Study in Pink Review (Rivals & Ritalin)
Something different for today. I was going to post another piece from that continuing saga about Derek but there’s been something more pressing on my mind. And while my sister got the brunt of my rambling about it earlier I thought perhaps I would try slapping some of it up on this blog since that’s what it was created for.
Recently I got around to watching the BBC Sherlock – a rather interesting retelling of the classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle character in a modern setting complete with cellphones, computer hacking and a cursory understanding of modern science. I have no excuse for seeing this show so late since my sister recommended it months ago. Course, she did mention it around the time I saw Elementary – an American take on the same premise. And Elementary is probably the most offensive use of Sir Doyle’s work that I’ve ever seen (and I watched both Guy Ritchie movies).
I should preface that I absolutely love the old Sherlock Holmes stories. When I was young, my mother bought me a huge anthology of the tales and I can still remember clutching the large, red covered hardback in my tiny little hands. Everytime Sherlock exclaimed that he had the solution to the mystery I would slam the book shut and wouldn’t open it until I had puzzled out the answer.
Or, an answer since inevitably half the time Sir Doyle cheated and kept important information or even culprits until the climatic reveal at the end. Certainly a way to keep your audience guessing, but it became quickly apparent that the secret to Sherlock’s expansive genius was less reliant on keen analytical reasoning and more a matter of the little jerk withholding information until he made everyone else feel wholly stupid.
Still, they were fun so I always approach retellings of the tales with a bit of apprehension. Whenever you like the source material it’s always a gamble whether someone’s reinterpretation of the events will be anywhere near the same enjoyment. Hell, Howl’s Moving Castle is the perfect example of that (perhaps a discussion left to another time).
So, I sat down ready for a grossly disappointing hour and a half when I prepared for a Study in Pink (oh boy – obviously a take on a Study in Scarlet with a wholly less clever name). After getting used to Benedict Cumberbatch’s peculiar look – which isn’t that far a stretch from Holmes’ description anyway – I was pleasantly surprised to find a Study in Pink to be an actually engrossing story. It was, I dare to say, even better than the original and perfectly integrated into our modern times.
It was hardly without flaws, mind you, but most of them are pretty minor. For example, there’s a moment when Holmes corrects a jealous police officer that he is not a psychopath but a high functioning sociopath. Sadly, five seconds of research would tell anyone that the two terms are synonymous and Cumberbatch’s character would certainly have known that even if the writers didn’t. Anyway, minor quibble over a writer’s small attempt at humour.
I suppose I should pause here and warn that there are going to be ample spoilers from this point forward. So, if you care about those things, I recommend you watch the series first if you care to hear the rest of my words on the matter. Currently, it’s only six episodes long so it’s not too great an investment.
There, now that that’s out of the way…
My biggest grievance with a Study in Pink was the bizarre hamstringing of Moriarty in at the end. A quick little lesson on the third most famous character from Sir Doyle’s serial: Moriarty was a character hastily created in a short titled The Final Problem. He was made with a specific purpose; to kill Sherlock Holmes so Sir Doyle could get on with writing about more important things… namely dinosaurs.
In this regard, Moriarty was less the ‘legendary rival’ of Sherlock Holmes that he’s commonly perceived as and more just another villain for the great detective’s Rogue Gallery. Moriarty’s sole tale was began and ended in one particular narrative that involved flinging both characters over the lip of a waterfall and never to be seen again.
Until Sir Doyle realized he could make quite a bit of money by reviving the detective and thus retconning was created.
The reason for Moriarty’s popularity can only really be attributed to Sherlock’s description of him in The Final Problem. The professor never really performed much in terms of narrative impact save for a timely air tackle and if it weren’t for Sir Arthur Doyle hyping his prowess I’m sure Moriarty would have been forgotten along with the likes of Jack Stapleton (bet you didn’t remember him even though he’s the villain of the most famous Sherlock Holmes novel). The only reason Moriarty was given such a fearsome reputation was to ease the blow of Sherlock’s death in the story. If Sherlock died ridding the world of a great menace then perhaps people would stop bugging Sir Doyle to write more tales about him.
