Adapting Sherlock: series 2

Series 2 of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss' Sherlock cemented its position as a masterclass in the art of the update. Here, Gem looks at how the series made the source material its own...



This article contains spoilers.

Somewhere, back in the mists of time – all right, it was 2010, but humour me, because it really has felt like an eternity since then – I wrote an article on the BBC’s adaptation of Sherlock. It’s here, in fact.

The show was riding the crest of a very big, very enthusiastic wave at that point, and it seemed like the ideal moment to explore the source material. You know, all those Arthur Conan Doyle stories you’ve always meant to read and never quite got round to looking at. If you’re an ardent fan of the TV version – and the frenzy surrounding that last ‘cliffhanger’ suggests that a lot of you are – then that’s something you really ought to rectify, as you’re missing a treat. 

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Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat are huge admirers of Doyle’s work, and that passion for the canon also encompasses the huge swathe of film and television versions that have reinforced, developed and occasionally challenged our perceptions of the great detective. 

Nobody seriously expected the show’s writers to go for the obvious Holmesian targets so soon, but Moffat has said that he didn’t see the point of delayed gratification, so the big guns were rolled out after all.

My predictions for series two were, to my great surprise, not too far off the mark. We got the ‘really, really big, scary dog’ – well, sort of. ‘The Woman’, Irene Adler also popped up right on cue, and stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy into the bargain.

As for the deadly snake summoned by a nefarious stepfather? Well, you may have missed it, but in the montage of cases Watson writes up on his blog as A Scandal in Belgravia opens, one headline stands out: The Speckled Blonde, a rather cheeky reference to The Speckled Band, in which the reptile and its dastardly owner made their appearance.

Another of Watson’s accounts is titled The Geek Interpreter, a decidedly cheeky nod to Doyle’s version of events, in which the interpreter was, in fact, Greek, while The Naval Treaty becomes The Navel Treatment. None of these stories appear to have anything to do with their namesakes (especially that last one…). They’re just fun in-jokes for those as mad about Doyle’s work as the show’s creators.   

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This series of Sherlock, then, has differed significantly from the first in that it tackled fan favourites, rather than the decidedly subtler take on several lesser-known Holmes stories showcased in that initial trio of episodes. It’s been a controversial approach, and one that arguably paid greater dividends in some episodes than in others. 

The level of adherence to the source material varied drastically from week to week. A Scandal in Belgravia swiped the fundamentals of A Scandal in Bohemia before taking all sorts of titillating liberties with Adler’s character. The Hounds of Baskerville was, unsurprisingly enough, a fairly free but utterly beguiling adaptation of the legendary The Hound of the Baskervilles, while the closer, The Reichenbach Fall, left the audience agog with its audacious, fascinating, internet-imploding mystery, playing with The Final Problem’s shocking climax in a thoroughly modern and innovative way. 

Little was left of the original Scandal once Moffat had taken his adaptational tools to one of the most memorable original stories. In many ways, his take owed more to later additions to the Holmes canon. The original Irene Adler might have been, as Watson put it, “of dubious and questionable memory”, but regardless of her status as a courtesan and former lover of the king of Bohemia, she was also noble, loyal and in every way Holmes’ intellectual equal.

In fact, as the great detective was quick to acknowledge, she bested him. He fell victim not to any stereotyped feminine wiles, but to his own prejudiced assumption that a woman could never fool him. When his efforts to find a compromising photograph of Irene with her royal lover fail, Holmes assumes the worst, but it transpires that Irene has merely kept the picture for protection as she prepares to begin a new life in her home country of America with her much-loved new husband. 

The basics of the plot remain the same in Moffat’s version. Adler’s position as an opera singer guilty of nothing more than an ill-advised extramarital fling hardly raises eyebrows in the twenty-first century, so Lara Pulver’s modern Irene becomes a dominatrix. This time, it’s a pillar of the British Establishment who features in the saucy snap: a female member of the Royal Family. 

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After agreeing to take the case, Sherlock follows much the same methods as in the original story. Doyle’s Holmes deliberately gets drawn into a fight outside Adler’s house, providing him with an opportunity to enter. Moffat’s Sherlock – never one to make life easy – gets John to punch him in the face, hard. 

