Saturday, August 31, 2013

A Most Unusual Introduction

There was only one student in the room, who was bending over a distant table absorbed in his work. At the sound of our steps he glanced round and sprang to his feet with a cry of pleasure. “I've found it! I've found it,” he shouted to my companion, running towards us with a test-tube in his hand. “I have found a re-agent which is precipitated by haemoglobin, and by nothing else.” Had he discovered a gold mine, greater delight could not have shone upon his features. “Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” said Stamford, introducing us.

"A Study in Scarlet" is where it at all began. Arthur Conan Doyle, a young medical man with more time on his hands than he warranted, took to writing and what emerged became the first in an incredibly lengthy series of short stories and novels all featuring Sherlock Holmes. What's more, this one novella would spawn generations of other writers and filmmakers and eventually Sherlock Holmes would become a household name. But, what is interesting to note is that "A Study in Scarlet" isn't your typical origin story. In a work which introduced readers to the world's greatest and only Consulting Detective, the hero isn't present for half the story.

Don;t get me wrong - "A Study in Scarlet" is a fine piece of writing and without it, I wouldn't have a favourite fictional character to blog about. But in terms of plot structure, the novella is at first glance very unusual. I cannot speak for others, but I feel that the first part (the actual mystery) is far more interesting than the back-story set in Salt Lake City, Utah. While this second half is imperative in the grand scheme of things as it chronicles the killer's motivations, after seven chapters of investigating, it's rather jarring. In retrospect, the second half of "A Study in Scarlet" is perhaps not as surprising as it seems. Prior to writing "A Study in Scarlet," Arthur Conan Doyle was well-versed in adventure stories. Most notably among these works is "The American's Tale" is a thoroughly out-of-this-world story detailing the narrator's run-in with...giant, man-eating Venus Flytraps. No - I'm not joking.

"A Study in Scarlet" featuring an
introduction by Steven Moffat
This form of story-telling would come in handy for Conan Doyle with his novels to come, most specifically "The Valley of Fear." In fact, to the Sherlockian novice, the two stories could possibly be confused for one another. Both novels begin with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigating a strange murder in a locked house. There's a mysterious presence of blood involved in the mystery. The man responsible for the murder is apprehended half way through the novel, and the second half of the story does not feature Holmes or Watson and is set entirely in America.

The real question is, which I sort of answered above, is why didn't Conan Doyle sum up the murder's motives in a simple confession? That would simplified things a bit - and made his story much easier to adapt to the screen (although that was the furthest thing from Doyle's mind when he writing I'm sure). I still stand by the answer that Doyle was most comfortable with adventure stories and the fact that he was fascinated with the United States of America, makes the second portion of Sherlock Holmes' debut novel a bit easier to understand. But what is incredibly fascinating is that Doyle had little intention of continuing the saga of his great characters beyond this one novel. He ends the novel with a relaxing night at Baker Street, Dr. Watson vowing he must set the adventure down on paper. It's a nice ending which certainly leaves tings open for more, and yet Doyle would have to be coaxed into writing "The Sign of Four" by the editor of Lippincott's Magazine  a few years later.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

APOP - "The Whitechapel Horrors"

Sometimes when it comes to Sherlock Holmes Vs. Jack the Ripper novels, it feels like - "Excuse me [insert author's name here], 1965 called. They want their idea back." (P.S. 1965 was the release of "A Study in Terror" the first movie to feature the detective matching wits against the infamous killer). It's imperative then that if the idea is to be brought up again, something fresh and new must be done - perhaps not as fresh and new as "The Last Sherlock Holmes Story" by Michael Dibdin, but new all the same. That's why Edward B. Hanna's "The Whitechapel Horrors" makes it onto the list of Perfect Sherlock Holmes stories.

