Modern Holmesian Re-inventions and why the writers of Medium should be kept well away from them

I’ve always loved the Sherlock Holmes stories, since having read and re-read all them as a child. Even stories written by other authors fascinated me, I loved their new applications of the Holmesian archetype to new, or adapted, stories. One of the best of that category is Neil Gaiman’s Study in Emerald, a clever and imaginative cross-over with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu universe.

In recent years there have been successful adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, reframing the character for the modern day. The first of those re-imagined the character as a medical consulting detective. But instead of Holmes, he was named House. It was a clever show and, for the first season at least, was true to its origins, even bearing in mind the marginal genre shift. A more literal modernisation was Moffat’s Sherlock for the BBC. While the episodes were inconsistent, the entire two seasons, a mere six episodes, could easily rest on the laurels of the first one. A Study in Pink, penned by Moffat himself, was a brilliantly crafted Holmesian story, modernising the character and setting. One of my favourite aspects of the episode was the fact that it elevated Watson from comedy sidekick and buffoon to worthy companion, with backbone and spirit.

ElementaryWhich brings me to Elementary. CBS clearly saw the demand for a re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes and commissioned a direct re-telling. Johnny Lee Miller plays Sherlock Holmes, an Englishman in New York, while Lucy Liu plays his assistant, Dr Joan Watson. For this project they turned to Robert Doherty, a man primarily known for having written episodes of Medium, Star Trek Voyager and Tru Calling. Shows that were, for the most part, inexplicably popular yet hardly lauded. Doherty, as series creator, wrote the first two episodes which, if it wasn’t for my love of the character and crime procedurals, would have had me walking away from Elementary forever.

Holmes as an archetype is the tortured genius, the bored, drug-ravaged sociopath, sometimes more child than man; I’m just not sure they’ve got the balance right in Elementary. Lucy Liu really can’t act and she’s been set in the role almost of his therapist. The crimes themselves were almost CSI level simplistic; forgivable in a procedural, but another nail in the coffin. It was only with episode 3 that I really grew to like the series. This time the writer was Peter Blake. His writing heritage? He wrote episodes of House; in fact he was the producer to some extent for almost every single episode. His single episode of Elementary easily redeemed the series, re-balancing the characters and getting the tone so much closer to the bone.

Episode four, which is as far as I’ve watched so far? It’s written by Craig Sweeny, who has also written for Medium. His episode of Elementary is a clumsy by-the-numbers affair that doesn’t do justice to the potential of the series.

I’m going to keep watching Elementary for now, hoping for more gems hiding amidst the detritus.

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