Masterminding a Mastermind
Rob Doherty reimagines Sherlock Holmes for a modern age.
Few characters can claim the worldwide fame of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson.
Standing alongside numerous canonical and non-canonical novels, adaptations, and retellings, CBS’ Elementary series is one of the largest, single volumes of work featuring Doyle’s characters.
Elementary chronicles the modern day adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), as they assist Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) and Detective Bell (Jon Michael Hill) of the New York police department in solving their toughest cases. Show creator Rob Doherty has shepherded the series for over 100 episodes and into its fifth season.
Doherty’s work on such mystery series as Medium, Ringer, and Point Pleasant, as well as his work on a giant franchise with Star Trek: Voyager, made him the perfect match for Elementary.
Producers Carl Beverly and Sarah Timberman initially approached Doherty to do a series with Sherlock Holmes set in New York. However, Doherty’s most enduring creative decision, and initially a controversial one, was changing Watson’s gender and making Watson a sober companion for Holmes, now a recovering addict.
What were your initial thoughts when you began developing the series?
Carl Beverly thought there was an interesting show in having Sherlock Holmes transplanted to New York, but that was really all we had at the time. I wasn’t sure there was enough there, but the more I thought about it the more I could see our take on the character.
Putting him in New York demanded an explanation, since there are few characters more associated with England than Sherlock Holmes. That was really the beginning.
For me, the answer was he had dropped into this spiral of drug addiction that left him a shell of his former self and not much help at Scotland Yard. Our Sherlock retreated in shame.
It was less about moving to New York for new opportunities than about him fleeing London where he had pretty effectively ruined his reputation. I thought it made the most sense for us to see a freshly recovered Sherlock, someone who’s emerging from rehab and trying to attack his profession in a new place.
Did you have a list of avoidances?
We had more of a list of requirements. For example, as far as casting went, our Sherlock absolutely had to be British. We did not want to cast an American version of Sherlock. It had to be a disgraced Englishman moving to New York.
As for Watson, for our franchise, Watson had to be a woman. That was something we didn’t want to budge on. In case of both characters, race was wide open. Luckily, our friends and partners at CBS saw it the same way.
I never really wanted to see Sherlock eating or driving. For me he was something that haunted the brownstone. As far as the audience is aware, he’s not sleeping or feeding himself, that’s something that happens off-camera.
Outside of the rare episode, is there a resistance to doing a straight adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories?
We never wanted to be tied to it for a couple of reasons. We were aware that there was Stephen Moffat’s Sherlock series that was doing an amazing job of adapting Doyle’s stories more strictly. We were also aware that if we were picked up that we’d be making 24 episodes a season. With luck we’d be around long enough to make season after season and we’d run out of material.
From the very beginning, we were looking for the kinds of stories that were a spiritual fit for the characters and writings of Conan Doyle. We worked hard to look for cases that would demand the attention of someone like Sherlock Holmes.
He’s not necessarily going to go undercover to bust a ring of drug smugglers. It’s totally appropriate for most crime shows, but its pretty mundane for detectives like Holmes and Watson.
It was hard, and it took awhile to figure out exactly the right flavor or recipe for the show, but we’ve been blessed with great writing staffs over the years. At this point in season five, it’s still hard, but we can identify strong stories much faster than we used to.
What are the challenges of writing a character that has to be smarter than you and, possibly, your entire writing staff?
There is no doubt that he is smarter than the writing staff and me. It is a group effort and it takes a lot accumulated brainpower to find the right voice and language for our version of Sherlock.
I would also say there’s a little sleight-of-hand. The original character was, maybe, five percent magic, and we’ve incorporated that into our Sherlock. I’ve seen takes on the character where nothing is explained, where he’s just the smartest guy in the room with impossible observations that are never broken down for the audience, and that’s not fun.
We work very hard to let the audience be in on the process, but every once in a while you can assume that the audience will go along with Sherlock’s take on a situation just because he’s Sherlock Holmes, but we try to make those moments few and far between. We never want to cheat and never want people to feel cheated.
