The Great Game

I am struck by the visual representation of Sherlock in this episode, the extent to which the narrative of his clash with Moriarty, the “Great Game” of the heading, is reinforced by Sherlock’s physicality and framing, the focus on his figure as it moves through the steps of the “game”. If this is a dance, Sherlock is not leading it, and his place in it is curiously feminised as an object of desire as well as a slightly hapless follower to Moriarty’s lead.

In visual terms the episode is particularly full of white, stark, empty settings – the snow of the Belarus prison room which opens it, the empty spaces of the Thames-side crime scene and the art gallery.

belarus  thames

Sherlock inhabits these as a dark, isolated centrepiece, gaining focus from the contrasts which also lend him resonance as alienated and alien, apart and slightly inhuman (look at his disengaged body language, leaning back, in the left-hand shot above), associated with the cold of the snowscape or the Thames-side body site, or the gallery’s white marble. Sherlock himself is interestingly shot in this episode, high-contrast shots which emphasise his paleness and render him inhumanly beautiful, marble rather than flesh.

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He is framed as an object of desire – Moriarty’s desire, John’s desire, but also through our identification with the camera, ours. That first frame, above left, is notable for its reinforcement of the feminisation enacted on him by Moriarty’s dominance of the episode – the lighting and camera angle emphasises the actor’s bone structure, but also make him look younger and rather vulnerable.

This positioning of Sherlock as the object of desire is played up by the episode’s narrative, which presents the “Great Game” as a tussle for Sherlock’s attention. Moriarty’s introduction in the persona of the slightly camp “Jim” makes this desire explicit in leaving his phone number, but it’s also inherent in Moriarty’s flirtatious language later in the episode: “hello, sexy”; “a little getting-to-know you present”; “is that just a Browning in your pocket, or are you pleased to see me?” John’s jealous reaction reinforces this – “I hope you’ll be very happy together”.

The framing points up the series’s continual play with the tension between emotion and intellect, between engagement and detachment – Sherlock must be seduced because he is detached, but he also hold within him the potential for passionate involvement, a response to the seduction. He shares with Moriarty the potential for both extremes, cold and suppressed in one moment, excited and manic when thrilled by intellectual stimulation. And, of course, the other extreme to Belarus’s snow is the melodrama so characteristic of the series – in this episode the Golem, the planetarium struggle to Holst’s “Planets” with the wildly interrupted lighting – which externalises and dramatises the emotional extreme. Melodrama, after all, is about an excess of emotion. The series is almost forced to include it simply to balance out the detective’s intellectual detachment.

The Blind Banker

This is an extremely loose thematic adaptation of “The Dancing Men” (a criminal past issuing threats via coded drawings), with a touch of The Valley of Fear (the book cipher and secret gang tattoos) and a possible case for echoes of The Sign of Four (climbing murderers, stolen foreign treasures, Watson distracted by a love interest). Importantly, all three stories offer some version of a particularly British fear of the racial or cultural other – threats from outside are respectively Chicago gangs, American Freemasons and Indian convicts employing an Andaman islander with a blowpipe – which has been translated, in Stephen Thompson’s rather problematical hands, into the heavily stereotyped threat – exotic, inscrutable, Oriental, criminally degenerate – of the Chinese Tong.

The generic intertexts of this episode are firmly in the field of melodrama, and I am irresistibly reminded of the very specific melodrama represented by early 20th-century pulp literature and popular film focusing on Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu character. The insidious Fu Manchu was a long-running villain, a Chinese mastermind behind every kind of crime associated in the popular imagination with Limehouse and its Chinese population. Against the threat of secret societies peopled by “lesser” races is placed the stalwart Western detective figure of Nayland Smith, thwarting the underworld denizens through bravery and brawn.

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Apart from their rampant melodrama these novels were associated with the most stereotypical and reductionist images of Chinese culture – as you can see from the covers above, shadow puppetry, dragons and monsters are accompanied by objectified female figures in exotic clothes, and by signifiers of “Chineseness” such as Fu Manchu’s long fingernails, moustache and soaring eyebrows. In the TV series intro, below, a similar reductionism is seen in musical cues (gongs, non-Western tonal qualities) as well as visual elements such as the Chinese pottery, elaborate head-dresses and faux-Oriental font.

