Dirk Harder

Without the lynchpin that was Sherlock, it appears that this blog fell into disuse. Sorry, blog. Although most of my traffic still seems to come from people looking at the Sherlock pages on the BBC website. Not that that’s a lot of traffic, but – double figures! Anyway, then I got some new followers, one of them read this blog, made a comment about it, and I felt like I ought to carry on with it. As I’ve mostly blogged* about TV stuff, it seems appropriate that I continue in that vein.

Dirk Gently was the creation of the eternal genius and much missed Douglas Adams, the result of an incompleted episode of Doctor Who called Shada and probably a few dozen missed deadlines. Dirk is a detective, but no normal detective – he is a holistic detective, he solves the whole crime. In many ways Dirk is the anti-Sherlock, in that rather than taking all the clues and forming them into the only possible solution to the crime, Dirk takes hold of a seemingly random thread and, through the principles of quantum mechanics which show the fundamental interconnectivity of all things, pulls on it until the case is solved. After the original Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency followed the (frankly) inferior Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul before a final, incomplete outing in The Salmon of Doubt, during the writing of which came Adams’ untimely death ten years ago.

Just before Christmas in 2010 the BBC produced an hour and a half pilot for a Dirk Gently TV series, based on the first book and starring Stephen Mangan, which was pretty good although it didn’t really make clear the more science-fictional elements of the Dirk Gently story. It felt a bit like an episode of Doctor Who, although not as much like one as it probably should have given the book’s origins as an episode of Doctor Who. It was enjoyable and led to me actually reading the books, but to be honest if I didn’t follow Stephen Mangan on twitter I probably wouldn’t have noticed that the series began on BBC four last week.

Prior to the start of the series I discovered that the show was produced by Howard Overman, the man who created the glorious anti-superhero series Misfits. This had led me to think that Dirk Gently has a vital role in our TV schedule, which is to be the anti-Sherlock. It obviously can’t be as sweary or dirty as Misfits, but it can be something other than Sherlock, something a bit more fun and a bit less inadvertently sexist, perhaps. I suspect that I am heaping too many expectations on the show, though.

The first episode of the series was, I thought, fantastic – better than the pilot in that it wasn’t so overwhelmed by source material, fun, interconnected, and entertaining. The second episode, I would say, wasn’t clever enough, which could lead to problems further down the line. There’s a lack of understanding, I suppose, in what makes a holistic detective, and the possibility that he will just become another Sherlock. When Dirk dismisses a case as boring in the first episode, he ends up taking it – but only because it becomes more interesting, rather than because he needs the money. It’s true that Dirk mostly takes quirkier cases (although there are a lot of lost cats) but it would be better if things were a bit more interconnected in less obvious ways. The second episode did have a lot more women in it too, even if they didn’t speak to one another. Better than Sherlock managed….

* I hate the fact that I am using “blog” as a verb here, by the way. It’s not as bad as “text”, but seriously, there are times and places for verbing, and that is only when it weirds language.

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The Other Woman

This post is a sequel to the earlier entry, called “The Woman”, which discussed the presentation of Irene Adler in the Sherlock episode “A Scandal in Belgravia”. This follow-up discusses the role of Irene Adler in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story “A Scandal in Bohemia” from which that episode of Sherlock was (loosely) adapted, which I have subsequently read. It will, however, include a few more comments about the ACD stories I have been reading, which currently total three, because of my strange and impractical reading rules.

