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?