How could Doctor Who take inspiration from Sherlock?
Guest contributor Henry de Ferrars investigates.
As a new era for Doctor Who approaches, with Peter Capaldi taking the lead, something I’ve been seeing a lot around the site is people asking for a new change in how the show is written – a moodier Doctor and a slightly darker show are all suggestions that I see often. People also seem to feel that the show has become too complex, and while they want interesting arcs, they want ones that involve a more subtle and intelligent underlying story. For me, as someone who probably watches far too much television, the first show that sprung to my find that fitted all of these requirements was Sherlock.
Doctor Who and Sherlock
I think it’s fair to say that Sherlock is one of the most critically-acclaimed and most popular British shows of the past decade; despite airing for just three series and only clocking up a total of nine episodes over the past four years. It’s no coincidence that the men behind it are Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, two of the most prominent Doctor Who writers since 2005. Alongside them is Stephen Thompson, who as well as writing three Sherlock episodes, has written The Curse of the Black Spot and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.
These three men have successfully created one of the best television series ever (along with one of the best adaptations of Sherlock Holmes); for me, everything about Sherlock is fantastic. The balance between humour and mystery is perfect, the relationship between Sherlock and John is beautiful, the writing is top-notch, and importantly, the arcs are not too prominent.
As regular commenters on this site will know, I don’t particularly enjoy Steven Moffat’s approach to the Doctor Who – I respect him hugely as a writer, and yet I feel that he often falls victim to his own genius which can affect the overall quality of each series. When Moffat delivers, however, he does it brilliantly (The Day of the Doctor and A Good Man Goes to War are some of my favourite Doctor Who episodes).
The case is similar with Mark Gatiss – when he delivers, he does it well, and yet some of his episodes have been slightly disappointing. Most recently, Cold War was rather underwhelming, and yet The Crimson Horror was my favourite episode of Series 7; Gatiss struck the perfect balance between humour, darkness and mystery (reminded of something?), and it worked fantastically as a story.
As for Steve Thompson, I can’t really say that I’ve enjoyed his two Doctor Who episodes, nor can I say that his two episodes are highly regarded within this community. However, his three Sherlock episodes have all been utterly fantastic, The Reichenbach Fall being a particular highlight.
So, after evaluating why I enjoy Sherlock so much and also examining what I enjoy about the three writers, I find myself asking, “Why can’t the quality of Sherlock often be reflected in Doctor Who?” After all, the two shows share a showrunner, they share writers, and they share a high status in the world of television.
I’d just like to point out, before I start highlighting aspects of Sherlock, that this isn’t me trying to take a dig at Steven Moffat and how he runs Doctor Who or me trying to “Moffat-bash” – it’s simply me analysing how in the future, Doctor Who could take inspiration from Sherlock and become a consistently brilliant show that meets the wishes fans are currently expressing.
A subtle, yet clever arc
2010 saw arcs in Doctor Who become far more prominent and complex than we had grown used to over the previous five years – rather than subtle hints dropped every now and then as an Easter egg for eagle-eyed viewers, Moffat turned arcs into something more important to the story.
While this originally provided a great sense of mystery and foreshadowing, the arcs began to grow more and more complex, and questions would often not be answered when the viewer expected them to be answered – some regard this as a good thing, others don’t.
We began to see entire episodes dedicated to contributing to a particular arc throughout a series (whether it be the Doctor dying or the identity of River Song), a stark contrast to an arc being resolved in the finale of a series. The Time of the Doctor saw almost all the arcs from the Eleventh Doctor’s era wrapped up, and rightly so. Moffat now has a blank canvas to play with and to mess with.
Within Sherlock, Moffat and Gatiss use arcs differently to how they had been used in Doctor Who. Rather than the arc being prominent, it would be subtle yet important to the story. I’m going to run through the events in A Scandal in Belgravia; we briefly saw Moriarty receive information from Irene Adler (which she had extracted from Sherlock), which was then used to ruin Mycroft’s terrorist-deterring plan.
The sequence of events that I just described took around two minutes to play out on-screen, and yet it changed the course of the episode entirely and confirmed to the viewer that Moriarty was still active after the events at the swimming pool.
The fact that we knew Moriarty was still around and still meddling with Sherlock’s life told the viewer numerous things – the viewer now knows that Moriarty is not a one-off villain to only feature in one series, they know that he’s still up to his dirty tricks, and they know that there’s probably going to be more to come. We learnt all of that from around two minutes of actions on screen, and yet it worked superbly as being part of an arc.
A similar method to this could be used to brilliant effect in Doctor Who; the Doctor is pitted against an enemy and has to foil their plan, but upon stopping them, he learns that they were receiving orders from an “employer” – a behind-the-scenes enemy. Of course, this is an extremely basic scenario that greatly reflects what happened in Sherlock, however I’m more than positive that Moffat could twist it into a scenario that fitted Doctor Who perfectly.
A good balance between “lightness” and “darkness”
One of my favourite aspects of Sherlock is how it manages to strike the balance between darkness and lightness at the same time. I sound bonkers, I know, but there’s not one episode of Sherlock that I can think of that is predominantly dark or predominantly light and cheery – apart from The Sign of Three, perhaps, although even that manages to be dark and sinister at times.
The entire show is based around solving murders and crimes, so it’s inevitably going to be dark, however the relationship between Sherlock and John, and Sherlock’s attitude itself, all provide mild comic relief that doesn’t feel too overwhelming or too little. The show is only tips the scales one way or another when it needs to (such as the time on the rooftop in The Reichenbach Fall, or the initial stages of Sherlock’s best man speech in The Sign of Three).
If I was to find one recent Doctor Who episode that reflected the brilliant balance possessed by Sherlock well, it would have to be The Crimson Horror. It, also, was about mysterious crimes, and it was set in the Victorian era (don’t forget, Sherlock is based around stories set in that time). One could even say that Mark Gatiss took inspiration from Sherlock when writing the episode.
Numerous themes were explored, and yet the comical moments did not dampen the darker moments, nor did either feel too overwhelming. The jokes were subtle yet enjoyable, and the more serious elements were believable and well written.
The Crimson Horror was, in my opinion, a great example of how Doctor Who can explore darker themes without having to dampen the episode with comic relief or go over the top with the moodiness. The episode felt like it could appeal to anyone, in a way that anybody could enjoy the episode without pointing out how one aspect could be childish or how one aspect could be confusing (to a younger viewer). This reminded me greatly of Sherlock – putting aside the slightly more adult themes and moments such as strongly implied sex or gore.
Overall, I think it would benefit Doctor Who hugely if it were to take inspiration from Sherlock more often. I’m actually quite surprised that we haven’t seen something similar happen already, given how all three writers of Sherlock have all written for Doctor Who, particularly with Steven Moffat running both.
As I’ve said, Moffat now has a clean slate to work on. He can explore any aspect of Doctor Who he wants to, without the limitations of unsolved arcs. Taking inspiration from Sherlock would please many, as the wishes set by Doctor Who fans recently have, technically, been granted in Sherlock. It may be time for Moffat to bridge the gap between the two so that all will be happy.