Last night saw the debut of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s new BBC drama Sherlock, in which the excellent (and excellently named) Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman play Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson.
This time, however, the great detective and his faithful army doctor pal are solving crime in the 21st century. It’s not the first time TV and film makers have brought classic characters and plots into the present day, and in this case it works extremely well, largely due to the writers’ evident affection for the original stories and to the pitch-perfect casting of and performances by Cumberbatch and Freeman as Holmes and Watson. Holmes is, as he always was, slightly sociopathic but capable of feeling genuine affection for Watson. Watson himself is more like the quiet man of action in the original stories and less like the boring buffoon of popular imagination. And, like the original, he makes his first appearance having just returned from Afghanistan – a perfect touch. Holmes’s extraordinary brother Mycroft also makes a delicious appearance (and no, I didn’t see that coming).
Despite more than a few holes in the mystery plot line, the whole thing is ridiculously entertaining and a reminder of how enjoyable and effective a good update of a classic can be. I love inter-textual references – Alan Moore’s graphic novel sequence The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which brings together characters from a huge variety of popular literature from the 19th and early 20th centuries, is one of my favourite things ever. So when they’re done well, I can’t resist modern stories packed full of references to older texts. And when they’re done well, you don’t have to be familiar with the originals to enjoy the new story. Amy Heckerling’s Clueless is an excellent teen comedy, but it’s also an updated version of Jane Austen’s Emma – getting the references to the original novel is amusing, but the film works perfectly well on its own. Ten Things I Hate About You is a charming and funny – and feminist – update of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, which also stands alone.
So how do you feel about updated classics? Is it blasphemy to show a Holmes who sends texts and uses GPS systems, or is keeping the spirit of the original characters and stories the most important thing? Or is updating simply the work of lazy storytellers who can’t be arsed coming up with original characters? All I know is that I’ll be glued to the telly on Sunday nights for the next three weeks.