Sherlock 1.01 - Benedict Cumberbatch
Episode 1.01 A Study in Pink - Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) © BBC

Steven Moffat’s a busy man – not only is he the new writer/producer of Doctor Who with Matt Smith, he has found the time, along with Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen), to have the temerity to update Sherlock Holmes to 21st century.

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr Watson, Steven Moffat spoke with us about his ingénues new take on Sir Arthur Conan Dolye’s brilliant detective.

What is the most challenging aspect of writing Sherlock Holmes?

I think it’s a fascinating challenge to always try and write somebody who is so much cleverer than you are. If Sherlock Holmes and this applies to the doctor too, isn’t demonstrably more intelligent than everybody else, and actually proves it, (the story doesn’t work). It’s very hard because I’m not a genius, and they both are.

Which stories are these three based on? A Study in Pink is obviously A Study in Scarlet. And the other two?

Sherlock 1.02 The Blind Banker - Benedict Cumberbatch and crew member
Episode 1.02 The Blind Banker - Behind the scenes with Benedict Cumberbatch © BBC

If you’re really smart, you’ll recognize that The Blind Banker actually comes from The Dancing Man. Every detail is different, but you can recognize the structure.  And The Great Games there are elements of The Bruce-Partington Plans.

How hard was it updating the franchise?

A lot of it was fun. I remember Mark suddenly having a light bulb moment, saying, ‘Dr Watson’s memoirs, it’s a blog.’ Of course it’s a blog. So that kind of thing is just fun when you realize the number of perfect equivalencies. The fact that Sherlock always preferred to send telegrams, even once the telephone got invented, meant that he’s born for texting. So it’s great.

How much did you dig into the psychology of Holmes and Watson from the original?

Sherlock 1.03 - Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman
Episode 1.03 The Great Game - Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Dr John Watson (Martin Freeman) © BBC

Those Sherlock Holmes stories that Doyle wrote are very fast-moving detective thrillers. They’re not little pieces of psychoanalysis. What’s happened to Sherlock Holmes over the years is they’ve diagnosed him. They’ve decided he’s a manic depressive or a repressed homosexual or something. None of these things are actually on the page at all.

If anything, we’ve stripped it. If you say we’re favoring action, it’s not because that’s what we like these days. And if Arthur Conan Doyle were joining in, he’d be saying, ‘That is exactly what we’re going to do.’’ Holmes doesn’t spend an awful lot of time with his therapist. What a boring series that would be.

Have you seen House?

I love House, but the fact is House is a brilliant alternative version of Sherlock Holmes. He’s not at all like Sherlock Holmes. One of the things we’re very, very keen on in this was to get back to the idea that however mad or alarming Sherlock Holmes might seem to you and I, he’s perfectly comfortable in his own skin. He is unrepentant.

Everyone else might think it’s a little bit odd that he doesn’t date girls and likes to flog corpses, but he thinks it’s absolutely okay. He didn’t have a problem with it. Where House hates himself, Holmes is fine.

Do you think Holmes fans might have disappointed with the Robert Downey Jr movie, even if people who liked action movies weren’t?

I’m a Holmes fan, and I actually thought I would be. I thought when I saw the trailer that I wouldn’t like the film. But I thought what they did in that film was really reinvent Sherlock Holmes as a Hollywood blockbuster, but did it with a great knowledge of the original material and great respect and reverence for it.

So, in fact, I thought that was a good version of Holmes, I really did. I think it’s completely different from what we’re doing, but for Sherlock Holmes fans, again, there were so many little references.

Can you talk a little about your sense of humor, because you’re able to turn it into so many projects?

Doctor Who (2000s) Season 5 - Steven Moffat and Dalek
Steven Moffat and Dalek friend © BBC

I’m just endlessly funny. I’m probably about to make a joke right now. (he laughs)

Actually, one of the things which I actually liked about the Robert Downey Jr. movie is if you read Sherlock Holmes stories what is frequently lost in the film versions is they are funny. Holmes and Watson chatting to each other at the beginning of Valley of Fear is laugh-out-loud funny. And frequently, I’ve seen in adaptations of Sherlock Holmes that those conversations get slowed down and made much more ponderous and serious.

This stuff is funny. It’s meant to be funny. It’s fast, and it’s quick, and it’s clever. When you’ve got two brilliant comedy actors like Benedict and Martin, then you just want as much humor has you can. It’s lovely, and it’s unexpected in a world of jeopardy and murder and giant dogs and snakes down bell ropes. You really want there to be jokes as well. You want to know that this is scary, and it’s full of jeopardy. It’s also a hell of a thrill ride too.

With the extreme success of this series, there’s the obvious question, will there be another series?

Assuming, that is, that they survive this series. There’s no guarantee that Holmes and Watson are going to live, there’s terrible danger in episode 3! But Moriarty is coming.

When would the next series begin production?

It’s all being discussed. This level of success always gets repeated. Come on, let’s be serious. But we’ve all been caught in the hall. We didn’t expect it to be quite this big. We haven’t even had a meeting yet. I’m sure it’s not the last you’ve seen of Holmes and Watson, assuming they survive!

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.