As someone who spent countless hours with his adolescent nose buried in the pages of The Complete Illustrated Strand Sherlock Holmes (Facsimile Edition), there are few activities that give me more pleasure than comparing, contrasting, and critiquing the many cinematic faces of The World's Most Portrayed Literary Human. Interpreted by more than seventy-five separate actors, Conan Doyle's legendary detective has been kneaded into countless permutations, all with varying levels of faithfulness to the original.
Robert Downey, Jr.'s Steampunk Sherlock? Love him, but can't shake the feeling that he's really just a charmingly 19th Century version of Tony Stark. What about Basil Rathbone's revered Classic Sherlock? Certainly captures the deerstalker-capped, hawk-nosed mastermind of Sidney Paget's brilliant Strand illustrations, but his Holmes is cardboard thin, reducing the occasionally unsettling moral gymnastics of Doyle's hero to an easily marketable (but inaccurate) purity. And what of Sherlock as Madman? Or Sherlock as Mouse? Young Sherlock? Or even Stupid Sherlock? Not without their advocates, I suppose. But faithful? Hardly.
For a hard-core fan(atic) like myself, Jeremy Brett's turn in Granada's mid-80's series is so pitch-perfect that it might actually be better than its inspiration—as complex and complete a characterization as one could hope to see. Yet, "Sherlock," the BBC's recent reimagining that places Conan Doyle's legendary protagonist in modern-day London, has brought me to an important realization. While its Holmes—a thorny, often unpleasant vision of Holmes-as-Misanthrope brilliantly captured by the magnetic Benedict Cumberbatch—is never a true threat to Brett's crown, the series does offer its audience something that the Holmesian Universe has long been seeking: a definitive Dr. John Watson.
Played by Martin Freeman, whose impending debut as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is about to transform him into a household name, Sherlock's faithful companion is neither the bumbling fool so often portrayed in the early years nor the superfluous sidekick. In fact, Freeman's Watson is the perfect foil to Cumberbatch's Holmes, as gentle, self-effacing, and sacrificial as his companion is brash and narcissistic. And it is the very starkness of this contrast that highlights the essential role Watson must play in the Holmesian mythos.
Despite Holmes' repeated (often inexplicably unpleasant) attacks on their friendship, Watson remains loyal; while mystified, and even wounded, by his friend's calloused, belittling manner, the good doctor refuses to mistake that behavior for the sum total of Holmes' character. And while it can be difficult for readers and viewers alike to understand why he willingly tolerates such spitefulness, the tolerance itself speaks eloquently to the nobility of his spirit and perhaps more importantly still, the nobility of the man he has befriended.
The greatest obstacle confronting Cumberbatch's Holmes—perhaps the greatest obstacle Sir Arthur faced in the creation of his legendary character, as well—is the risk of bringing to life a man whose foibles and flaws leave audiences cold. True, Holmes' intellectual prowess and extraordinary powers of observation are a joy, particularly in Conan Doyle's earliest stories. But if those powers are attached to a man as deeply unlikable as he is brilliant, how long can we be expected to tolerate him? And that is precisely where Watson comes in.
Essentially, the good doctor is a character witness. While sometimes bemused at his unshakable faith, we have no doubt about the veracity of his insights. Our trust of this simple, kind-hearted man and our confidence in his judgment runs far deeper than our distaste for Holmes and his ego-centric tendencies. The fact that Watson has vouched for the legendary detective—and continues to vouch, despite numerous opportunities to reconsider his friendship—plays a vital role in our attempts to embrace the prickly sleuth. Without him, the gulf between the dazzling, irksome Holmes and his audience would prove too difficult to navigate; we might respect him as the world's most brilliant consulting detective, but we would never be able to love him. With the help of Watson the Reliable Narrator, however, we can bridge the gap between what we know of Holmes through our own experience and what his friends see (and love) in him. Without Watson, Holmes would be little more than a freakishly gifted alien; with him, he becomes a troubled, troubling, redeemable human being.
The truth on display in Sherlock—the need we humans have for an emissary in so many of our dealings with others; a trustworthy witness willing to reach out between a difficult personality and his intended audience—has a more universal applicant than the merely literary one on display in Conan Doyle's works; the political and social realms rely heavily on it, as well. Yet as I mulled over the vital part Watson plays (and the many ways in which his role as emissary can be seen in ordinary life), I was reminded of its greatest manifestation: the Incarnation.
In the Old Testament, Yahweh is a formidable and often incomprehensible being; Israel follows Him as much out of fear as they do out of devotion, and the relationship of Creator to creature comes down far more heavily on the "respect" side of the scale than that of love. But with Christ's arrival—in that moment when He chose to take on our frail human nature and elevate each and every one of us to the position of adopted Children of God—everything is changed.
Through Him (and through His reliable testimony as God and man), we are drawn beyond mere fear of God's might into a radical, revolutionary relationship; we no longer consider God simply under the aspect of All-Powerful, but learn to embrace Him as Father. And that is a different relationship altogether—a revolutionary, game-changing relationship so transformative to the way we understand ourselves and He who gave us life that it has indisputably altered the very fabric of reality.
Before Christ, we saw ourselves as subjects; now we see ourselves as heirs to the kingdom. Is it any wonder that we Christians now measure all time in relation to that single transformational moment?
(Sherlock's three seasons are currently available through Netflix's Watch Instantly service, and the entire Granada Television series with Brett is available on both DVD and Blu-ray. The former is frequently more adult in its subject-matter than the latter, but both are "Made for TV-Safe.")