Dr Watson in Contemporary Times: A Question 

Our members, Ariana Maher and Ron Lies and our observer, Barbara Piper, in recent posts bring to the discussion thoughts on the contemporaneity of John Watson and Sherlock Holmes as a result of several immensely popular cable TV portrayals. Indeed, interest in Sherlock Holmes and John Watson has never been so great in the long history of the Sherlockian milieu.

Without focusing on “elitism” of the “Traditionalists” or “expansionism” of the “Fandom” devotees, what are your thoughts on this massive revival of the Canon in contemporary time and settings?

As background, many of us can recall how the Jeremy Brett series on TV created both excitement and reservations, yet the series was relatively true to the text and the times and now seems almost “traditional.”

Of recent interest in the international news are reports of the huge interest in Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson that is sweeping China. Imagine a new cadre of Sherlockians and Watsonians numbering in the potentially millions and all under the age of twenty-five!

The question becomes: How does the Canon gain or lose by its progression in time and contemporaneity?

4 Replies to “Dr Watson in Contemporary Times: A Question ”

  1. I find this topic quite interesting! I’ve been thinking about it all weekend.

    I suppose on one end of the spectrum are those who dislike the modern adaptions for overlooking some of the finest charms of the Canon and/or older adaptions, such as the Victorian setting and the details featured in the cases. The other end of the spectrum may be those who tend to latch on to a current TV show or movie version of the Great Detective and have no interest in any elements outside of that particular version or those particular actors.

    From my experience so far, the majority may lie much closer toward the center: the “traditionalists” who wish to share their experiences and the “modernists” who wish to expand on their knowledge of Sherlock Holmes and his London. By bridging the gap between the two, its quite possible that the “traditionalists” could preserve their history and culture, and that the “modernists” can discover validation and acceptance for their interests.

    When I hear the word “fandom” I picture something akin to a kingdom: a vast area populated by diverse peoples who share a common passion. The Sherlockian “fandom” is incredibly unique: it’s one of the oldest, most lasting, and well-respected in existence. Instead of building two separate kingdoms, we would be stronger as a whole.

    I love adaptions that recreate the Canon to the best of people’s ability. From Cushing (yes, I’m a fan now!) to Brett, and even to Michael Caine, it is lovely to see Mr. Holmes in his element in the midst of Victorian London.

    I also love contemporary adaptions, because when you displace Holmes and Watson from their home setting and take them somewhere new, you want us to discover the world though their eyes. Basil Ratheborne brought us a hero who fought villains that were more contemporary to the time period. The Guy Richie films are a little poor at representing the time period, but they also effectively revived general interest by changing false, general notions of a stuffy Holmes and bumbling Watson to transform them into modern-day blockbuster superheroes, in a sense: The Adventures of Super-Mind and Gallant Doctor, as it were. 🙂

    And then there are the TV series. Setting aside the numerous shows that are closely parallel to our Canon heroes, such as House, Psyche, X-Files, and so many others, we have Elementary and BBC Sherlock. Both present modern themes that reflect our changing times: a Watson as a woman (not for the first time, but significant in her portrayal, considering changing notions of feminism), a Holmes as a recovering addict, a Watson struggling to find a place in modern London, and a Holmes who actively alienates himself from society. All representations hold elements of their originals, I believe, and yet they also carry contemporary notions that reflect ideas that we are struggling with in this new century: Feminism, addiction, alienation… these are some of what we confront in a very different way than how we handled things more than a century ago. The shows may not be perfect (ask many a fan of the Elementary and BBC Sherlock and they will happily provide a list of how these adaptions are imperfect, especially compared to the canon), but it is fascinating to learn from these attempts and see why they appeal to so many people today.

  2. Buttons poses a good set of questions, and though I am only an ‘observer’ – my husband is the member in our family, and it seemed unnecessary for us to have two memberships under one roof – I might offer a quick and fairly obvious thought.

    Part of the genius of the Canon – the 56 short stories and 4 novels – is that its themes continue to resonate with us today, and whether we stick to the originals or enjoy the adaptations, the core features of the Canonical Holmes and Watson seem timeless in their potential to speak to us. In this forum it may be worth noting how John H. Watson was brilliantly conceived: has there ever been a time when a military physician recently returned from war, suffering the effects of participation in such conflict, has not been a meaningful figure? As the character with whom the audience identifies, Watson is the perfect expression of our weaknesses and foibles, but he is also a professional, a steadfast friend, and the embodiment of solid cultural values. A recently returned military physician who continues to feel the effects of war, or even a woman surgeon who had to give up her practice over her own traumatic experience, are compelling versions of the Canonical original, and examples of the ability of the Canon to reach us today, as it did more than 100 years ago.

    1. That is brilliant, Barbara. I agree completely. Only a unique and daring soul can befriend and keep up with the likes of Sherlock Holmes. Iterations that stay true to the fascinating John H Watson are some of the most captivating.

    2. Barbara, my apologies; however, it was the “Piper” that failed to register, leading me to believe you were an observer of the Society. Who is your husband, please, so we can include you properly in the membership records?

      And, thank you for your thoughtful and insightful comments. We appreciate having your participation.

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