Holiday on Planet Sherlock – Look! It Moves! By Adi Tantimedh

 Adi Tantimedh writes:


In the last four weeks, Sherlock has become the flashpoint of everything geeky in pop culture.  It has become a case study for the entire debate about fan involvement and the appeal of a geek franchise in every way.

By now, the third series of Sherlock has premiered in the US, weeks after it's been and gone in the UK, and for the last three weeks, the internet has been talking about its reach and its influence.

There's the debate about whether the first episode of the new series has declined in quality, whether it was too fanservice-y or condescending to fans, the debate about whether Sherlock or the US show Elementary is the better show, the revelation that Chinese women love Sherlock slashfiction, the endless tumblrs with the photos and the gifs.

In magazines as varied as The New Statesman and The New Yorker, in newspapers like The Guardian and the BBC's own arts programs, there has been debate about the extent to which a TV show should acknowledge fan devotion and fanficton, a slight sense of cultural panic from the mainstream that the lunatics – the unwashed public! – are taking over the asylum!  But in the end, what really distinguishes a show that reboots and updates an old classic is the legitimacy of "official" adaptation, a professionally production with professional authors and actors and production values.  The line between fan fiction and "professional" fiction not written by its original author is much thinner than we think. The main difference seems to be that one gets paid for and the other doesn't.  The one that's paid for is considered more "legitimate".

To me, the extent of fan engagement is only possible because of the internet and social media, which have enabled the fans to form a close-knit online community of shared interests, the fangirl obsession with the romance between Holmes and Watson and the fantasy of gay romance, and the propulsion of any franchise with geek legs is fuelled and driven by the female part of the audience these days, as is proven in the followings for other series like Doctor Who, the Twilight series, the Hunger Games series and so on.

As you watch Series 3 of Sherlock, you can see why there's so much talk this time of the series being fan fiction. There's more emphasis in cutesy character moments and interplay between the characters more than on plot, to the extent that both critics and viewers have noticed it as almost excessive. Steven Moffat has gone on record as saying that was the main appeal of the original stories and the main appeal of popular shows in the first place. That women in China are into Sherlock slashfic isn't much of a surprise as Chinese – indeed, Asian or, well, many other cultures across the world – women have always been turned on by fantasies of man-on-man romance even if they are not themselves gay, and there's a paper to be written on it at some point but not by me.

Some people argue that this is a sign of a show that's vanishing up itself, when it becomes too preoccupied with the characters and the other component that drove it in the first place – the plot – falls by the wayside.  The argument is that it's now pandering to its audience, and that's when a show starts to enter its decadent phase. A show usually has to have gone on for a long time before this starts to happen to it, but these days that seems to come much sooner.


Even the US show Elementary deals with Sherlock Holmes in New York grappling with whether or not he should become more socialized and make more friends in the theme of the flawed genius who needs to become more human that's increasingly common in TV dramas. It's interesting to look at this show in contrast and reaction to the BBC version.  It was clearly produced in light of Sherlock's popularity and buzz back in 2010 and the US networks made overtures to Moffat about a remake. When Moffat decided not to, they decided to develop their own version and Moffat had said he would be keeping tabs on whether or not they ripped off elements from his BBC show and would consider legal action if they had. I always had the feeling the writers of Elementary had to then make their show sufficiently different from Sherlock to avoid any trouble, hence the gender-swapping of Watson and Moriarty and the avoidance of visual tricks like the way Moffat presents text flashing across the screen to show Holmes' observational and analytic processes.

I have friends who feel Elementary is a better show than Sherlock and there are interesting arguments for that. It's less flashy and more procedural, with subtly different thematic preoccupations, such as its exploration of Holmes as a recovering drug addict maintaining sobriety and it doesn't worship him as a superman the way Sherlock does. The weekly episodic structure makes the show closer to the original short stories as opposed to Sherlock's need to make each 90-minute episode feel like a big event with the characters and situations painted in more almost-cartoonish broad strokes.  Still, Elementary doesn't get the buzz that Sherlock does, it's seen as a solid show, perhaps people think it's too much part of CBS' general appeal to older, more conservative audiences. Maybe it's that there's no strong possibility for slash fiction that makes it less obsessively followed by female geeks.

Regardless of which show we think is better, I think it's great fun that Sherlock Holmes is now the central hub in which all the debates about fandom and geek worship are centered. They all form the same continuum in which all the above discussions take place, and it's fitting when you remember that the original Sherlock Holmes stories were the object of fanatical worship that influenced its process, such as when the sheer demand forced Arthur Conan Doyle to bring Holmes back from the dead and write new stories. Sherlock Holmes preceded Star Trek in the history of stories that generated geek followings, and it's fun to watch the discussions around the shows themselves while they're on the air as an example of how pop culture is constantly evolving and in flux, how it's used by its fans. Then they'll go on hiatus, other shows will bring out their fans and more debates before returning and Planet Sherlock reenters our orbit and the evolution of fan participation begins all over again.  Both Sherlock and Elementary have their fans, and those fans make their makers money, so fan worship these days is good business. All producers should be examining the popularity of the franchise to understand the key to a successful show.

And then, since Sherlock Holmes is now in public domain, they can produce their own Sherlock Holmes series where he and Watson solve crimes by piloting giant robots while romancing each other.

The game is on the foot at

Follow the official LOOK! IT MOVES! twitter feed at for thoughts and snark on media and pop culture, stuff for future columns and stuff I may never spend a whole column writing about. 

Look! It Moves! © Adisakdi Tantimedh

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Hannah Means ShannonAbout Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.
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