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Sherlock exterminates The Doctor

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2012-01-06 Evening Standard.jpg


The Time Lord has been eclipsed by a very modern Holmes, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, now also Star Trek's new villain. Nick Curtis explains why we're all watching the detective

SELDOM has a highly unrepresentative straw poll been so accurate. While my 11-year-old nephew Sam declared the Doctor Who Christmas special "a bit boring" and went off to make Plasticine monsters, I and my wife Ann found ourselves repeatedly exclaiming to each other for several days how absolutely bloody brilliant the new Sherlock is. In the first of a new troika of TV films updating Conan Doyle's tales, A Scandal in Belgravia, Benedict Cumberbatch's previously asexual sleuth fell in lust with the lubriciously clever dominatrix/ blackmailer Irene Adler and saved her from Islamic execution. Or did he? Either way, it left one panting for the next two episodes. But Doctor Who, in which a bunch of slowly ambulant trees enabled a wartime wife to bring her bomber-pilot husband home? Meh.

What's more, Ann and several other women of my acquaintance started making the kind of lascivious and slightly inappropriate comments about Cumberbatch's 'tec that used to go the way of Matt Smith's time traveller. Both shows grabbed remarkable audiences of just under nine million, significantly more than Downton Abbey's Christmas special. But while Sherlock fans were going wild on Twitter and other social networking sites ("my SOUL just orgas-med"), Doctor Who fans expressed confusion or simply stayed silent. In the BBC battle between these two much-loved characters, Sherlock is triumphant and Doctor Who has jumped the Dalek. Why? Elementary, my dear reader...


On paper, neither Sherlock nor the Doctor looks like a promising candidate for pan-generational primetime adulation, what with one starting out as a rude, cocaine-injecting Victorian chainsmoker, and the other a crotchety Edwardian geriatric who hid in a blue box with his "granddaughter". Over the years, of course, both have been through more triumphant reinventions than Madonna, and with better facelifts.

The wide eyes and faintly alien architecture of Smith's skull, and Cumberbatch's puppyish mouth and button nose, give them a shared sense of man-boy otherness. Both characters are unthreateningly attractive partly because they are sexually unreachable. Knights errant, they are denied the common joys of humanity, such as romance, by their intellect and moral heroism. And, in the Doctor's case, by biology. This helps to prevent male viewers resenting them.

But Cumberbatch's reading of Sherlock has been a true and momentous reinvention, where Smith is mining a seam of manic intensity already heavily worked by Christopher Ecclestone and David Tennant. Sherlock, triumphantly modernised in 2010, remains recognisably human, if extraordinary — bitchily witty, a master of logic and deduction. The Doctor, involved in increasingly metaphysical stories, is just too weird and strange, reliant on the esoteric magic of his sonic screwdriver.


It's not quite the class struggle in microcosm but still ... Smith, now 29, had an ordinary upbringing in Northampton, his father the boss of a plastics business, his school a comprehensive. He turned to acting after that other great aspirational dream — of being a professional footballer — was ruined by injury. Cumberbatch is doubly silver-spooned, born into the business as the child of successful TV actors Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton, and educated at Harrow (where his nickname was, apparently, Bend-my-dick Cucumberpatch). Do we see in him a Bullingdon-esque ascendancy of the privileged, treading down the meritocrats who went before? Or am I making too much of this?

Whatever: both men are immensely charming and have proved their talent outside their action-packed, star-making roles. Smith won acclaim on stage in Swimming with Sharks, and an Evening Standard Best Newcomer Award in That Face, but was still only 27 when he became the Doctor. Since then, his attempts to avoid stereotyping in the role comprise one drily worthy and barely watched BBC period drama, Christopher and His Kind, with another to come — Bert and Dickie, in which he plays a rower in the 1948 London Olympics. It's too early to tell but the Doctor may well define him professionally, just as his on-off relationship with model Daisy Lowe defines him sexually. Cumberbatch, 35, had a sterling stage career, and had already played Van Gogh, Stephen Hawking and Guy Burgess on screen before he took on Conan Doyle's sleuth. (He had also, following a 2008 discussion with David Tennant, decided not to bid to replace Tennant as the Doctor, which surely makes Smith the poor man's Cumberbatch.) After the success of the first series of Sherlock, he immediately got his kit off on stage in Danny Boyle's acclaimed, and demanding, National Theatre adaptation of Frankenstein, alternating the roles of scientist and creator with Jonny Lee Miller and winning a shared Evening Standard Award in the process. Having also gone dapperly gay in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, he's in two of 2012's most hotly anticipated films, War Horse and The Hobbit (as the voice of the dragon). It has now been announced that he's to play the villain in B Abrams's Star Trek sequel, due to start shooting in a few weeks.

