Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sherlock Season One Blu-ray Review

Let me begin this review by saying that I am a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes. Like many of you I’m sure, it all started with a movie called Young Sherlock Holmes that was directed by Barry Levinson and produced by Steven Spielberg. That movie spurred me into reading every single Sherlock Holmes story that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. I didn’t just devour the stories either as I also watched all of the great movies that were made with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce up to the excellent television series starring Jeremy Brett. On top of all that, there have been countless radio dramas, plays, movies, and re-imaginings throughout the years including last year’s successful Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. and now this new television series which offers the latest reinvention of Holmes set in modern times.

Film  (5 out of 5 stars)

This new series was conceived  by Doctor Who writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss during their long train rides to Cardiff where Doctor Who is filmed.  They wanted to bring Holmes and Watson into the modern age and away from the fog enshrouded Victorian era London. As Gattis explained, “What appealed to us about the idea of doing Sherlock in the present day is that the characters have become almost literally lost in the fog … and while I am second to no one in my enjoyment of that sort of Victoriana, we wanted to get back to the characters and to why they became the most wonderful partnership in literature.”  The decision while somewhat controversial among die-hard Conan Doyle fans does give a new life to the characters that couldn’t be achieved otherwise.  As Steven Moffat says, “Conan Doyle’s stories were never about frock coats and gas light; they’re about brilliant detection, dreadful villains and blood-curdling crimes — and frankly, to hell with the crinoline. Other detectives have cases, Sherlock Holmes has adventures, and that’s what matters.”

By bringing Holmes and Watson into the 21st century, the methods used by Holmes have also been updated but kept true to the character’s nature.  Instead of drafting letters he texts, and instead of receiving visitors into his drawing room, Holmes now has a website.  He’s also not adverse to using modern technology like GPS and the Internet to solve crimes which isn’t out of character for him, as the Victorian era Holmes also used many different scientific methods and created many of them himself in his lab, which he later made phonographs about.   There are still some elements from the original stories that have been incorporated into the new series such as Holmes’ arch-enemy Moriarty and the fact that Holmes and Watson still live at 221B Baker Street.  Watson, like in the original stories, also served in the Army in Afghanistan until he was wounded and discharged which brought a startling thought to Gatiss when he realized that “it is the same war now…the same unwinnable war.”

Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as Sherlock Holmes and he is excellent in the role. In some ways he looks nothing like what I imagine Holmes to look like but in other ways, he is perfect for it.  He is tall and thin as Holmes should be, and he has the same detached and slightly cold demeanor of the character,  but in this version he not only lives for solving the crimes but has lost whatever empathy he had for the murdered that he had before.  Holmes describes himself as “a high functioning sociopath,”  a trait which I wouldn’t have ascribed to the literary character.  In fact, the first time you see the character in this show, is when he is whipping a dead corpse to learn how long it will take for the marks to show on a dead body.  While the literary version did similar experiments to improve his ability to solve crimes, in this case it seems to have been done just for shock value and to quickly inform viewers that this isn’t going to be your  great-grandfather’s Holmes.  While I’m not as pleased with these aspects of the character, the new show does capture Sherlock’s brilliance through on screen text that show us what he is thinking and also his sly humor as well.

For the role of John Watson, MD, Martin Freeman was cast and much like Cumberbatch, he doesn’t really look like how I imagined the character but in some ways he also is perfect in the role.  His Watson has returned from Afghanistan in bad shape and he has cut himself off from society to an extent much like Holmes.  His therapist believes he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder although that diagnosis is later proven incorrect by Holmes and his brother Mycroft.  Watson slowly comes to life after joining Holmes on their first case together.  The excitement and danger of sharing experiences with Holmes makes Watson realize what he has missed since being discharged from Afghanistan and he starts splitting the rent with Holmes at Baker St.
There are numerous allusions from other characters who wonder if the two are homosexuals but they aren’t.  Co-creator Moffat denies that there was any implication that they were but instead he felt it was a realistic expectation from people about two men who share a place and so much time together.  As he said, “It’s just that thing of two blokes hanging around together living together — in this nice modern world it leads to people saying, ‘Oh, are they a couple?’ And that’s nice. I thought how the world has changed, there is no disapproval. How much more civilised the world has become.”

While I don’t agree with all of the changes that have been made, I did really enjoy the show.  The did keep the most important qualities and have remained true to the characters for the most part and it was a brilliant idea to bring them into the modern age.  Not only does it make the show cheaper to produce since you no longer need period costumes and sets, but it also adds a new twist and urgency to the cases.  The characters are also younger than they have been traditionally been cast which also adds another new wrinkle to the experience.  The cases are clever and the concept of using text on-screen to illustrate thoughts or what’s been texted or even a map showing the positions of a chase, are a novel way to get inside the mind of Holmes.

Video (4 out of 5 stars)

This image quality is very impressive for a television show.  The 1080i transfer has a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and a crisp detailed look to it.  For a show like this, black level quality is extremely important and fortunately, the black levels and the contrast on this show look great.  There is a lot of sharp detail present, especially in closeups.  Flesh-tones are natural although colors are somewhat muted but that may just be  a deliberate decision on the creator’s part to achieve the usual drab London look that’s as much a part of the Holmes canon as his violin.

Audio (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is mainly a front channel affair which provides clear dialogue but not a lot of interplay between the channels.  The score and dialogue are well balanced but I was hoping for more satellite channel use.  The sub-woofer is mainly used for the music but it occasionally comes to life for explosions and sound effects.  For a lossy mix, this is pretty much what one can expect from a television show.  Overall, it’s a fine track but it’s not as good as the visual quality.

Special Features (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

All of these extras are in HD and are very informative.  I wish there were more episode commentaries and more featurettes, but what has been provided is quality material.

Disc 1:
  • Audio Commentary for the episode A Study in Pink with Stephen Moffat, Mark Gatiss, and Sue Vertue – A very detailed look into the production of the show where they discuss the casting, writing, production, and filming of the show.  While this track offers a lot of good information, it’s a serious discussion and can be a little dry.
Disc 2:
  • Audio Commentary for the episode The Great Game with Mark Gattis, Benedict Cumberbath, and Martin Freeman – A more lively track with Gattis and the main actors.  This is a more lively track as both actors have a great sense of humor which makes this one a lot more enjoyable.
  • Unlocking Sherlock – A look into the process of bringing Holmes and Watson into the modern age and the steps they took to keep the character recognizable despite the re-invention.
  • Pilot: A Study in Pink – The original pilot of the show that was never aired which is similar to the first episode which some minor changes to sets and some additions such as Watson’s blog (instead of the notebooks he used in the stories).

Final Thoughts (4 out of 5 stars)

I highly recommend this show to fans of Holmes and Watson and even those people that haven’t been interested in previous versions because of the Victorian aspect of it.  Between this show and the new Sherlock Holmes movie franchise, they have brought Holmes and Watson back into the popular culture in a big way and I for one am very pleased about it.
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