Elementary’s Robert Doherty takes on the challenge of reinterpreting Sherlock Holmes, the most portrayed film and TV character of all-time, by relocating him to New York City.
Written by Denis Faye
(October 26, 2012)
Most writers would jump at the chance to commit their personal take on Sherlock Holmes to the screen until, of course, they took a closer look at the character’s remarkable celluloid legacy – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective has been portrayed on the big and small screen a record-breaking 254 times, more than any other character in history. Robert Doherty was no exception.
“It's definitely hard to not to think about what came before,” admitted Doherty, whose resumé includes Star Trek: Voyager, Tru Calling and Medium, “especially when you're a fan who's followed Sherlock into comics and movies and shows and books. I was probably more aware of it than the average bear.”
But when CBS came calling, he decided to take the challenge anyway. The result is Elementary, a quick-witted, character-intense twist on the modern hour-long procedural, starring Johnny Lee Miller as Sherlock and Lucy Liu as Dr. Watson. (Yes, that Lucy Liu.)
So why take on such a challenge? “It's very, very intimidating but the desire to write the character outweighed all of that,” Doherty explained to the Writers Guild of America, West Web site. “It's such an exciting opportunity, to think that if you can infect others with your passion, you can get this on the air, and you can write this character. It was too tantalizing to not pursue.”
And, from a writer’s perspective, there’s nothing more elementary than that.
Sherlock Holmes is the most reinterpreted figure in cinematic history. Why do you think that is?
Part of it is, in many respects, the character was so ahead of his time. Conan Doyle created something that has lasted for a reason. Also, the character has lived for a very long time in the public domain and has been through many, many hands over the years. Some of those hands have been kinder than others. It's the blessing and the curse. Because Sherlock is a public domain character you can take your whack; you can demonstrate your passion and love for the character and the original stories but you've got a lot of competition. Anyone who sees your interpretation will have seen dozens of others so you're absolutely opening yourself up to a ton of comparison.
Photo: © 2012 CBS
Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu in Elementary.
You have a history of strong female leads in your shows. Does Lucy Liu's Joan Watson play into your own personal tastes?
It's funny. To a certain degree, that aspect of my career trajectory is coincidental but having had the opportunity to write for so many strong women over the years, at this point I feel it's very much in my wheelhouse. I've been able to write very different kinds of women, a starship captain, a transgenic bike messenger in Dark Angel, a psychic soccer mom in Medium. I really think it's a muscle you develop over time and with a lot of experience. For me writing a female Watson felt very natural. It's been a lot of fun crafting our take on the character and finding Joan's voice as we go.
It feels like the show is from her perspective. Was that intentional?
I don't feel like we're taking any special measures to deliver it through her but that's part of being a Watson, you know? Sherlock Holmes, the original books and stories, don't work as well if you just write them through Sherlock's POV. He's so impossible to understand, he's just so far from the rest of us, he's so different, he's so alien. You need to filter a mind like that through a Watson. You know, Watson is incredibly bright and capable – and I'm speaking about the original Watson now – very bright, very capable, a former surgeon, a former military man. He brings a lot to the table, he's no slouch. But ultimately what he does is record his take of the adventures he shares with Holmes. So much of the books are really about trying to explain Sherlock, sharing their more domestic moments and conversations, it's really the best way to get into his head. So yes, absolutely I feel like this Watson is used in the same way. A lot of us want to be Sherlock, but we all get Watson.
What about the relationship between the two in this show? Love? Loathing? Codependence?
I tried to build the premise around the idea that they're both damaged people. Our Sherlock and our Watson are in different but significant states of repair, and they're both in denial to no small degree, which makes it interesting when they're in the room. Joan is there to help fix him, that's her defined purpose. He, of course, is one of the most secretive and semi-paranoid guys you'll ever run into and he zeroes in on her – not weaknesses – but her damage relatively quickly. But the tables turn every once in a while. It's something we did in the pilot and have continued to try to insert into the show whenever possible. They're both very reluctantly being fixed by the other. They'd never admit it, they're very proud but it often informs the scenes we play between the two characters.
Getting into the kind of nitty gritty of writing these scripts, what is your method for creating Sherlock's deductions?
I’m speaking for myself because every writer here has written a script by now, and they've all attacked that aspect of doing Sherlock in different ways. For me it's funny, sometimes the story comes to you first and many of the Sherlockian moments are to be determined. You leave space for them because you believe in the story and you know it can work and it's a matter of finding the connective tissue that is a deduction or a series of deductions. Other times the Sherlockian bit comes to you first and you go, “How can I build a story around that?”
I feel like the pilot was sort of 50/50, I was drawn to the idea of a mystery in which a psychiatrist uses his patient to do away with his wife and at the same time I had recently left my phone in my pocket when I did my laundry and destroyed it and found out the next day from a friend that if I had dropped it in a bag of rice, that would have fixed everything. I knew that's something only Sherlock could get to, the fact that a missing phone would be found eventually in a bag of rice because somebody was trying to fix it. I guess getting so specific is not helpful to you…
No, I see where you're going with this.
So I was lucky enough to be able to string those two things together. I knew I had this case that I was into and I also had something I felt would have a great Sherlockian payoff and so I was able to marry the two.
So you went from both ends and met in the middle.
Yeah, and since then, as we've gotten into series, it goes back and forth. Since the pilot we mostly develop the case and then look for opportunities to sell Sherlock, which is our job week in and week out. In a show like CSI, they have to sell the forensic science, and they do it quite well, we're different you know? Luckily, enough people have an understanding of Sherlock Holmes and how he's supposed to work so, in that respect, it makes it a little easier for us to invite the audience in. There's more of a shorthand that exists, but it's tricky.
I remember when House was on, you'd read something in the newspaper about some weird death or illness and then six months later the episode would come out mirroring it.
Yeah, unfortunately the media does not cover deductive reasoning as thoroughly as they did medical cases.
Can you talk about the craft that goes into taking a bastard and making him someone that we root for?
A lot of it is through experience. I have 30-odd years to back it up.
Seriously, I wish I could take more credit. I can't, in that Sherlock, the original Sherlock is not a rip-roaringly funny guy. He's not a jokester, but he's very wry, he's got a very dry sense of humor. He's witty and more often than not you'll see that in any depiction of Sherlock. He's funny because he's so smart, and he's so ahead of the rest of us. It's something I counted on when I was developing the pilot. At the end of the day he's an incredibly difficult person, he's a misanthrope, but I knew that I could fall back on humor.
The other thing we have going for us with Sherlock is the brilliance. It's very appealing, it's magical to watch somebody walk into a crime scene and break it down element by element until he gets to a suspect or a MO or the clue that leads you to the clue. The mental origami that unfolds for you as the viewer or the reader, it's a blast. Even if our guy is not the most personable of protagonists, we're impressed with him. So Sherlock gets it both ways, he's incredibly bright, and he's very funny.