Following last week’s Sherlock finale, writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have been doing the rounds of publicity interviews. Unfortunately, this just led to them giving an interview with Empire magazine that already has Sherlockians up in arms. The part that stood out was a section where they discussed the original Holmes story that inspired “His Last Vow.”
Moffat: If you read [The Adventure Of] Charles Augustus Milverton, Dr. Watson in the opening paragraph tells you that he’s about to tell you a porkie. He says, ‘I even now must be very reticent.’ I think what Doyle is hinting at is that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson sat in Baker Street and said, ‘Right, we’re going to have to go and kill him, aren’t we? That’s the only way we can do this.’ So they break in, kill him, and then Dr. Watson writes up a version of the story that puts the murder [on someone else].
Gatiss: They’re hiding in their burglar masks behind the curtain, and this random woman comes and shoots Milverton in the face and then grinds her heel into his face. It’s odd, isn’t it? So I mean really, it’s just an extrapolation of saying, ‘Well, he probably did it, I think.’
In these quotes, Gatiss and Moffat are essentially talking about a concept that has been debated by Sherlock Holmes fans for decades: the conflict between “Watsonian” and “Doylist” perspectives on the stories.
A Doylist interpretation of Sherlock Holmes canon is that each story is simply the invention of the author, whereas a Watsonian interpretation requires in-universe explanations for the way characters behave. In this interview, Moffat and Gatiss were looking at “Charles Augustus Milverton” from a Watsonian perspective in which the narrator (Watson) was purposefully unreliable, rather than a Doylist perspective in which everything in the story is exactly as it “happened.”
The problem here isn’t that the writers of Sherlock are reinterpreting the original canon. Only the most ludicrously dedicated canon fan would complain about that, since the show is clearly not meant to be a direct adaptation.
What has some fans angry is that Sherlock’s interpretation of Milverton’s death completely removes the agency and power of the female character in the original story. An unfortunate occurrence that neatly fits in with Moffat’s track record with female characters in both Doctor Who and Sherlock. [READ MORE]