This weekend, the Herberger Theater in downtown Phoenix is hosting a Sherlock Holmes Film Festival, and I’m extremely excited. I’ve been a casual Sherlockian since the early ’90s, consuming Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories and often indulging in various incarnations of the character on stage and screen.
Admittedly, my gateway to Baker Street was Star Trek: The Next Generation, specifically “Elementary, Dear Data,” the Season 2 episode featuring Data and Geordi indulging in a Doyle-inspired holodeck mystery. I liked Data, and Data liked Sherlock Holmes, so I declared I also liked Sherlock Holmes.
The A&E airing of the Granada TV-produced Sherlock Holmes television series sealed the deal. Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Holmes is my definitive perception of the detective, in all of his bright-eyed, briskly gesturing glory. Coincidentally, Marina Sirtis, who played Data’s shipmate Counselor Troi, starred in one of the episodes, weaving the web of my fandom quite thoroughly.
I’ve been thinking about Holmes quite a bit this week, anticipating the film festival, and in typical fansite-listicle fashion, I’ve realized Doyle’s detective has shaped many of the tropes we take for granted in entertainment. Here are the five simple ways Sherlock Holmes owns everything we love.
The hero and the sidekick
Long before Dick Wolf established “the partnership” as the model for police drama in Law & Order, Arthur Conan Doyle paired the eccentric Holmes with the equally venerable Dr. John Watson. Though Watson is often perceived as a dullard, he came to Holmes as a soldier, a medic, and a socialite, and by writing those legendary cases in Watson’s voice, the good doctor is inadvertently established as affluent and sensitive in ways Sherlock isn’t. Still, Watson is our vessel, the one to whom Holmes can explain his methods, setting up the need for such a role for all time. Watson is the prototype for Batman’s Robin, for Xena’s Gabrielle, for Harry Potter’s Ron Weasley, and countless others. The hero may be the character we wish we could be, but the sidekick is the character we could actually be, if only we knew someone that cool. So, every time Sherlock claimed he’s lost without his Boswell — he’s just as lost without us.
At his sexiest, Sherlock Holmes is a cocaine-addicted indie musician, wailing on the violin with a belt still swinging from his arm between cases. While these traits have been fully unpacked and exaggerated over the years, they do speak to the genius’ penchant for solitude. Remember, Watson moved in with Holmes, so we can only assume Sherlock spent a lot of time alone prior to their partnership. In film, Holmes’ flat is often depicted as a clutter, betraying a man more affectionate toward his books and keepsakes than other people. 221B Baker Street is a prototypical Batcave, with his locket of Irene Adler or his etchings of the Dancing Men very much like Batman’s big dinosaur or Jason Todd memorial. The film Zero Effect (my favorite non-Holmes Holmes), starring Bill Paxton and Ben Stiller, pulls this off brilliantly, with its detective banging on an out-of-tune acoustic guitar while chugging Tab sodas. Brooding sentimentality is just plain cool.
The awkward know-it-all
If you met Sherlock Holmes in real life, you might not like him. He’s an annoying know-it-all. He can tell where you’ve been by the dirt on your shoes. We may not want to hang out with him, but we enjoy watching him, from afar, in various incarnations. Detective Robert Goren, played by Vincent D’Onofrio on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, is a great contemporary example of the lovable savant, as is Monk. Of course, while these characters have an advanced understanding of their fellow man, they struggle to live among him, pairing keen observation with endearing awkwardness and neuroses. Apparently, the desire to know everything about everyone else is a great way to dodge the self-awareness that just might solve your own problems.
Who needs credit?
As the world’s only consulting detective (his words, I believe), Sherlock Holmes sometimes took the cases the police refused, or simply couldn’t handle. Such cases still see a criminal brought to justice, and therein the media usually likes to give credit where its due. Enter Lestrade, the shortsighted inspector to whom Holmes grant the spoils of his work. Holmes’ letting Lestrade bring in the bad guy is the equivalent to Spider-Man leaving the muggers dangling from the lamppost for the cops. He could perpetuate a positive reputation, but the silent smugness of walking away from the limelight makes a hero’s doing all the legwork even more rewarding. It’s the Penny conceding her role to Uncle Inspector Gadget, or the Louis Tully landing the interview after the Ghostbusters save the day. Sherlock Holmes set the standard that doing what’s right is its own reward.
Somehow, he lives forever.
I’ve sprinkled this article with characters that find roots, directly or otherwise, to the legacy of Holmes, making him a definitive archetype in literature and film — but the fact that Holmes himself continues to thrive in modern stories puts him in an elite class of fictional character. Count Dracula and James Bond quickly come to mind as characters that retain distinctive traits from their original time period while evolving to stay relevant, even surpassing the present into the future. They just work in any era. Remember the cartoon series Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century? Or the made-for-TV film Sherlock Holmes Returns, which saw the detective defrosted from cryogenic stasis in 1994? Sherlock Holmes is so important, it isn’t enough that we recycle the concept. Only he can truly be him. That’s why we delight in seeing a Lou Ferrigno cameo in a contemporary Incredible Hulk film, or why audiences cheer when the guy that played the old-school Green Ranger pops up as an onlooker in Power Rangers. As they say, nothing beats the original — keeping it, as Holmes would say, elementary.
These traits define Sherlock Holmes and the characters inspired by him in television and cinema. Fortunately, Sherlock is the singular subject for this weekend’s film festival. Click here for more on the Herberger Theater’s Sherlock Holmes Film Festival. I’ll see you at the screening of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes!