The Starship and the Upstairs Flat

by Diane Duane

There is a moment in Sherlock‘s second-season episode “The Hounds of Baskerville” in which the world’s first and only consulting detective is attempting to get to grips with the fact that his senses, the tools of his trade, utterly reliable for all his past life, have apparently turned on him and are no longer to be trusted. As have many other artists in similar situations — painters who suddenly can’t paint, sculptors who can’t find the shapes hidden in the stone any more — Sherlock briefly comes a bit undone under the pressure of the untoward circumstance.

 

INT. CROSS KEYS -- NIGHT

Sherlock sits by the fire in the pub. His breathing is labored as he stares into the fire, and he’s squeezing his eyes shut and opening them again as if his vision’s giving him trouble. This behavior continues while John sits down with him and briefs him on Henry Baskerville’s condition --

JOHN

Well, he’s in a pretty bad way. Manic. Totally convinced that there’s some mutant superdog roaming the moors. And there isn’t, is there? Because if somebody knew how to make a mutant superdog, we’d know. They’d be for sale. I mean, that’s how it works....

John shares a little more info about what may or may not be clues to the present mystery, but Sherlock isn’t engaging with him. His face works a bit bizarrely as he tries to hang onto his composure. And after a moment’s pause he says something that costs him a great deal:

SHERLOCK

Henry’s right. I saw it too.

JOHN

What?

SHERLOCK

I saw it too, John.

JOHN

Just a moment. You saw what?

SHERLOCK

A hound. Out there in the Hollow. A gigantic hound.

He blinks again, the trouble-with-my-eyes expression: but the trouble they’re giving him is that they’ve shown him something he cannot possibly believe. John too is having trouble believing what he’s hearing from the 2012 finalist for the title of Earth’s Most Rigorous Thinker.

JOHN

Um. Look, Sherlock. We have to be rational about this. And you, of all people, can’t -- Look, let’s just stick to what we know. Stick to the facts.

SHERLOCK

Once you rule out the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be true.

JOHN

What’s that mean?

Sherlock picks up the glass of whisky sitting beside him and stares at it: stares in horrified fascination and loathing at the shaking of the hand holding it.

SHERLOCK

Look at me. I’m afraid, John. Afraid.

Sherlock takes a big swig of the whisky.

JOHN

Sherlock --

SHERLOCK

(another swig)

Ought to be able to keep myself distant. To divorce myself from feelings.

He holds up the glass. His hand shakes worse. John’s eyes rest on it, on his friend’s desperately working face as Sherlock struggles for control.

SHERLOCK (CONT’D)

But look. You see? The body’s betraying me. Interesting, yes? -- emotions? The grit on the lens, the fly in the ointment --

JOHN

(concerned but gently ironic)

All right, ‘Spock,’ just take it easy. You’ve been pretty wired lately. You know you have. I think you’ve just gone out there, got yourself a bit worked up...

SHERLOCK

Worked up?

JOHN

It was dark and scary --

SHERLOCK

Me? There’s nothing wrong with me!

…Sherlock then veers into a fairly emphatic anxiety attack with a side order of unusually driven and angry off-the-cuff deduction. But I had to roll the recording back to get back into sync with it, for the narrative had unseated me at the word “Spock” and kept right on running, leaving me sitting there a bit dazed. I’d expected a lot of things from this episode, but seeing two of my favorite fandoms cross the streams with such flair left me shaking my head and grinning.

Sherlock and Spock. I’ve been a friend of the one since my teens — maybe earlier — and an off-canon chronicler of the other for twenty or thirty years. As such, the confluence of the two universes was hardly news to me: Star Trek (and Star Trek writers) have had the hots for Holmes for a long time, and dialogue references and outright cameos are commonplace. Nick Meyer, the director of arguably the single best of all Trek movies until the Great Reboot, is probably the best-known of the Holmes fans to become involved in Trek’s newer, younger Canon. Data routinely goes sleuthing in the original Holmes’s gaslit London on the holodeck (and Moriarty has escaped from it, creating the predictable mayhem). There’s even the line referred to in the tumblr gif below — which, since all Trek film is canonical, makes the connection concrete: either Spock and Sherlock Holmes, or Spock and Arthur Conan Doyle, are (it says here) related. But whether or not you accept that last statement as gospel truth or a Vulcan “exaggerating”, there’s no denying that 1701/1701A and 221B are thematic and spiritual neighbors. The Trek universe has been nodding amicably toward Doyle’s creation for many years.

But this was the first time the other universe, in mass media at least, had ever nodded back. I don’t know how other Trek fans felt, but I was seriously tickled: as if in some obscure and very satisfying way, a circle had closed.

And of course early in January news got out that Benedict Cumberbatch will have a major role in Star Trek 2. And by all reports, he’s settling into the new job nicely. So as one circle is closed, another one opens. What a world…

(Over here, by the way, is the clip referenced in the script extract above.)

…It’s nice to see the two universes on mutual nodding acquaintance, though. For the great core relationships at the heart of each of them have resonances to each other that may or may not be entirely accidental. The correspondences naturally aren’t exact (and it’d be boring if they were), particularly because in Trek the core relationship is a triad and in Holmes’s world it’s a dyad. But the strength of the similarities is striking.

