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In which the author takes note of the BBC’s plan to take over the minds of American geeks

Cliff Watson as the Usher, Tom Derbyshire as the Learned Judge, and Yours Truly as the Defendant. The martini glass was my own touch. (Bridesmaids, left to right: Kathleen Gillette, Angie Bartels, Tessa Studebaker, Katie Edwards, Winchee Lin, and Hollis Heron. My friends, if any of you are reading this, it's really hard to believe that was a decade ago this year. I miss you all terribly. It's been too long. I really didn't think I'd be out here anywhere close to this length of time, and now I don't have any idea about what would ever bring me back. To say nothing of the fact that I expect I would only ever be in the audience anymore for SG&S even if I were back.)

I can’t really claim to have ever legitimately been an Anglophile. I obviously was fascinated by Sherlock Holmes as a little kid, and reading “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” inspired me to badger my mother into preparing a goose and plum pudding for Christmas when I was nine years old, then for a few years I ran in Episcopalian circles (which isn’t really the same as being an Anglican, I eventually decided, but it’s as close as you can get in some parts of the country), had a stint in the Tudor Choir, honeymooned in Victoria, B. C., and also sang a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan. Still, I never actually went to England before five years ago, I never cared much about the Union Jack or tea or the Queen Mum (or any of the royals, really), and really couldn’t tell you the first thing about Winston Churchill. The way to put it that is at once most accurate and charitable is that, if anything, I was an Anglophile wannabe.

My love of Sherlock Holmes meant that my formative Holmes actor was Jeremy Brett, whom I saw on Mystery! probably starting in 1985. He was not only formative, but normative —  the gold standard in the way that Batman: The Animated Series is the gold standard of Batman interpretations regardless of medium. I do have to confess, however, that the first screen Holmes to captivate me was Christopher Plummer in the, uh, criminally underrated 1979 Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper film Murder by Decree (directed by Bob Clark, which is rather curious since he is probably most famous for A Christmas Story) (and Decree is also quite notable for having James Mason as Watson). The first time I saw that was probably in 1982 or 1983 on late night television — I remember my dad pulling me out of bed because he correctly thought I’d probably be interested in seeing it. There was also a production of The Hound of the Baskervilles at Woodinville High School in 1984 that I remember seeing — one of my teachers took me to see it, and I also recall that the actor who played Holmes came out after the play and talked to me for a little while. Can’t remember the guy’s name, but I remember being blown away by him.

Doctor Who I became aware of probably starting in 1989 when I began reading Starlog, and I remember seeing bits and pieces on PBS here and there. I think the part that sticks out most in my memory is catching the end of The Armageddon Factor. For better or for worse, however, the first Doctor Who I ever watched in its entirety was the 1996 Fox TV movie with Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor and Eric Roberts as the Master. I certainly enjoyed it well enough to be part of the letter-writing campaign that tried to get Fox to pick it up as a series (as well as to save Strange Luck, but something about having historically been a fan of horrifically lost causes comes leaping to mind), but obviously that didn’t happen.

Skipping ahead to 2004, I read about Christopher Eccleston being cast as the Doctor in a relaunch of Doctor Who. Interesting, I thought, but how will I ever actually have the chance to see it? I don’t have cable, and I don’t really have time to organize my life around watching a TV show anyway.

Over the next few years, mostly through reading Neil Gaiman’s blog, I would catch bits of Doctor Who news here and there — David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, and then, after apparently months of speculation that it would be Lenny Henry Paterson Joseph, Matt Smith — wait, who? — as the Eleventh Doctor. I had absolutely no idea what any of this meant, but it sure sounded like it would be worth watching if I ever had the chance. Also, around this time, mostly due to reading TheOneRing.Net and seeing lots of speculation about Martin Freeman as Bilbo, I started hearing things about a TV series based on the idea of a modernized Sherlock Holmes.

Well, in the fall of 2010, finding myself with a wife out of the country and our big TV out in the middle of the living room while my friend Phil Woodward lived in the second bedroom where the TV used to be, I decided I wanted to be able to watch Netflix Streaming on the TV. I had been able to plug my laptop into the set, but I could only do video — the video/audio-to-HDMI converters I had tried burned out within minutes, so I could watch the video on TV but I had to listen to it through the laptop speakers. The trouble was that we bought a Blu-Ray player right before Netflix Streaming had become standard on them, I didn’t really want to buy another Blu-Ray deck just for that functionality, and if Flesh of My Flesh had come home to us owning a Wii or an Xbox or some other gaming unit, she would have divorced me instantly (which in Indiana I believe involves a rusty pair of scissors and a clamp). I know, I know, First World Problems. In any case, I was persuaded by some poking around that AppleTV was the most cost-effective solution for my particular circumstances, and thus I brought one of the little black boxes home one day.

