The selling of a story: Sherlock's Victorian excursion

Claudia Rebaza

[0.1] Abstract—The BBC's Sherlock (2010–) has from its beginning played with canon and audience response. Its alternate universe episode in Victorian England reaches an apex of metatextuality with consideration of its role as both commercial entity and participant in popular culture.

[0.2] Keywords—Characterization; Criticism; Motifs; Storytelling; Transtextuality; TV

Rebaza, Claudia. 2016. "The Selling of a Story: Sherlock's Victorian Excursion." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 22.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Since its launch, BBC's Sherlock (2010–) has been a prominent form of fan fiction, not simply because it is an adaptation of an iconic figure and his original stories but also because he appears in an alternate universe: our present day. Indeed, part of the allure of the BBC series might be attributed to seeing how the writers will adapt Arthur Conan Doyle's characters as 21st-century individuals.

[1.2] One could say then that Sherlock has always been, on the metatextual level, about selling a story in a convincing (as well as entertaining) fashion. The wave of remakes populating the last decade has existed largely to draw on the name recognition of, if not affection for, stories and characters that potential audiences already know. A successful project must maintain its connection to those possibly beloved versions while still offering something new. In the case of Sherlock, it offered an opportunity to see how the detective's once cutting-edge forensic techniques would be adapted to the present day.

[1.3] Yet when the show's audience became aware that Sherlock's 2015 Christmas special ("The Abominable Bride") would be set in the canon's original Victorian period, the initial question about transferring Victorian characters and tales to a modern setting was now reversed. How would this latest story installment be integrated into the ongoing series so that it made sense with what had gone before?

[1.4] A fictional tale typically requires its audience to suspend disbelief—and the more fantastical the story, the greater the need for audience buy-in. Viewers or readers who find their expectations jarred to the point where they are consistently questioning the text will soon find themselves removed from it and more aware of their positions as outside viewers rather than as participants within the story. While this distanced approach is common in the avant-garde, we rarely see it on commercial television. Television and film usually seek to convince us that what we're watching is really happening and consequently minimize the presence of the creators: authors, filmmakers, and directors.

[1.5] In trying both to offer their audience a romp in a traditional canon setting and to maintain narrative and character continuity with the world that they had developed over previous years, Sherlock's creators ended up with a curious layering of storytelling that is unusually self-aware for mass media television but that echoes a traditional form of Christmas storytelling—pantomime.

[1.6] This transtextual result appears in various storytelling devices but is also explicit in the two case plots—the supposed deaths and resurrections of both Emilia and Moriarty. The stories turn on how their illusions must be done well enough to sell to viewers the messages intended.

2. Storytelling forms

[2.1] The theme of selling a story—that is, creating a coherent and convincing narrative that the audience will buy into—expresses itself in details large and small during this episode. For example, although we know that John blogs, we don't spend a lot of time on this fact in the typical episode. However, Victorian John's writing is a constant—one would even say the primary—feature of his persona. John's authorial presence reminds us of the nonnatural, entirely constructed reality of the Sherlock Holmes stories in general and of this one in particular.

[2.2] The Victorian episode's first scenes are a reprise of the first scenes in Sherlock's initial episode, leaving the viewer with an odd feeling that the story they're seeing is an alternate universe when in fact it is closer to the canon as created by Arthur Conan Doyle. The opening credits are unique to the episode and end with a close-up of The Strand magazine, the actual publication in which Doyle published the Holmes stories. So the first minutes are all about beginnings—of Sherlock and of Holmes's first appearance in serialized print form. What immediately follows are references to Watson's role as author and to his financial success as an author, which is certainly a very literal example of an audience buying a story.

[2.3] There then follows an exchange between Watson and Mrs. Hudson about her role in the narrative, which she objects to as being reductive. This exchange ostensibly sets up one of the central themes of the Victorian tale, the invisibility and piecemeal role of women. Yet it also brings attention to the fact that we are being sold a story, and in the case of Mrs. Hudson, she's not buying it because she knows it to be quite different from her experience. While it was nice to have lip service paid to women in the plot, ironically they have fairly limited roles in the story itself, culminating in Sherlock mansplaining the plot to a group of silent female figures. So, perhaps unintentionally, the episode's execution rather mirrors the internal theme.

