Doctor Who to Sherlock: TV franchises now have such devoted followings that casual viewers are alienated

The joy derived from a story is in direct correlation to the amount of work you put in

Archie Bland
Thursday 02 January 2014 19:14
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in the new series of the BBC drama
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in the new series of the BBC drama

The first three minutes of Sherlock were, I will grant you, a pretty ingenious way of answering the question everyone was asking. A prosthetic mask, a bungee cord, a Hollywood snog, and then, just as gullible audience members like me were beginning to howl with indignation at the anticlimactic absurdity of it all, a sharp tug on the rug under our feet: of course the explanation of the great detective’s death wouldn’t be so lame. Of course we were in safer hands than that.

But by the end, my admiration had faded a little. As the in-jokes piled up and the winks got ever slyer, I had begun to lose the thread. Above all, my assumption that the show would generously gather me up and take me along for the ride had been exposed as a delusion. By the time Holmes gave his own (also dubious) explanation of his feat, my question had changed. It was no longer how he had convinced the world of his demise. It was, why did he bother, again?

The problem is not that all this is too complicated. I don’t mind complicated. The problem is that it builds its drama on an assumption that you are intimately familiar with the circumstances of Sherlock’s apparent suicide, and Moriarty’s fiendish scheme to make it inevitable. Now, I loved that story, but I also watched it two years ago. And without remembering it in detail, I felt quite adrift. I suppose I should have rewatched it – but that’s a bit much, isn’t it? That suggests to casual, or even semi-professional, viewers that their attention is not enough. They must also do homework.

I’m so tired of this tendency. Because it’s not confined to Sherlock. It’s familiar to anyone who has happened upon Doctor Who and found themselves immediately alienated by the expected grasp of the show’s mythology; you’ll know it if you’ve seen Harry Potter or Twilight on the telly over Christmas, and felt the creators’ total disdain for the basic principle that a piece of fiction should function as an entity in and of itself, no matter the scale of the franchise of which it forms a part. Hell, even The Hobbit – originally one quite short novel – has been torn into three sections that I am loathe to call movies, since none of them can really tell a story on its own.

My own nadir came with the new Hunger Games instalment that came out last month. What is a tribute? I whispered to my long-suffering companion, finding myself whipped into a fury by an ending so inconclusive that it was quite plain that the filmmakers’ plot was no more sophisticated than to force you to shell out another £13 for closure next time. I have chosen, instead, to view the whole thing as an ambiguous exercise in postmodernism. For me, Katniss will forever be on the cusp of a revolution.

It didn’t used to be this way. But as franchises proliferate, the creators have discovered their devoted fans are so expert – and so bankable – that the concerns of the casual viewer can be dispensed with altogether. Indeed, there is a variety of fandom that spits on this complaint, and on any sort of criticism at all. The mark of a devotee is uncritical studiousness, and a moralistic pleasure in the idea that the joy to be derived from a story is in direct correlation to the work you are willing to put in.

It is, I would suggest, no coincidence that these stories – marvellous though they can be – are all fantasies of one sort or another, essentially childish things. Because they appeal to us as infants, they are able to command the kind of uncritical adulation that a toddler reserves for its parents. Why did you have to fake your death, Sherlock? Why should I care? And the paternal answer comes: because I said so.

Twitter: @archiebland

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