Air Dates: September 18, 1999 – July 25, 2001
If I had seen Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century when I was ten or eleven years old, I probably would have thought it to be the coolest thing ever. As it stands, seeing it at age thirty doesn’t inspire the same kind of awe or nostalgia, but a kind of gentle amusement and enjoyment of a show for what it is. But I’m actually a little surprised at how much the show grew on me, although it did take a few episodes for me to settle into the visual and narrative style. The animation is a mix of regular animation and early 3D computer graphics. While the characters and many of the settings are hand-drawn, the hover cars, backdrops, and the city itself are CGI. It looks clunky by today’s standards but seems to fit together in this setting. If ReBoot and Batman Beyond had a child, it might look something like Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century. The presentation of the characters also took some getting used to, which I’ll discuss a little later in this article.
The premise of Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century is an interesting one. Beth Lestrade, and inspector at New Scotland Yard, is the descendant of the original Inspector G. Lestrade who worked with Sherlock Holmes in the late 1800s. She discovers that a recent surge of crime in new London is being caused by a man who claims to be Professor James Moriarty, despite being dead for 200 years. Lestrade is convinced that the only person who can stop Moriarty is the famous Sherlock Holmes himself. Fortunately, after he died of old age, Holmes’s body was preserved in a glass coffin filled with honey. Lestrade has him revived and rejuvenated to his mental and physical prime. All of Holmes’s memories and personality are intact, and he quickly acclimates to the new world he’s been thrown into. They are joined by Lestrade’s compudroid Watson, who takes on the personality and memories of his namesake after reading the old journals of the original Dr. Watson. There’s also a diverse new batch of Baker Street Irregulars: a Black British ex-soccer player named Wiggins, a feisty redheaded Cockney girl called Deidre, and a paraplegic computer whiz kid dubbed Tennyson. Together, they solve crimes and combat the nefarious schemes of Moriarty, who turns out to be a clone with all the original’s memories, skills, and temperament. (Unfortunately, this version of Moriarty is a stereotypical, mustache-twirling villain with endless resources who wants to take over the world.) Once you accept the premise, the rest more or less follows.
The show is comprised of 26 stand-alone episodes that aired from September 1999 to July 2001. You do need to watch the pilot episode “The Rise and Fall of Sherlock Holmes” first, as it introduces the characters and sets the stage, but the rest could theoretically be watched in any order. The episodes are inspired by the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, although they vary in their level of faithfulness to those plots. However, all of the stories are updated to fit the parameters of 22nd Century London, a creative decision that predates BBC’s modernized series Sherlock by nine years. The major difference between these two versions of the character is that BBC’s Holmes, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is born in the modern era while the animated version of Holmes is the original Victorian man brought forward and reawakened in a time that would be completely alien to him.
An interesting aspect about the character of Sherlock Holmes is that each iteration of him in media is a little different. There are certain traits in common, but each tends to have their own style, and it’s important to take each one on their own merits. This version of Holmes is as arrogant as many of the others, but also more expressive emotionally. His style and presentation is more akin to Basil of Baker Street from The Great Mouse Detective than to Benedict Cumberbatch’s or Basil Rathbone’s versions of Holmes. He seems to genuinely like people besides Watson rather than simply tolerating them. He also seems more interested in getting others to use their powers of observation rather than just showcasing his own abilities. He stresses that he is not a genius, but just makes good use of his “eyes and brains.” A good example is with his encouragement of and reliance on the Baker Street Irregulars, which makes him their mentor and eventually a kind of father figure.
Unfortunately, the portrayals of Beth Lestrade and Robot Watson are weaker and more uneven throughout the show, which is a shame. Holmes’s genius tends to stand out more if the people around him are also presented as capable and intelligent who just don’t look at the right things or put the pieces together like he does. I feel like that intelligence and competence wasn’t as present in his two prime sidekicks.
Inspector Beth Lestrade is the first character we get introduced to in the show. She’s a stubborn, highly independent beat cop with a penchant for high-speed chases. There was a lot of promise in her character, and I wish we’d gotten a chance to see more of Lestrade being a good detective in her own right. There are many times when it feels like she’s being deliberately obtuse or dismisses Holmes’s observations out of hand, even though she, of all people, should know better. Maybe this was a call-back to the original Inspector Lestrade, who also tended to be annoying and oblivious. Since she’s his descendant, it may even be genetic. I was a little concerned that the writers might try to form a romance between her and Sherlock, but thank goodness they remain colleagues and friends, although Sherlock does sometimes tease her in a borderline flirtatious fashion. Regardless, while I was happy about the presence of a kick-butt, trigger-happy female addition to Team Sherlock, I feel like her character wasn’t utilized as well as it could have been.