[2.4] The effect of the various hands present in storytelling is also amusingly acknowledged when John blames the drabness of their rooms on their illustrator and complains that he has had to alter his own appearance in order to match the expectations of the public. Presumably it's because they weren't buying the truth of him asserting that he was John Watson otherwise.

[2.5] References to the telling of stories continue to flow. Sherlock stops playing the violin to reference the coming story as a play. He refers to Mrs. Hudson as being a literary critic who is employing satire, but it is he and Watson who are the real literary critics, teaming up to analyze the details of the story that Lestrade brings them.

[2.6] The tale of the bride is presented in a clearly theatrical fashion—street theater—with pauses and cuts back to the Baker Street rooms as a stage set. This presentation is also a clue to the mystery's solution, since the bride's actions are entirely a performance, complete with makeup and special effects. Sherlock even utters the phrase "Poetry or truth?" about the witness statements, drawing yet another storytelling genre into the language of the episode, followed by the bride singing a song to highlight her message.

3. Visual cues

[3.1] While the first act of the episode, in keeping with the Victorian setting, demonstrates literary and theatrical references, the second act relies on special effects and visual cues available only in film. For example, when John and Sherlock go to visit Mycroft at the Diogenes Club, there is a close-up of the club's sign, and the words rearrange themselves to read "Absolute Silence."

[3.2] The scrambling of letters highlights the visual language play to come, even as it also serves the practical purpose of explaining the club's rule to viewers unacquainted with canon. John's efforts to communicate with Wilder using physical gestures (yet another reference to his role as author) is comedic, yet it also demonstrates how one must be aware of an audience's expectations and practices, since his effort to make small talk is full of errors.

[3.3] In contrast to the elaborate theatrical elements used in Act One during Lestrade's story, when Lady Carmichael consults with Holmes and Watson we instead see film effects used to indicate that a story is being told about past events. It is also in this second act where we discover that the entire Victorian plot is taking place in Sherlock's head. Contemporary Sherlock has remained on the same private jet that we saw him depart on in the final scene of Sherlock Season 3. There, Sherlock is attempting to solve how Moriarty could have survived his apparent death in Season 2 by analyzing the events from the Victorian case. So as his inner dialogue becomes a mix of current and past events and of language, the visual effects reflect this chronological mix with techniques that didn't come into use until well after Victorian Holmes's time. For example, we see the Carmichael house spinning around to indicate day turning into night.

[3.4] At the end of the episode a film device shoots us back to the Victorian era one last time. Here, Watson and Sherlock explicitly highlight the structure of the episode as having two competing narratives—one being Watson's tale of the abominable bride, the other Sherlock's story of Moriarty's return. When Victorian Sherlock and Watson debate how best to present Watson's case by choosing a title, Watson declares that his version will sell. Sherlock defers to him by saying "You're the expert." This acknowledgment of John's superior skill as a storyteller is put, in this episode, on a par with Sherlock's own skills—that of story editor. Essentially, Sherlock's skills lie in unraveling events and cues put before him, adding or subtracting facts, to reveal complete stories that have an understandable sequence of events. It is then John's role to present them to a (paying) audience.

4. Obfuscation of narrators

[4.1] Throughout the episode, various characters narrate stories or challenge the narration of other characters. But this is most explicit in the dialogue between John and Sherlock, both in the past and present stories, about their characterization. For example, when John, Mary, and Mycroft join Sherlock on the jet, he tells John that he, Sherlock, is much cleverer in John's writing than he is in real life. Soon after, Victorian John admits to Sherlock that he allows himself to be more of a bumbling follower for Sherlock's sake. Yet Sherlock also aggrandizes John's intelligence, not only complaining that "He's always right, it's boring!" but also by making John his savior in overcoming Moriarty at Reichenbach.

[4.2] Sherlock's inner stories, which we get to share in this episode through his Victorian avatar, do not exist in physical form and are not shared with others like John's are. Yet they also have a profound influence on him. For one, Sherlock is so successful at selling himself on the events within his own mind that he becomes confused about when he is or isn't within it, as he states when he finds himself at the waterfall with Moriarty. This is a scene particularly rich in metatextual references.

