TV & Film

'Sherlock' Season 2: Steven Moffat Talks Sherlock Holmes, Watson And Comparisons To 'Doctor Who'

When it comes right down to it, Sherlock Holmes is famous for thinking.

He doesn't boast a superhero physique or wield overwhelming firepower. His caustic wit doesn't make him popular, his patience for his intellectual inferiors (i.e., everyone) is non-existent and he's not even officially employed by anyone.

But he has that incredible, relentless intellect going for him, an intellect that makes him much more than an acerbic combination of Google, Wikipedia and the iPhone's Siri. And the great accomplishment of "Sherlock" (Season 2 premieres Sunday, May 6 on PBS Masterpiece; check local listings) is that is has made the workings of his mind -- and his contradictory soul -- so fantastically entertaining.

The success of "Sherlock," which has been a runaway hit worldwide, has something to do with the casting of Holmes and his stalwart, droll partner, Dr. John Watson. Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes is fascinating even when he's staring into space and wrestling with a particularly knotty puzzle. There's quite a bit of running, bantering and dodging bad guys in Season 2's three installments, but how many actors have the presence to make Sherlock every bit as compelling in repose as he is sweeping along London streets, collar turned up, dispensing cutting remarks to a bemused or bewildered Watson?

Of course, Martin Freeman's Watson is far from a mere sidekick. He's very much the stubborn, loyal counterweight that the forceful Sherlock needs, and it becomes clear in watching this smart, energetic show that Freeman has every bit as much charisma as Cumberbatch, though Freeman's is of a more quietly observant variety. These two men have very different energies, but those energies sit in perfect balance to each other, adding yet another layer of enjoyable tension to the spiffy mysteries.

They would have chemistry even if they were reciting a grocery list together (come to think of it, I'd like to see Cumberbatch and Freeman do that, or perhaps I'll just further ponder Cumberbatch's resemblance to otters), but thanks to "Sherlock" executive producers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, these fine actors get to explore the lead duo's relationship with subversive wit and even well-timed dollops of genuine emotion.

If the second episode of the second season ("The Hounds of Baskerville") is a bit wobbly and predictable (as was the case with the second episode of the first season), that's not a serious problem. The many pleasures of the first and third installment ("A Scandal in Belgravia" and "The Reichenbach Fall") are substantial enough to make any "Sherlock" fan hungry for more (and it's not as if the second installment is unwatchable, it's just not up to the standards of the other two).

But the next go-round might be hard to arrange: Cumberbatch, who's career caught fire after Season 1, is appearing in the next "Star Trek" movie and Freeman is in New Zealand shooting Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit." Moffat himself is, as he said in the interview below, "knee deep" in the upcoming season of "Doctor Who," the venerable BBC franchise that he's been shepherding since 2010.

Below, Moffat discusses Sherlock himself ("a terribly emotional man and a desperate show-off"), the pleasures of doing shorter series like this one, and what's next for both the "Sherlock" and "Doctor Who" franchises.

Did you have any specific goals in mind with "Sherlock" Season 2? Anything you wanted to do that was possibly different from Season 1?
I don't think we had a specific agenda from that point of view. Obviously the first season had been wildly successful, so we weren't planning a major overhaul. Probably if we weren't exuberant with success [laughs], maybe we would have changed some things. It was such a hit that everyone was asking us about the big stories that we thought, "To hell with deferred pleasure. Let's do them all." The big three [questions] were, when are you going to do [the classic Holmes stories] "The Hound of the Baskervilles," "The Final Problem," the big confrontation with Moriarty and Irene Adler [whom Holmes meets in "A Scandal in Bohemia"]. We just thought, "Let's just do all three and consolidate the hit with three major blows, rather than wait for them." I don't know that we set out to do anything differently. Obviously, you always want to progress, but the story sort of progressed, I think, in a natural way more than in a strategic way.

Were there any attempts to tailor the stories more for your lead actors, or tell a new chapter in their relationship?
It does sort of happen. We knew the obstacles or the things we wanted to throw at Sherlock. In a way, the first year was slightly more John's story and in the second year, it's slightly more Sherlock's story. And that will always waver backwards and forwards. People are saying we're humanizing Sherlock this year, but I keep thinking, it's more like we're letting him grow up. He's encountering the big enemies: love and fear and loss. It's how that still very new friendship survives all that, and [we were] constantly keeping at the front of our minds that our Holmes and Watson have only known each other a short time. John has to ask Mrs. Hudson if Sherlock ever had a relationship -- he doesn't know yet. These things are still new.

It's finding your way through it, and the thing we have to keep avoiding, because Mark and I are both huge Sherlock Holmes fanboys, is that we know too much about what's coming. You've got to fight the middle-aged version of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, who have been together forever and will be together forever. Remember, they're still young, they're still half-formed. They're still becoming the men they will be. It's not all written in stone yet.

