He’s traditionally been Sherlock Holmes’ brave accomplice and a faithful chronicler of their sleuthing escapades.
Now Dr Watson will be transformed into an “ass-kicking” female counterpart, played by Lucy Liu, in the curious case of the gender-changing sidekick.
John Watson will become Joan in Elementary, a radical modern-day take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic mysteries, produced by the American network CBS.
With Jonny Lee Miller cast as Sherlock, the US series has made a bold move to distance itself from Sherlock, the hit BBC1 series, whose producers had threatened legal action if the American drama infringed their copyright.
Set in contemporary New York, Elementary begins with eccentric Brit Holmes, a former consultant to Scotland Yard, struggling with addiction problems which forced him to seek treatment in rehab.
Holmes’s recovery is assisted by his Brooklyn housemate Watson, played by the Charlie’s Angels star Liu, who in this version is a former surgeon who lost her license after a patient died, while consulting for the NYPD.
The pilot episode will be directed by Michael Cuesta, who won acclaim for the award-winning “war on terror” series, Homeland.
From Nigel Bruce, who starred opposite Basil Rathbone in the early 40s Sherlock films to the BBC's Martin Freeman and Jude Law in Guy Ritchie's recent films, the character of Watson, an able surgeon who struggles manfully to keep up with Holmes’s brilliant deductions, has survived many interpretations.
But Sherlock traditionalists reacted with disdain to the arrival Lucy Liu, which prompted comparisons with the partnership of Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd in the 80s US detective series, Moonlighting.
Liu is not the first female Watson however. American actress Margaret Colin played Joan Watson, a private detective who thaws a cryogenically frozen Sherlock in a 1979 CBS television movie, The Return Of Sherlock Holmes.
Kurt Sutter, creator of the FX biker drama series Sons Of Anarchy, tweeted: “dear sir arthur conan doyle, i am so very sorry. and honestly, sir, ashamed at the things we do in the name of profit.”
Karen Krizanovich, the film critic, asked: “Does this reinforce the stereotype that Asian women are just smart & beautiful?”
A female Watson is far from the most outlandish portrayal of the role. In the short-lived 70s US series Holmes & Yo-Yo, the detective was partnered with a battery-powered, android sidekick. The show was voted one of the worst ever broadcast.
The Elementary team had initially approached Hartswood Films, which produces Sherlock for the BBC, to collaborate on a new, modernised version for CBS.
When CBS cast Lee Miller, who shared the lead role in the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch, the BBC’s Sherlock, Sue Vertue of Hartswood, said: “Let’s hope their pilot script has stayed further away from our Sherlock than their casting choice.”
Liu, 43, rose to fame in the legal drama series Ally McBeal before graduating to action roles in Charlie’s Angels and the Quentin Tarantino film, Kill Bill.
Conan Doyle described Watson as a thin, strongly-built man, with a small moustache. Injured serving in Afghanistan, he remains a crack shot and his medical skills are often key to solving a case.
CBS will decide in May whether the response to the Elementary pilot episode is sufficiently positive to move forward with a full season which would air in the Autumn.
The BBC series avoided using the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” which is often wrongly ascribed to Holmes, although his deductions are occasionally described as “elementary” in the Conan Doyle stories.
California-born son of a Baronet starred in 14 films opposite Basil Rathbone from 1939-46 and 200 radio broadcasts of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. His bumbling Watson was more Laurel & Hardy than Conan Doyle.
Portrayed a more serious Watson in 1959 Hammer film version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, opposite Peter Cushing’s Sherlock. Strong and dependable foil in first colour Conan Doyle adaptation.
Bafta-winning performance from comic actor in modern-day BBC adaptation. A grounded counterpart who explains Holmes’ flights of genius to frustrated onlookers, his Watson is forced to deny rumours that they are more than flatmates.