"New sun, new air, new sky. A whole universe teeming with life. Why stand still when there's all that life out there?" -The Doctor
"Asking a linguist how many languages they speak is like asking a doctor how many diseases they have." -Unknown

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Game Is On!

First, thanks to the miracle of technology and joy that is the BBC iPlayer, I have Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone on my computer now, so I can re-watch them and finally write something about them. Hooray!

But not right now. For the moment, I'd like to talk a bit about storytelling.

Once upon a time, there was a story: a magnificent story that had made its hero a household name that people recognized even if they hadn't read the story themselves. Like all good stories these days, it simply had to be filmed, because people nowadays can't be bothered to pick up and read books anymore. Coincidentally, two versions of this story were produced: one, a huge Hollywood production with A-list stars, and the other, a televised miniseries on BBC. The former, of course, set out to be grandiose in scale, impressive, sweeping, and amazing, and ended up being disappointing, silly, and somewhat insulting to the story that inspired it, while the other, in its small, carefully crafted way, managed to be poignant, stunning, and glorious while telling a very human story.

The question then becomes: What story am I describing?

Ledger had nothing on this guy.
If you said Casanova, then you'd be right. The Hollywood film staring Heath Ledger was obnoxious, boring, confusing, and trite, and had an ending that anyone older than eight could see coming in the first ten minutes. In contrast, the BBC miniseries, written by future DW writer Russel T. Davies and staring future Doctor David Tennant, was in turns romantic, quirky, revolting, heartbreaking, horrifying, and heartwarming. In a word: brilliant.

However, oddly, if you said Sherlock Holmes, you'd be right, too.

As you probably know, the big Hollywood interpretation of Holmes came out last winter, and it was a resounding...meh. I quite like Robert Downey Jr, and thought he made a sort of sweetly abstract Holmes, and Jude Law was okay as Watson. But oh, the story. Apart from a few very nice storytelling touches (like Holmes-o-vision and a display of his disguise skills), it was disappointing and nothing special. Furthermore, some very important elements of the characters--like, oh, Irene Adler's entire personality and history, and her relationship to Holmes, just for one--were, essentially, reinvented entirely for the sake of the plot, and that's being nice about it. It was a fun jaunt into a steampunk Victorian England with some handsome blokes calling themselves Holmes and Watson, but it wasn't really a Sherlock Holmes story. It was the typical vacuum-sealed prepackaged Hollywood drivel dressed up in a Victorian coat and top hat.

But now the Brits have given it a go, and done it right. There are no Victorian top hats to be seen, and Sherlock sends texts instead of telegrams. 221B is furnished with a laptop, and Holmes slaps on nicotine patches because it's too hard to find a place to smoke these days. But none of that matters. In fact, it makes it better.

There's that violin.
The man playing Holmes is utterly fantastic, and just as odd as his name: Benedict Cumberbatch. His pale complexion and icy eyes only enhance his vaguely alien appearance and cold, careless, completely abstract air. But even better, even better, he plays Holmes to the hilt with every ounce of the the wonderful, terrible trait that is both Holmes' greatest weapon and his darkest curse: his stone cold genius. The small problems and petty feelings of those around him don't touch him where he operates, wheeling ever higher like a gull over the heads of the confused dogs barking after him from the beach. But that means he only feels alive, only really cares, when a suitable challenge for his genius comes along to stave off the boredom of living a normal life. And this makes him the perfect prey for someone up to the challenge.

"Well, you invaded Afghanistan."
And then there's Watson. Jude Law's Watson was basically a pretty face with beefy arms attached who could break down doors  and shout at Holmes to make sure we really understood how longsuffering he was and what an eccentric prick Holmes could be, since they didn't really have much opportunity to show us what with all the explosions they had to fit in. This Watson, played by Martin Freeman (of Hitchhiker's), is a confused man, recently returned from Afghanistan with a psychosomatic limp and a total lack of direction. Just as Holmes sweeps through the story with his superhuman mind and his frantic enthusiasm, unaware of the precipice he dances ever closer to, Watson is the human anchor who has to acclimatize to his new flatmate's seeming telepathy and sociopathic, half-insane brilliance while he fights to figure out life after a war.

The first episode, A Study in Pink, is a modern update of Sir Conan-Doyle's original first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. Now we have GPS tracking, cell phones, and CSIs, but the main drama is going on inside Holmes' and Watson's heads. And it's simply wonderful, which really isn't too surprising, given the elfin arrogance of Holmes, the frustration and loyalty of a still-mending (in body, but mostly in mind) Watson, and a script by Steven Moffat--current writer of Doctor Who. This is, really, pure magic.

Steely glare.
The second episode delves a bit into the problems of a fairly normal, pretty nice bloke with everyman sensibilities sharing a flat with a mad genius who fires guns into walls when he's bored. Ancient Chinese numbers, tea, and a couple of pretty girls figure into the plot somehow. Thank goodness, though Watson is, as usual, a bit distracted by a pretty nurse, Sherlock, as usual, is beyond oblivious to any carnal attractions. Robert Downey Jr.: Seriously, this is how it should be done.

The third and last episode sees Sherlock playing a dangerous game with other people's lives, masterminded by a shadowy figure who only speaks with stolen voices. Sometimes you want to hug Sherlock for his brilliance, although most of the time you'd really just like to smack him upside the head for being a prick. As if all of the explosives, near-misses, and snipers weren't enough, the series ends on a cliffhanger. Aaaaargh!

I'd love to tell you more about these three wonderous hour-and-a-half episodes, but honestly, pretty much all additional details are spoilers. Sorry.

Squee. <3
But there is still hope, because the BBC have already ordered a second season. So if you were disillusioned and disappointed by America's attempt to take on the world's greatest detective, and would rather see him at his arrogant, lightning-quick, sharp-tongued, cold-eyed, cleverer-than-everyone best, watch the BBC instead. You'll fall in love too.

Seriously, what is it about Hollywood that makes almost all their movies (not by Pixar or Dreamworks) complete rubbish?

And why don't they just give up and send BBC miniserieses to American cinemas instead?