Lucy Liu is Dr Watson

In a speech delivered in 1941, Nero Wolfe author Rex Stout proclaimed that, “Watson was a woman” (for a full transcript, click here). There have been occasional attempts to adapt the canon to fit this idea, most notable of these being the 1987 TV-movie, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, featuring Margaret Colin as Jane Watson. In Sherlock Holmes Returns (1993), Watson was absent but the Great detective was given a female sidekick in his place. News now reaches Fedora that Stout’s theory is going to get another  wrinkle in a new TV series. Elementary is the proposed title for the new US show in which Johnny Lee Miller will play Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu will co-star as Dr Watson. But how radical an idea is this? Well …

It arrives hot on the heels of the magnificent Sherlock, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ inspired update-cum-re-imagening-cum-hommage to the great characters and stories created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After 100 years of pastiches and adaptations, this seems like a good opportunity to reflect again on the depictions of the friendship between the great consulting detective and his great friend – what is the bond that ties them together?

Some of my favourite pastiches on the Sherlock Holmes mythos have taken considerable liberties with the original and, at the best, as is the case of Sherlock, bring something new to the table. There are so many spin-offs from the original sixty tales that one could spend a lifetime trying to get through them all. In my personal pantheon I would certainly include these books and movies, offering as they do intriguingly multi-faceted depictions of the greatest of literary detectives:

  • 12 Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films for Universal (1942-46)
  • The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
  • The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974) by Nicholas Meyer (filmed in 1976)
  • Without a Clue (1988)
  • Zero Effect (1998)
  • Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginning of Sherlock Holmes (BBC, 2000-01)
  • The Final Solution (2005) by Michael Chabon

The Rathbone and Bruce films, set largely in wartime Britain, are a curious re-imaging set in a parallel world in which the 1940s closely resemble the Victorian age and are tremendous fun – for generations these were probably the best known film version of the stories and novels.

Nicholas Meyer single-handedly kicked start a new breed of postmodern pastiches with the success of his novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974), in which Holmes subjects himself to psychoanalysis under the care of Sigmund Freud. In David Pirie’s Murder Rooms we actually look at fictional cases involving Doyle and his mentor Joseph Bell rather than Holmes. These postmodern approaches lent themselves to at least one delicious parody in Without a Clue (1988), in which Watson (Sir Ben Kingsley) is an author who creates a fictional detective and then gets an actor (Sir Michael Caine) to play the role. I also recommend Zero Effect (1998), which tales the Watson and Holmes dynamic and re-creates it for the 90s, with great humour and intelligence.

Which is to say, there seems to be plenty of scope for imaginative new approaches to the great adventures of Sherlock Holmes – I for one will certainly be greatly interested to see just how Elementary turns out when it arrives on the airwaves in the Autumn.

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25 Responses to Lucy Liu is Dr Watson

  1. John says:

    What? Where’s Young Sherlock Holmes in your list of notable cinematic Sherlockiana? Just kidding. That rip off of the Indiana Jones franchise had more to do with pulp thrillls and old time movie adventure serials than it had to do with Conan Doyle. It had a lot of Hammer horror in it, too. Though I hadn’t yet read THE BEETLE when I saw the movie I suspect the screenwriter might have been acquainted with that book. Amazing similarities between them.

    I’m not sure about Miller and Liu, but I’ll be sure to check it out when it arrives. Unless it airs on a cable station and then I’ll have to wait for a DVD release.

    • Hi John, thanks for the comments. I really had to resist the temptation to add a ton of Sherlock Holmes pastiches as I love them – hell, you could easily have a shelf of books and DVDs just covering encounters with Jack the Ripper and then another with Dracula! It’s the ones that explore the actual idea of the ‘Great Detective’ that often seem to work the best. Let’s just hope it’s better than the reboot of Charlie’s Angels (boot being the operative word here).

  2. Pietro says:

    Also, there is “Sherlock Holmes a New York” (1976). With Roger Moore, Charlotte Rampling, John Huston. Nice. Did you see it?

    • Ciao Pietro, I think this was one of the very first Holmes versions I ever saw on TV, somewhere around 1976. As a kid I though the idea of Bond as Holmes was wonderful – now it makes me wince a bit as Moore is terribly miscast (lo preferivo in Attenti a Quei Due su Domenica In!)

  3. Pietro says:

    Yes, I can agree with you (non so se le facessero a Domenica in: la prima volta che la mandarono in TV quella serie, era nel pomeriggio inoltrato della domenica, alle 18-18,30. Ero giovanissimo, quindi dev’essere stato almeno..30-35 anni fa!).
    However .. The best Roger Moore I’ve seen was not even 007 .. but Simon Templar.

    • Eh, ma Domenica In non andva per 5 o 6 ore negl’anni 70? (Io mi ricordo cosi comunque …). Roger Moore was an amiable light comedian in lots of films and was great as the Saint – but, alhough I like some of his Bond movies (especially For Your Eyes Only and The Spy who Loved Me), I pretty much prefer all the other actors in the role.