Hanna, who sadly died in 2000, was obviously a Sherlock Holmes aficionado. This novel opens each chapter with a quote from one of Doyle's stories, which usually references something in the forthcoming pages. What's more, "The Whitechapel Horrors" can perhaps be viewed as the definitive work on the subject. My copy of the book is 440 pages in length. It's a tremendously-researched book, giving you not only the details of the Ripper killings in the Autumn of 1888, but it manages to paint a picture of the era as a whole. It's the better that Holmes and Watson are wonderfully represented through Hanna's writing. Their voices are spot on, as are the mannerisms. There is a passage which descries Holmes languidly seated in a chair, minutely examining his fingernails - something which conjures up an image of Jeremy Brett right away, at least for me.

As I wrote above, Hanna's pastiche is very different than most. Aside from the fact that it is massive, Hanna curiously departs from the usual standard of pastiche story-telling. The book is told from a third-person perspective, and in the author's fictitious forward writes that the novel is a reconstruction of Dr. Watson's notes on the case. This does beg the question - why wouldn't Hanna simply write as Dr. Watson? Was he worried he could not do the authentic Doylean voice justice? If he was, I for one believe it would have been fine. Despite the fact that Dr. Watson is not present for a short part of the story, couldn't those passages have been relayed to the doctor in flashback by Holmes? Oh no - rhetorical questions - the scourge of my existence. Moving on then...

(Mild Spoilers Ahead) By large, the most unusual departure from the norm on Hanna's part is to hold back the identity of the murderer. Following the second Ripper killing, Holmes manages to identity a special brand of cigarette - smoked by only a select few. Through the usual process of deductions, Holmes manages to create a working hypothesis of who the Ripper is - but he never bothers to share his thoughts with Dr. Watson and in turn the reader. This can be viewed as an interesting diversion (like myself) or something which can infuriate you. If you view the latter way, I can understand. After reading the book, devoting 400 pages to this novel instead of another, and you're cheated out of knowing the murderer's identity, I can see why you might be a bit cross. However, I find it an interesting diversion and leaves with you the impression that perhaps Jack the Ripper's identity will never be known. (Spoilers Over)

As I mentioned above, the book is jam-packed with references to the canon, including various quotes. Minor characters from Doyle's works turn up - such a Shinwell Johnson, glimpsed only in "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client" and Hanna provides an interesting biography of the character. Interestingly, this would be Johnson's first appearance in a Sherlock Holmes story as "The Illustrious Client" was set in 1902. Also worthy of note, Watson is sidetracked for a portion of the novel in Dartmoor as he's been sent there by Holmes to work on the "Hound of the Baskervilles" case. This brings up a minor quibble - there's really no official date for "Hound," but I have always been of the mind that it took place in 1889, a year after the Ripper murders. Oh well. And finally - my last nitpick. Disguised as a thug in Whitechapel, Holmes actually says F@#! - something which shocked em to the core. Never would I imagine the usually gentlemanly detective using such words, even when in disguise and it certainly detracts just a bit from the impressively faithful characterizations elsewhere.

Overall however, those quibbles do not trouble me too much. "The Whitechapel Horrors" is one of the finest pastiches I've ever read. It's very original, distancing itself from other Holmes Vs. Jack the Ripper stories and is incredibly well researched. If I had to give it an official rating, I'd say 4.5 out of 5.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Sherlock Series 3 Speculation

How clever people of the Internet
I usually don't do this. After "The Reichenbach Fall' aired what seems like ages ago, the web was filled with fans' theories on how Sherlock Holmes managed to fake his own death. After reading a couple, I frankly got tired of it. So, if you've come to this post with the notion that that's what I'll be discussing, I won't be. Nevertheless, Series 3 is on the docket today, as I express my aspirations and opinions of the third series of Sherlock.

