It’s July 25th, 2010. Yolanda Be Cool vs D Cup are at number one with “We No Speak Americano,” with a duet between Eminem featuring Rihanna, Katy Perry featuring Snoop Dogg, Professor Green featuring Lily Allen, and 3OH3 featuring Ke$ha also charting – in fact, only two songs in the top ten are not collaborative: Eliza Doolittle’s “Pack Up” and JLS’s “The Club is Alive.” In news, the World Cup wound down with England eliminated the day after The Big Bang following a pathetic showing against Germany, and Spain ultimately winning in a scrappy final against the Netherlands. Also, Wikileaks releases over 90,000 internal logs of the US Military to a variety of news sources.
While on television Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s massive hit Sherlock debuts with A Study in Pink. Why do Sherlock episode by episode? For one thing, because its production is bound up in Doctor Who’s. The shows respond to each other and learn from each other, and are, as countless critics have noted, a bit similar in some key ways. Yes, they’re also different. Hence “Outside the Government” at all. But to be perfectly honest, you learn more about the Moffat era watching Sherlock than you ever did about the Davies era by watching Torchwood. So here we are. Sherlock from the ground floor: A Study in Pink.
The more one thinks about A Study in Pink the more it becomes evident that it is quite a strange thing. What does it mean, after all, to create an introduction to a show featuring one of the best-known and most iconic fictional characters in existence? One cannot meaningfully introduce Sherlock Holmes as a character, as any introduction one makes is going to be immediately subsumed by the impossibly large paratext of a century of Sherlock Holmes. In its own way, it’s the same problem Moffat faced with The Eleventh Hour – how do you launch a program that’s already massively familiar to viewers and where everything you introduce is going to be read in context with years of existing material.
With The Eleventh Hour, Moffat solved the problem by simply putting the program’s best foot forward and playing to all of its strengths as much as possible – an unapologetic charm offensive that worked. In effect he did everything he wanted to do differently, but in an episode that highlighted only the most superficial of his changes while mostly stressing what had remained consistent. But this was a solution for a program that had been on the air just a few months earlier. The solution isn’t quite going to work here. Nevertheless, A Study in Pink is, like The Eleventh Hour, an exercise in saying “here’s how it is.” It is at times almost television as FAQ – a narratively sequenced list of answers to questions beginning “how are you going to handle…”
That it works is in some ways remarkable. More than almost anything else Moffat has ever written, this is an episode that relies on nothing save for his gifts at humor and exposition. Moffat rides the fact that he can write entertaining puzzle boxes for all that it’s worth, and to his credit, it was worth a smash hit and a pop culture phenomenon. And fair enough. This show needs Moffat to be as good as he is at writing this exact sort of story. Indeed, the fact that 2/3 of its writing staff isn’t quite as good as Steven Moffat at writing this exact sort of story is, ultimately, where Sherlock goes a bit wrong.
But that’s not this essay. Nor is this essay a discussion of the first version of this episode, from before the BBC decided to change the show from the 6×60 minute episode seasons it was originally conceived as to the 3×90 minute structure it ended up with. Although it is worth talking about what that change did. The sixty minute version is the pilot of a procedural – a case-of-the-week show that will presumably have big episodes for its premieres and finales and filler stuffed in between. The ninety minute version is something far weirder and more complex that avoids easy characterization.
Obviously it is an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. It sweeps in and owns that fact with an adaptation of A Study in Scarlet that is just faithful enough to highlight its own differences. This foregrounds the episode as a piece of textual play, and moves the nature of the storytelling to a more abstract and cerebral level. In short, it makes it a story in which plot information can be conveyed in unusual ways. The main instance of this is, of course, Mark Gatiss’s performance as Moriarty through most of the episode, a flagrant feint that is set up entirely through references to the larger corpus of Sherlock Holmes. If you somehow come to the episode not knowing that Moriarty and Mycroft both exist as characters then the decision to pretend Gatiss is playing a villain is utterly inscrutable. It is only because the audience can be trusted both to make the mistake and to understand the nature of the correction that this detail works.