Early last year he quietly split from his girlfriend of 10 years, writer and actor Olivia Poulet, and later began dating designer Anna Jones. Professionally and romantically, the world seems wide open for Cumberbatch. Though older, he's the coming man. Smith, possibly, has already shot his bolt.


It's all about unrealised sexual tension. The possibility that the Doctor was keen on any of his comely assistants went unspoken until the issue was blown wide open by the naked, if thwarted, passion between Billie Piper's Rose Tyler and the Christopher Ecclestone/David Tennant incarnations. Things started promisingly for Smith's Doctor when he was paired with the leggy, characterful and apparently up-for-it Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) but he has found himself sidelined since she committed to husband Rory. It's no surprise that the two sidekicks are being written out this year.

Doctor Who can't get too raunchy in any case as its earlier time slot means it's still, at heart, a kid's show. Hence the predictable media "fury" over Amy's kissogram miniskirt, and her offering the Doctor a one-night stand. Such behaviour pales rather beside Lara Pulver's Irene Adler ripping through Sherlock's life like a jaguar on heat: parading naked in front of him, sleeping in his bed, teasing him with intellectual frottage, while all the while claiming to be gay. Now that's a woman.

The affectionate, exasperated pairing of Cumberbatch's Holmes with Martin Freeman's Dr Watson also makes for the most credible relationship on British TV right now. Cumberbatch also has a fine, mad, charismatic foil in Andrew Scott's Moriarty. The Doctor's foe over Christ mas? Er, a galactic logging company.


Here's the weird thing: the pen in charge of both shows belongs to Steven Moffatt. The 50-year-old Scot was an occasional writer on Doctor Who when it was first triumphantly resurrected by Russell T Davies in 2005, and became its chief writer, executive pro ducer and showrunner in 2010 when Smith took over the main role and Davies withdrew. That's a long time to try to maintain freshness in a series.

The League of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss, also an occasional writer (and actor) on Who since 2005, cooked up the concept of Sherlock with Moffatt during a trip to Cardiff for the sci-fi series. We can perhaps attribute the current superiority of Sherlock to Gatiss. His novels featuring the sexually ambivalent Edwardian detective Lucifer Box show an acute understanding of the tropes of mystery fiction, and his work with the League was always strong on atmosphere and dark wit. His performance as Sherlock's brother Mycroft is hilarious


Large chunks of both Doctor Who and Sherlock are shot in and around Cardiff and much play has been made of how this has turned the city into a sort of miniature, damp Hollywood (Llangollywd, perhaps). In Doctor Who, du entire universe looks like Wales. Sher lock, meanwhile, has the whole of mod ern London to play with. Just think of the use of the Thames and the skyline in A Scandal in Belgravia, the witty exterior' including a down-at-heel Baker Street and the beautiful Georgian interiors of Irene's bondage parlour. Ultimately. perhaps, it's this that makes Sherlock better than Who right now. The Doctor belongs to the universe. Holmes belongs to us. He's a Londoner.

The next Sherlock film, The Hounds of Baskerville, is on at 8.30pm on Sunday on BBC1. Dr Who returns later this year

Caption: Top pair: the affectionate, exasperated coupling of Benedict Cumberbatch's Homes with Martin Freeman's Dr Watson makes for the most credible relationship on British TV today

Caption: At odds: Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch, above left) has the edge over the Doctor (Matt Smith), while dominatrix Irene Adler (Lara Pulver, below left) beats Who sidekick Amy Pond (Karen Gillan, right)

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  • APA 6th ed.: Curtis, Nick (2012-01-06). Sherlock exterminates The Doctor. The Evening Standard p. 22.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Curtis, Nick. "Sherlock exterminates The Doctor." The Evening Standard [add city] 2012-01-06, 22. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Curtis, Nick. "Sherlock exterminates The Doctor." The Evening Standard, edition, sec., 2012-01-06
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  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Sherlock exterminates The Doctor | url= | work=The Evening Standard | pages=22 | date=2012-01-06 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=27 May 2024 }}</ref>
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