"Steven Moffat on ‘Sherlock’s Return, the Holmes-Watson Love Story, and Updating the First Supervillain"
Sunday nights are chock-full of great television, but last night marked the long, long-awaited return of Sherlock, Steven Moffat’s brilliant update of Arthur Conan Doyle’s story about an Afghanistan veteran, his brilliant-but-off-kilter flatmate, and their adventures in a London full of shifting social norms, new technologies, and criminals both diabolically brilliant and accidentally malign. And the show came back with a bang, bringing the previously asexual Sherlock up against Irene Adler, an opera singer with a scandalous secret in the stories turned into a thoughtful, melancholy dominatrix in the update. I spoke to Moffat about our contemporary obsessions with sex, watching Sherlock grow up, and how to interpret Moriarty, the world’s first supervillain, in a way that’s not a cliche given all the characters who were based on him.
You’ve adapted both Sherlock Holmes and Jekyll and Hyde, stories from the turn of the century. Are there parallels you see between that time of technological develop and social change and our own?
Not on purpose. And to be honest, this hasn’t been a long-term plan that I’d adapt victorian fiction. I just like both stories. It wasn’t my idea to do Jekyll, it was a guy called Jeffrey Taylor who approached me about it, and I liked that because I’d always liked the story, and I’ve always been a Sherlock Holmes fan. Is there something particular? I think probably any era is analagous to any other era. People don’t change that much. We’re always doing the same sort of thing. So I think that probably just works. When you’re looking at what causes a scandal in Bohemia as opposed to Belgravia, you have to up the ante a bit, and Irene Adler doesn’t really qualify as a bad girl anymore. She’s an opera singer who married a man and moved house, as far as I can see. As far deadly femme fatales go, she was a little bit on the limited side. I remember when I was reading that story as a kid, Sherlock goes on and on about The Woman, the only one who ever beat him, and you’re thinking, he’s had better villains than this. And then you click: he fancies her, doesn’t he? That’s what it’s about.
I loved that line where Irene says to Watson, ‘you are a couple.’ They’re not sexually involved, but they are partners. Given that there’s always been this speculation over Watson and Holmes, I thought that was an interesting way to resolve the tension.
It’s always definitely a love story. I don’t see why that means that sex has to be involved. What a weirdly sexualized world we live in where you insist they much be having sex as well. Why would they? John isn’t wired that way, whatever Sherlock is. But I think that whole scene, when Irene Adler has to say she’s mostly gay, she has had relationships with men as well, it’s not what it’s about. Sherlock Holmes is indifferent to sex. So is Irene. She uses sex to get what she wants, and John Watson happily has a string of girlfriends. Sex is not really the issue among any of these people. Love is. Infatuation is. I think John Watson is infatuated with and fascinated by Sherlock Holmes. I think Sherlock Holmes absolutley relies completely and utterly on John Watson and is devoted to him. I think Sherlock is infatuated to the point that he can barely function around Irene Adler. And Irene Adler isn’t initially fascinated by him and then falls for him completely, thinks, ‘There’s another person in the world as damaged as I am, how brilliant.’ Who says any of them are having sex with each other?
Well, it made me think about Victorian relationships, which could be coded and repressive, but also provided frameworks where people could build lives and households along different terms. Maybe our identity categories and relationship categories aren’t really sufficient to describe human nature?
I was pondering when I wrote that, why is sex so important? And has it always been this important to ever previous era of humanity? I bet it isn’t. I think we’re obsessed with it, to the point where I know a lot of people are saying ‘Well, John and Sherlock clearly love each other, they must be having sex.’ But you can love someone without fancying them. If your’e not wired to fancy someone, you just won’t. But what’s that got to do with it? Really, what’s that got to do with the important relationships? We know that love grows, sex sort of wanes. Older people, you don’t have sex as much later on as you do at the beginning. We know it’s the lesser thing. I always say, you have love stories and sex scenes. That’s the difference in stature in our lives.
And Sherlock sort of realizes in that wonderful and very painful Christmas scene that his indifference isn’t producing the results that he wants. Detachment may not always be as strategic as it was for him before.
It’s the beginning of a three-episode process, as you’ll discover, where Sherlock grows up a bit, becomes more of a man, stops being the genius child…he was completely blind, he was completely blindsided by who that present was for, he realizes she cares for him. He realizes she’s really hurting. And he realizes, possibly for the first time in his life, that he doesn’t like what he just did. He thinks ‘I’ve got to fix that.’ He’s been cruel before, but it’s always been srot of accidental, or it’s been minor. And he thinks ‘I’ve got to fix that. That’s not good enough. I can do better than that. And I do care that I’ve just hurt her.’ What Mark and I always say is our Sherlock is twenty years from being Basil Rathbone. And our Sherlock is twenty years younger than Basil Rathbone. The accomplished version would never be that cruel, would never be that silly. Probably isn’t a virgin. I can’t imagine that man as a virgin. Something happened, somewhere. I think Sherlock would have to, somewhere. He’s a man with a past…You see more of this in Baskerville, where he encounters fear, and doubt, and loss in Reichenbach Falls. These are the fires in which the great hero is forged. He’s not the Sherlock Holmes we know and love yet.
What about Mycroft, who is also a long way from the man we’re told has his fingers in the affairs of state but mostly spends time hanging around his club?
To be honest, Mark and I sort of took that version of Mycroft from Billy Wilder in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, where Christopher Lee plays Mycroft, and Mycroft is slim and he’s actually rather cold, and he’s like a frightening Secret Service guy. The original Mycroft we’ve left a long way behind. It’s again trying to put Sherlock Holmes where he would be. You somehow know he’s got to come from a rich family because only a rich family would indulge him. Whereas his brother’s done magnificent things and is worried about his tearaway brother who’s recently announced he’s going to become a private detective and help solve crimes.
And how about Moriarty? You’ve sort of leveled him up from a Fagin-esque runner of crime rings to an international terrorist.
With Moriarty, Doyle does such a brilliant job of writing a mafia don before they were invented. Every other supervillain ever since sounds like Moriarty. Goldfinger sounds exactly like Moriarty. He invented the supervillain. If you do him like that now, he sounds like the biggest cliche on earth. So we did a quite different kind of Moriarty, one that would be more alarming, I suppose, to Sherlock. He’s super-clever. But then I don’t think super-clever people behave the way that super-clever people used to. He’s different. And you could not do Moriarty the way he’s done before. Everyone else has done it. Sherlock and John I think are very much the originals, but Moriarty is different.