But the existence of it means that this is a show that is open and insistent about being thought of as a constructed narrative. There is no pretense of “suspension of disbelief” or any of that malarky. It never lets us forget that it’s an adaptation, and that there are other versions of Sherlock Holmes to compare it to. And in a variety of ways it engages with that, slipping in elaborate canon jokes and subversions of canonical expectations: having the inscription “Rache” mean the exact thing that the cop wrongly suggested it did in A Study in Scarlet while this time having the cop wrongly suggest the interpretation that was correct in the original, for instance. For those steeped in Sherlock Holmes, this is a veritable playground.
But even for a viewer who only knows the broad strokes of Sherlock Holmes – the ones that are simply default cultural knowledge – there’s a conscious playfulness to this episode. This is in a large part because even if you have only the default cultural knowledge, A Study in Pink is still going out of its way to highlight its fidelity, making sure to introduce all of the major expected elements of Sherlock Holmes in a fairly systematic manner that highlights their status as parts of a narrative system instead of as people.
This is further highlighted by the nature of the two lead characters. It’s easy to fall into the trap of treating this as, in effect, a Doctor Who story – one where an ordinary person (John) falls into the world of an extraordinary one (Sherlock). Sherlock, however, resists that, putting the audience ahead of John for most of the episode. Instead it presents two extraordinary men, neither of them people it is easy for the audience to relate to. John’s noble bearing as an army doctor is a part of his character, but this is not used to make him an everyman. Far from it – he’s hyper-competent in his own right and, perhaps more importantly, completely off his head. This is highlighted from the first shot – the very first thing we learn about John Watson is his trauma, and we see the world as an awful, banal cage in which he is trapped. He’s unabashedly shown to be just as much of an adrenaline junkie as Sherlock Holmes is. Even though he’s the sidekick, and he absolutely is, he’s the perfectly finely tuned sidekick.
Just as, of course, Sherlock Holmes is the perfect detective. Which gets to the other innovation of the reshot Study in Pink that wasn’t present in the original, the decision to juxtapose text with the images on a regular basis. This starts, of course, with the cell phone stuff, and is a perfectly clever way of handling the problem of how to have people read text messages (or any other sort of text) on screen. But slowly it morphs to be something else as we see Sherlock’s investigation of the dead body and get the same techniques applied to his observations. Of particular interest is the observation regarding the ring, with the note that the inside is “clean” then becoming an object in the frame that moves with the ring and is even shown backwards when we get the reverse shot, then suspended inside the ring as the corresponding “dirty” observation of its exterior is made.
The result is that the deductive aspects of the story – the solving of the mystery – is conveyed not just through what happens but through the entire framing of the narrative. Tellingly, this makes the title card just another clue, removing the distinction between “what Sherlock Holmes figures out” and “what the camera angles and scene sequencing tells us about the story” entirely. The mystery stops being the subject of the story and starts being the frame itself, with episodes constructed out of montages of clues and presented information. Another way of putting this is that far from seeing the world through John’s eyes, most of the time, for most of the episode, our viewpoint is closer to that of Sherlock’s, even if it is not at any given moment a straightforward job to understand what it is we’re looking at.
So Sherlock becomes in a large part about the psychology of Sherlock Holmes. Except, of course, as we’ve already discussed, Sherlock Holmes is not presented to us as a naturalistic character. He’s not a human being, he’s a hero. As much as the series may continually return to his human origins, the point of the character is his impossibility. And so there’s something unusual about focusing on his psychology. The usual way to handle this gap, established since 1986 or so, is to focus on the way in which the hero is completely mad, which, fair enough, Sherlock does. But it doesn’t quite make the moves you’d expect. Sherlock is visibly mad, yes, but he’s a romantic madman. The flirtation with the Dark Knight “the hero we deserve” that happens when Donovan suggests that Sherlock Holmes is a psychopath who will eventually kill someone is self-evidently wrong: Sherlock may be mad as a hatter, but he’s not that sort of mad.
