at this point, and only discovered the existence of his character based on this adaptation.
And then, the ending’s perfect. So many detective dramas are cliched, but Sherlock reminds us of why Holmes remains the father of it. He wasn’t the first, but he’s still the best. This could have been a one-off, and ended right there. And had it, that ending would have been perfect. They’ve been brought together, and now nothing can tear them apart. The world will know them.
Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.
Sherlock: a Study in Pink – correctly considered and executed modernisation 8/10.