“Scandal” takes place some time after the preceding two Holmes stories, in which he and Watson investigated several thefts and murders of varying degrees, with the ultimate end result that Watson got married and moved out of 221B Baker Street and in with his wife. In “Scandal” Watson returns to 221B on a whim, and Holmes recruits him to assist in an investigation which is about to ensue, having received a note from an anonymous gentleman Holmes deduces to be German. This man turns out to be the King of Bohemia, a German-speaking nation which is now part of the Czech Republic (in case you didn’t know…) who has gone and done something naughty with a lady named Irene Adler, who has photographic evidence of said naughty thing and is threatening to reveal it on the day the King announces his engagement to Clotilde Lothman von Saxe-Meningen, second daughter of the King of Scandinavia, unless the Kind relents and instead marries Adler. Holmes investigates and, disguised as a drunken out-of-work groom, ends up being witness at the wedding of Adler to a different man. The next day he stages a fight in the street outside Adler’s residence, tricks his way inside, has Watson fake a fire so that Adler gives away the location of the photograph by glancing towards the place where it is hidden. The next day Holmes, Watson, and the King head to Adler’s lodgings to recover the photograph and discover her gone. She has deduced who Holmes was, having been warned that the King might involve him, and has run off with her husband, whom she actually loves. She promises that she will do nothing with the pictures if the King leaves her alone. For this she has the reputation of “the woman who out witted Sherlock Holmes”.

The King reveals himself

Responding to accusations of sexism in his portrayal of Irene Adler in the modernised Sherlock Steven Moffat mentions exactly what I picked up on reading this story: “In the original, Irene Adler’s victory over Sherlock Holmes was to move house and run away with her husband. That’s not a feminist victory.” I don’t believe that this was the criticism leveled at the episode, and stand by some of my agreement with the accusations, but my main concern – that the 21st century Adler came off less-well than the 19th century original – was completely alleviated. Irene Adler’s power in “Bohemia” is just as much – if not more so – her sexuality as it is in “Belgravia”. She has obtained the photography through sexual and duplicitous means. The way in which she “outwits” Holmes is that she has been warned of his coming, and that she has fallen in love with a man and run off with him instead. This does not, to me, seem like an intellectual victory. I am open to a counter-argument, however.

In reading the Holmes stories one has to be open-minded about the times in which they were written. The Sign of the Four is quite considerably racist, and even Holmes displays attitudes which we would consider shameful today. I have no particular problem with the anti-Mormon attitudes of A Study in Scarlet, as I know very little about the religion besides polygamy and the very negative attitude which Christopher Hitchens had towards it and its founder, but we might expect a more nuanced view today. So the attitude to women is unlikely to have been particularly enlightened. Holmes’ use of the “science” of graphology – I winced! – is another example of this. Once you get beyond the times – and it’s difficult, as I had been expecting Adler to be a marvelous creation rather than barely a character at all – the stories are very good, and the deductions expertly worked out. It is not difficult to see why the books have captured the imaginations of millions for over a century.

I disagree with Watson’s initial statement: “It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler.” I might argue that the emotion was not love but lust, however I suspect that we are supposed to believe that Watson has been misled on this issue, and that this is the closest Holmes gets to love. Certainly subsequent re-envisioning and fan fiction has come to that conclusion. The hints are there in this exchange with the king:

“Is it not a pity that she was not on my level?”

“From what I have seen of the lady she seems indeed to be on a very different level to your Majesty,” said Holmes, coldly.

And, despite having taken the case primarily on one notion:

“There’s money in this case, Watson, if there is nothing else.”

His reward is something quite different:

“Your Majesty has something which I should value even more highly,” said Holmes.

“You have but to name it.”

“This photograph!”

The King stared at him in amazement.

“Irene’s photograph!” he cried. “Certainly, if you wish it.”

 Perhaps I am being too simple. But I think it is more likely that ACD intended us to believe Watson was the deceived one here. And whatever we may ultimately conclude about Steven Moffat, Holmes certainly seems to have learned his lesson about women:

He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late. And when he speaks of Irene Adler, or when he refers to her photograph, it is always under the honorable title of the woman.