Right, in the films I grew up with, Holmes and Watson were much more settled and much more respectable.
Yeah, those are the films that we grew up with, too. But what we keep saying is that our Holmes is 20 years from [Basil] Rathbone, because Benedict is 20 years younger than Basil at the time he was playing that part [in a series of films from the 1940s]. In 20 years, he'll be the magnificent sage of Baker Street, calm and suave and funny and all the things the mighty Basil was. Benedict is playing Holmes at the beginning of his career, and he's noticeably -- not softened, that's not the right word -- but more complex this year. It starts in [a scene in Episode 1, "A Scandal in Belgravia," in which he realizes he's made a hurtful blunder with a colleague].

What I think you've captured so well with this Holmes is that quality of not being interested in morality as such -- but he still doesn't want to hurt individuals.
He progresses, and he progresses in a way that he does in the original stories. In the original stories, he's introduced as utterly amoral and only interested in the puzzle, not interested in the people. [The progression continues] through the run of the stories to "The Final Problem," at the end of the "Memoirs," at which point he's prepared to lay down his life to stop Moriarty. He does become a hero. He grows into it, a sort of hero -- he'll never quite be Sir Galahad, but he sort of becomes one. He realized there are lines and there are people he wants to stop and people he wants to protect. All those things happen to him. We laid it out fairly clearly in the first episode when Lestrade says that Sherlock Holmes is a great man and one day, he might be a good one. And that's the journey he's going on.

He has a great sense of decency about him, which is something that draws you in to him. For instance, when someone close to him is attacked, that is just unacceptable.
That's a lovely feature of Sherlock Holmes, and again, from the original, which is never covered. There's lots of talk about whether Sherlock Holmes is a misogynist, and I think he may even accuse himself of being one at times. But the fact is, if you look at the original stories, if anyone harms a woman, he can barely contain himself. He becomes violent in one story -- he grabs a riding crop, because someone harms a woman he doesn't know, or barely knows. He has inbuilt in him a huge kind of chivalry. It might be a patronizing chivalry, but he's protective.

And this is the year, thematically, he realizes there are people about whom he cares deeply. And at a certain point, he'll be like, "That's not a weakness, that's a strength." But it's him realizing that. He does care that [a certain remark upsets a colleague]. That surprises him even more than the fact that he was blind to [something that was obvious to everyone else]. He finally figures out why he can't function around Irene Adler [of "Scandal"]. It takes him ages to figure that out. It's that element of growing up.

There's a huge gulf between being clever and having a clue about how people work.
There certainly is. That's what's missing from Sherlock at the moment, though it's being added in. The later Sherlock Holmes, of the later stories, does see quite comfortably into the human heart. [But] it's a bit of a mystery to him at the moment. As he realizes that he can fall in love, as he realizes that he can be afraid and he can doubt himself, he discovers he's more of a man than he thought he was.

There's something about his cleverness and his willingness to help those who are less fortunate or clever than him, and then his discomfort with emotion, that strikes me as a very British combination. Do you think there's something prototypically British about him?
It might be British, it might be sort of almost the academic lifestyle, in a way. I think you'll find there are Americans like this too. [There's] a distrust of emotion and the way it sits with intelligence. In order to attain perfect reasoning, you have to [remove emotion]. Sherlock Holmes never really says in the original stories that he doesn't have emotions; he says that they get in the way. And he's right. He can't function around Irene Adler and he doesn't even realize that he fancies her. He doesn't realize that that's what it is.

So there's a distrust of emotion when it comes to reasoning. The trouble is, that's fine if you're a mathematician, that's fine if you're an abstract scientist. If you're dealing in the business of people, as Sherlock Holmes ultimately is -- he's chosen to be a detective, not a mathematician, as [his brother] Mycroft notes -- then he's going to have to understand emotions. He's even going to have to feel them.

Is it a cultural thing for Brits? It's hard to say from the inside. It might be. I suppose the abstract scientists and mathematicians in America might be much the same, but maybe we [Note: Moffat is Scottish] just venerate that part of our society more. I don't think the Brits are particularly unemotional, I have to say.

No, but I was thinking that the Doctor might have a few thing in common with Sherlock, who are both these iconic characters in the U.K. Is there a different kind of pleasure or excitement you get from writing one versus the other?

I think Sherlock is more flawed than the Doctor, in that he's chasing a delusion, I suppose. The remark I always make is that the Doctor is like an angel aspiring to be human, and Sherlock is a man aspiring to be a god. Neither of them come close to succeeding in that aim, or ever could. It'd be impossible for them.

But in terms of what's different -- they're a very different experience to write. The Doctor is massively super-intelligent, even more so than Sherlock Holmes, he's massively knowledgeable than Sherlock, but he doesn't care about that. He doesn't think that being clever is the most important thing in the universe. The fact is, he just is, and he uses it to get through his life. And his life is usually trying to get from one burning room to another, so he'd better be damned clever.

Beneath all that, I think there's a colder brain, and I think a really quite dangerous man. Lurking under the Doctor and that lovely, flopsy charm, there is an ancient soul making bargains with our destiny and all that. He's a dangerous and dark man, if he ever lets himself be, which is why he clings to human companions, I think. He'd just go mad if he didn't have them.