Once inside, both our heroes quickly discover through subterfuge that Irene keeps her most precious possession – her mobile phone, loaded with ‘evidence’ – hidden within a wall safe. Holmes gets Watson to throw a smoke bomb inside and shout ‘Fire!’ to determine where the incriminating photo is concealed, whereas Sherlock deduces this from observing Irene’s nervous glance at the wall when American agents burst in. The involvement of the CIA in this episode is the sole nod to the original Irene Adler’s American connections, other than Mycroft’s lie that she has been given witness protection in the US: here, the character is British. 

The link to the overarching Moriarty story thread is completely absent from Doyle’s story, and there is one other major change; the relationship between Sherlock and Irene. Here, there is an obvious sexual charge between the two, although how deeply either truly feels about the other remains unclear.

This is a major departure from A Scandal in Bohemia, where Irene is utterly uninterested in Holmes, being deeply in love with another man, and sees him as nothing more than an adversary. The great detective’s own feelings on the subject will forever remain opaque. Did he ask to keep Irene’s picture as a romantic token, or, as Watson tells us, to remind himself that he was once thwarted by a member of the fairer sex? 

Moffat comes down firmly on the side of later additions to the Holmes mythos, in which Irene has sometimes been his lover or even the mother of his secret child. Irene confounds Sherlock’s powers of deduction not by disguising herself, but by appearing in front of him stark naked, leaving him lost for words. Or something.

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One final touchstone with the original Irene remains. Moffat’s dominatrix figure works under the pseudonym ‘The Woman’, a name which, Doyle’s Watson assures us, is the only way Holmes ever refers to her, in a tribute to her status as the one who got away – in the most literal sense of the term. 

It was difficult to approach The Hounds of Baskerville without a sense of creeping dread, and not of the chemically induced kind. Would Mark Gatiss be able to tackle one of the most frequently adapted – and, frankly, daftest – of Doyle’s originals? Thankfully, if there’s one thing Gatiss loves as much as Sherlock Holmes, it’s the world of horror, and his enthusiasm and knowledge for the genre left its mark all over a superbly atmospheric depiction of a sinister, bleakly beautiful Dartmoor. 

Baskerville Hall may have been replaced by an ominous military base and secret testing facility – an oblique nod to the soldiers sweeping the area for an escaped convict in the original – but the air of doom and foreboding echoed that established by so many previous films and television productions, while offering an entirely new angle on the tale.

Gatiss foiled us at the outset by casting suspicion on research scientist, Stapleton – a decidedly cool customer, not averse to rabbit murder – while throwing readers of Doyle’s work off the scent by reusing the name of the villain from the original story for her character.

In fact, the real murderer (of humans) was one of her colleagues. The garrulous couple in charge of the local pub were trying to protect their dangerous dog, responsible for tourist sightings but not the murder dimly remembered by tragic and apparently delusional protagonist, Henry Knight. They were clearly taken from the template of the servants at Baskerville Hall; there, housekeeper Mrs Barrymore is secretly caring for the escaped convict, her brother. 

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In both stories, Watson is led astray by a mysterious light that appears to be a coded message for someone in the distance. Doyle’s version has Mrs Barrymore using a candle to signal to her brother that she has food for him. Gatiss has John discover that courting couples out on the moors are, erm…accidentally turning their headlights on, in full view of interested observers. 

Moving swiftly on, the story’s complex dénouement revealed that the sightings of the hell hound were down to a noxious, hallucinogenic gas that had affected even Sherlock – a plot point brought to you courtesy of The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot – while the real villain, Frankland, stumbles into a minefield and dies in an explosion. The atmosphere here beautifully conjures up the scene in which Stapleton perishes in the marshlands of the Great Grimpen Mire. 

Oh, and in one final twist, Frankland is just an eccentric neighbour of Stapleton’s in the original – a very clever role reversal that certainly had me fooled. In case you were wondering, yes, the whole ‘bloodied Sherlock with harpoon’ thing is very much canonical, and appeared in The Adventure of Black Peter, where Holmes tests out a theory about a murder on a pig carcass. It’s a relief to know Moffat and Gatiss didn’t invent that one. 