Far sadder (or more irritating) is Dr. Watson, who does not have a very good presentation in the show. He does show his worth on occasion, but overall tends to be rather dim and clumsy, more of a hindrance than a help. The trope of Watson being a buffoon, while comedic, does a disservice to the character and makes it harder to accept the idea of him and Holmes being friends. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made Watson a doctor, so we knew he was no dummy, yet Holmes remains ahead of him, not by virtue of intelligence but of observation and putting the pieces together. I can rationalize this a little because this Watson is not in fact a human, but a robot who either thinks he is or is pretending to be Watson. This attempt to combine the programming of a computer with the personality and insight of a human would probably result in this uneven application of ability. It also isn’t quite clear how this integration works. Robot Watson clearly knows that he is a machine, admitting it on several occasions, and utilizes those properties, but he also thinks of and relates to Holmes as if he were the original flesh-and-blood Watson. Perhaps it’s just one of those things you have to accept and move past, otherwise you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to figure it out.
I guess I’ve been rather spoiled by shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Batman: The Animated Series, but not every show can hit that sweet spot of drama and complexity for adults while also appealing to kids. (And to be clear, I do think that kids have more appreciation for complexity than some folk give them credit for.) Those shows stick out because they are unusual in their depth. Sherlock in the 22nd Century is not nearly as deep. There’s a lot more fighting and hover-car chases than one might expect from Sherlock Holmes, unless you are Robert Downey Jr. (a.k.a. “Indiana Holmes.”) But there are so many chances for some real deep drama that get missed because it is a “kid show,” a cartoon with the typical aversion to blood, death, or any lasting violence. Despite the many fights and chase scenes, very few people are ever permanently harmed; even the various scrapes that Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade get into leave no lasing mark. Those missed opportunities make me weep.
I will not claim that the stories or characters in this show are deep, nor are they quite as developed as I think they could be. I really would have liked to see it delve into how Sherlock is really handling being revived in the 22nd century when everyone and everything he’s ever known is now gone. Even for someone as emotionally distant as Holmes this would have to be a pretty big shock (especially after being literally dead for 200 years!) In a way, Sherlock in the 22nd Century shares similarities with Samurai Jack. You get so caught up in the adventure that you forget just how vulnerable these characters are. Like Jack, Holmes is essentially alone in a high-tech future although he is fighting with his brains rather than with a sword. The big difference is that Samurai Jack has some episodes that bring that solitude into stark relief; this kind of exploration does not happen to Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century. There are a few tiny flashes, but overall Holmes accepts this new reality extremely quickly.
Honestly, I was expecting, even hoping, for Holmes to take more time learning and understanding all of the new information and advances humanity has made in two centuries. After all, Holmes’s strength is based on observation and interpreting clues, but clues need context. Someone can notice a chip in a cup, but if they don’t know the possible meaning or significance, then it goes by unremarked and the case might not be solved. I also really expected Holmes to need more time adjusting to the idea of a robot taking on the personality and memory of his long-dead best friend. That has got to be disconcerting, but it only takes Holmes an episode or so to accept this new form of Watson. I was kind of hoping for a little more stumbling from Holmes, a little more human hesitation at first, then gaining in confidence as he acclimates. It makes me wonder what this premise could have been like if the show had been geared towards a slightly more mature audience, or if it was run by some of the other creators whose work I am very fond of. There’s the potential to go a whole lot deeper. Alas, it ain’t no Ghost in the Shell.
The show is more interesting in presenting interesting crime scenarios and hover car chases than in delving into the psyche of the characters… but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. While part of my writer brain gets frustrated with this when I see the wasted potential, another part is also kind of happy to enjoy a simple, episodic cartoon that is primarily fun rather than dramatic. I don’t know how die-hard fans of Sherlock Holmes may react; my first exposure to the character was through The Great Mouse Detective and I don’t think I actually saw Sherlock again on screen until the 2010 BBC series. I’ve read the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle over the course of several years, but while I can appreciate mystery and detective stories, they are not my main genre of choice. As of the writing of this article, I have not yet experienced any other iteration of the character.
All in all, Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century is a fun, animated science fiction romp that is worth a look. But beware: once you’ve seen the show, you will hear the theme song in your head every time you say its name.
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“Sherlock Sundays” is a Film Review Series focusing on various multimedia interpretations of Sherlock Holmes.