I will admit up front - I do sometimes spoil myself with shows and movies. It's a bad, bad thing to do - but I do like to have some idea of what'll be coming up. Surprisingly, I've viewed few spoilers for Series 3, perhaps because I want to remain as surprised as possible. The few photos from the first few days of shooting which I saw quite some time ago have blurred together in my mind. I remember seeing photos of Benedict Cumberbatch dressed in the deerstalker hat again (hooray - it's returning), and of course there's John Watson's mustache - the less said the better. Presumably, these things are in Episode 1, entitled "The Empty Hearse" and written by Mark Gatiss. As I have said before, I think Gatiss is a fantastic writer and I cannot wait to see him helm the opening episode. Most interesting to me at least is how he'll handle Sherlock telling John he's still alive. Gatiss has gone on record saying that John probably won't faint upon seeing Sherlock (per Doyle's story). John has already punched Sherlock, so what'll it be?

The other thing I'm curious about seeing is how Mary Morstan is handled. I have some feeling she'll have been introduced to John in the intervening years between "The Reichenbach Fall" and "The Empty Hearse," and that she won't be a client. Which reminds me - how will Sherlock restore his reputation? By now, he's been deemed a fake. Even I don't have a theory behind that one. But, I really do hope that's addressed right away. It seems like that the point which everyone forgets - except for those who "Believe."

Following on from that is "The Sign of Three" by Stephen Thompson. Thompson is a writer who suffers from the inconsistency syndrome. His first episode, "The Blind Banker" is surely the weakest of the first series' story and yet "The Reichenbach Fall" ranks among people's favourites. His work on Doctor Who is equally inconsistent. Most people loathe his episode "The Curse of the Black Spot" with a burning passion, but "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" is well-liked by most. How his third contribution to Sherlock will turn out, I don't know. I hope that it's a memorable fun episode. "The Sign of Four" is Doyle's most fun Sherlock Holmes novel, managing to be an adventure, a mystery and Gothic horror story all at once. I'd love to see the story done justice in a suspenseful, witty, adventuresome way. Do I expect bloodhounds and pygmies - NO!
A Random Picture of Randomness

The third and final episode is "His Last Vow" by Steven Moffat. With Moffat behind the wheel for the finale, I'm sure that will be an interesting story, peppered with fun allusions to Doyle and feature a climax which will make all of the fans squirm. The most curious bit for me however is what will the plot be. "His Last Bow" is chronologically the last Sherlock Holmes story, set on the eve of World War I. Theories persist that the episode will deal with spies and espionage - which would not only be a nod to Doyle, but to the Basil Rathbone films of the '40's where Holmes was hired by the government to fight Axis agents.

"Bow" is obviously referring to "His Last Vow" and it was one of the three words used to tease audiences about the show's third series. The others included "Wedding" which refers to "The Sign of Three" in which John will get married and "Rat" well...could we possibly learn the fate of the Giant rat of Sumatra at last? Hmm...I'm suddenly even more excited than I was when I started writing.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Review - "Jekyll"

Dr. Tom Jackman (James Nesbitt) suffers from an unusual form of split personality. Unexpectedly, he may change into someone he's not proud of - someone far more dangerous - someone who calls himself Mr. Hyde. As Jackman tries to control his evil alter-ego, he discovers he may be the only living decedent of Dr. Henry Jekyll, a Scottish doctor alive in the Victorian Era. The only problem is Jekyll was a fictional character created by Robert Louis Stevenson - or was he?

Sherlock Holmes was not the only character to be pulled out of the Victorian Era by Steven Moffat and dropped in the modern world. A six-part series airing in 2007, "Jekyll" is akin to Moffat's work on "Sherlock" as it feels as though it were a pet project, quite close to his heart. The idea for the show is excellent and the execution of the character in the modern setting is well done. Jackman is a true split personality. He does not require a potion like the Jekyll of Stevenson's novella to change into Hyde - it happens all by itself. This is probably the script's most original idea - surely not its only original idea however. But more on that later. Of course, a good actor is needed to pull off the part - or should I say parts - of Jackman and Hyde. Luckily, James Nesbitt is a good actor, nay James Nesbitt is a great actor. He pulls off the part so well. This Jackman is a true study of melancholy while Hyde is one of the most convincing and greatest performances I have ever seen on television or on film. Nesbitt looks like he's having a ball playing the part of Hyde.

