Does Watson Keep Getting Smarter?

Original illustration by Sidney Paget.  Dr. Watson (left) listens as Holmes explains what he has deduced from a pipe.

Original illustration by Sidney Paget. Dr. Watson (left) listens as Holmes explains what he has deduced from a pipe.

It seems like everybody is doing an update on Sherlock Holmes.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are doing an excellent British version. Then there’s Robert Downey, Jr. switching back and forth between Iron Man and Sherlock, and, of course Johnny Lee Miller on Elementary whose Watson is female and now working as a peer, so he’s added a second sidekick—also female. Then there are the thinly disguised versions, including House, MD (House instead of Holmes; Dr. Wilson instead of Dr. Watson; both House and Holmes were opiate users and only took cases that intrigued them.)

Modern versions all seem to be intent on reinventing Watson. Of course, if you base your impression on the old Basil Rathbone movies in which Nigel Bruce portrayed Watson as generally befuddled with intermittent periods of amazement, you’d agree that Watson needed some improvement. (No reflection on Bruce–I blame the writers and the director.) However, in the original stories, Watson was a physician who had been wounded in Afghanistan and returned home (my, how history repeats itself). He was an intelligent, educated man who was outshone by Holmes’ genius.

I admit that the stories needed to be updated. I read them about fifty years after they were written, and I had to look up (in a book, not on the Internet) what a hansom cab was, and was fascinated that the mail was delivered several times each day. Even the media—well in those days, the press—was interesting in the books. The paper published more than one edition each day, and in the event of “Breaking News!!!” an Extra edition was run.

Besides, Holmes opium use and habit of firing his pistol at the wall in his flat might have been outrageous in his day, but would have dire consequences today.

So, I agree with updating the stories, but I stand by John Watson, MD (although after he marries, his wife refers to him as “James.” Mysterious.) Wounded in the shoulder by a Jezail bullet followed by enteric fever (typhoid) he was packed onto a ship and sent home with a modest pension for nine months. (“Thank you for your service to King and Country. All right. Now off with you!”) I mentioned that he was intelligent and educated, but he also had courage, accompanying Holmes and even being asked to bring his service revolver at times.

He was also just a touch Avant-garde, given the tattoo on his wrist. No Abby Sciuto, but not generally a mark of gentry.

Watson may not have been the one to deduce the solution, but Arthur Conan Doyle created his character as the one who observed, understood and explained the events.

Ladies and gentlemen, I say ye, Dr. John H. Watson. Hear, Hear!

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