Arthur Conan Doyle, Aspergers Syndrome, BBC, Benedict Cumberbatch, Crime, Detective, Detective fiction, Enlightenment, Mark Gatiss, Martin Freeman, Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes, Technological Determinism, Technology, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Hounds of Baskerville, TV Review
[The following contains spoilers.]
Mark Gatiss‘ “The Hounds of Baskerville” was first broadcast on BBC1 on Sunday. Perhaps the smartest moment in this energetic reconfiguration of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901) came when Benedict Cumberbatch‘s twitchy Sherlock Holmes realised that the mysterious email concerning a “luminous rabbit” had been actually sent to him by the daughter of the geneticist Dr. Stapleton. Needless to say, this Stapleton is a specialist in genetic modification, and she had accidentally given her daughter a modified bunny as a pet. Conan Doyle’s original Hound of the Baskervilles had turned out to be a huge bloodhound, which had been crossbred with a mastiff to give it a genetic boost and then daubed in phosphorus. Whereas nineteenth century readers had been captivated by this mystery, Gatiss now deems it to be more fit for kids.
In some postmodern laboratory, Gatiss has crossbred Conan Doyle’s original story with a menagerie of later films and TV shows, with the Telegraph detecting references to Hannibal and Batman Begins. But the original pedigree genes still tingle with an agreeable wit when Gatiss transforms the Grimpen Mire into a minefield and he reveals that the light flashing across the moors is now caused by some overexcited doggers (geddit?) bashing against their car controls. Perhaps in the dead of night, the dreams of Gatiss’ tormented victim Henry Knight jumble up the circumstances of his own mystery into the original Hound of the Baskervilles story.
I had lost patience with Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ “Sherlock” back in 2010, but I have a great weakness for The Hound of the Baskervilles and I was overcome by my curiosity to see what they had done to it. Just as the James Bond novels reflect Britain’s angst at its imperial decline and any movie about zombies dramatises an anxiety about “the domino effect” and nations falling to communism, the character of Sherlock Holmes has always seemed to embody a naive pre-modern fervour for science. Everything since – the leading of Holmes through pastiche and parody and kitsch – has represented a steady dilution of all that was once vital to the original stories.
In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes had confronted a mythical supernatural creature which recalled old legends such as that of Black Shuck. It would transpire, however, that Conan Doyle’s phosphorescent hound actually demonstrated man’s mastery of nature. Holmes himself vanquished superstition with a greater heroism than those medieval swains who slay dragons, for that swarthy hound had exerted more power as an idea than as a literal beast. Yet in “The Hounds of Baskerville,” the shadow of the old Holmes is now so faint that the most crucial aspect of the original story – the sense of the detective bringing not only light but enlightenment – is almost entirely absent. Notably, when this Sherlock comes out with the famous “when you have eliminated the impossible…” line, it sounds like he is reciting a quotation from somebody else.
Appearing in London around the same time as Jack the Ripper, the original Sherlock had embodied the exciting possibilities of applying science and enlightened reason to the messy world of crime: the point where modern life was most destabilised by the passions. Cumberbatch’s Shirley, however, seems to rely more upon his phenomenal memory and extraordinarily good eyesight, than any notable deductive brilliance. The old Holmes had often demonstrated how anybody could replicate his own findings, but the fact that Shirley can spot a tiny nicotine stain on somebody’s fingernail seems to be more remarkable than whatever he deduces from it. We may assume that he has more the eyes of a hawk than the trained mind of a scientist.
Admittedly, this Sherlock seems only to flourish when he encounters somebody with marked personal uncleanliness, and if one can avoid dipping their cuffs in the soup or getting dog hairs on their tights then they can surely remain the sovereign of their secrets. The logic which brings Gatiss’ hound to life seems a little creaky. Even with my slender experience of drugs, I doubt that LSD can be ingested through a “fog,” or that it can induce a tidy, two minute bad trip, with apparently identical hallucinations in four different people. After Shirley has worked out that the hound is enhanced by hallucinogens, then most of the work is already done, but an irrational fear strikes to his heart, temporarily disabling him. The dog is allowed to escape, when it is very easy to attract any dog (you just whistle). Shirley instead resorts to deducing information about random fellow drinkers in the local pub, fleeing back to a comfort zone of reasoning to, as he puts it, “show off” rather than to find the truth, a smarmy one-upmanship rather than a fight for justice.
It would be a lazy reasoning to claim that the age of Facebook has produced a narcissistic Holmes, but this drama’s stream of references to blogs and text messages is more than just an intrusive decoration. This preoccupation with modern technology cuts deep into Shirley’s psyche; he interrogates Henry Knight with the same emotional distance and aloof sarcasm as a teenager watching a video of somebody injuring themselves on Youtube. Conducting personal relationships are, for this Sherlock, the same as interacting with other people online. Joining in a conversation is the same as posting comments on a website.
The minds behind the latest Holmes have claimed that they are just as interested in his character as in his cases, and there is a heavy insinuation that the detective is suffering from a condition such as Asperger’s Syndrome (which is actually named in “The Hounds of Baskerville”). This is played for laughs, however, and at times a self-aware Sherlock seems to join in with the fun. Leaving aside the crass and ignorant glamorisation of a serious disability, we have come a long way from the original Holmes, who was able to disguise himself as any man on the street and slip off unperceived amongst the London masses. Indeed, in this episode Holmes actually comes home on the Tube conspicuously caked in blood from his latest experiment.
Wisecracking is the glue which sticks this Holmes and Watson together, and, rather innovatively, people suspect that they are gay because they quarrel like an old married couple. At times, they end up practically slapping each other with handbags. Ninety percent of Martin Freeman is his face, and his Watson is forever pulling different rueful expressions at Holmes’ latest faux pas. But Conan Doyle’s age was more tolerant towards bachelors, his society had invested the lives of eccentric unmarried men with particular roles and opportunities, and we rarely found the original Watson carping about his friend’s manners and oddities, because he remained always captivated by his work. We may get to know Holmes better in this adaptation, but we end up being more amused or repulsed by his eccentricity than inspired by his heroism.
[Tychy previously wrote about The Hound of the Baskervilles here. Ed]