In other interviews, you have said you wanted to make Watson a woman because it appeared Holmes had an aversion to women in Doyle’s stories. What other paths had you considered taking with the Watson character before you decided to make her a sober companion? Were there other prototypes or early versions of the character you considered using?
The first and most obvious thing for me was to make Joan a police detective. She was going to be Holmes’ access point and the person he teams with to work with the police. But, it didn’t give us the traditional domestic side of the Holmes/Watson relationship, so that fell away pretty quickly.
Once we settled on this idea that Holmes was a recovering addict who had moved to New York in shame, the sober companion idea seemed like the right fit, and I found it a pretty fascinating career choice. It let her be around Sherlock for all the things we wanted her to see as she found herself drawn to the detecting profession, and it let her go home with him at night and yet still keep things professional.
I can’t say there were any Joan prototypes, but I will acknowledge being a big fan of Moonlighting in the ’80’s when I was a kid. Moonlighting just so happens to have been written by a close friend and mentor, Glenn Gordon Caron. It was a show that I always had in my mind and was one of my favorites growing up.
Some of it was over my head, but I knew I had fun watching David Addison and Maddie Hayes build up their [detective] business. Those two characters do not have much in common with our two characters, but I appreciated the energy that came with that pairing.
One of the concerns when the show initially launched was there would be a romantic tension between your lead characters, just like in Moonlighting, that would ultimately lead to them becoming romantically involved.
I'll confess that was sort of fun. I knew [the question about romance] was coming, but I always knew the answer would be a steadfast, “no, they aren’t getting together”. It ended up being something that got us a lot of attention and I feel like most of it was good.
I think if I had secretly been planning some hook up for them in the second season, I would have been very nervous. I didn’t want to do it then and I don’t want to do it now.
It took people a season or two to understand, but I think that that they saw that we meant it. I’m much more interested in this extremely functional platonic relationship. I think the partnership is in many ways harder to maintain and more fun to write than a romance. It’s funny. I still get asked every about them every season and it’s still fun for me to say “no, they’re not.”
It was a bold move to combine the characters of Holmes’ love interest, Irene Adler, and his nemesis, Moriarty, into a single character and make his greatest love turn out to be his greatest enemy. Can we expect to see more of her as the series progresses and how hard is it to create a good nemesis for someone like Sherlock?
We could not love our Moriarty more. Which is also to say, we could not love Natalie Dormer more. It’s been tricky. Once or twice, we’ve felt we had the right opportunity to bring the character back for a meaningful episode or a small arc.
As far as other nemeses over the years, it’s tricky, because you can never really compete with Moriarty. It’s not just because we have an incredible one with Natalie. It’s that the name carries so much weight, the expectations are high whether you’re familiar with our show or not.
You hear Moriarty and you expect a lot. So, we never really try; she can’t be replicated. We try to focus on different types and try to flex different kinds of muscles.
Last season, when Sherlock’s father, Morland (John Noble), was an important part of the series, he was more of an international character who would broker deals between nations. When we were pulled into some of his problems, everything was very elevated. There were billions of dollars and thousands of lives at stake because that was his business.
I really liked it, but I missed being on the ground. It’s good to have problems that are more local and more relatable. We’ve tried to tell a different kind of long-term story in season 5 with Shinwell Johnson (Nelson Ellis), who is another character from canon, but he’s an ex-con who’s trying to put his life together and becomes an informant for Sherlock and Watson.
Because he’s featured in the series this season, we tell very different kinds of stories. I think we’re building to a different kind of nemesis as the fifth season unfolds.
The relationship Holmes and Watson developed with the police department, specifically with Captain Gregson and Detective Bell, is one of the stronger aspects of the series. How do you balance having your show’s main characters run an investigation, while at the same time not making the police look inept, and still enforcing the friendship between the police and Sherlock and Watson?
I have a strong aversion to cases or structures that would make our police characters look simple, because then you make show into a comedy where the audience can’t really take the police very seriously, and they end up waiting for Sherlock to show up and do all the work.
I was saying before there’s a certain percentage of magic that comes from Sherlock, and as much fun as it is, it can make him less relatable. We wanted to surround him with as many grounded and relatable elements as we could.
