An Apology to Steven Moffat and What Sherlock Holmes Has In Common With Jane Austen and Henry James

Was that an actual apology?

Was that an actual apology?

I owe Steven Moffat an apology. I may have been wrong about Dr. Who. I was talking with a friend about the season opener, introducing Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor, and a piece I’d read by a Dr. Who fan complaining about the previous Christmas Special with David Tennant, Matt Smith, and John Hurt. My friend, a devoted Dr. Who fan, rejected my complaints about “Deep Breath,” and other recent episodes, being an amalgamation of popular Whovian plot devices and tropes assembled Lego-block fashion into a formulaic structure (And what does this have to do with BBC Sherlock, you ask? Patience. It’s going to connect in a moment.).

My friend then explained that this was what the Whovian fans expected, what they wanted — something familiar, something they recognize, with just enough difference to make it new. It was then I had an epiphany; Dr. Who fans were like category genre readers, or even Marvel Comics movie fans, wanting the comfort of  consistency — a recognizable structure, core characters, style and certain established tropes. I owe Mr. Moffat and apology for my critiques that his scripts and production for Dr. Who were hackneyed; the very things that I criticized in the series were, in fact, essential to the target audience for the series.

But the Dr. Who story structure is not the Sherlock Holmes story structure, which, given my criticisms with “A Scandal in Belgravia” and “His Last Vow,” makes the recent comments from Moffat and Gatiss even more frightening.

…Moffat said it is part of the overall appeal of the series: “An episode needs to be about something in their lives. It is not enough for it to be a mystery.”

Gatiss agreed, saying: “It is a series about a detective, it is not a detective series.”

— Quote from Digital Spy, Nov. 1, 2014

The truly ironic point missed by Mofftiss is that focusing on the personal lives of the characters is exactly what they’ve done with Elementary — and Castle and The Mysteries of Laura and, well, most every network detective or mystery show on the air. ELEMENTARY-liu-miller

It’s much harder to write a good mystery story than a soap opera, which is why the trend is to take the focus away from the events of the story and focus on the characters’ emotional conflicts. You don’t have to actually know anything, research anything, worry about consistency and coherence to do a story about feelings. You have only to look at the Hallmark commercials (or TV specials — and I use that term very loosely), or the fake patriotism ads used to promote stores that hire returning veterans at below poverty wages, to see how easy it is to manipulate feelings.  The really good, lasting stories are the ones where we discover the character’s inner life through his or her actions — and reactions — to events in his or her life; plausible events, plausible actions, plausible, consistent reactions in the world the author as created.

The Sherlock Holmes stories, however, are Not one of the most popular series in the history of literature because Doyle focuses on the personal lives of Holmes and Watson. We know next to nothing about Watson’s domestic life except that his wife can’t remember his first name, dies at some point so that he apparently acquired another wife, and that he is far more interested in detection work than his wife/wives or his medical practice. We know even less about Holmes except that he has eccentric habits, is totally dedicated to his methods and work, he has an even smarter older brother, and is apparently manic-depressive.

The personal bits are never the focus of the story, — even when the story begins with some domestic matter such as Christmas or Holmes illness from overwork — but dropped in like tantalizing treats, giving us clues to their characters, lives, and relationships; clues that have inspired over a 100 years of amateur and academic speculation. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wisely gives indications, undeveloped glimpses, outlines of these characters that we colour with our own lens. In storytelling — as in romance — we are more fascinated by the potentially interesting unknown than the fully-documented, and often disappointing, known; there is even the acronym TMI, Too Much Information, to describe our desire to remain blissfully ignorant and maintain some illusions of those we know and love.

Hmmm, blissfully ignorant. It certainly keeps Watson fascinated with me.

Hmmm, blissfully ignorant. It certainly keeps Watson fascinated with me.

Granted, there is a certain consistent structure and style to the best of the stories that is comforting and comfortable for the Sherlock Holmes fan, — we are a genre fandom after all, —  but that “formula” is the basic structure of an apparently mysterious event occurring (only occasionally a murder), Watson (or the other characters) misinterpreting the clues, and Holmes cleverly explaining away the mystery by using observation, deduction, and reason to the astonishment of Watson (and the reader).

Mr. Gatiss has also been quoted as comparing the Sherlock Holmes stories to “Boy’s Own adventures” which they also are decidedly not, else Raffles and Bunny would be as ubiquitous as Sherlock and Watson. But — and I say this advisedly — there is something of the sensational in the stories that catches us when we are young — of at least heart and mind, if not necessarily of age. Again, this alone does not explain the vast appeal of Doyle’s detectives, otherwise the works and characters of Sir H. Rider Haggard would be universally recognized and praised. 

It was while reading the introduction to The Portable Henry James, where I was surprised and delighted to find a reference to Sherlock Holmes, that I had another epiphany. (Yes, another one. I seem to get them in spates, which, to the relief of my friends don’t last too long.) Sherlock Holmes stories have such wide devotion because they combine sense and sensibility; something that worked rather nicely for Jane Austen as well.

What Doyle did was merge sensibility of Romanticism and the objective sense of Realism and Modernism.  Like every good magician, Doyle distracts us with the sensational flourishes of Watson’s narrative as Sherlock gets the job done uncovering the details of the trick. While Watson, the die-hard Romanticist, highlights the sensational and offers wild surmises, Sherlock, the enlightened Modern man of science, clears our vision of ghostly hell hounds or macabre messages written in blood on walls, and focuses on the details of footprints and cigarette ash for a solid, grounded, rational solution to the mystery.

So I do apologize to Mr. Moffat about my complaints about the predictably formulaic structure of Dr. Who, I stand by my critiques of turning Sherlock Holmes into a hackneyed shock schlock soap. If I wanted to watch quality soap opera I’d be watching Downton Abbey. What hooked me in “A Study in Pink,” and Season 1 in general, was the originality and freshness in porting Doyle’s template of sense and sensibility into the 21st Century; mysterious events unravelled by the rationality of Sherlock Holmes as experienced through the wounded warrior and Romantic Dr. Watson.

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