The fact that James Nesbitt seems to be on top of the world playing the character goes a long way to making Hyde such a likable guy - despite the fact that he beats a man senseless before presumably killing him in the first episode and doing so again later on. Hyde is horrible and funny - sometimes all at once, so kudos to Moffat for the brilliant writing and Nesbitt for the acting. The fact that Hyde is such an intriguing character is one of the script's other most interesting ideas. However, the cast for "Jekyll" aren't all as top-notch as Nesbitt. Gina Bellman who plays Jackman's wife is not very convincing and is brought down by some incredibly stilted dialogue throughout. Denis Lawson, who plays Jackman's friend Peter, who has a secret agenda of his own, isn't very convincing either, and at times appears to be sleep-walking through the part. Luckily, actresses Meera Syal, Michelle Ryan and Fenella Woolgar all turn in fine performances - and coincidentally all three have appeared in Doctor Who.

While Steven Moffat's script is good for the most part, it is not without fault. In my opinion, the series' first two episodes are the show's best, wonderfully setting up the principle characters. Thereafter, the story quickly turns into less of a horror story and more of an adventure and conspiracy thriller with sci-fi thrown in for good measure. I won't spoil anything for you, but the episodes makes the already incredible story far less likely to happen. The last episode in particular, seems like Moffat didn't quite know how to end the series and tried to use every possible ending imaginable. Sorry Mr. Moffat - you cannot have your cake and eat it too.

Overall, "Jekyll" is a good series. If you're a fan of Stevenson's original story, you'll find this a nice homage and follow-up. James Nesbitt is brilliant as Jackman and Hyde, but things are let down a bit by a jumbled plot. I give "Jekyll" 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

APOP - "Sherlock: The Great Game"

Benedict Cumberbatch in the episode's climax're back from watching "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes?" is great wasn't it? You didn't cry did you? I hope not. It's pretty sad in the end though. Okay...okay...I'm blabbering on and on, and guess what - you've just gotten over some extreme awesomeness and I'm about to send some more your way. Do you need to take a break? Here's what you do. Go out to your nearest bookstore and track down a copy of "Sherlock Holmes: War of the Worlds." Okay, attempt to read it. Once you've done that you'll be ready for something which is a portrait of perfection. So, what'll it be today? The season one finale of "Sherlock." Even if I will openly say that "The Great Game" isn't the best episode of the show, it's a testament that even the show is perfect, even when it's not at its peak.

"Sherlock" was the brainchild of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, who taking inspiration from the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies of the '40's with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce decided that Sherlock Holmes could work just as well in the modern world as he could in the Victorian or WWII world. When the concept was taken to the BBC, it was originally going to feature six episodes, each an hour in length. This shortly changed and what emerged was a series of three episodes, each an hour-and-a-half. However, much of "The Great Game" would be inspired by the hour-long episodes. The plot concerning the fake Vermeer painting would have originally been an hour-long episode on its own.

"The Great Game" is unlike some other episodes of "Sherlock" in that it is not merely and updated retelling of one of Doyle's stories. This script takes Sherlock Holmes and John Watson and sets them off on an adventure, not entirely based on Doyle's work. The adventure of The Bruce-Partington Plans is woven into the plot, however the main idea that a mad bomber is taunting Sherlock with a series of mysteries is entirely original and works great. This manages to make the entire episode very suspenseful, and hardly a moment passes without some nail-biting scene. The mysteries themselves are good, the best of the lot being the fake Vermeer, however the murder of a famed television personality, a disappearing husband and the strange death of a young athlete all have their good points.

