kaffyr: Outline sketch of Sherlock Holmes, and John Watson, BBC 2011-12 (Sherlock and Watson)
[personal profile] kaffyr
Sherlock: A Question of Time. Or Possibly Geometry

Maybe it's a matter of time.

Or it could be a matter of geometry.

While most of my "Sherlock" watching friends have long since given their opinions on the final episode of Steven Moffat's and Mark Gatiss's show, I have been slow to react. Part of that is because, I think, I am not as invested in the show as they are. But there are other reasons.

At the end of "The Reichenbach Fall," I was left impressed but unsatisfied.

I thought the episode and the two previous episodes in this latest series were of high quality. All the actors involved were either very good or excellent. I thought, and think, that the writing and directing was much better in this latest triplet than for the first three episodes (I find it hard to call a three show series a series, but I suppose I'll have to, she said, being a grumpy old woman.) Each episode was gripping, humorous, sometimes terrifying, always intelligent and very watchable. And in individual scenes, in each of the individual episodes of this latest series, I have been moved; particularly by the work of Martin Freeman as John Watson.

However, I found myself strangely unmoved by the entire package; even as my eyes got moist at the end of "The Reichenbach Fall," they did no more than that. I did not experience the strong grief and sadness that many of my online friends and acquaintances did. Why is that?

Here is where time and geometry come into it, at least in my mind.

I don't think the producers had the time, in either series or indeed the entire six-episode stretch of "Sherlock," to effectively do what they wanted to do. And I think what they wanted to do, in addition to presenting us with ripping yarns, intelligently adapted from their 19th century source and reimagined creatively in a 21st-century context, was to tell us the story of the relationship between a great man who might one day be good and a good man who has the seeds of greatness in him.

That has always been the one non-intellectual draw at the center of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Doyle did not bother with — indeed was probably not much interested in — the inner life of either Sherlock Holmes or John Watson. Nor did he directly address the interpersonal relationship of the two. What he did do was draw, over the length of his series of stories, a continuing portrait of two men of vastly different temperaments who nonetheless worked well with each other and had a great deal of respect and affection for one another. The partnership of Holmes and Watson was integral to Doyle's stories and is, I believe, part of why they continue to be so well-loved and iconic a set of works.

What I think Moffat and Gatiss wanted to do in their reimagining of Holmes and Watson, was to go deeper into that relationship by investigating and showing the inner lives that Doyle ignored as a background given. Of course they wanted also to explore and celebrate the intellectual puzzles, the police procedurals gone mad, the updated Victoriana of a master detective versus a master criminal. And that they did very well.

But I think it's the relationship and the inner lives on which it's based that stands at the center of "Sherlock".

Sadly, Moffat and Gatiss didn't have the time to believably develop that relationship, at least as far as I'm concerned.

I think the second series of "Sherlock" presented me with a relationship I was expected to accept at face value as having happened; as something explainable, logical, and organically developed. But it was none of that

This is no knock against Benedict Cumberbatch or Martin Freeman. They sold me on the depth of their characters' feelings for each other.

But (and here the old broad takes a deep breath, because this is ... hard to explain) they couldn't sell me on the reality of those feelings.

(Incidentally, the type of relationship that develops between John and Sherlock is of primary interest to many viewers. I think it may be of primary interest to Moffat and Gatiss as well. I am sure much can be hazarded and written on that issue. Much better writers than I am are doing it now, in print and out there on Teh Intarwebz. That is not my concern here. My concern is the existence – the reality of the existence – of any relationship at all.)

As written, I cannot believe in the process which allowed these two characters to become friends, despite believing, because of the strength of the acting, that the characters believed themselves to be friends. The writers did not convince me of the reality of the developing relationship.

Here's where geometry comes in (yes, I finally worked it in.)

When I was a high school student, stumbling and failing in geometry, one of the admonitions I most frequently heard from my frustrated teacher, was "show the work". He wanted me to show how I had reached a conclusion. It was not enough for me to have the right answer. He wanted me to show that I understood the process by which I got the answer. The work proved that I hadn't gotten it by accident. That's why they call it proof.

By the time I completed watching the latest series of "Sherlock," I felt like that frustrated geometry teacher so many years ago: "Show the work, show the work, show the goddamn work!"

In "Sherlock" I cannot believe in John's and Sherlock's friendship, as much as I want to, as much as Cumberbatch and Freeman coax and lure and impress me into wanting to, because I see no evidence of the process which allowed these characters to become friends.

 

I'm neither an idiot nor a literalist. I know that anything as complex as the presentation or representation of relationships (or concepts of any kind) requires the use of shortcuts, symbolically speaking. Shortcuts are the essence of human thought. It's intuition on paper or celluloid, the act of instant contextualization (just ask Sherlock.) As a reader of reasonably complex literature, and the viewer of reasonably complex movies or television shows, I not only understand shortcuts and ellipses, but expect and generally welcome them; they strengthen my own emotional and intellectual muscles, make viewing and reading both more challenging and more rewarding. I could hardly be a fan of speculative fiction or extremely-niche-specific genre television if I didn't.

I am, in short, not a lazy receptacle for entertainment, demanding that everything be s-p-e-l-l-e-d o-u-t for me.

But the distance between judicious use of dramatic ellipses and lazy or hurried writing is perilously short, and I think Moffat and Gatiss crossed the line here. (And yes, I also know the dramatic commandment: Show, Don't Tell. I don't think Moffat and Gatiss did either quite as well as they perhaps thought they did.)

Look, I don't need to see all the building blocks of of a friendship put into place one by one in a story about friendship,  just as I don't need or want to have every plot twist in a story loudly foreshadowed (wait, can a shadow be loud?)

But just as I expect a plot to go from A to B, to C and so on, or else to convince me it was necessary to diverge from that pattern, I do need to see evidence that the central relationship in a story about that relationship, is being built. I didn't see it in "Sherlock."

Let me put it quasi-facetiously, and then let me duck for cover.

They had only three episodes to take me from the "John has just been rescued from a bomb, and is really understanding for the first time what kind of life he's entered into as Sherlock's flatmate and apparently inadvertent oddsbody-cum-knight in knitted armor" scenario I saw at the end of "The Great Game" to the "John has realized, for some reason that the writers have not yet shown me, how much love he has for this truly unpleasant git of a genius, who we rarely see approach John as anything but an alien species fated to serve him, (with rare and incidental exceptions) — has indeed shown me why, exactly, he's chosen to stay in that flat, with that git, rather than get the hell out of Dodge" scenario that they provided me at the end of the sixth episode.
And, no, the lure of excitement and fame doesn't count, because that's not really a building block of friendship, is it?

Can I blame Moffat and Gatiss? Can I actually say that it wasn't their fault because they didn't have enough time to show me the work? After all, I've been convinced to take greater leaps, to rely more heavily on intuitive understanding, in films of fewer than 120 minutes, or even individual shorter episodes of other shows coughthedoctor'swifethegirlwhowaitedcough so it can't just be a matter of time.

I don't know. Perhaps, for me, it does come down to geometry in the end.

They didn't show their work.

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