The types of cases they take on, while some are a little more heightened than others, are the kinds of cases that the NYPD would deal with. For us, the theory has always been if the audience enjoys the more heightened aspects of Sherlock, then everything around him needs to feel more real.
That required a police captain who is actually good at his job, and a detective or group of detectives who know what they doing. And that means sometimes Sherlock and Joan have to be wrong and we can’t be afraid of that.
We wanted to make sure our Holmes and Watson had permission to misread things once in a while because that lets you build a more satisfying mystery in the end. If they go down any wrong corridors, they do so because they have a good reason, and it’s our job to pull them back, reset them, and let them find the right path to a solution.
Do you have a favorite pairing in the series that’s not between Watson and Holmes?
I would probably say Sherlock and Bell, who is played by the incredible Jon Michael Hill. One of the things I love about Jon as an actor is how he, as Bell, can go toe-to-toe with Sherlock.
When they fight over real things, the things that matter, it doesn’t tend to be about cases. Do they have disagreements sometimes about the direction of an investigation? Yes. But he’s not there to be antagonistic; he’s there to be a different kind of partner to Sherlock and Joan.
Sherlock and Bell didn’t like each other very much at first. Sherlock makes a mistake in season two that results in Bell being shot and left with an injury that could keep him deskbound. There are a lot of hard feelings there, and Sherlock has to apologize, which is something he’s not in the habit of doing.
It ended up being a great arc, and I don’t think we looked at it that way in the beginning. It was an episode that happened to include Bell’s shooting that turned into something that separated them for a brief time, and then brought them both together in a more meaningful way as the season wrapped up.
It’s fun to watch those two actors and that makes it more fun to write the characters. Any pairing of our people works out great just because we’re lucky to have the actors that we do.
You’ve said before that you perceive Sherlock as kind of an alien and unable to relate to other characters without Watson serving as his tether. As she has become a detective in her own right, do you think Watson still needs Sherlock?
I think emotionally they would be disappointed to have to work independently, but they would still do excellent work. When a pitcher is throwing a perfect game you don’t want to approach him and talk about the perfect game. I think Sherlock and Joan treat the partnership like that sometimes.
They’re not perfect, I don’t want to misuse the analogy, but it’s more that they recognize that they do better work and can be better versions of themselves when they’re together. But they don’t like to talk about it very much. There’s something about talking about it, or acknowledging it, that changes it.
When Elementary began, Sherlock was just entering his sobriety and represented the dark side of knowledge, and was someone who tried to shut out the world. Do you think he has changed?
I think it probably goes without saying that he’s in much better shape than he was when the series began.
We can attribute that to a couple of things. First and foremost, developing a partnership and, more importantly, a friendship with Joan. He didn’t have many relationships like the one he forged over the course of that first season.
I think recognizing it and taking the risk of developing it paid off, and it encouraged him to take a similar risk with Captain Gregson and with Detective Bell. He has a big support system in place and I don’t think he had one before. He had his work and his drugs and that was his life. In being forced into Joan’s company he finally saw the upside to companionship.
The other reason is he got himself help. Joan certainly helped make that happen, but he devoted himself to a system that would let him share his experiences as an addict with other addicts, other people who knew where he was coming from. I don’t think that’s something he would have done on his own.
He was borderline forced into it, but it’s been helpful. It has kept him on a certain track. Yes, eventually he did relapse under duress, but relapses happen. That’s something I think he learned, he allowed himself to be educated, he had to accept at some point relapses happen.
You do everything you can to prevent them, but if you should happen to relapse, you just have to pick yourself up and return to the work of staying sober. It’s all knowledge that’s accumulated, that’s taken him years to get him to this spot, but I dare say he’s about as healthy as he’s ever been.
Holmes famously met his end, albeit temporarily, at Reichenbach Falls in Doyle’s stories. Do you have a final Sherlock story in your mind?
I would like to think that Natalie and Moriarty could play a very important role in that run when it comes. But, I very deliberately do not think about it, because I think we have too much life left in us. The reaper comes for every show eventually. I’d rather hash it out then. My hope is that seasons from now, if and when that happens, we will have the time that it takes to craft an appropriate final chapter.