In both worlds, you could make a case that it’s the rational, logical creatures inhabiting them that give the Enterprise and the upstairs flat at 221B Baker Street their spice and potential drama… for acting reasonably and rationally isn’t normally a favorite occupation of human beings. Though logic is unquestionably a good thing, years and years of Star Trek episodes and many of the Holmes stories remind us that in either past or future, unless tempered by human qualities, the logic becomes a serious pain in the butt and occasionally a stumbling block, or even a liability. So in each world, the most committed humans/”normal people” slowly educate the local logician in the usages and usefulness of the human heart; and along the way, the logician normally manages to teach the humans something about how to really think. Everyone benefits from this arrangement… assuming that they don’t kill each other first. (Cue the iconic music from “Amok Time” here.) But the meat and drama of the stories arises mostly from this learning process, and the ways it goes wrong, or right.


If they don’t kill each other first. This was a close call…

I hardly need to get into the Kirk/Spock/McCoy dynamic very deeply at this late date: the way the characters interact is so well known. Outside of fiction, I’m sure endless reams of material have been written about the putative relationships between the characters seen as id/ego/superego or parent/child/adult or Moe/Larry/Curly or Roddenberry-only-knows what else, mostly as attempts to explain where the Logician fits in and how the others manage to affect him. Some of these theories may actually have some application. On my own time I’ve normally felt that all three characters are too complex to reduce to such simplistic formulae. But there are certainly themes that recur when Kirk is interacting with Spock (in terms of looking past the rigidity of logic toward ways to push out the boundaries of the envelope, or break some otherwise deadly paradigm to save everybody’s lives) and when McCoy is interacting with him (in terms of forcefully putting the emotional/ethical side of a situation and getting up in Spock’s face, sometimes quite rudely, until the message gets across to best effect). And if anything, these tendencies have become stronger and more effective in the reboot, with the reincarnation of Kirk, Spock and McCoy in the personas of younger characters making it plainer that they’re all in the same learning experience together — a three-part work in progress, but with the foundations of a lifelong friendship now firmly laid.

In Sherlock’s boot-forward into the 21st century from the 19th, the same situation obtains, with serious benefits. For example, the unnerving scene above would never have played with a middle-aged Holmes and Watson: to make it work you need two younger men who’re still learning the extent of their powers and settling into their roles. These might at first glance look simpler than those of the Trek core team, since this team’s built for two rather than three — but it actually makes their dynamic even more complicated. Watson, as both doctor and military man, combines the opportunities and challenges of the Kirk/McCoy roles… and winds up being able to affect his opposite number in two entirely different ways.

His own complexities aren’t to be dismissed. Here you have a man disciplined and tough-minded, deeply wounded by his experiences in Afghanistan but not conquered by them — a crack shot possessed of what Sherlock quickly (and almost inopportunely) identifies as “strong moral principle” and “nerves of steel”. But perfectly balancing this is Watson’s slight, charming diffidence, unfailing kind-heartedness, and gentle bedside manner. (Close inspection of the DVD makes available some useful and rather diagnostic background information on him, including his interest in a career in advanced A&E with an emphasis on laparoscopy and other associated styles of “bloodless surgery”. Click here for screencaps with some light clinical commentary.) John’s underlying compassion positions him perfectly to understand and support his scary-smart, “high-functioning sociopath” roommate day by day. Yet he’s both willing and able to kick Sherlock’s butt physically if circumstances require, or to administer him a succinct no-holds-barred tonguelashing that would do McCoy proud. This is no mere sidekick: this is a teammate, well along in the process of being/becoming a rock-solid friend.


He’s got a BAFTA and he’s not afraid to use it

And John’s presence and qualities point up another of the resonances between the Starship and the upstairs flat. Just as you could make a case that the real narrative of James Kirk’s greatness in Starfleet doesn’t get started until he and Spock meet, realize each other’s strengths, and come to initial terms, you could also say that Holmes is just an Annoying Incredibly Smart Guy until Watson’s transformative influence starts having its effect — tempering that awesome intellect and processing ability with more regularly expressed humanity, taught the best way: by example. In all these characters’ cases, the temptation to employ the way-overused line about “they complete each other” has to be resisted at all costs, because any “completing” in the case of these two teams of characters is decades away… if it can ever happen this side of all their graves.

In particular, the Holmes and Watson story, as it’s been reframed, isn’t about completion at all. It’s about growth, and what each of these men has to teach the other over time. It’s equally tempting, in service of this theme, to reach for the old no-brainer mind/heart-duality model and say that each man brings one half of a whole to the table. But there’s nothing so simplistic about this character dyad, who come to us with many layers of history and complexity laid on in various media over the last century, like a much-loved painting that the artist just can’t stop working on. It’d probably be more accurate to say that John has as much to learn from Sherlock about the arts of thought and observation as Sherlock has to learn from John about the uses of concern and compassion. Each man is going to make the other whole — though there’ll be the usual missteps and kicking and screaming along the way. But this is what makes for great and satisfying drama: characters who change each other and are changed themselves — not running together like two drops of water into one, but each growing more perfect in the exercise of some unique gift — say, the conduction of light or the reception of it — simply because of the other’s continued and reliable presence in an otherwise unreliable world.

Maybe that’s a clue to why both these worlds have rebooted so cleanly into this century (besides the fact that both have good solid writing teams, hard at work and intent on taking the time to get it right). Both Star Trek and Sherlock’s world still speak on a very basic level to people who — besides a little adventure and excitement — want and need stories about how friendship and intelligence, working in tandem, have a fighting chance at conquering the world and making a difference, on the small scale or the very large. In both cases you may hear the usual noise about old wine in new bottles. But this presupposes an audience that still thinks the old wine’s worth drinking… and who’re willing to take the chance to see if the new bottles might actually make it taste even better this time round. For such people, it looks more and more like there’ll always be somewhere to beam up to: and a door on Baker Street that, when they knock, will always be answered.

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