There's a line of Sherlock's, though, "Nothing is ever new." He seems like a bit of an old soul as well.
That's a line pretty much from the original. I think it's from "A Study in Scarlet," he says something like "Everything has been done before. Everything." He's an old soul in the sense that he's made himself one -- he does immense research. He's a combination of old soul and gloriously immature at times.

I mean, he thinks he can solve everything by being sort of cold and remote. Our Sherlock even entertains the idea that he's above emotion. He's actually a terribly emotional man and he's a desperate show-off. And far from being cold and remote, he's got a bunch of people who look after him. The support team is enormous. He doesn't quite realize that far from being the invulnerable ice king, he's actually perceived by his friends as a wonderful, amazing man, but one you have to look after.

And he's cleverly put that team in place himself. The situation has been engineered by him so that he's not alone.
Yes, cleverly, but I've seen people like that in my life, I think. The only people who would stick around him for more than a minute are the ones who like him. And the ones who like him will look after him. Bad people have good friends, because who else would be friends with those people? Who would have the patience? Most normal people would tell Sherlock Holmes to piss off within 30 seconds. It takes someone with the patience of a saint to look after him.

With both "Doctor Who" and "Sherlock" you get to write these sort of puzzle and wordplay stories. Is that something you really enjoy?
I think because I wrote "A Scandal in Belgravia," everyone has decided it's complicated. Actually, it's a terribly simple story. It's got one puzzle in it. It's not a complicated story; it's the story of a relationship with a mystery story sort of drip-fed into it. The mystery itself takes about 20 minutes and it's not complicated.

I do get grief from time to time from people who say both shows are far too complicated -- I politely point out that both shows are huge international hits, so clearly they aren't. The audience is more sophisticated than they ever have been. They are always ahead of me. I haven't been able to get in front of the audience, ever. The rate at which people absorb fiction -- the number of stories they read, in the form of graphic novels or computer games … Think about how much fiction an individual absorbs now, as opposed to 100 years ago. To keep ahead of an audience that savvy is very hard. You have to make them work.

I'm always quite concerned about [the philosophy], "Let's make television that people can do the ironing during." Let them sit down. Let them concentrate. That seems to work. You bond with something more if it makes you sit up and pay attention. If it becomes something you can do during the ironing, I think you lose touch with the audience. If people shake their fists and say, "It's too complicated," at least they're shaking their fists.

And the younger ones -- they're absorbing more fiction than we did. They're always ahead of me, they're always getting it. You're constantly outplayed by your own audience. Hell mend you [i.e. "Be it on your own head"] if you insult them. If it's too slow and there isn't enough incident and cleverness, they will just wander off bored and wonder why you took up their time.

They'll pick up their iPads and play Angry Birds.
Yeah! The thing is, these kids are probably watching "Doctor Who" while playing Angry Birds and tweeting about both. And they haven't missed a beat of anything. That's what you've got to remember.

The thing about "Sherlock" though, is that you are all in great demand right now. Have you got a writing and production timetable mapped out for the third series? Where are you with that?
Well, where I am is knee-deep in "Doctor Who" at the moment. We've got a notion of when we want to do ["Sherlock"] and we're negotiating with everybody. We're negotiating among "Star Trek" and "The Hobbit" and "Doctor Who," which is an upscale problem to have.

It'll be difficult, but one of the things we do in this show is we make you wait. And then we turn up and we do a quick raid -- you get three really good ones, and then we disappear again and make you wait again. That's worked for us, and that will always be the case. It will probably extend the life of the show, because everybody gets to do other things. It's not like "Doctor Who," which is 24-hour-a-day slavery as long as you're involved in it. That's why people have to escape.

You never wish you had more hours per season of "Sherlock"?
No, I think Sherlock has evolved into what it is. I think what we do with "Sherlock," quite purposely, and I think you'll see this when you see our second run, is that we put the 13 weeks or the 26 weeks of development into three 90-minute [films], and that gives it its feel. It gives it its pace and intensity. If we now went to a "Doctor Who"-style series [of 13 episodes], which we could have done, those episodes would be a bit pale compared to the ones we do now. We say we're making films, and if you think of it as making films, we're making quite a lot in a short period of time. Guy Ritchie's only made two Sherlock Holmes films -- we've made six.

I don't think we could go the other route now. It didn't go that route because of my commitment to "Doctor Who"; it was Ben Stephenson of the BBC, the head of drama. He suggested "Sherlock" should be an event-status television program. The fact is, we couldn't keep up this level of event status if we were on every week. It's because when "Sherlock" arrives back like a rock star into the amphitheater -- it can't do that every week. It can do that three times every 18 months.

The second season of "Sherlock" premieres Sunday, May 6 on PBS Masterpiece. Check your local listings for times. Check back here soon for a bit more from Moffat's "Doctor Who" thoughts.

For more on what to watch on TV this week, click through our slideshow below.

Mon., Apr. 30: "Bones"

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