The world's only consulting detective steps into the 21st Century in the BBC series Sherlock. Benedict Cumberbatch portrays the titular hero and Martin Freeman plays his sidekick, Doctor John Watson. The first episode, 'A Study in Pink,' introduces us to John, an army doctor who has just returned from active service in Afghanistan, having been injured in combat.
He meets Sherlock Holmes through a mutual acquaintance at St Bartholomew's Hospital – much the same way as the two meet in the first Holmes novel. By the next day they have moved into 221b Baker Street, and soon find themselves pursuing criminals across London.
Motives and Results
The first such criminal is a killer responsible for what appear to be four serial suicides. As Sherlock attempts to track him down, John begins to learn more about his new flatmate – and about himself. While Sergeant Sally Donovan (Vinette Robinson) calls Sherlock a "psychopath" and a "lunatic" and believes "he'll always let you down", Detective Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) tells John, "Sherlock Holmes is a great man". A man claiming to be Sherlock's arch-enemy helps John to realise he is more similar to his flatmate than he had thought. The man points out that a tremor in John's left hand, thought by his therapist to be post-traumatic stress, is in fact perfectly steady when he finds himself in a stressful situation. Later, Sherlock himself comments on the fact that John appeared for their next task when told it would be dangerous.
Meanwhile, Sherlock tracks down the killer using his own ingenious methods. When the two come face to face, Sherlock deduces that a fatal diagnosis has given the man the freedom to do things he would otherwise never have dreamt of. Each time he outlives someone in his twisted game, money goes to his children.
This first episode looks at why people do what they do. Lestrade calls on Sherlock because he's desperate. The murderer goes on his killing spree, not out of bitterness, but out of love for his children. John joins Sherlock on his adventures because stressful situations help him focus and danger makes life more interesting. And then there's Sherlock himself. The killer tells him, "This is what you're really addicted to, innit? You'd do anything. Anything at all. To stop being bored." Sherlock is a self-diagnosed, high-functioning sociopath, and everyday life seems to him to be extremely dull. Without problems to solve, life is just a dreary tedium.
Our motivations are tightly bound up in our subsequent actions. Ideally, we should balance good motivations with good results. Otherwise, like Sherlock, we find good results matched with bad motives; or, like the killer, bad results paired with good motives. Neither of these characters demonstrates a particularly healthy way to live. Though his motives are selfish, we would tend to gravitate towards Sherlock's approach, because as a result of his seeking to alleviate his boredom, he solves mysteries that no-one else is capable of solving.
But are good results enough? The God of the Bible, the ultimate perfectionist, demands deeper integrity. Psalm 24:3-4 tells us that the only people who can approach God are "those whose hands and hearts are pure". 'Pure hands' means our actions need to be free from wickedness. 'Pure hearts' means we need to be guided by good motives. But is this really a reasonable demand? Do any of us really have pure hands and pure hearts?
When an old university associate asks Sherlock to investigate a case of break-in and vandalism at his bank in 'The Blind Banker', the duo find themselves pitted against a Chinese smuggling gang. Their quest brings them into contact with Soo Lin Yao (Gemma Chan), a young lady who does tea ceremony demonstrations at the National Antiquities Museum. As an orphaned teenager with no means of surviving, she had turned to her only available option – smuggling antiques for the gang. Now, five years after leaving the gang, she is being hunted down. On top of helping Sherlock solve the case, John has also succeeded in securing himself a new job, and develops an attraction to one of his colleagues, Sarah (Zoe Telford). Their first date unfortunately does not go according to plan, as the other part of John's life intrudes in a manner that is impossible to ignore.
Every action has a consequence. We may find ourselves facing a Hobson's choice, like Soo Lin, who had to choose between doing something she knew was wrong, and facing death by starvation. Or it may be more similar to John's situation, in which his choice to challenge evil resulted in its retaliation. Probably few of us will be facing decisions quite like these, but nevertheless, each thing we choose to do could have results which show up when we're least expecting them. Not every result will necessarily be negative, but it pays to be aware of possible consequences when making decisions and acting on them.
No moral argument is going to stop anyone from doing what they need to in order to survive. When someone chooses to fight evil, despite probable retaliation from those they're opposing, it is particularly commendable. The Bible tells us that God hates evil, and his followers are regularly shown standing up against what he considers wickedness. The ultimate example is Jesus himself, who constantly came into conflict with the religious leaders who didn't like his ministry, which saw him welcoming as friends even those they considered the worst kind of sinners. As a result, Jesus was nailed to a cross. John and Sherlock both have the possibility of death hanging over them in their chosen career, and yet they refuse to give up. We might not face such extreme consequences, but we should still strive to imitate these figures, not allowing fear to overwhelm our sense of moral duty.
If we find ourselves standing up against what we consider evil, does that make us the good guys? Are there not things within our own lives that could also be considered, if not evil, then bad? As we have already established, no one has entirely pure hands or a spotless heart. We have all done wrong at some point or another. And God hates the wrong that stains our lives. Because we all have done wrong, the Bible tells us we are all deserving of punishment. We can never obey God's law in its entirety. We are guaranteed to stumble on one aspect or another. Is there, then, no hope of evading punishment?
A Dangerous Hero
The third and final episode of the first series returns to the question of Sherlock's boredom. He is shown shooting a smiley face into the wall of their flat. He looks out the window and hates what he sees – it's too quiet, calm and peaceful. But all that is about to change. An explosion in Baker Street marks the beginning of 'The Great Game,' in which a mysterious villain manipulates Sherlock using a series of press-ganged suicide bombers. The only means of saving them is for Sherlock to solve the puzzles inside the given timeframe. "What was the point?" asks Lestrade. "Why would anyone do this?" "Oh," replies Sherlock, "I can't be the only person in the world who gets bored."
The mastermind behind the string of puzzles demonstrates what happens when someone of Sherlock's intellect, but with an inclination towards crime, gets bored. In the first episode, Sergeant Donovan predicts that one day the man responsible for the body will be Sherlock, because "showing up won't be enough", and "psychopaths get bored". Luckily, in this instance at least, Sherlock is on their side. The mystery bomber has provided Sherlock with a worthy opponent and complex enough puzzles to lift him out of life's tedium.
What's the difference between Sherlock and his antagonist in this episode? Both have intelligence that immensely supersedes that of average human beings. Neither seems to place much value on human life. Both are driven by a desire to relieve their own boredom. The bomber is eventually revealed to be a 'consulting criminal', in a parallel of Sherlock's own role as a consulting detective. There is a fine line that separates one from the other, and this is in the codes they have established for themselves determining what they deem to be right and wrong. Sherlock's self-imposed standard ties more closely with our own perceptions, whereas the bomber has a view of 'rightness' that encompasses a great deal more as being acceptable.
We might consider ourselves to be generally pretty good people. But Sherlock demonstrates that the line between heroes and villains isn't always clear-cut. The Sherlock of this series behaves in such a way that, if he were found to be responsible for a murder, we might be upset but not particularly surprised. Similarly, the evil that is inside each of us means that we can never be truly certain that we are really the hero we think ourselves to be. Perhaps we need a hero who is pure both in his motives and his actions – someone able to rescue us from ourselves.
TV series title: Sherlock
Keywords: Crime, morality, motivation, heroes, villains
Writer: Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat
Director: Paul McGuigan
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Rupert Graves
Broadcaster: BBC1 (UK)
First broadcast: 30 August 2010 (UK)
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© 2010 Richard Blakely