“My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don’t know.” — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle
Cartoons have a way of staying with people. Even the mediocre ones. After all, He-Man wasn’t exactly an animated Citizen Kane, and it hasn’t budged an inch in terms of retro-coolness. Yet, for every He-Man, there are probably a dozen programs that, despite being decently written and interesting, have faded so far from memory that even hipsters can’t recall them enough to slap their likenesses on a t-shirt.
That being said, there are always several handfuls of loyal viewers who remember… and that is where Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century comes in.
First, a refresher:
Twenty years ago, before Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat, and BBC gave the World’s Greatest Detective a contemporary update, DiC Entertainment and Scottish Television joined forces to revive Sherlock Holmes (quite literally). While this wasn’t the first partnership between the two companies, it was definitely one of the most peculiar.
Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century followed the adventures of a newly reanimated Sherlock Holmes, joined by Beth Lestrade — descendant of Holmes’ Scotland Yard foil, Inspector Lestrade — and an android dubbed Watson.
Rather than taking place in Victorian London, the three heroes solve mysteries and crack cases in, you guessed it, 22nd century London. No doubt the creators felt a young audience would find a futuristic setting far more interesting than Doyle’s gas-lit London. Too bad they weren’t really all that correct.
In its two-year, twenty-six episode run, Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century didn’t offer much in the area of groundbreaking animation. It didn’t adapt the canonical Holmes stories in especially interesting, cutting-edge ways, and the plots from episode to episode were, at best, comfortably predictable. Weaknesses aside, the series was still nominated for a daytime Emmy, and it managed to acquaint a new, younger generation of fans with a mainstay of Western literature.
Also, it predicted the future.
Yes, you read that right. A little-known sci-fi version of Holmes managed to do what all great sci-fi works wish to accomplish: a completely accurate forecast of the future.
The semi-dystopic, science-fictional aesthetic of the series supplanted Victorian-era newspapers with broadcast news, and dubbed the service “news on-demand.”
Bear in mind, the series first aired in 1999, well before on-demand viewing was widely available for public consumption, let alone a standard film and television service. Plus, if that wasn’t weird enough, in order to hear the full account of a given story, the viewer had to indicate interest, either by saying “More,” or, as Holmes does, lazily drawling “Proceed.”
The act of indicating interest to continue reading a given piece is a feature of most online publications. But, that’s only a tip of the prophetic sci-fi iceberg.
In the series, the Watson role is filled by an AI android, one that specializes in logic and reasoning. Beth Lestrade, in an effort to better enable the android to compatibly work with Holmes, instructs it to upload the complete personal diaries of the late Dr. John Watson. Thus, Watson the android assumes the persona and personal habits of his human predecessor.
Sound familiar? That’s because it’s almost exactly like IBM’s supercomputer of the same name.
In addition to being an AI super-computer specializing in question-answering, IBM’s Watson is a learning computer. His creators found out the full breadth and width of Watson’s abilities the hard way when they uploaded the entire Urban Dictionary into his memory.
Suffice it to say, Watson absolutely did not adopt the syntax of a Victorian-era physician. More like the unadorned vocabulary of a college frat-boy.
But Watson’s capabilities aren’t simply high-tech parroting of what his IBM overlords demand. The initial intention behind uploading Urban Dictionary was to see if Watson could adopt, understand, and implement informal language and slang, a major hurdle in AI development. Which he did. Way too well. Watson even began answering true-false questions with “bullshit” in place of “false.”
Though it was proven hilariously, Watson represents the farthest milestone we’ve yet reached in developing a fully artificial person, not just a computer that can think faster than a human.
It’s a safe bet that no one at IBM or Comcast was directly inspired by a turn-of-the-millennium cartoon. Rather, the writers were mindful of the trajectories in both mass-media and technology, and, by applying a few ounces of imagination, created a future that resembles our present.
This is one of the hallmarks of a quality work of science fiction, and the team behind Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century succeeded in creating just that: a story that features a treasured, varied cast of characters who must navigate a world that is simultaneously unknown yet familiar to the audience. Sure, the series has flaws, but it represents a contemporary example of how a critical view of the world can result in a prescient depiction of its future, a lesson any aspiring sci-fi writer ought to learn.Literally the only gif of this show that exists. (Credit:DiC Entertainment/Scottish Television)
There’s a lingering question that really ought be addressed: If Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century was such a great piece of sci-fi, why did it only run for two seasons? Why aren’t there any plans for a reboot out there? And why didn’t the BBC set Sherlock in the future?
The short answer is that the series was far ahead of its time in terms of sci-fi aesthetics and trappings, and the weaknesses out-weighed the strengths. The dialogue was rough, the episodic plots were flimsy, despite their timeless source material, and the character development left a great deal to be desired.
No, it wasn’t perfect, but most great works are flawed. Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century demonstrates just that. It serves as a representation of the fact that marginal, even mediocre work can still carry value and accomplish something tremendous.