And so to that conclusion. Andrew Scott’s Moriarty really came into his own here, displaying the terrifying combination of conscience-free intelligence and fearsome, indefatigable cunning that distinguishes Moriarty as the only super-villain of Doyle’s stories. He may be a puckish, manic adversary, but at his empty heart he’s the same old psychopath. This is Sherlock seen through a distorted mirror, all emotion and decency gone, and it ain’t pretty.

Steve Thompson aced the conclusion, giving us a master criminal who differed from Doyle’s original in every surface respect, and matched him in all the ways that mattered. Did the epic struggle of Batman and the Joker really inform the finale, or are we just predisposed now to view any such pairing of hero and villain through that prism? Hard to say. 

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All the source elements of The Final Problem – yes, even the title was referred to by Moriarty as he challenged Sherlock within the confines of flat 221B – were repurposed here to leave us with something new, fresh and terrifying. Holmes’ status as star witness in Moriarty’s upcoming criminal trial, the presence of assassins who, in the original, were out to kill rather than protect him, and Watson’s inability to prevent his friend’s ‘death’ all feature in both stories. 

Having the pair tumble from the real Swiss waterfall, though, would be a little too obvious. Here, the Reichenbach Falls are the subject of a lost Turner painting recovered by the detective at the beginning of the story. When Moriarty poses as a struggling actor to convince those around Sherlock that the great man’s a conniving fraud, he also uses a false name, Rich Brook, which translates into German as…you guessed it.

It’s a lovely touch, and typical of the intelligence and verve with which the finale was executed. On a side note, could the presence of the stolen painting be a reference to Moriarty’s theft of the Mona Lisa in the 1985 TV version of the story, starring Jeremy Brett? 

There was one intriguing guest appearance in the finale, too. Lestrade has been the only one of Doyle’s Scotland Yard squad to have made the transition to Sherlock until now, but we finally met his rival and opposite, Tobias Gregson, here, although he was a little more belligerent and blockheaded than in the canon. John’s fists came to the rescue again, though…

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Holmes’ survival in The Reichenbach Fall was always to be expected, and not just because of the precedents. Here, he arranges the whole thing, from the phone call to Watson telling him of landlady Mrs Hudson’s supposed shooting, to the location from which that epic fall takes place. Moriarty laid all the traps in Doyle’s work, from a fake note sent to Watson telling him of a sick patient back at his hotel to the choice of the precipice as a meeting place …but then, Holmes was meant to have died for real until the writer was prevailed upon to bring him back for yet more adventures. This Sherlock looks set to keep enthralling us for some time. 

Those are most of my favourite references, but before you go rushing back to the original stories, here are some final gems.

Several of the fictional characters and series most obviously inspired by Holmes were briefly name-checked, from Lestrade’s description of Sherlock’s efforts as ‘CSI Baker Street’ to John’s jokingly calling him ‘Spock’. We had it confirmed for us that Watson’s middle name is Hamish, and that Lestrade’s initial ‘G’ stands for ‘Greg’ (even if Sherlock, ever clueless on these matters, did think it was an assumed name).

The old man who hushed Watson in the Diogenes Club, Mycroft’s favourite haunt, was none other than Douglas Wilmer, who played Holmes in a number of BBC adaptations of the stories during the 1960s, and opposite Gene Wilder in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother in 1975. Only the biggest fans would get that one, and Moffat and Gatiss knew it. 

Last of all, a word on the hat. The deerstalker, to be precise, or should I say, ‘the Sherlock Holmes hat’. It had to appear sometime, and it finally did, repeatedly. The fuss Sherlock made about wearing it is entirely justified, as the “death Frisbee” (don’t ask) really ‘isn’t his hat’ – Sidney Paget incorporated it in his drawings when illustrating the serialised Holmes stories in The Strand Magazine, even though it’s never directly mentioned by Doyle.

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Not so canonical, after all. But you know, when you plant the seeds of an idea…

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