More modern versions of Fu Manchu, in terms of the stereotype he represents, still exist; good examples are Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon (left, below) and the Mandarin, most recently seen in the third Iron Man film (right, below. Marvel’s contemporary version of the comic-book Mandarin at least has the grace to self-consciously deconstruct an extremely outdated concept). You can see the visual echoes between the three versions of Chinese villain – all three have the high-collar tunic and beard, and Ming entirely adopts Fu Manchu’s beard, moustache and winged eyebrows.

flashgordon5 mandarin

This kind of representation can be usefully understood through the lens of Edward Said’s critical work on Orientalism, which is an important early thread in postcolonial studies. (Useful primers can be found here and here. Said’s writing conceptualises Orientalism as a constellation of particular assumptions about the East made from within Western culture, but more importantly constructed in contrast to Western culture – that is, the East is seen as not only essentially different (other, exotic) but also necessarily inferior (degenerate, criminal, primitive, uncultured, superstitious, etc). In addition to these stereotypes, Orientalist viewpoints tend to homogenise Eastern cultures and treat them as a single, undifferentiated, “Eastern” culture.

All this is relevant to Thompson’s script for “The Blind Banker” because, frankly, his evil Tong hordes, Chinese circus, acrobatic Chinese cat-burglar and priceless jade hair-pin are howling stereotypes which may just as well have come straight out of Fu Manchu. You’ll note that the sabre-wielding intruder who Sherlock battles early in the episode is some indeterminate “other” race – Indian or Arabic? it’s unclear – which conforms to Said’s notion of the homogeneity of “other” cultures under the orientalist gaze. (Origami will also be identified as Japanese rather than Chinese by the average Western viewer, and the lotus design seems more Japanese than Chinese). The character of Soo Lin Yao is also an embodiment of the silhouetted, exotic female of the Fu Manchu covers; while she doesn’t dance, she is associated with the ancient Chinese teapots she tends, and is in fact described in the script as a “China doll” – like her teapots, she is “made to be touched”, an object rather than a subjectivity. I am also interested in the re-imagining of the dancing men code as graffiti, which has all of the connotations of criminality which Said identifies in the Orientalist gaze.

The episode is self-consciously melodramatic, and the infusion of melodrama into the modern Sherlock universe is entertaining; it serves as a nice contrast with the more cerebral aspect of Sherlock himself at the same time as it seems consonant with his drama-queen aspects. The thread of melodrama is of course highly visual; Doyle’s own stories are seldom quite this melodramatic, Freemason villains notwithstanding, and his non-British villains, while often stereotypical, are not drawn in quite such exaggerated terms. It is thus a pity that the Orientalist elements of this episode should be quite so uncritically deployed, an instance where the “updated” Sherlock is actually regressive. A hundred years later we should really be better than that.

A Study in Pink

Here dwell together still two men of note
Who never lived and so can never die:
How very near they seem, yet how remote
That age before the world went all awry.
But still the game’s afoot for those with ears
Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo:
England is England yet, for all our fears–
Only those things the heart believes are true.
A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane
As night descends upon this fabled street:
A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,
The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.
Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.

– Vincent Starrett, 1942

Vincent Starrett was a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, one of the earliest fan societies dedicated to Doyle’s detective. His sonnet, above, is a famous characterisation of Holmes and Watson as a timeless, enduring pair whose identity is quintessentially tied up both in their relationship, and in the strong sense of Victorian idyll which pervades the poem. The BBC Sherlock embodies this sense of Holmes and Watson as somehow iconic, their meaning enduring to an extent which makes them capable of re-invention in a new century; the series hinges on the recognisability of the two men and their shared life even divorced from their Victorian setting. Interestingly, the Granada series does not adapt A Study in Scarlet, despite its importance as the text in which Holmes and Watson meet; I cannot help but read their omission in the light of Starrett’s poem, so that in the Granada series Holmes and Watson remain timeless and unending, a continual present of the two of them in Baker Street without either a starting point or (given that the series also omits Watson’s marriage to Mary Morstan) an ending to their lives together.

