Over the past century Sherlock Holmes has not been long absent from stage or screen, but he's currently everywhere, from a motion picture franchise (with Robert Downey, Jr.) to a new CBS television series (Elementary, which I deduce will not last long). And that's apart from Holmes mutations on The Mentalist and Law and Order: Criminal Intent.
But he's making perhaps his biggest international splash with the BBC-originated Sherlock, which has produced six TV films of 90 minutes each, all now on DVD. Another three go into production early next year.
While the Downey features are set in the 1890s of the original stories, they are more steampunk than Arthur Conan Doyle. The BBC films are set in contemporary London, but they make more use of the original plots. Both of their Sherlocks are younger than usually seen, but so is the Holmes of the first Conan Doyle stories: He's in his 20s.
The BBC series is the brainchild of Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss, both known primarily for their association with Doctor Who. They are self-confessed Sherlock scholars who know the 60 Conan Doyle stories down to the geekiest details. Their films are full of references, mix and match plot elements and inside jokes -- perfect for Sherlockian DVD obsessives. Yet they manage to make the characters and events convincingly contemporary. This is easily the most stylish version yet.
Its Sherlock is a contemporary take on the classic character (Benedict Cumberbatch, inspired by Jeremy Brent's interpretation for Granada television) but its Doctor Watson is singular, as played by Martin Freeman. Though troubled -- like Doyle's Watson, he's just returned from service in Afghanistan -- he is the anchor for these stories. There's plenty of humor, but not (as in other portrayals) at Watson's expense. And the relationship is complex but fun. (Before Holmes is to give court testimony: "Don't be a smartass, Sherlock." "I'll just be myself." "Have you been listening to me?")
The stories range from the fairly obscure ("Study in Scarlet," Conan Doyle's first, but rarely dramatized) to the most famous ones in Series Two. Those feature the only woman to impress Sherlock (Doyle's adventuress reimagined as a dominatrix), the hound of the Baskervilles and a version of "The Final Problem," in which Holmes confronts his arch-enemy Moriarty (a chilling 21st century villain) and dies.
The original story's fans had to wait years to learn he hadn't really died, but Sherlock appears mysteriously alive at the end of this series. How did he cheat death? That's in the next series. The DVD provides endless opportunities to look for clues. I found four. Possibly five.