When I hooked it up and got Netflix Streaming up and running, I actually spent some time poking around the library, which I hadn’t done before — I had only noticed if a movie in my queue was listed as being available for instant viewing. Sure enough, there was the Eccleston Who — so I started watching. When it was over, I watched the next one. When that one was over, I watched the next one. Next thing I knew, the Ninth Doctor was telling Rose, “You won’t see me again, not like this,” and I was crying. Still, David Tennant was a lot of fun, but then when he disappeared from the beach before he could tell Rose he loved her, I was crying again.

Meanwhile, Phil, my housemate for the year, turned me on to Veronica Mars, which was also available via streaming (no longer, it seems — alas). I watched all three seasons, and I enjoyed it — Twin Peaks meets Beverly Hills 90210 is sort of how it seemed to me, at least at first — but I consider myself one of those who felt that it lost its way during the second season and never quite recovered. Even the first season — the way it was set up, it was absolutely awesome, and even the way they solved the season’s central mystery was fantastic and completely unexpected, but in general the wrap-up didn’t quite seem to follow through on the all of the convictions the setup had started out with. Without totally giving things away, I’m not entirely certain they played fair with the audience in the first season resolution, and then the way they returned to the same material for second season’s mystery was not in the least convincing. Also, in general, in the first season I was able to buy that these were high school kids, even if many of them were high school kids of significant privilege; almost all of that credibility went out the window during the second season. The third season — well, you’ve got an early appearance of Armie Hammer, which was kind of cool, but beyond that, by the end I was having trouble caring. The point of all of this is to say, American episodic television was leaving me wanting more. I’m aware that Veronica Mars is hardly representative of “American TV”, but nonetheless, that’s how it fits into the story.

I got through the first four seasons of Who, and most of the first two seasons of Torchwood. For the record, I didn’t really quit watching Torchwood, I just sort of ran out of time. I will go back and watch the rest at some point. John Barrowman is amazingly talented, and strikes me as what Tom Cruise would be like if Tom Cruise were a good TV actor rather than A Movie Star (that said, go see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, it’s the best of the bunch and Brad Bird slams it out of the park). I watched all of the long specials that constituted Tennant’s putative “fourth season”, culminating in the heartbreaking “I don’t want to go!” — and suddenly there was this gangly kid onscreen yelling “Geronimo!”

Around this time, I decided to bite the Sherlock bullet. It wasn’t available on streaming, but the season pass on iTunes was something like $16, so… what the heck.

And, with that — season (I know, I know, “series”) five of Doctor Who and Sherlock — I was plunged into the depths of Steven Moffat’s pulsating pink glob of insanity jelly that he calls a brain.

Matt Smith quickly became my favorite of the three relaunched Doctors (and that after thinking there was no way that Tennant could possibly top Eccleston, and then thinking that Tennant had it as nailed as anybody could possibly nail it). Despite his youth, he played old surprisingly well, and in a way was the oldest-feeling of the bunch. The thing that in general grabs me about Doctor Who is that there are really no limits to the kinds of stories it can tell; science fiction, historical drama, comedy, horror, with any mixture of any number of those being possible. The Doctor himself, “the madman with a box”, has literally seen it all; Willy Wonka is a common comparandum to the Eleventh Doctor, but one I haven’t seen before that I think is apt is Neil Gaiman’s Morpheus — terribly old but still timeless, and still mortal in some way even if not quite. If any kind of a Sandman project ever does get off the ground, I’d love to see Matt Smith in the role — he looks like Morpheus (particularly in some of his Goth-boy publicity shots), and there were moments during the second half of the sixth season (particularly “Let’s Kill Hitler,” “The God Complex,” and “The Wedding of River Song”) where he captured a kind of despairing self-loathing that, to me at least, is key to the Dream King. (And let’s not forget the fairly blatant reference to the Doctor’s shadow self in “Amy’s Choice” as “The Dream Lord”.)

When my wife got back from Germany, I told her, okay, I’m now going to introduce you to my new favorite TV show. I started with “The Eleventh Hour” to see if she’d find it at all entertaining, and she did. Given what happens in the fifth season, I went back to “Blink”, “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead”, then proceeded with the rest of the fifth season and then the sixth season, so that this year’s Christmas special was the first one we watched “in sync”, as it were. She made the interesting observation, after watching “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” and Captain America: The First Avenger in reasonably quick succession, that each one represents a very different kind of cultural memory of World War II. For England, the memory is one of being bombed, forced out of your home, losing loved ones, being terrified in the dark — and for the United States, the memory is of being the good guys, plain and simple. Since we’re now working our way through the Eccleston series, I said, well, you’re going to get quite a bit more of that shortly (I’m thinking of “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances”, which, it occurs to me, are also the first Steven Moffat-scripted episodes).

So, then there’s Sherlock.

Since I’ve read “A Study in Scarlet” probably a half-dozen times, within the first minute or two of “A Study in Pink” I knew what they were setting up — the question was, does the person they’re going out of their way to not show or draw attention to have the same motivation as Jefferson Hope? Seemed unlikely that a teenage boy would fit in with the same kind of revenge scheme at the heart of “Scarlet”, so knowing the what without the why kept me watching.