  4. Skywatcher says:

    Although it’s not a popular choice, Moore might just be my favourite Bond. He isn’t Fleming’s Bond, but Moore is an enormously likeable 007 and he can manage some of the darker elements of the character (remember the scene in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY where he kicks Michael Gothard’s assassin over a cliff?). To his great credit, Moore made an effort in his first film and he was still making an effort in his last. Compare this with Connery, who pretty much walked through the last three official Bond movies that he did.

    • Hello there – one can imagine a debate about one’s favourite Bond actor receding endlessly into the distance. I will definitely concede that Connery is, shall we say, a lot more ‘relaxed’ in his portrayal after Goldfinger (probably my favourite). Moore’s approach, while dipping into overt jokeyness in Moonraker and Octopussy, was on the whole more focused right to the end. All true – but deep down I just prefer the portrayals of Connery, Dalton, Brosnan and Graig (all superb actors to my way of thinking). Lazenby was not as good as any of them, including Moore certainly, but he does bring a vulnerability to OHMSS that is crucial for the film to work – it would have been wonderful if Connery could have played it at the time, but probably wouldn’t have done, as you say. I don’t mean to bash Moore in the role as I like quite a few of the films he is in – and I like him a lot elsewhere, especially on TV and in comedic roles (I love him in Cannonball Run sending his Bond persona up). And you’re right to single out that sequence in FYEO – it’s one of his best.

  5. Pietro says:

    Each 007 has a different soul. Timothy Dalton is not properly framed in my opinion, because he is an actor of theater, not cinema. It ‘s too sophistry to make 007. 007 is a womanizer (Connery), is dismissive (Brosnan), it is hard (Craig), is also trivial (Moore), but not a philosopher. And ‘a man of action who likes women, do not ever states. Instead of the 007 Dalton to me it seemed as if he were reciting in his hand, a play in the play.
    Lazenby is out of the dispute. It is also the most insipid of all films.

    • I love On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, for all its imperfections, it almost doesn’t feel like a Bond movie at all (I know, you’d think that was a criticism) – along with the Daniel Craig’s version of Casino Royale it is the only Bond movie with soul!

  6. Pietro says:

    I mean Moore/007 trivial, in the sense of frivolous butterfly.

  7. Yvette says:

    I’m not a big fan of the 007 movies except for GOLDFINGER and maybe, DR. NO. But I did love CASINO ROYALE with Daniel Craig. Disliked the sequel intensely. Almost put me to sleep.

    Much as I love and respect Rex Stout, I don’t wonder that this pretty little speech didn’t go over with the Irregular crowd. I’m surprised they didn’t tar and feather him and ride him out of town. HA!

    Obviously he was pulling their legs.

    I’ll take a looksee at any new Holmes pastiche. But never with any kind of hope that I’ll like it.
    I generally don’t.

    I love Laurie R. King’s interpretation of Holmes best (after the real thing, of course) and do wish they’d hurry up and make THE BEEKEEPER’S APPRENTICE into a movie.

    • Hi Yvette – haven’t read Laurie R. King so shall keep an eye out, thanks for that. If you haven’t watched it already, the new TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, Sherlock, is a thing of gret wit and beauty, truly!

  8. Yvette says:

    I did try the new SHERLOCK. I’ll have to try again, simply because you ask me to. 🙂

  9. Ann says:

    The Sherlock TV show is brilliant!

  10. Todd Mason says:

    Lucy Liu might be able to elevate the proceedings, to at least some extent…Moffatt is less than sanguine about the series, as he notes in a recent podcast interview, but basically shrugs. And, indeed, isn’t THE FINAL SOLUTION a brilliant addition to the canon? I’m not sure I’ve read a Chabon work I like better.

    • Liu may very well, as you say, be the distinctive factor especially when compared with the Moffat and Gatiss version which succeeds so brilliantly on its own terms. Although i gave it a very positive review of course, I would have to say that I probably prefer The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay though comparing the two, despite clear thematic affinities, is a bit pointless given the different in size and scope.

  11. Todd Mason says:

    And you haven’t forgotten THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS, and its female Watson, have you?

    • Well, I take your point Todd but as wonderful as Joanne Woodward is (always) and was in the film, she isn’t really playing Watson but rather somebody else’s idea of Watson. Or am I being a bit literal?

  12. Pingback: The new Sherlock: An ‘Elementary’ preview | Tipping My Fedora

  13. Doug says:

    Lucy Liu will add some snap to Watson, as Jude Law did to the movie part. Just the idea that any of these films/shows might get the smartphone generation to delve into the original books makes them worth producing/viewing.

    • Cheers Doug – and I think there is nothing in principle wrong with this idea as the Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock proves. I am very curious to see how this works out.

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