[4.3] When Sherlock finds himself at the falls, he says, "I see, I'm not awake yet." That point in the story is one of several examples within the episode where the narrative has become so disjointed and confused that the story must change perspectives in order to provide a logical explanation for what is happening. Otherwise, the audience will stop buying in to what's being portrayed, just as Sherlock has when he realizes that his narration has become derailed by Moriarty's appearance.

[4.4] In their conversation at the waterfall, Moriarty calls himself the virus in Sherlock's hard drive, which can have various meanings including, as we have already seen, affecting Sherlock's narrative plans. In an earlier conversation with John, Sherlock claims that emotions are merely "grit in the machine" of his mind. Yet throughout the series John has served as Sherlock's emotional minder, correcting him when Sherlock fails to read social cues or to properly account for the emotions of others. Sherlock's feelings for John and concerns for his safety have also derailed Sherlock's plans many times, making John that emotional grit in Sherlock's life. But John is also the grit in the sense of firmness of character or an indomitable spirit.

[4.5] In the waterfall scene this grit is depicted visually, as John calls the shots (with a literal handgun), saving Sherlock and telling Moriarty: "There's always two of us. Don't you read The Strand?" Sherlock's avatar is not the only narrator of the story—John always reappears, regardless of the setting, and can change the way the story goes. After John saves Sherlock from Moriarty and boots him over the edge of the waterfall, John tells Sherlock that he must wake up (shift to a new story) because "I'm a storyteller, I know when I'm in one."

[4.6] This claim is only one example of the confusion that exists over who's really telling what story in the episode and about whom. On the surface it appears that it is Sherlock telling a tale through John's character. But such a reading could also be counted as yet another of the episode's many illusion motifs. There are various allusions in the episode to the verity of things that John has written about Holmes versus Sherlock's self-interpretations. For example, during their train ride, John reminds Sherlock that he has promised never to take drugs on a case whereas Sherlock insists that this was merely something that John wrote. John then insists that "People need you [to hold yourself to a higher standard]." Holmes ridicules the idea that he owes anything to John's audience. Yet when Watson tells him to "Wear the damned hat," a reference to Sherlock's famous deerstalker cap, he does as he's told.

[4.7] Although it is John who speaks the words on the train—that he has sold a drug addict to the public as a hero—the speech originates in Sherlock's mind and would appear to reflect his vision of himself. Yet in an earlier point in the story, when Sherlock and Watson are awaiting the appearance of a ghost at the Carmichaels' residence, Watson claims that the words that Sherlock uses are ones that Watson wrote for him "in The Strand magazine." John's query reminds Sherlock that Watson's words are merely one version of Sherlock's story, the one presented to the public, and are not necessarily a truth.

[4.8] Sherlock ends that discussion in a remarkable fashion. When John asks him what happened to him to make him the way that he is, Sherlock asserts that nothing happened—rather, "I made me." It's left to the audience to deduce what it means when Sherlock claims that he is his own creator within a work that revolves around texts, textuality, authorship, and the ownership of narrative.

[4.9] The authors of Sherlock are well aware of the layers of professional hands at work in the creation of characters and stories, especially ones as iconically enduring as is Holmes, and theirs are not even the latest set of hands. Yet the characters remain somehow unknowable and separate from any single interpretation. Just as we see Sherlock made up of himself, Watson, Moriarty, and others inside his own mind, he exists piecemeal in the outside world, holding a collective identity. A story may be told in one way but there are many listeners. Each holds their own version of the story and of Sherlock, with no one author dictating his self as he exists in popular culture.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] This episode revolves around Sherlock selling himself a story in order to apply a solution to a different story. Through dueling storylines, dialogue, staging, and effects, the creators of Sherlock's Christmas special have also produced a work about storytelling in its many forms, with a focus on what elements sell a story to an audience and who gets to do the telling. In an episode that emulated canon in setting, its self-awareness, the commerciality of its audience involvement, and the style of its presentation, all seem thoroughly modern and entirely in keeping with this present-day take on classic characters and their world.