Of course, the notion of madness and Sherlock Holmes already has a built-in focus: his drug use. In the stories themselves, of course, this is just a detail: Sherlock Holmes sometimes uses cocaine to help him think. This had different connotations at the time the stories were written, but has increasingly been presented in the modern terms of drug addiction. Particularly landmark is Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which posited that Holmes’s death was in fact a period of mental illness during which he was treated by Sigmund Freud. For Moffat and Gatiss to engage with Holmes in terms of madness and not touch the issue of addiction is nearly unthinkable.
And yet they just about do – an allusion to the possibility that there really might be drugs hidden somewhere in 221B Baker Street (though not somewhere easy to find, clearly) and the nicotine patches scene are the only moments that A Study in Pink even glances in that direction. Instead we get a portrayal of Sherlock Holmes as being addicted in the same way that John Watson is. But where John is addicted to danger, Sherlock is addicted to something else. It is perhaps to puzzles, but no – over time we will learn that those are his skill, not his addiction. His addiction is, ultimately, to adventure. To, in other words, the dramatic structure in which he is a heroic figure. He is addicted to the possibility of his own inhumanity. And, secondarily, he is unable to handle the banal in any concentration. Boredom is intolerable to him. This is the nature of his madness.
And so we get Inspector Lestrade’s fascinating thesis statement for the series – that Sherlock Holmes is a great man who might some day be a good one. It’s taken for granted that heroes are mad and difficult creatures. The focus, however, is on the dysfunction necessary for heroism but on the possibility that for all their madness our heroes are still things that come out of our world. The ruthless jettisonning of every last trace of Victoriana in favor of a show that is not merely present day but aggressively present day, drenched in cell phones and modern London, plays into this, demanding that we consider exactly what it means to dream of a hero existing in our world.
It’s easy to wander back to The Dark Knight when talking about this stuff, but also seemingly inevitable, because it proved such a definitive take on heroism for a particular era, imitated tediously across media. The “deconstruct your heroes” trend may have begun in 1986, but it’s The Dark Knight with which it becomes the default approach to big, heroic characters. And notably, Sherlock was developed in the wake of The Dark Knight. But here we have the story in reverse – the dark and tortured hero learns to be human. It’s not a story about the awful price of heroism, but about the fact that the ordinary and the heroic can be connected and brought together.
This is, of course, increasingly standard territory for Moffat. Indeed, there’s a sense in which he’s been writing this basic story for most of his career. Joking Apart and Coupling are both about brilliant but difficult men learning to interact more functionally with the world. The River Song arc eventually settles into this dynamic, and really, all of his “the Doctor learns about girls” stuff is a variation on it. Which, given the interviews in which he’s talked about realizing how much his clever/witty/snarky demeanor is an awful bore, clearly carries some autobiographical weight.
But there’s a real sweep to it – a commitment to retaining the sense of scale that The Dark Knight traded on, only without its pessimism. It comes at the idea that there is something broken about heroes from a different angle – the one of creative madness. This is of course a sizable topic – we did just talk about Vincent and the Doctor. In many ways A Study in Pink is a response to that – an attempt to interrogate the trite linkage of madness and mental illness, and to give us a character whose madness and his greatness are completely inseparable.
So there’s a mad hubris here. Moffat, clearly a smart man in his own right, is writing Sherlock Holmes as a self-insert. But given Moffat’s past use of this sort of self-insert as an auto-critique, this hubris is oddly, cheekily endearing. It may be a self-insert, but that’s manifestly not all it is. It’s also an interrogation of an entire rhetoric of major cultural heroes. The hubris would be unbearable if this were cliched and trite, but it’s not. A great man trying to become a good one isn’t an oversignified story. It’s not a story we tell nearly often enough. A Study in Pink goes through a great many steps of showing us the familiar components of Sherlock Holmes, all in an effort to try to explain why it’s worth putting these together in a new way yet again. But by the end it’s managed it. This isn’t something we’ve seen before. And it’s terribly well done. The ninety minute episodes and the breathtaking direction (the decision to reshoot the whole thing with Paul McGuigan, a proper film director, was a huge and crucial one) give a sense of grandeur to it, and the script gives everyone a strong platform to build on. It feels innovative and interesting at the same time. For a first episode, that’s job done and then some.