Sherlock (the series) decided to hype the great Professor before his grand reveal. Which, while a noble prospect, actually became a rather annoying issue. The problem with forcing Moriarty into the narrative prematurely is that he had no business being involved in the issues. A Study in Pink is a story of a rather pedestrian serial killer. Moriarty gains nothing by association with him and actually loses quite a bit since now the authorities are aware of the master criminal’s presence… because he was giving money to the cabbie for some imperceptible reason. The reason Moriarty is so sinister is because he’s portrayed as the puppet master; the invisible hand behind so many criminal actions that he’s essentially the Emperor of the Underworld.
This aspect is completely abolished if every lowly criminal scum and every despicable crime is directed by his hand. Someone stealing candy from a child doesn’t have to be motivated by Moriarty’s apparently boundless depravity. Sometimes crime can be unrelated to each other.
Anyway, it was a single moment of the show trying to be cute and failing. Except they replicated the exact same issue in the next story, The Blind Banker. Which is unfortunate since Moriarty had more reason to be involved in that story but now him being everywhere was starting to come across as contrived. The Great Game sealed the issue in fantastically bumbling fashion when Moriarty is revealed to not only be an obnoxious twit but also a “consultant criminal” who is far too fast to sell out his clients to the authorities with absolutely zero gain.
The Great Game is perhaps the stupidest episode I have ever seen. The characterization of Moriarty wasn’t fresh but idiotic. There is no way that a nattering young man with impulse control issues could ever achieve the complex web of criminal control that he’s suppose to obtain. No one in their right mind would work with him. And the deus ex machina of there being a “sniper on the roof” was played far to ridiculously for it even to have such an important role on the story.
Clearly the writers felt the same since the first episode of the second season resolved the “cliff hanger” standoff between Sherlock and Moriarty by the writers literally phoning in an excuse to resolve it and never speaking of the issue again. Except, after completely bumbling the character’s appearance they decided it was still prudent to bring him into every episode following until the absolutely retarded Reichenbach Falls. So, I have to correct my previous paragraph – The Great Game is the second stupidest episode I have ever seen. Reichenbach Falls is far and away the dumbest, least thought out story I have ever had the displeasure of experiencing. Nothing in the episode makes sense and already these three sentences I have written on it are more words than it deserves.
Which brings me to the issue of rivals. Rivals make fantastic literary characters, especially for serial stories. They add that personal element to the main character’s struggles. Played well, rivals can even be as popular or even more liked than the actual main character. But they require a certain finesse in their execution. Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes can never be rivals in this literary sense. The two characters are far too great a threat to each other that they can’t have a protracted engagement since neither benefits by leaving the other alive. Moriarty has far too much to lose with Sherlock ruining his plans and his organization. Sherlock has far too much to lose with a criminal who is willing to kill anyone and everyone that interferes with his aims. The moment Sherlock becomes a threat, the master criminal wouldn’t play with the detective but dispose of him as quickly as he could.
For a rival to work, there must be some compelling reason for each other to not put a bullet in the other’s face or slit their throat when they first meet. In this regard, The Joker and Batman are far stronger rivals. Both characters are motivated by philosophical prerogatives that forbid them from killing the other. Batman believes that all people are decent and must face the justice for their crimes (and he apparently has a rule against killing even though he plays fast and loose with that one). Joker believes that everyone is a corrupted monster and is just one step away from plummeting into the abyss. So strong a paragon are they of their own beliefs that just outright killing the other wouldn’t prove their point. They must either drive or redeem the other in order to prove they are correct. Thus, you can have both commit monstrous acts against the other but they would never actually slay their nemesis. It would be akin to mentioning Nazis in an Internet discussion; the very act immediately ending the debate and proving the offender unarguably wrong.
Thus, ultimately, rivals only work if they have more to gain by the continued survival of their arch-nemesis. If your character is better served by just killing his enemy and forgetting him then they aren’t good rivals. They require a compelling personal reason to maintain the relationship – otherwise it just comes across as silly and illogical. It creates a disconnect that threatens your suspension of disillusion.
Remember – if your audience asks “Why doesn’t X just kill him?” and you can’t come up with a compelling answer for that then you have a big problem. These characters aren’t rivals but enemies and are better regulated to the simple rogues of your typical serial then trying to hamstring some greater eternal struggle.
Also, can someone get Moriarty some ritalin. Goodness that portrayal was awful.