Having now watched all of the third season of Sherlock, I’m beginning to see two things that annoyed me in the recent seasons of Dr. Who creeping into this show too, and I am freshly annoyed – annoyed enough to make my first blog post in seven months.
Away we go, then.
Annoying Thing One – It’s A Small World After All
The founding principles of both the Dr. Who and Sherlock Holmes franchises are very similar, they are both about superhumanly intelligent individuals with sidekicks who go around helping people in trouble. Remove all the trappings of genre and what you’ve got is a simple, serial formula in which each episode introduces the victim, their problem, and their antagonist, and then the hero swoops in, solves the problem and defeats the villain with some witty, out-of-the-box thinking before moving on, leaving the victim grateful and bedazzled.
This is not a very innovative formula – it has been used in one form or another for just about every detective show ever, from Colombo to Foyle’s War to Miss Marple – but it is a very satisfying, comforting one.
It also has another virtue – it adds novelty to every episode by bringing new people and new situations into the story. This in turn does several other important things.
1 – It gives the audience more realistic people and problems to identify with. We may not all be time lords or high functioning sociopaths with hyper-articulate supervillains hunting us down, but we have all been at the mercy of forces greater than we can handle, and we have all wished that someone smarter and more powerful than us would come along and solve our insoluble problems for us.
2 – Merely by being human, those more realistic people provide the contrast which allows the audience to see how superhumanly intelligent our hero is by comparison.
3 – It allows the stories to be about anything, from high finance, to sports, to high school drama, to war, to romance, to court intrigue, and on and on. Because the victim is unconnected to the hero except by the fact that they have asked him or her for help, their world doesn’t have to reflect the hero’s world in any way, and this variety allows to series remain fresh and open. It makes the world the heroes live in larger.
Both Dr. Who and Sherlock have lately begun to drift from this formula, and I think it has weakened them.
Have you noticed in both shows, that rather than saving other people, the stories have become more and more about saving the Doctor and Sherlock, or their immediate associates?
In the whole of this latest series of Sherlock, as far as I can remember, he only takes two clients who are not people he already knows, and he has a face-to-face scene with only one of those. All the rest of the drama and danger is directed at him, his immediate friends or family, or their friends and family. There is a world of crime out there, but the show closes that world down to Sherlock, John, Mary, Mycroft, and Mrs. Hudson. In the first episode, there isn’t even an on-screen villain. In the second the villain gets two or three lines at the most. In the last episode, we never see the person whose case Sherlock has supposedly taken in a scene together.
The same contraction happened in the last season of Dr. Who. Where the stories increasingly became about the Doctor’s problems and the problems of his friends, than those of anybody else. Indeed, as if to drive this fact home, four out of the last five shows of the last series (including minis and specials) were titled The Name of the Doctor, The Night of the Doctor, The Day of the Doctor, and The Time of the Doctor. It’s a great big universe, but the only people who matter are the doctor and his friends.
An example of this is the Christmas special, where the Doctor goes to a planet called Christmas and saves it, but only three or four people on the planet get lines, and only one of them is even given a name. It may be a story about saving a planet full of people, but it’s clear that the only important person in the story is the Doctor. The folks he’s saving are ciphers.
To me, this myopic focus on the Doctor and his problems, or on Sherlock and his problems, makes both of them – and their shows – weaker. The personal troubles of an immortal time traveler and a infallible detective are not enough to carry a series, and too much focus on them waters down the core concepts of the shows. Sherlock is a detective. He should solve cases – not be the focus of them. The doctor is – when you remove all the timey-wimey bells and whistles – a conflict resolution specialist. He should resolve conflicts – not be the focus of them.
Character arcs are not necessary for these characters. Sherlock and the Doctor have always been static characters – catalysts that change the lives of others, but do not change themselves. Their function in every story is to be the enigmatic deus ex machina, and if they cease to be enigmas, if they cease to do their jobs, then they cease to be interesting.