I was not prepared for “Wrong!” “Wrong!” “Wrong!” “Wrong!”, much less “No, she was leaving an angry note in German! Of course we’re looking for a Rachel!” What I realized was that knowing the stories set up certain expectations in my head that allowed Moffat and co. to subvert them. Removing the setting of Victorian England, what becomes effectively a third major character in the stories, allows the series to focus on the stories and characters themselves rather than either selling the spectacle of a recreated period (like the Downey Jr./Law movies) or having to be somewhat deliberately stagy to avoid spending too much money on a recreation (like the Jeremy Brett series could be at times).

(I would nonetheless love to see a big-budget, faithful, period film of “A Study in Scarlet” someday. I have no doubt that it will never happen for all kinds of reasons that should be obvious to anybody halfway familiar with the middle portion of the novella — probably the backstory would have to be merged with that of “The Valley of Fear” or something like that, which itself seems like an apologetic rewrite of “Scarlet” anyway — but I hope that I might be wrong on that point.)

It was also fascinating to see the series creators work in other kinds of references. The end of “Pink” definitely recalls Vizzini vs. Westley in The Princess Bride, but it also sets it up with The Vanishing, one of the more terrifying — to me, at least — cinematic psychological traps of the last 30 years. (I’m talking about the Dutch original, by the way, not the remake with Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland.) “A Scandal in Belgravia” also cleverly works in a Fight Club homage as well as what I’m convinced is a subtle Star Trek II reference. “Hounds of Baskerville” includes a couple of Nolan-esque moments, one a riff of a moment in Insomnia, and conceptually it is indebted to Batman Begins as much as to Conan Doyle. These don’t strike me as derivative — if anything, they strike me as “Easter eggs” for a particular kind of viewer.

And then, of course, there are the performances. Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t impersonating anybody, he isn’t being reverent to Brett or Rathbone or Plummer or anybody else, he’s giving the audience a Holmes without the veneer of 19th century gentlemanly society, thus exposing him as a “high-functioning sociopath”. He’s every bit as good as Brett while being a completely different take on the character; I can’t wait to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and I’m very curious to see what Hollywood makes of him, given the recent casting of him as the villain in the next Star Trek. Martin Freeman is a perfect foil, and the showrunners do a great job of giving Watson more to do than just chronicling and commenting on Holmes. Turning him into a hapless wannabe-ladies’ man is an interesting comment on how Watson’s love life works itself out in the Conan Doyle stories, and his everyman qualities make it plain why Peter Jackson thought he’d be the perfect Bilbo Baggins. Una Stubbs is a lot of fun as Mrs. Hudson, and her take on the character reminds me a bit of Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett. And, I have to say, I don’t understand why some people have such a burr in their saddles over how Moriarty has been handled. I’ll be curious to see where it goes with “The Reichenbach Fall”, but in the 21st century I find it quite reasonable to think that a master criminal might be, at heart, a man-child on a power trip who wants to get back at everybody who laughed at him growing up.

There’s clearly a shared creative DNA between Sherlock and Doctor Who; obviously there’s Steven Moffat, but there’s also Mark Gatiss, Euros Lyn, and so on. Sherlock and the Eleventh Doctor have similar ways of processing information (compare “What did I see? I saw…” in “The Eleventh Hour” to the “Bond Air” bit in “A Scandal in Belgravia”), and there are some very interesting similarities between “The Hounds of Baskerville” and “The Unquiet Dead” (the third episode of the Eccleston Who), both Gatiss-scripted. I haven’t yet seen Tintin, but I’m very curious to see how Moffat’s work translates to the big screen.

And there you have it — I’m still not really an Anglophile, but I’m nonetheless one of the people who helped make Doctor Who the most purchased-from-iTunes TV series in 2011, and I’m doing my part to pass along the disease. I’ve shown the first fifteen minutes of “A Study in Pink” to about ten people thus far, and there hasn’t yet been an instance where I haven’t had my hand slapped away from the remote when I’ve said, “Okay, that’s the first fifteen minutes, I’m sure you’re not interested in seeing the rest…” Nor has there yet been an instance where I haven’t been bugged for the next 2-3 days about watching the other two episodes of the first season. “The Eleventh Hour” has also had a similar success rate.

I’ll also briefly note that a recent British TV movie called Page Eight was something I was persuaded to check out by virtue of the cast alone — Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, Judy Davis, and Ralph Fiennes. (One wonders if all of the Harry Potter alumni get together to do these kinds of things for fun.) It’s an espionage thriller, and a very understated espionage to say the least, but that hardly makes it uninteresting. Bill Nighy  — whom I’m embarrassed to say I first heard of because a friend dragged me to the first Underworld back in 2003 — is such a restrained character that the tension is ratcheted up just by the viewer’s fear of what will happen when he finally lets loose. Does he? I ain’t sayin’. I’ll just say for now that I hope he gets to return to the role at some point, and that Page Eight is well worth checking out — you can find it on either iTunes or PBS’s website, I believe.

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