‘Sherlock’ out of time is nothing new

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Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock (BBC)

This Sunday night, the hit BBC series Sherlock comes to American audiences on PBS as part of the “Masterpiece Mystery!” anthology. It’s a modern adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes detective stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Great Detective of 221 B Baker Street and Martin Freeman (The Office and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) as Dr. John Watson, his bumbling but loyal companion.

This isn’t the first time the iconic characters have been taken from their proper place in the space-time continuum and adapted to appeal to a different audience. (While last year’s Sherlock Holmes film starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law featured a more modern style of storytelling, it maintained the original Victorian setting of the Doyle writings.)

Observe, good fellows:

Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century — This surprisingly entertaining 1999 DiC cartoon sees Holmes resurrected via “cellular rejuvenation” by a futuristic New Scotland Yard to help Inspector Beth Lestrade combat a clone of his archenemy, Professor Moriarty. Many episodes are simply rewrites of the classic Holmes stories, but some are only loosely based on the source material. Best part? Robo-Watson!

The Return of Sherlock Holmes — In 1987, CBS also thought it would be a good idea to thaw out a cryogenically preserved Holmes in the modern world. Michael Pennington (Moff Jerjerrod in Return of the Jedi) starred as Holmes in a messy script that involved the bubonic plague, a D.B. Cooper-style aircraft hijack-robbery and … Watergate?

Elementary, Dear DataStar Trek: The Next Generation — Who can forget Data and Geordi’s holodeck escapes as the Great Detective and Watson, ultimately unleashing a holographic Moriarty upon the 24th century? It was probably all done just to keep Geordi away from the more adult programs, but it gave us two of the series’ more thoughtful holodeck-gone-wrong episodes. The first one, unfortunately, had unexpected issues with the Doyle estate that prevented a second outing for many years.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel BruceSherlock Holmes at war — Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are among the more iconic Holmes and Watsons in the characters’ long history on the screen — approached only by Jeremy Brett and David Burke/Edward Hardwicke in Granada Televison’s adaptations from 1984-1994. But much of Rathbone’s time as Holmes was filmed during or after World War II, and Universal Studios updated the setting to draft the Great Detective as a war hero! Suddenly, Holmes and Watson were battling Nazi spies and protecting Allied secrets in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, and Sherlock Holmes in Washington. The studio addressed the propaganda films’ anachronism by playing up the “timeless” aspect of the character — and indeed he must be timeless, as we’re still looking for ways to reinvent Holmes for modern audiences. And loving every minute of it.

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