After the Fall

So Sherlock finished last night with a fall, and (spoiler alert!) as one can only assume everyone knows the outcome of the events at the Reichenbach Falls in the original stories, (really really, SPOILER ALERT) Sherlock Holmes appeared to die and then did not. How he achieved this will be a major talking point in the eighteen months or so we’ll have to wait for the next episode, and while I will happily speculate that his “final” conversation with Molly,* the phone call to John, and that cyclist had something to do with it I’m not planning on spending too much time speculating. I don’t really enjoy doing that with TV shows any more – even making random, wild speculation about Doctor Who led me to figuring out major plot developments and twists, and I’m happier having things explained to me in my relaxing TV time. Don’t get me wrong – I prefer a detective show to have a bit more investigation, a bit more of a puzzle to solve, than this episode (or indeed this series) of Sherlock had; but I don’t feel obliged to solve it, just to know that the detective will. Seeing an episode like “A Good Man Goes to War” draw towards its inevitable conclusion is a lot less enjoyable than having something you should have seen coming but completely missed explained to you.**

I would suggest, however, that Sherlock isn’t as clever as he thinks he is. Before this episode gets to its meat, the defamation of Sherlock Holmes, there are a few things I was seeing (obviously Moriarty WANTS to be caught you fool! That’s not a question, the question is why does he want to be caught?). I would suggest that this is the writers not being as clever as they think they are: in the one-and-a-half stories by Sir ACD I’ve read he’s quite happy for Holmes to go up blind alleys, and have to modify his theory, before the conclusion. Yet the TV series usually wants him to be right first time, or just get things wrong (i.e. Irene Adler’s phone code) for the eventual denouement where he solves it. It’s unscientific – it is the modification of hypotheses based on new evidence which leads to an eventual theory – but it suppose we could call it more dramatic.

Because really that’s what Sherlock is – not a crime drama but a pure and simple drama. It is both fun and exciting – last night’s episode showed that in spades – but it’s not puzzling, not procedural, in the way Lewis and Endeavour are. This isn’t a complaint – I’m not even certain that Sherlock is sold as a crime drama – but it requires a modification of my own personal approach to the show. And, I would suggest, highlights an actual problem with the show, which is the desire for series-arcs. While last night’s episode was brilliant, I felt that it relied a bit too much on foreknowledge of the Holmes/Moriarty rivalry, on knowing about the Reichenbach Falls and its consequences, and that what we were wondering is how will they do it rather than what will happen? This contrast is actually a bonus for this episode, which ended with us wondering how this happened rather than what will happen, like the first series finale. Ultimately my question here is: wouldn’t Sherlock have been a better drama as a series of 6 to 8 episodes, rather than the hour and a half usually attributed to crime dramas and one-off specials?

* After all, surely at some point someone had to identify the body? It hasn’t been explained how Sherlock misidentified Irene Adler’s body in the first episode of this series, but that showed an awareness that such a thing would have to happen – and Molly, as pathologist, would surely have to have been in on this for it to work?

** Additionally, the deus ex machina approach to much of Doctor Who is equally unsatisfying – if there’s no way you could have guessed a conclusion then it’s just as pointless as if you’ve been seeing it coming all series. What’s the fun in a hero who isn’t as intelligent as you are?

Hound dog

I’m not sure how I ended up being linked to on a BBC website, but it resulted in an awful lot of traffic to one page on this blog, so now I feel compelled to talk about Sherlock again. I find it interesting to not that I can get over 700 hits in one day with a silly little blog of no interest to anyone, and yet we are supposed to believe that the 1895 hits John gets on his blog overnight are impressive. This was pointed out in an Empire Magazine blog, and explained by Steven Moffat on twitter as being “Sherlock Holmes’ best year”, but it seems like a bit of a pointless homage for which a much larger number would be more impressive.

