A recent issue of The New Yorker reviewed the BBC’s production of Sherlock that follows Downton Abby on Sunday evenings. (At least briefly. Apparently, there are only three episodes per season. And. despite being on Masterpiece Mystery!, it is not a whodunit, but more of a psychological drama.) The reviewer likes it, as do I, thinking it far superior to Downton Abby. That’s all I’ll say about it—you will have to decide for yourself because they are very different.
The review introduced me to the term “fan fiction.”
When an author kills off a protagonist, as Arthur Conan Doyle originally did with Sherlock Holmes (falling into a gorge with archenemy Professor Moriarty), others are free to pick up the story line and run with it, totally unofficially of course, and this is called “fan fiction”—fiction written by the fans themselves. Much fan fiction also elaborates on minor characters appearing in the original. The BBC production of Sherlock is a prime example of the genre where Doyle’s late 19th century classic is brought up to modern times. In the original, we are reading Watson’s diary chronicling their adventures. In the BBC’s version, his media is a blog, and the theme of fan fiction weaves in and out of the story.
We meet young Dr. Watson’s ditsy landlady, who may turn out to be more than she appears. We meet Sherlock’s visiting parents and his perhaps smarter, older brother, Mycroft (suggesting a trivia question for your next party). The actor playing Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch, is tall, ramrod straight, with the biggest head I have seen since O. J. Simpson, in sharp contrast to the diminutive actor playing Watson. There is a strong hint of a former homosexual relationship between the two characters, but they are fan-fiction suppositions in the form of the modern question, “Wait, are they gay?” commonly asked of the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and of Batman and Robin. Holmes and Watson are not gay, but emerge as an example of male bonding, a true romance purer for the absence of sex that women can never really understand.
The most memorable moment so far this season is Holmes giving the best man speech at Watson’s wedding reception, which is a classic sure to be repeated on YouTube. The speech quickly shifts from humbleness to belligerency to sentimentality, all interspersed with quick flashbacks and hilarious zingers on marriage. Halfway through the speech, Holmes is shown interviewing women who have had one-night stands with a mysterious ghost. That scene suddenly shifts to him in his office meeting women online who all vanish when he closes his laptop, and we are aware it was only a poetic metaphor for his psychological isolation. (I warned you it is no Downton Abby. This level of complexity that may need a day or two of contemplation to unravel is not for everyone.)
Sherlock acknowledges the more traditional, amateur fan fiction. The opening episode shows how Sherlock survived his supposed death, and just as you are thinking the explanation is a little far-fetched, the scene switches, and you realize the explanation is only fan fiction by a group of nerdy young adults in deerstalker caps meeting in someone’s shabby living room. When the mystery is finally explained, a club member tells Holmes, “Not the way I’d have done it.”
“Everyone’s a critic,” replies Holmes.
This, too, illustrates how complex the story line of Sherlock is. You cannot let your attention stray for a moment, very unlike Downton Abby where you can doze off knowing that whatever you miss will be obvious.
According to the review, fan fiction has been popular for a long time. They fell under the radar of most readers because the stories were rarely published and only circulated within individual fan clubs. Now that we have the Internet, they are emerging on web sites devoted to the genre (Google the term). Some say this is the purest form of fiction, written just for the pleasure of the author. A typical fan fiction story could be on the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane now that they are senior citizens and riding on the SEPTA train to Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market once a week for lunch.
Hey, I could write that!
I was reminded of the furor over the ending of The Sopranos. Was Tony killed or not? everyone wanted to know. It’s fiction! It’s not real. He was killed, or not killed. Maybe he ditched Carmella for his psychiatrist and had ten children with her. Maybe he had a transgender operation and moved to Phoenix as “Tanya.” Whatever you want. Whatever you imagine. It’s fiction! Made up.
(You can watch, or re-watch, all previous episodes of Sherlock and read about the characters on the BBC website. One of the writer-producers, Steven Moffat, also works on the Dr. Who series. His wife is a producer for Dr. Who.)