Sherlock is only just hitting double figures, while its american rival, Elementary, has reached episode 100. Crime Scene celebrates the centenary of NYC ’s Holmes with showrunner Rob Doherty…
It’s an episode we all had circled on our calendar,” Elementary creator and executive producer Rob Doherty tells Crime Scene, as he looks forward to the 100th episode. “It’s surreal when you think about how hard it is just to get a pilot through the development process and on the air. To think that we managed to do 99 after that one is mind-boggling.”
Purists could have been forgiven for being sceptical about the CBS series when it debuted in 2012. Season One of Sherlock had already proved that Holmes could be modernised. At first glance, Elementary might have looked like an attempt to ride the BBC’S coattails, and relocating the detective to New
York City did not seem promising, given the poor track record that American networks have in revamping British hits. Compounding that was the decision to pair Jonny Lee Miller’s expat Holmes with a female Watson who is, herself, American.
However, four years on it would be a capital mistake to dismiss Elementary. It has reached Season 5, an achievement in itself, so the series must be doing something right with the source material. In fact, Doherty contends that the show largely owes its success to those literary roots.
“The truth is, Conan Doyle did all the heavy lifting,” he explains. “Everything a writer could ever need is already in the canon. The characters are timeless: they work in the past or in the future. In the case of Elementary, we’ve obviously also made changes to gender and race but the dynamic has always stayed the same.
I think as long as you strive to remain true to the spirit of the original characters, there’s very little you can’t do with them.”
Those should be reassuring words for those Holmes enthusiasts who feel that seeing Cumberbatch and Freeman in 221B Baker Street circa 2016 is already irregular enough. Elementary is an archetypal American police procedural but Doherty and his writing team don’t take their debt to Conan Doyle lightly.
“Collectively, we try to keep ourselves honest when it comes to not just the canon but the spirit of the original stories,” he says. “We take plenty of liberties with the source material because that’s what the show is built to do but we always come down to, ‘Is it true to the spirit of what came first?’ We let that question guide us.”
One of the most obvious liberties Doherty has taken is casting Lucy Liu ( Charlie’s Angels, Kill Bill: Vol. 2) as Joan Watson. If Elementary had messed with that platonic relationship, you can be sure the show would have taken its last bow long ago. Thankfully, despite dealing with a male-female dynamic, Doherty has avoided any hint of a romantic attraction between the series’ leading characters. On top of that, he found the right actors to make their connection really work.
“You can never just assume it’s going to happen but, in the case of Jonny and Lucy, it was obvious the first day of filming that there was a connection and a mutual respect that made everything sing,” he says. “We knew that with a little good fortune, they could be Holmes and Watson for a very long time.”
Like Sherlock creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, Doherty has pop culture credentials ( Medium, Star Trek: Voyager). “I am a geek in so many respects,” he says. “As much as I know about Sherlock Holmes, I’ve met a few Sherlock Holmes geeks and I don’t feel like I’m quite up to snuff with them.”
He discovered Holmes at a young age, both the Jeremy Brett series and the stories.
“The Hound Of The Baskervilles was on a summer reading list that had come from my teacher,” Doherty recalls. “I thought, ‘There’s a dog in it. How bad could it be?’ I remember that I liked it. I feel like I was still at an age when a lot of it was over my head and now, as an adult, I am such a completist that I regret not starting with the first book, A Study In Scarlet. Around the same time, Sherlock Holmes also appeared in an issue of Detective Comics with Batman, and I read a lot more Batman than I did Sherlock Holmes back then. His association with Batman made him all the cooler for me.”
The Dark Knight may have done more than Conan Doyle to make Holmes appealing to Doherty but don’t expect to see actual superheroes in Elementary, although one episode does involve ordinary people performing good deeds as caped crusaders. Like Sherlock, the series is firmly rooted in Holmes’ commitment to deductive reason and science. Whenever he has the time, Doherty thumbs through Conan Doyle’s tales to find ‘Easter eggs’ that reference Elementary’s origins, for viewers who know the original stories.
“A few years ago, a re-reading of ‘The Adventure Of The Illustrious Client’ on a hiatus was extremely rewarding, in that it got me thinking about Kitty Winter,” he says. “That’s probably one of the stories I’ve read more than others. At that point, Kitty was a character who hadn’t really jumped out but it just so happened we’d wrapped a season in which Sherlock and Joan separate. I knew that I wanted Sherlock to return with a new protégé and it suddenly occurred to me that Kitty fitted the bill.”
Although Doherty doesn’t adhere strictly to the Sherlock Holmes canon, he does put a high value on it. He understands that
Elementary must be authentic in its acknowledgement of Conan Doyle’s creation if it is to be true to the material it leans on. That’s why, when the time came to plan the show’s milestone centenary episode, early in Season 5, Doherty’s first thought was to bring back a character who Conan Doyle introduced in “The Adventure Of The Empty House”.
“We were initially very curious to catch up with a character from the first season, Sebastian Moran, who is played by the incredible Vinnie Jones,” Doherty says. “He was such fun to have on the show and he played such an interesting character. We were wondering, is there a story to tell about him in the fifth season of our show?”
Unfortunately, English football’s most famous hardman was unavailable to tackle the world’s only consulting detective once again. As a result, Doherty’s team shifted their focus onto a series regular who’s named after another canonical character, NYPD Captain Thomas (née Tobias) Gregson, played by Aidan Quinn.
Despite that enforced change of plan, Doherty is satisfied that the centenary episode still fulfils his intention to honour Elementary’s landmark achievement: “The timing was maybe a little unusual, in that because we do 24 episodes a year, our 100th happened to be the fourth episode of this season, which is typically not a spot where you’d be aiming a little higher or looking to do something that has a bit more to do with the canon of your show.”
By the end of Elementary’s fifth season, it will have featured almost twice as many cases as Conan Doyle originally created for Holmes. Moreover, there will be around nine times more episodes of Elementary than of Sherlock when Series 4 of the latter has aired. That isn’t a bad record for a series that cynics might once have thought couldn’t be as big a hit as its British counterpart. Given that both shows are still going strong, Crime Scene asks Doherty if he thinks there could ever be a meeting between the two modern Holmes.
“I remember thinking, in the early days, wouldn’t it be fun to have Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman pass by Jonny and Lucy, à la Alfred Hitchcock, in some sort of scene on a sidewalk?” he admits. “Then we could return the favour in one of the Sherlock features. But that idea sort of flew through my head. I don’t see it coming to fruition.”
Doherty is probably right, besides, Elementary doesn’t really need a nod from Sherlock to give it credibility. Even if CBS did originally give the show the greenlight because the first season of Sherlock was a hit, Elementary is now a creditable Holmes adaptation in its own right. But maybe that means the two sleuths should come together for its 200th episode? “Yeah, we’re up for it,” says Doherty. Elementary Series 5 airs on Sky Living.
Cast and crew celebrate the show’s centenary. Detectivemarcus Bell (Jonm ichael Hill), at left. Aidan Quinn ascaptain Thomas Gregson. Rob Doherty strives to remain “true to the spirit” of Holmes.
Holmes and Watson keep it strictly pro. Holmes jumps for joy as he hits episode 100. Sadly, Vinnie Jones was unable to reprise his role.