Last night’s episode was based on The Hound of the Baskervilles, the Holmes story with which I am most familiar because of the BBC’s 2002 adaptation with Richard E. Grant in it. This means that I got some of the references to elements which weren’t important to the story of this version (the flashing lights on the moors!) but probably not all of them. It also means that I am well aware of the fact that in the original (and that adaptation) this was a story without very much of Holmes, and with an awful lot of Watson. I don’t think Sherlock’s presence in this episode meant that it was diminished in any way, but I would have enjoyed an episode which allowed more development of the underused John. I can’t remember the first series well enough to figure out if his role has been diminished, or if it’s just my imagination, but I do wonder if he is underappreciated. I’ve still only read A Study in Scarlet, but I guess Watson’s role in the books is mostly as the narrator and someone to bounce ideas off (does Holmes ever actually drug him? Both Sherlock and House have done this to their respective Watsons…). But does that make it worse that he wasn’t given the chance to shine in the one story where he’s dominant?

I enjoyed the more straightforward, narrower timespan of the story; I was unimpressed with the resolution. Then again the setting was good, it was quite scary. The banter was maintained. I figured a couple of things out (well, I thought the same thing as Sherlock – spoiler the drug was in the sugar! Oh…) and it was figure-outable. I’m sure there was a huge problem or something which I had thought which I was going to say, but now I can’t remember it.

In the past week, though, I have also watched Endeavour, the prequel to Inspector Morse released to mark the 25th anniversary of the first broadcast. It highlighted to me that the thing Sherlock really isn’t is a detective show, despite being based on the world’s greatest detective. Or maybe it’s not a police procedural. I’m a bit tired to be trying to make these arguments, but I don’t want to sleep and have to edit out all the “yesterdays”. It seems to me that it’s just more like a straightforward drama, like a Doctor Who, where I’m unwilling to call the ending a deus ex machina, but where it’s unlikely that an observer who wasn’t phenominally intelligent could figure out the ending without help. Anyway. Too tired.

Reading television reviews, I find it interesting that in the week Benedict Cumberbatch has been cast in the next Star Trek film, at a time when we know he and Martin Freeman will be together again in the films of The Hobbit, that people are commenting on the appearence of a few actors from The Killing in another Danish drama, Borgen, as if this means there are few actors in Denmark. Or maybe these are just one ones who get cast in the only two dramas we’ve bothered to import?

Yesterday was also the birthdays of David Bowie, Stephen Hawking, William Hartnell, and Elvis Presley, which I would argue is a good haul for any one day. Happy birthday to them.

The Anger of Achilles

Apparently this blog was viewed by over 500 people yesterday, what the hell? It appears that this is because I discussed Sherlock, and so it has cropped up on the BBC website somewhere. Anyway, that was a bit of a shock. Since writing that I have actually begun to read the Sherlock Holmes stories (although only A Study in Scarlet thus far, and it will be a while until I resume on The Sign of Four because my reading rules dictate that I can’t read two novels by the same writer next to one another) . Study in Scarlet was only the second e-book which I have read in full (discounting numerous short stories which I’ve put as PDFs onto my kindle) and many of the doubts you might have about ebooks should be dispelled by my experience: I devoured it in a way have done few books in the past; the most comparable example is probably Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett, in my opinion the best of the Discworld books. On the other hand, last night I began to read The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin and I fell asleep while doing so (not because the book is dull, it’s by UKLG so obviously it’s amazing, but because I was tired) something which I am still unwilling to risk with the expensive* e-book reader, even if I now have a lovely red cover for it.

The other book I’ve read on the kindle was God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, something I don’t think I’d have ever read if it hadn’t been 99p. The only other thing I’ve read (or started to read) by Hitchens was an article explaining why it was impossible for women to be funny – the reason was, basically, men don’t find funny women attractive. I disagreed with this so strongly (the two things which I would suggest are most attractive in a woman are strong left-wing political views and being funny, hence my particular crush on the comedian Josie Long) that even when ostensibly I should agree with him I was put off reading anything by Hitchens. Then he died and I didn’t mind so much. But as Josie Long herself put it (roughly paraphrasing from the Mark Gatiss and Alan Moore Utter Shambles podcast): How is it possible for someone to be so right about some things and so wrong about others? Admittedly, the best way to hook me with a book is to quote Lucretius early on (I adore De Rerum Natura, it’s one of the reasons I’m glad I was a classicist and not a CAAHist); unfortunately Hitchens looses my respect somewhat in the penultimate chapter, claiming that Lucretius was responding to religious reforms under Augustus. No no no! How can I trust the evidential basis for your other claims now, Christopher, if you make such a horrendous blunder on something in which I am well versed? And confound it by not realising that Cicero mentions Lucretius – but he was dead by the time of Augustus, Christopher! Oh well – right about some things, wrong about others I guess.

