Monday, January 9, 2012

Sherlock, series 2

One of the guys I live with has recently turned me on to Sherlock, the latest English reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's tales of Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective.  This particular series updates the legend for the 21st century, which is a fresh take.  The basic stories have been rewritten, but are packed with sly allusions to the canon.  Sherlock also continues the recent television meme of the super-genius investigator, drawing off of such series as House, Bones, Psych, Lie to Me, and others.

This is, unfortunately, where the series tends to stumble.  The original canon tales carry with them a sense of wonder.  They're set in the late Victorian period, when forensics was an emerging science.  The study and classification of fingerprints was new, Bertillion had just started using his invariant biometrics, and the idea of investigating crimes after the fact was still something of a novelty.  The Holmes stories carry some of their strength by their view of the monomaniacal, eccentric genius who is willing to study 143 different types of tobacco ash and so gains an advantage by doing so.

Of course, in the modern age, forensic science is a well matured field.  The research has been done.  Any competent medical examiner knows how to judge time of death, identify post-mortem injuries, examine blood pooling, and so on.  Identifying the type and brand of cigarettes from their ash is now a routine job for lab techs with mass spectrometers.  It no longer takes a supergenius to examine and draw conclusions from this sort of evidence.

Warning: spoilers for the second season of Sherlock follow.  Assumption is made that anyone reading this will have seen the first season and at least the first episode f the second, "A Scandal in Belgravia"..

No really.

Consider yourself warned.

Oone of the fun aspects from the original stories that is still preserved is the Sherlock scan.  Sherlock is still able to quickly scan people and determine their occupation, habits, and something of their personality.  This, too, is a field that has developed over the last century, but still remains somewhat ad hoc.  People transmit messages every moment that most of them are unaware of.  How they sit or stand, the clothes they choose to wear, the words they choose, the constructions of their speech, their expressions... these all tell a patient and acute observer something about them.  One of the delights of the Sherlock Holmes mythos is how he reads these signs (a sort of applied psycho-anthro-semiotics).  This new series continues that tradition, even going so far as to highlight these observations with graphics that pop up on the screen as Sherlock completes his scan.

The other fun innovation in this new series is the attempts by people to fool or mislead Sherlock's scans.  Irene Adler in this latest episode is a valiant attempt: knowing that Sherlock could read so much from her clothing, when she meets him, she appears naked.  It works: Sherlock is apparently unable to read anything from her.  A nice moment, narratively.

But should Sherlock really draw such a blank?  He shouldn't.  He may not be able to read the minute signs he's used to reading, but he should still be able to draw information.  For instance:

Adler presents a body image that corresponds to contemporary beauty standards.  She's slender and obviously not overweight.  This is a body image that takes some discipline and effort to maintain.

She initially appears unperterbed by her nudity in front of a stranger, presenting herself somewhat brazenly.  She may be accustomed to nudity in semi-public settings (we have already been told that she is a dominatrix by trade, so this is a reasonable conclusion); she wouldn't choose nudity as a tactic unless she were at least somewhat comfortable with it..  She flaunts herself: she may be intending on the shock value, eliciting confusion and possibly arousal.  She's using both a breach of convention and sexuality as power.  But within a few minutes, she sits in a chair, crossing her arms and legs, covering up.  The nudity becomes more obviously a ploy; someone without a modesty taboo (a naturist or nudist) won't become self-conscious.  She covers up because she feels vulnerable in some way.

Her nudity was a tactic, meant to shock and confuse.  She knows Sherlock by name.  Her nakedness prevents him from reading anything from her clothing or the way she wears it.  She knows who he is and how he operates.  She's making a deliberate bid to confuse him and restrict what he learns.  This is useful to know.

Her hair and makeup are neatly done, which also argues against naturism.  She's chosen a specifically blood-red shade of lipstick.  This is an assertion of experienced sexuality.  That particular shade also implies an assertion of power and control.  As we already know, she's a dominatrix by trade: a woman doesn't typically blunder into the business.  That implies a certain awareness and fascination with power and control.  That's an interpersonal paradigm she knows and is comfortable with.  This makes her somewhat predictable.

The room is an unremarkable sitting room.  It is clean and uncluttered (a housekeeper is inferred).  This is not an intimate room.  There are no personal emblems on display, except a somewhat ornate mirror over a similarly ornate mantle that serves as the visual focus of the room.  The prominence of the mirror suggests a reliance on appearance and seemings.  Combined with the centrality of power and control, this suggests a pattern of interpersonal striving dependent on bluff and deception.

This is the room that Sherlock was ushered into, rather than a kitchen, a washroom, or a bedroom.  The sitting room is distant and impersonal, which is at odds with Adler's nudity; more confirmation of a ploy.  Sherlock has gained access to the house by pretending to be injured and in distress, a facade that Adler quickly penetrates.  Once again we have an attempt to assert control by the manipulation of appearances: by penetrating Sherlock's facade while attempting simultaneously to avoid revealing any information transmits that a game is being played in which appearances are central.

And the above doesn't even account for that infromation which someone with the right skillset could derive from such things as facial features, calluses, skeletal formation (showing itself through posture and movement), static facial features, facial expressions, and so on.

All of this can be learned in just a few minutes.  Much more information than just a blank because there are no clothes.

Googlebombing for a cause:

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