(Why 1895? While John Watson’s blog, the BBC media tie-in, references this Sherlockian in-joke in the stuck hit counter in its original layout (since changed, but explicitly referenced in “A Scandal in Bohemia”), it makes no attempt to explain the significance of the date. I choose to link it to Watson’s description of Holmes in “The Adventure of Black Peter”, where he notes that “I have never known my friend to be in better form, both mental and physical, than in the year ’95. His increasing fame had brought with it an immense practice.” It is entirely inevitable that John/Sherlock fanfic shippers also relate the date to the infamous trial of Oscar Wilde for homosexuality, citing Doyle’s friendship with and support of Wilde).

john watson blog

“A Study in Pink” works hard to establish its terms of reference: a close dialogue with Doyle’s stories (while this is not a faithful adaptation its intertextual relationship with “Study in Scarlet” and other stories is very strong), a focus on the emotional significance of John and Sherlock’s relationship, and the visual encodings which underscore both London as a character in its own right, and the pivotal importance of Sherlock’s deductive process externalised as visual cues. The episode establishes its relatively marginal play with Victorian codes in the cluttered, wallpapered interior of 221B, and in the frock-coat-invoking silhouette of Sherlock’s iconic coat.

sherlock coat

Introductory sequences

Granada’s version of the Sherlock Holmes stories was broadcast on Britain’s ITV between 1984 and 1994; its 40-odd episodes make it one of the most comprehensive adaptations of Doyle’s narratives, with only 18 stories left untouched. (Interestingly, “A Study in Scarlet”, the first story in which Holmes and Watson meet, is not among the adaptations.) Granada’s versions are faithful renditions of Doyle’s narratives, rich in period detail, and interpreted with a somewhat pedestrian and measured pacing. The title sequence, above, signals this fidelity in its bustling nineteenth-century street scenes, in which the recognisable motifs of carriages, street urchins and the classical theme music encode periodicity while Jeremy Brett’s Holmes watches London knowingly from his window. Its camera follows a series of micro-narratives in relatively long takes, set formally apart from each other by the freeze-frames of the titles, and unambiguously promising narratively-focused adaptations which will be conventional in format and reverential in tone.

CBC’s Elementary premiered in 2012, and is not strictly an adaptation of Doyle’s stories; rather, its contemporary New York setting hosts a relatively standard detective procedural in which names and some elements of the characters’ identities and relationship are echoes of the Victorian texts. There is no attempt to replicate the plots of specific stories, and invocations of detail from Doyle’s narratives are minimal and fleeting; it’s interesting primarily for its genderbent Watson and for the centrality of the drug addict motif in its characterisation of Sherlock. The title sequence largely avoids the location- or character-specific feel of either Granada or the BBC’s Sherlock, with theme music which retains classical/orchestral elements while being recognisably updated to modern title music conventions. In the Rube Goldberg contraptions of the sequence we are invited to focus on the notion of detection itself as the interpretation of a chain of cause and effect, while motifs in the machine – pistols, blades, swinging weights, the destruction of a china head and the eventual cage which falls to enclose a plastic model of a man – evoke the notions of destruction and murder as well as the capture of the criminal. The rolling glass ball comes to embody the inexorable processes of Sherlock’s interpretations, linking elements in a chain while also participating inevitably in their unfolding effects. New York, unlike the centrality of London in the Granada or BBC versions, is a final and momentary freeze-frame, signalling the urban environment of the detective procedural while explicitly distancing its version of Sherlock from Doyle’s.

The primary effect of Sherlock‘s intro sequence is of fragmentation: we are presented with fleeting images, often in extreme close-up, with a recurring motif of London street-scenes from unlikely angles, and with speeded-up action. Like much of the cinematography in the series, this attempts to encode something of the information overload which apparently characterises Sherlock’s own experience of the world. London is clearly an essential element in the series, as are notions of observation and visuality – images include an eye, Sherlock looking through a magnifying glass, his face reflected multiple times, and a view through a microscope’s lens. The theme music is more modern in feel than that of either Granada’s series or Elementary; its drum beat is urgent and contemporary even while its orchestral framing operates as a marker of quality. The momentary images and use of both overlay and extreme close-up set the tone for the cinematic framing of the series as a whole, and we are warned to expect something very different in terms of pace and focus to Doyle’s stories, even while the emphasis on London, both a contemporary and a historical space, insists on the lineage of the series.