Annoying Thing Two – Cool Character, Bro
Another founding principle of both shows – and basically any show, book, or comic that has a single character’s name for a title – is that the title character is the only one who can do the thing they can do. Sherlock can deduce facts from the smallest details, the Doctor can solve problems with techno-babble and nine hundred years of experience, other detectives and heroes have their own unique gifts. What gives them power and longevity as heroes and brand names is that uniqueness. If everybody in his world is invulnerable and can fly, then Superman is just an ordinary Joe. If everybody can kick ass in a cowl and cape, then Batman is just another guy with insomnia.
So it goes with the Doctor and Sherlock. When other characters are shown to be as good or better than them at the things they specialize in, they become weaker and less singular by comparison.
If, for instance, Captain Jack Harkness not only has adventures in time and space and is immortal, but is also better looking than the Doctor and a hit with both the ladies and the gentlemen, of if River Song flies the Tardis better than the Doctor does, and reveals that the signature sound that the Tardis makes is the parking brake, which the doctor always forgets to take off, these things rub away a little of the Doctor’s uniqueness and make what he does seem less extraordinary.
If, for another instance, Sherlock acquires a cockney apprentice who makes brilliant, on-the-fly deductions in the same way he does, his best friend’s wife is a former assassin for the CIA, his brother is a master of accent and disguise in addition to being the “second most powerful man in the land”, and his landlady was once the wife of the leader of a drug cartel, then almost everyone he knows has special skills and an over the top back-story, lessening his skills and back story because of the diminished contrast.
Having an assortment of bad-ass characters with special skills and interesting backgrounds works wonderfully in an ensemble story, like Leverage or the Avengers, but when the main character’s name is the title of the show, they should not be upstaged.
So who is responsible for these annoying things, and why are they happening? Well, since both series have the same executive producer, the first part of that question is easy to answer – Steven Moffat is the culprit. “Why” is a more difficult question, and since I’m no detective, I’m going to have to rely on theory, conjecture, and personal prejudice, like every other blogger on the internet.
I will admit up front that Mr. Moffat drives me a little bit mad. Before he was executive producer on Doctor Who, he wrote some of my favorite shows of the new series – The Empty Child, The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, and Silence in the Library, and when I heard he was going to take over the show, I expected great things. I expected every show to be a perfect self-contained jewel of storytelling like those episodes were.
This has not happened. Instead of focusing on neatly crafted short stories that use the doctor as the enigmatic catalyst for their resolution – like the afore-mentioned episodes – he has created season-long, and sometimes multi-season-long arcs that have often ended up leaving the Doctor written into convoluted corners and diminished as a character. He has also introduced, as I said earlier, side characters that seem to be vying with the Doctor – and now with Sherlock – to be the coolest character in the show.
Why has he done this? My guess is that he secretly wishes he was writing his own series about his own lead character, and is a bit peeved that he’s working on characters who both had long and storied histories before he came along. Not only does he seem to want to put his stamp on both characters, so that they are remembered as Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who and Steven Moffat’s Sherlock, he can’t, at the same time, seem to resist having his pet characters prove they are the heroes’ equals, who most certainly should have their own shows.
I know very well this temptation. I too have written series characters who I did not create, and have been tempted to put my own stamp on those heroes and elevate my own pet characters to their level. What can you expect from a writer? It would be impossible, after all, for someone to write a story of any kind without some of their personality and prejudice coming through. And I admit that I did occasionally let too much of my personality and prejudice come through in some of the franchises I worked on.
Fortunately though, I had vigilant editors who generally caught me when I strayed, and stopped me from going too far. I am grateful for that, because I believe that a writer writing a character not-his-own has a responsibility to as much as possible make the character the star, and to make himself disappear.
Naturally this doesn’t pertain to a writer’s original characters and series. With those he can do what he wants, but when working in someone else’s world, the writer should remember that they are a guest, and aren’t going to be the last writer to use the character, so try to leave it in as good or better shape than when you were given it.