May 19, 2016

Houdini & Doyle

Two contemporary Sherlock Holmes adaptations are currently in production. A third installment of the James Bond steampunk interpretation with Robert Downey Jr. may be in the works. Reruns of the definitive Jeremy Brett version can be found on a local PBS station.

And Basil Rathbone, doing a blend of both the traditional and the sort-of mid-20th century contemporary thing, is all over Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu.

So it's not like the world has been clamoring for yet another Holmes and Watson police procedural with-a-twist. Instead, Fox went biographical and came up with Houdini & Doyle (with a fictional addition: Rebecca Liddiard as pioneering policewoman Adelaide Stratton).

That's right. The two men really did know each other. But this is less about Holmes and Watson than it is about that other recently resuscitated Fox crime-fighting duo, Mulder and Scully. Doyle wanted to believe—in the supernatural. His pal Houdini thought it was a big con.

Doyle (6'1") and Houdini (5'6").

The Fox series takes place at the turn of the 20th century in London. Doyle has killed off Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls (1893) and not yet resurrected him (1901). In the meantime, he's produced a monograph about the Boer War (published in 1900).

Marconi's upcoming 1901/1902 transatlantic radio transmissions are mentioned in the first episode.

To be sure, Houdini's career as a debunker of spiritualists took off in the 1920s, which led to an irreconcilable rift between the two men. That was after Doyle lost his first wife in 1906 and a son in 1918 (WWI). In 1900, his interest would have been more of an abstract curiosity.

Of course, Houdini immediately raises the same objections as have critics ever since. But as Kate points out,

Sherlock Holmes would not have found [his creator's] interest in spiritualism odd. Not a Sherlock of the nineteenth century anyway. Spiritualism—at least initially—was greeted by the scientific community as a possible scientific advance. If humans could create a telegraph that communicated around the world, why couldn't humans create a device that communicated beyond this world? Scientific American offered an award to the first person to prove the existence of the afterlife.

Modernity hasn't changed things all that much. Galileo is a contemporary police procedural similar to Numbers, though featuring a physicist instead of a mathematician. The "supernatural" events in episode 3 have exactly the same cause as in episode 1 of Houdini & Doyle.

And the bystanders in both, a century apart, react pretty much the same too. Observed G.K. Chesterton, "When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything." Like Mulder, we all want to believe.

So Doyle and Houdini started out in pursuit of the same goal. As Kate explains,

From the beginning, Conan Doyle was admittedly more optimistic and Houdini was miles more skeptical, but their mandate, at first, was the same: to uncover hoaxes and find the real thing. They split when Conan Doyle thought they had found the real thing and Houdini continued to maintain that all spiritualists were frauds and hucksters.

Setting the series well before the relationship crumbled allows their characters to approach the subject, as I've noted, in Mulder/Scully terms, with firm convictions but minds fairly open to change. It's a good way to go.

So far, the Doyle/Houdini/Stratton trio works well enough and doesn't unduly disturb the demands of verisimilitude. Stephen Mangan's Arthur Conan Doyle has his beliefs, a family, and a dying wife. Michael Weston's Harry Houdini, in contrast, has doubts and a brash American attitude.

There's not a whole lot of there there. However good he is at the attitude thing, he needs more material to work with, starting with more locked rooms to literally break into.

It appears he's being kept single to make room for a relationship with Rebecca Liddiard's Stratton, which may work as long as it doesn't get soapy. Miller and Liu deserve a lot of credit in Elementary for creating romantic tension without creating any demand for actual romance.

But when it comes to developing a secondary character arc, Martin Freeman's Watson on Sherlock sets the high watermark. He not only becomes more interesting as a person the more we learn about him, but becomes more interesting—and valuable—as Sherlock's partner.

Coincidentally, Michael Weston previously crossed paths with Sherlock Holmes on Elementary as a sociopathic addict trying to drag Sherlock back to his dissolute life. The question is whether they can make him that interesting again without making him that much of a human disaster.

In episode four (season 1) of Murdoch Mysteries, Doyle similarly pairs up with Detective Murdoch. But while Murdoch is an almost stoic empiricist, he is also (like Scully) Catholic, which lends a nuance, depth, and ambiguity to their debates that Houdini & Doyle has yet to achieve.

In story terms, once the convoluted backstories got pushed aside, I've found Miller's Sherlock in Elementary to be closer to canon, Cumberbatch's Sherlock being too Moriarty-centric, more wrapped up in grand conspiracies than cozy mysteries.

Only a puzzling secret in Houdini & Doyle so far, and that's enough. Making faith vs. doubt a weekly theme risks turning the series into a James Randi seminar. Forget the old artsy cliché of "taking chances." Shows like this more often need the courage to rely on the "simple and believable."

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
6/01/2016 7:43 PM   
I'd like to second praise for the Liu-Miller Watson-Holmes relationship. I have been quite impressed by the true friendship--true affection--that resides between the characters. I admire Freeman-Cumberbatch, of course, Freeman being high on my list of favorite actors. But Liu-Miller manages to mix attraction in with a consistently developing relationship. I doubt it will ever turn romantic (I haven't seen Season 4 yet). I'm not sure it matters either way. The give and take of two strong, disparate yet oddly complementary personalities has enough ballast to keep the relationship going. That is fairly remarkable.