Even with its rip-roaring plot, "The Great Game" manages to have some fine character moments. Benedict Cumberbatch continues to be excellent as Sherlock. This episode provides him with some dialogue lifted straight from Doyle's "The Sign of Four." The greatest character scenes come towards the end when John offers to kill himself to save Sherlock, and the ensuing scene of awkward happiness with Sherlock and John share is both funny and touching. The script also weaves in some nice references to the canon or to other Sherlock Holmes films. At one point, Sherlock tells John: "He'd be lost without his blogger." If you got that reference, give yourself a pat on the back. The assailant, The Golem, is a nice reference to The Creeper, played by Rondo Hatton in Universal's "The Pearl of Death." The scene where Sherlock discovers that The Golem is responsible for one of the murders is fantastic and surely one of the best bits of deduction in the series' entirety.

I think that "The Great Game" is one of the finest scripts ever written for a television show. If the praise I have given it above doesn't seem to do the show justice, then I highly advise watching it again and seeing just how good it is. So, stop reading "Sherlock Holmes: War of the Worlds," and go watch this episode. I don't think you'll regret it.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

APOP - "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes"

To kick off this series, A Portrait of Perfection, I begin with one of my very favourite Sherlock Holmes films, perhaps my favourite ever. I know that's saying a lot, but when it comes to "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" it seems apt. It is a brilliant film, made all the more stunning when one examines its rich back-story. If you are a Sherlock Holmes enthusiast like myself and you have not yet seen this movie, make it a priority. Okay, onto the analysis proper.

Filmed in 1970, "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" was the product of the wild imagination of Billy Wilder. Wilder, an expert director had directed some excellent pictures during the '50's, most notably "Sunset Boulevard," "Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution" and "Some Like it Hot." Wilder brought his skill to the movie and it shows, being one of the most beautiful Sherlock Holmes films ever made. Wilder's goal was to show a different side of Holmes - the more humane side, hardly glimpsed in Arthur Conan Doyle's canon. To do this, Wilder and his longtime friend and scriptwriter, I.A.L Diamond, would create a script which is both very funny and extraordinarily moving. As Wilder said, "'The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes' is not serious nor is funny." To bring this very creative script to life would took a very innovative cast of characters. Headlining the show is Robert Stephens as Sherlock Holmes, giving one of the finest performances of the detective I have ever seen. Colin Blakely is his Dr. Watson, wonderfully spoofing the Britishness of his character. Genevieve Page is Holmes' distressed client, who may not be all she seems and Christopher Lee plays Mycroft Holmes at his manipulative best.

Wilder and Diamond's original concept for the film was to be a three-hour series of vignettes all detailing the cases which Dr. Watson held back from the public. These segments were shot, including an adventure called "The Upside Down Room" and a comedic interlude called "The Adventure of the Naked Honeymooners." Along with a lengthy flashback sequence and an alternative opening, these scenes where eventually edited out of the film and seem lost to the pages of history today. What remains however, is still arguably one of the greatest Sherlock Holmes films ever made.

Robert Stephens as Sherlock Holmes
It is hard to characterize "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" into one genre. If I had to choose one, I'd say it is a character-driven melodrama. Much of the movie is a character study of Sherlock Holmes, examining how he is not quite the man he was portrayed as in the past. In the film's opening, Stephens' Holmes berates Watson for having changed so many details about him - including his physical appearance, height, violin abilities and wardrobe. Now this may sound like it would be at odds for a Doylean purist such as myself, but it is handled so well and Stephens' performance is lovely. Seldom as Sherlock Holmes been portrayed as a morose individual labouring under some unspecified melancholy. In retrospect, some of the finest Sherlock Holmes films ever made were filmed in the '70's ("The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes," "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" and "Murder by Decree") and each feature an interpretation of the detective at odds with Doyle's original. However, it is probably done the best here.

To play off of Stephens' morose detective is Colin Blakely who is a wonderful Dr. Watson, playing the part for all its worth. Blakely is a master of screwball comedy throughout the film, his finest scenes occurring in the film's uproarious first act. When an aging Russian ballerina calls upon Holmes, saying that if he fathered her child, their baby would have both brains and beauty, Holmes declines the offer, claiming "women aren't his cup of tea" and that his romantic side is reserved only for Dr. Watson. When the news spreads, Watson is infuriated by the news.It's a brilliant piece of comedy from both Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely. My other favourite line of the movie comes from this portion of the film, when Blakely's Watson is describing how twelve men have died for her. "Six committed suicide, four were killed in duels and one fell out of the gallery of the Vienna Opera House." When Holmes informs Watson that's only eleven, the doctor counters: "The man who fell from the gallery landed on top of another man in the orchestra." Holmes replies: "That makes an even a messy sort of way."

