Sherlock as Speculative Fiction
A peculiar trait of the Sherlock fandom is its seemingly limitless creativity in creating fanart or fanfiction taking place in “alternate universes”. From woodland animals to ballet dancers to hobbits and dragons, the fandom seems determined to transform Sherlock Holmes and John Watson into anything and everything other than a consulting detective and an army doctor. Why does this happen? There may, in fact, be a valid reason for this occurrence…
…And no, it’s not because the fandom has been driven insane during the long wait for Series 3.
…Well, not entirely.
Perhaps the most obvious reason for this phenomenon is that the original Sherlock Holmes canon has itself inspired so many re-interpretations, involving everything from talking animals to Lovecraftian abominations to sentient cucumbers. Sherlock itself is a derivative work that takes the basics of the original characters and places them in a different context. It is, essentially, a Crack Fic in its own right.
But there seems to be something about this adaptation in particular that lends itself to reinterpretation and transformation. I believe that this can be mostly attributed to the inclusion of elements from other genres, particularly speculative fiction.
"I wear a deerstalker now. Deerstalkers are cool."
Sherlock was developed by the creative team behind the current series of Doctor Who, and it shows. Sherlock has yet to include an explicit reference to its sister show, but there are plenty of familiar touches, particularly of the psychological horror variety.
Look at The Golem, the gangly assassin featured in “The Great Game”- he was so much like a Doctor Who monster he was virtually recycled into one (The Silence, and later the Whispermen, invoke his quiet, sinister, uncanny presence).
Doctor Who, meanwhile, drops explicit references to Sherlock Holmes left, right and centre. Season 7 in particular was loaded with Holmesian homages. Madame Vastra is “The Great Detective” of Victorian London. The “repulsive red leech” was the monster of the week in one episode. “The Crooked Man” was another. The Doctor jokes about retiring to keep bees. But the references to Sherlock and Sherlock Holmes were truly hammered home with the re-introduction of The Great Intelligence.
“Hammered” how hard, exactly? Well for those of you who haven’t seen the show, the Doctor rocks up in a deerstalker, introduces himself as Sherlock Holmes, makes a few rubbish deductions about apple trees and goldfish while music from Sherlock plays in the background, and then proceeds to compare his nemesis (currently in the form of a giant, villainous snowglobe that sounds like Gandalf) to Moriarty.
(It’s… kind of a weird show.)
The comparison is remarkably apt. Sherlock’s Moriarty is portrayed as almost omniscient in his ability to control people and systems around London. While he does this allegedly through real-world means (psychological manipulation, blackmail, threatening victims families, recruiting criminals with a wide variety of skills and backgrounds), the means are not always elaborated on, and the effect it produces is that of a malevolent, inescapable trickster god. The Great Intelligence employs many science fiction concepts- mind control, extensive hacking, android doppelgangers, etc, to produce the same effect. There’s a brief moment in "The Reichenbach Fall" where the lights of a building flicker as Sherlock looks on, revealing the message “IOU”. It’s one of many creepy phenomena throughout the episode that give the impression that Moriarty has control over the whole city. The moment is recalled later in an episode of Doctor Who, “The Bells of St John,” in which London’s Wi-Fi is hijacked by the Great Intelligence. “Is the Wi-fi switching on the lights?” asks The Doctor's companion, Clara. “No,” The Doctor replies, “the people are switching on the lights, the Wi-fi is switching on the people”. "The Reichenbach Fall" toyed with the idea of a villain who can hack into every system in London, then the Bells of St John followed it up with a villain who actually could.
Perhaps it sounds as though I’m going off on a random tangent about how they got Sherlock in my Doctor Who, but, I assure you, this is leading back to my main point. Eventually. You see, a recurring trend that seems to occur between the two shows is that Moffat and Co. will germinate the seeds of an idea in an episode of Sherlock, explore the concept to its real-world limits, and later transplant it into Doctor Who with a fantasy twist. Sherlock contains the foundations of many interesting speculative fiction concepts, and it is absolutely fascinating to watch these ideas get re-interpreted in another context. Part of what makes many of Moffat’s Who episodes so terrifying is that they have a foundation in real-life philosophical and psychological concepts, and likewise, what makes Sherlock so thrilling is that it teeters right on the edge of plausibility- it constantly threatens to jump headfirst into the speculative and the supernatural, but is always pulled back into the realm of possibility right at the last minute.
“There were times I didn’t think you were human…”
Many of Sherlock’s unusual traits and behaviours invoke images of supernatural or science fiction creatures.
Let’s look at John and Sherlock’s developing relationship, shall we? We have John, a (mostly) ordinary man leading a dull, meaningless life, until he winds up accepting an offer to flatshare with a mysterious stranger. His new flatmate turns out to be a strange creature with superhuman abilities and a knack for crime-fighting, who constantly struggles to fit in among ordinary people due to his apparent lack of human emotions and social skills. John is soon dragged into a world of mystery, adventure, and the ongoing battle of good and evil. The two form an unlikely bond, with John regaining his sense of wonder and enthusiasm, and his companion finally understanding the importance of friendship and human connections.
…It doesn’t sound like a typical crime drama, does it?
