Sherlock is Sci-Fi: the problem with The Final Problem

Last Sunday, the BBC broadcast ‘The Final Problem’, the final (at least for now) episode of their long-running and mostly very successful drama series, Sherlock. Lots of fans were very excited about an episode which had been described in its creators as making ‘television history‘. Quite a lot of other fans had already drifted away or watched the pirate copy which was circulated hours before the broadcast. Many fans who did watch were disappointed, and I found two very different positions interesting: some fans wanted more mystery solving, and other fans wanted more character development (read: queer romance). I think both forms of disappointment stem from a disagreement about the genre of the series – and of the Holmes canon as a whole.

You can be forgiven for thinking that Sherlock Holmes exists in a detective genre. He is, after all, a detective. He solves crimes – or sometimes mysteries in which no crime has actually been committed, or sometimes prevents crimes. However, I put it to you that ‘detective’ is actually a secondary genre. Holmes is an ameuteur of crime-solving. His real profession is the scientific method.

Conan Doyle based his character on doctors he knew, who specialised in picking up on apparently minor clues in order to correctly diagnose an illness. He has Holmes extend this scientific process to crime – and more or less created the discipline of forensics in the process. Today, it’s easy to forget that this was science fiction at the time, just as stories about going to the moon are now hard to see as sci-fi. There are places in the stories where we can see it at work, though. A particularly obvious example is The Adventure of the Creeping Man, in which [spoilers! although it was published in 1923] the injection of hormones from monkeys gives the patient some of the characteristics of a monkey. My core argument, however, is not just that some of the cases use sci-fi elements, but that Holmes’s method is fundamentally science fiction.

To see this, consider the way in which Holmes’s universe always seems to contain a very small number of possibilities. Why does this client have ink on her finger? She must be a secretary. Or have just signed a cheque. Or be able to write. Or have touched something in a shop on the way over. Or perhaps it’s a dark blue paint from her artist sister’s palette. But for Holmes, it must always mean one thing. Two possibilities are permissible if one of them can be tested in a suitably dramatic way. Seven would be merely inconvenient – but much more realistic.

How does this help us with understanding The Final Problem?  It has two implications. One is that, however carefully fans have ‘read’ the ‘clues’ in the canon, there are always possibilities which have occurred to the writers but not to them. This explains how some viewers were expecting ‘love conquers all‘ to be love between Sherlock and John – or Sherlock and Molly – rather than familial love (or, as Cumberbatch could equally well be saying in the quote at the bottom of that page, the love of fans for actors which might keep them watching even this episode).

The other, more complex, implication is that we should compare this episode, not with other detective stories, but with sci-fi stories. Imagine that this plot appeared as an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Picard, Riker and Worf arrive on a planet where an alien traps them in a peculiar system of her own devising in order to study their reactions to emotionally testing situations. They are able to escape only when Picard can prove his intellectual kinship with her.

It’s not an actual episode, but enough elements of it have happened on the show that I hope you’ll agree with me that it’s plausible. What would be missing is the actual kinship: on ST:TNG, we’re still working with the scientific method, something learned rather than inherited, however little actual science there is among the many handwaves and McGuffins and narrativiums which have been introduced in order to get us to wherever the plot can happen.

The Final Problem, then, treats the Holmes siblings as aliens. And this is where it makes a mistake – a mistake which fans of Star Wars will recognise as the midi-chlorian problem. Early on in the episode, when John Watson first hears details about the third Holmes child, he asks whether she also has “the deduction thing”. The Holmes siblings have it. Others don’t. It might as well be a superpower produced by a mutation of the X gene for all the explanation of it we are given, and this runs completely counter to the kind of sci-fic which Conan Doyle was originally writing.

(I think it would be fine for Dr Who, by the way, for those who are tracking Steven Moffat’s whole portfolio.)

Conan Doyle’s Holmes uses a scientific method – something which Holmes invented, but which can be learned, and which he can teach in small ways to Watson. He is helped by elements in his personality which Conan Doyle assumes are inherent, such as an excellent memory and keen senses, but the method of deduction is just that, a method. In stories about his very early cases, he is sometimes shown to be still learning himself. His older brother also excels at it, but because other people can also learn parts of it, we are left to assume that they honed it together. This isn’t absent from the BBC Sherlock – indeed, the Mind Palace which appeared extensively in the third series is a very good modern reproduction of the core principle: taking a real method and extending it to sci-fi proportions.

Euros is the opposite of this, though. With the three Holmes siblings together, and no evidence in all the discussion of their childhoods that they were taught or invented the method of deduction, ‘being very clever’ is treated as an inborn trait. To return to the comparison with Star Wars: in the Original Trilogy, we thought that being a Jedi was something you learned, because we saw Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda teaching it to Luke Skywalker. In The Phantom Menace, we were disappointed to be told that being a Jedi was something you could detect on a blood test.

The form of sci-fi to which Sherlock Holmes fundamentally belongs entices us in with the idea that humans could be better if we tried harder, or had the right education, or thought about things differently. It makes us want to use the scientific method – even if it’s only to analyse TV shows. The Final Problem lets us down when it treats the Holmes siblings as aliens and not as scientists, because it says that our genetic backgrounds matters more to our abilities than the lives we lead and the decisions we make. And it fails to live up to the promise of an important line Sherlock utters in an earlier episode in the series, The Abominable Bride: “Oh, Watson. No one made me. I made me.”

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