The principle players
While the first half of the movie is wildly funny, the second is far more serious and dark in tone as Holmes, Watson and Madame Gabrielle Valladon (played by Genevieve Page) search for her missing husband. This leads the group from the Diogenes Club to Inverness in Scotland to Loch Ness and they encounter what may be the Loch Ness Monster. When Mycroft informs Holmes that Madame Valladon has been playing him for a fool and she's in fact a German spy, the film takes a very different turn and Stepehens' performance is excellent, obviously hurt by this. While the script leaves it ambiguous whether Sherlock Holmes was actually falling love with Madame Valladon, the implication is strong. The concluding moments of the movie are extraordinarily depressing, but there is a note of "life will go on" in that Dr. Watson sits down to chronicle the adventure. It's an incredibly poignant ending.

I am not the only one who views "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" highly. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss both have voiced their love of the film, and claimed that parts of it inspired "A Scandal in Belgravia," which can be seen if one is well versed in both films. As I said at the top of this article, if you have not yet seen this movie, you really should. It's one of the finest Sherlock Holmes movies I've ever seen, and one of the few which I will award 5 out of 5 stars. Okay, so I've finished...out go out and watch this movie!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

And the New Doctor Is...

Okay, I'm a little late, but I suppose that's better than never. So, on Sunday the BBC announced via a thirty-minute television special that the Twelfth Doctor to take the place of Matt Smith on Doctor Who is Peter Capaldi. This was perhaps not as surprising as some had hoped as Capaldi was named the most likely choice as the announcement aired.

Personally, I'm very excited. I have no prior knowledge of Capaldi or his work, I have looked into it since the announcement, and he seems like a good choice. He is much older than Matt Smith, and at 55 years of age, Capaldi will be the second oldest actor to take on the part, aside from William Hartnell who was a few months Capaldi's senior upon taking the role in 1963. I wasn't sure how I was going to take to him upon the release of his name. I am not someone who takes dramatic change in his stride, and regeneration is a dramatic change. Just from his publicity photo, Capaldi already looks the part and I think that he will fit in perfectly alongside the other doctors. While I'm at it though, I should voice my opinion quickly on those outraged by Capaldi's casting. There have been a swarm of reactions from people in the wake of his casting, upset by the fact that Capaldi is not young and handsome. Sure, it's a change coming off of David Tennant and Matt Smith, both rather attractive men, but it's time to mix it up.

People who say that they will quit watching the show because of Capaldi's casting are obviously not true fans of the show. The part of Doctor is based more on just looks. The show's original concept was to have the Doctor be an unattractive, older man who spirits away companions in the TARDIS. Capaldi will be a wonderful throwback to the Doctors of yesteryear, which is perfect since the show is celebrating 50 years this November.

Despite my profound excitement, I still withhold final judgement until I've actually seen Capaldi in action. But, I have a feeling that battling some Daleks and piloting the TARDIS will suit Peter Capaldi just fine.

What do you think of Peter Capaldi's casting? If you're a Doctor Who fan, or someone familiar with his work, sound off in the comments below.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Something to Wet your Appetite

Sorry for all these short posts lately, but it's imperative that you follow this link straight away.

Too much is happening in one weekend - I cannot keep up!

The Next Doctor...

If you're a die-hard Doctor Who fan, like me, than Sunday is the day which we've been anticipating for months. The day when we shall finally learn the identity of the 12th Doctor. As soon as I can get to my computer after the news breaks, I'll post the name on this blog, if you're not fortunate enough to see the reveal live.

That's all I have to say on this one. Happy August!