So, what is Sherlock meant to be, if not human? Let’s see, now… we have a tall, handsome, socially reclusive Byronic Hero with a pale complexion and dark hair. He rarely eats or sleeps, has an ambiguous addiction, and keeps human body parts in the fridge. The only thing that disqualifies him from being revealed as a vampire is that vampires are usually much more discreet.
His rapid, eloquent monotone deductions, meanwhile, invoke various portrayals of cyborgs and androids- this is lampshaded when John angrily calls him out on being a heartless “machine” (The Canon Watson also accuses Holmes of being an “automaton” on at least one occasion, and repeatedly likens his mind to a precise, sensitive machine or instrument). Sherlock also describes his brain as a “hard drive” with limited space, and the various subtitles and graphics used to represent his thought processes- particularly the elaborate “mind palace” scene in “The hounds of Baskerville”- resemble the interface of some futuristic computer.
There are also elements of superhero stories, particularly in the first episode, with all this talk about Sherlock having an “arch-nemesis”. Moriarty’s camp, hammy, card-carrying villain persona, meanwhile, is separated from Saturday morning cartoon baddies only by his terrifying competence. The Sherlock Scan, too, is subject to superhero tropes, including Power Incontinence (Sherlock can’t turn it off) as well as a sort of Kryptonite Factor (when he meets Irene Adler). John’s blog, in fact, has an entire case centred around comic books and super heroes (the comments on the post reveal the appreciative client’s intent to create a comic book based on Sherlock and John’s adventures; a fun little nod to the official manga adaptation.) note All of these allusions seem to be designed to emphasise Sherlock’s Otherness and apparent lack of humanity. Sure enough, most of the people in his life regard him as an inhuman “freak.” Other things Sherlock gets compared to throughout the series include fairy tale characters (a recurring motif in “The Reichenbach Fall”), aliens (John calls him “Spock” at one point), and celestial beings (“I may be on the side of the angels, but don’t think for a second that I am one of them”).
But initially, he wanted to be a pirate. Make of that what you will.
By the end of the Reichenbach Fall, however, all these "inhuman" traits are deconstructed and ultimately subverted. Sherlock’s actions at the end of the episode reveal his compassion, vulnerability and humanity. John, standing at his grave, calls Sherlock “the best man, the most human... human being ... that I've ever known.”
Metafiction and Magic Realism
The concept of “metafiction” essentially boils down to any piece of fiction that makes an effort to draw attention to its nature as fiction. Sherlock contains metafictional elements in the form of the various Mythology Gags alluding to the original books and various other adaptations.
A newspaper headline describes Sherlock’s cases as “like something out of an Arthur Conan Doyle novella” (what this says about the existence of Arthur Conan Doyle in Sherlock’s universe is anyone’s guess). The hit counter on John’s blog is “always 1895”. In the blog entry for “A Study In Pink”, John receives a fortune cookie informing him that “there is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before,” (alluding to the series’ nature as a derivative work). Sherlock’s world is so chock-full of these references that after a while, one begins to wonder whether the universe is trying to tell him that he’s a fictional character from a Victorian detective story, somehow transported to modern-day London through a Storybrooke-style situation.
Moriarty, in particular, seems to be aware of his nature of a fictional character- he talks constantly about stories and fairy tales, and refers to himself as the villain. The way he namedrops “The Final Problem” implies a familiarity with the original stories, or, at least, a sense of inevitability in knowing that both he and Sherlock have to die at the end of the “story”. Add this to the fact that he seems to be able to see some of the subtitles and captions (he seems to observe the text message he’s sending to Mycroft, and blows it away with a raspberry) and it appears that we might be dealing with a character who has significant fourth wall breaking capabilities (The fact that you can send an email to him and receive one back does not help).
There is, of course, no way that this awareness could ever be directly addressed in the show. Sherlock can never be made aware of the fact that he’s a 160-year-old literary character brought to life in the wrong century. It is to remain a collection of sly in-jokes and knowing winks from the creators, something that the observant audience member will notice, but not something really designed to be questioned or explored beyond “I see what they did there”. Moriarty is most probably, within the context of the Sherlock universe, just an insane criminal mastermind who thinks he’s the villain in a story. The fact that he’s right is just sheer coincidence. Probably. But as the Holmes boys say, "The universe is rarely so lazy."
So, how do we classify this show in terms of its relationship with the speculative and the supernatural? Enter the concept of Magic Realism. Magic Realism is an unusual, hard-to-define genre involving a relatively realistic setting containing hints that there might be supernatural forces at play. The characters generally either fail to notice these phenomena, or simply take them in their stride as a normal part of life without asking too many questions. Often, but not always, the supernatural elements are surreal enough that the audience can reasonably argue that they were imagined by the characters, or subdued enough that one could just as easily say they were never there in the first place. Perhaps Sherlock is an example of this genre?
Sherlock is one of those shows that is extremely difficult to pin down into a single genre. “Crime thriller” and “Detective story” just don’t do it justice. Looking at the fan output alone, one could quite easily be forgiven for assuming it was, for example, a dark romantic comedy, a delightful series of children’s picture books about a clever little Playful Otter, or hardcore pornography note . It may or may not qualify as speculative fiction in its own right, but the allusions to other stories and genres, together with metafictional elements that reference the source material and tap gently on the fourth wall have helped to create a world that is familiar yet new, hilarious yet terrifying, and all in all, just as rich, entertaining and flexible as Conan Doyle’s original work.