Anyway, I was meant to be writing about Troy:

Um, though perhaps not that Troy. One of the first things which I intended to do with my kindle was to get hold of the free copies of the Odyssey and the Iliad in order to persuade myself re-read them. I have, horrifically, only read the Iliad once, and that was very quickly in a single day when studying the Aeneid in order to show parallels between them. I hope it’s obvious that, for someone studying warfare in the period in which the Iliad was produced, this is terrible, especially as one of my main arguments is that the period produced the Iliad, therefore war must have been of importance. I started again this morning (classing it as “work”, because it sort of is) planning to read at least one book a day until I’ve re-read them both, which will take far too long so I will aim to read more than that, as well as commenting on them afterwards (probably not always in this blog). My main thought thus far is that, given that absolutely nothing happens in the twelve days between Achilles asking Thetis to ask Zeus to stop supporting the Greeks as they have offended him, why leave those twelve days? It just seems bizarre to do so. What this means, by the way, is that I am still treating “Homer”** as a modern author instead of the Early Iron Age poet which he was.

There is a certain amount of delight to be reading one of the first works of “western” literature on the magical book computer thing.*** I tried, earlier on, to get my kindle to read the Iliad to me, but the American accent and the fact that it couldn’t pronounce “Atreus” really put me off. This would be the ideal way to experience the Iliad, surely – to have it read out, in Ancient Greek, by firelight. Well, no. That over-privileges the origins of these stories (which, it must be pointed out, we don’t really know) rather than the enjoyment of the modern. The moderns are still alive, their experience is more important. But I would never, ever suggest that we should stop studying the Iliad, its origins, and the world in which it was created – how could I, and continue with this damn funding application? Realising the influence, importance, and above all relevance the Iliad still has to the modern world just make understanding its history, and the world in which it was composed, all the more important.

Annoyingly, the version of the Iliad which I am reading has the Roman names for the gods and heroes (Ulysses for Odysseus, Jupiter for Zeus et cetera). It’s like reading an English classic with American spellings. But I can get over that, and find other (free) editions, and read them all – it’s not like I’m reading it in the original anyway, and things change. . .

Finally, I just want to say that I don’t despise the film Troy in the way a lot of my colleagues and contemporaries do. It’s hardly brilliant, but when I saw it for the first time in the cinema I did realise that, in killing Menelaos, they had so severely breached the narrative of the original that it was time to just sit back and enjoy the film for what it was. There is, however, still scope for a great film, or TV series considering the likes of Game of Thrones, to be made of the epic cycle.

* I definitely didn’t type “expenisive” the first time, Dr. Freud, I swear.

** “Homer” is, of course, a later construct, not an historical figure. I think that Hitchens may have refered to him as such in God is Not Great, which would be a shame, but my memory fails me a little – he might have refered to him as semi-mythological, or not at all. Because I have this book on my kindle, I can just search it and realise that he both states that Homer could have been one person or many (“he” was at least two) and that he was mythical. One in the face for real books, there.

*** When looking for a cover for the kindle a lot of comments said that the one with which I have ended up didn’t open to the left, and so did not have that “authentic book feel”. I find this a particularly bizarre comment. It’s never bothered me that a codex doesn’t have that proper, rolling-out-a-scroll feel that a proper book should have.