This was not an uncontroversial episode of Sherlock. But I’m going to leave the elephant over in that corner until we’re ready to attend to its full-trunkèd pachyderm wail of fail. In the meantime… The great thing about watching – and reviewing – Sherlock is it doesn’t trigger any of the usual questions about adaptation. We don’t have to deal with the translation of highly revered nineteenth century prose into the idiom of Doctor Who and that show where the giant boxing gloves knock people into the swimming pool. This is the match of early twenty-first century TV and Arthur Conan Doyle: trash calling to trash across the echoing century which divides them. Geek culture hasn’t so much appropriated Sherlock Holmes as taken back what rightfully belonged to them, thank you very much. It may well turn out that the entirety of steampunk was an expedition of geeks into the Victorian period in search of where they had left Sherlock, and trying to blend in whilst they were there.
This is why the atmosphere of Sherlock so often feels so right. It’s brilliantly balanced between frantic action and deep analysis, which is to say there’s no discernible analysis and plenty of action. One of Conan Doyle’s best tricks was to give the reader the impression they were glimpsing the hidden web of logical connections which hold the world together, when in fact they were watching a coke addict chase a luminous dog across Yorkshire. With a gun. (I’d point out which of them had the gun, but y’know we’re very careful about SPOILERS round here, so that grammatical ambiguity is all part of the service.)
The BBC Sherlock splendidly captures the tingling sense that everything around us is brimming over with secrets if we could only see them. And of course in this version we can actually see them. Sherlock sits humming at the intersection between our sulky obsession with the Victorians, our fascination with the idea that information is in the very air we’re breathing, and our fear that other people could use that information to harm us. There’s a lot to be beguiled by in this series.
Unfortunately beguiled would be a lousy state where this episode is concerned. I’m not the first to take a swing at A Scandal in Belgravia. Amongst others, the blogger Stavvers has done a number on it, pointing out that it’s quite something when the gender politics of a TV adaptation are more regressive and sexist than the 120 year-old source. The whole episode reeked of the worst kind of sniggering self-congratulation. Adler was the one woman whom Holmes respected and admired, who humbled him by beating him at the game and then handing his stake back. In this version she developed an embarrassing crush on him and descended to the digital equivalent of doodling “Mrs. Irene Holmes” on her exercise book. A Scandal in Belgravia was incapable of imagining female power as anything but sexual manipulation (“I know what he likes” ad nauseam), unable to conceive of female violence as anything but kink or groin shot. Adler seemed to be invoked in order to silence, humiliate and exorcise her from the series.
Conan Doyle’s work can justly be accused of being a boys’ club, and there are plenty of young men in nice suits and posh accents in Sherlock. Indeed the show seems worryingly convinced that everything will be OK so long as such men are in charge. But it’s harder to stomach the other kind of boys’ club which peeps out of this show – the resentful postfeminist backlash which yearns to humiliate women and put them “back in their place”. If this is the Revenge of the Nerds I’ve heard so much about, it’s a lousy cause and it’s going to find a lot more angry women where the likes of Stavvers came from. And Sherlock needs to sort itself out in a hurry.
Dr. Jem Bloomfield studied at the universities of Oxford and Exeter and is currently an Associate Lecturer in Drama at Oxford Brookes. His research covers the performance of Early Modern drama and the various ways it has been adapted and co-opted throughout the centuries. His own plays include “Bewick Gaudy”, which won the Cameron Mackintosh Award for New Writing, and he is working on a version of Oliver Goldsmith’s comedy “She Stoops To Conquer”. His writing on arts, culture, and politics have appeared in “California Literary Review”, “Strand Magazine” and “Liberal Conspiracy”. He blogs at “Quite Irregular” and can be found on Twitter @jembloomfield