Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sherlock Who

The BBC series Sherlock airs on American PBS stations.

It just finished its second season here in the States and I thought it fitting to share my opinions. The show was created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Those names seemed familiar and I did some googling. Yup, those guys were big in the reboot of Dr. Who a few years back.

This is good news because the Dr. Who reboot has been wildly successful. It's also bad news because the biggest mistake made in the reboot was carried forward into Sherlock.

Any story whose protagonist is somehow special must soon acquire an arch-nemesis who is equal in every way to the hero, but evil.

In Dr. Who the arch-nemesis is another Time Lord named the Master. In the original Dr. Who series the Master was a fellow who looked sort of like a Spanish count. In Law & Order Criminal Intent the arch-nemesis was Nicole Wallace. She was delightfully evil and quite easy on the eyes. However, when they rebooted Dr. Who the Master was cast as a sort of nasty schoolboy. Cruel for no apparent reason, he acted immaturely and i found it impossible to take him seriously.

Speed forward to BBC/PBS Sherlock.

Writing when he did Arthur Conan Doyle did not know that he had to give Sherlock Holmes an arch-nemesis. When he wanted to kill off Holmes and go on to something else, he created Professor James Moriarty. In so doing Doyle created the pattern of the arch-nemesis.

People smarter than I have described the necessary prerequisites of an arch-nemesis. One necessary prerequisite of an arch-nemesis is that the reader (or viewer) take him seriously. I could not take seriously either the clown who played the Master or the other clown who played Professor Moriarty.

Evil, like truth, is complicated. You can't just take all the virtues and swap them out in equal measure with vices. Or you'll get some useless old sot shambling through scenes. For my money, the best villain I've seen in a while is The Operative. He's so evil, you don't even learn his name. In his case he believes in the Alliance and he believes the ends justify the means. HIS means generally consist of killing people with his katana.

He kills for his faith.

What made the Operative so effective was that he held all the virtues intact, but he was pursuing an agenda given to him by the Alliance. Years back I saw "The Day The Universe Changed." In the opening scene James Burke shows a witch burning and describes what could they be thinking to do such a thing. Clearly, the end of saving the girl's soul from eternal hellfire justified end means of burning her alive. Such thinking also motivates savages who fly airplanes into buildings.

But villainy is not one-size-fits all. One does not become a Nazi all in one go. Instead, small steps, baby steps are made one at a time weaving a cord of character that ends in evil and arch-evil. C.S. Lewis shows this in Perelandra and again in That Hideous Strength as reasonable, civilized individuals are transformed into demonic villains one seduced step after another.

I think that the reason why Dr. Who muffed the Master and Sherlock muffed Professor Moriarty stems from the fact that the grammar of virtue and vice, of good and evil, has been lost to this generation of Englishmen.


  1. Russell T. Davies was responsible for the rebooted Master. Stephen Moffat was a writer on that series of Who, but he didn't take over as head writer until Matt Smith came onboard.

    Davies's stated intention with the Master was to make him the Doctor's evil opposite, hence the Master acting bubbly and overly energetic in his John Simm incarnation.

    What did you think of his Professor Yana incarnation?

    1. Professor Yana was delightful. He wasn't evil, but haunted and I loved that he was really the Master but didn't know it.

  2. Did you get a chance to see series 2 of Sherlock? In that series we get to see a deeper side to Moriarty which, in my opinion does a very great justice to the character.

    1. I wrote this after having seen the Reichenbach Fall which seemed a let-down.

  3. Why do you find truth to be complicated?

  4. Steve, you assume Moriarty is dead from Reichenbach? I take it that was the let down? There is a lot more going on I think, that we will not see until season 3


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