Evolutionary, dear Watson

Jonny Lee Miller: 'We get to shine a lens on a different side to Sherlock Holmes, which I don't think has really been done before.'
Jonny Lee Miller: 'We get to shine a lens on a different side to Sherlock Holmes, which I don't think has really been done before.'

SHERLOCK HOLMES is one of the most versatile characters in the history of popular culture: more than 70 actors have played him, in more than 200 films, television programs and radio dramas.

So, then, what's all the fuss about Elementary? When the US network CBS announced plans to re-engineer the hero of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novels into a contemporary leading man, people got edgy.

Perhaps because the most recent iteration, the BBC's Sherlock, seemed so entirely ''definitive'', having premiered to almost universal acclaim.

Compounding the sin, the faithful say, is that this Holmes, played by British actor Jonny Lee Miller, was to be paired with a female ''Watson'', Dr Joan Watson, played by Lucy Liu. A woman as the steadfast Dr Watson?

God forbid.

Robert Doherty, the executive producer of Elementary, is comfortable with his reimagination of Sherlock Holmes.

''I was always aware you could take certain liberties with the original character, the supporting cast and the original stories sometimes,'' he says. ''For me it was zeroing in on a take that makes it specific and unique, something that honours the source material.''

The essence of Holmes, Doherty tells Green Guide, is his hyper-sensitivity, which manifests itself as a pervading unease with the world around him, and an uncanny sense of reading detail in a situation, typically a crime scene.

''One would imagine he has to be quite sensitive to pick up on the many, many details that he identifies in those books and stories,'' Doherty says. ''When I read them as a kid, what drew me in was the fun, that partnership, the two of them [Holmes and Watson] living together and getting along.

''Rereading them as an adult, I was drawn to how strange he was, he was always larger than life, and there were references to drugs and women and other things that went over my head as a kid.''

Elementary - the title, for those unfamiliar with the Holmes canon, comes from the character's classic line in literature: ''Elementary, my dear Watson.'' - has cast Jonny Lee Miller in the lead role.

Miller is widely regarded as an outstanding actor but you could be forgiven for thinking of it as safe casting; heaven help Elementary if anyone but a Brit had the temerity to take on Holmes.

''We saw [Jonny Lee Miller's] Holmes as a fish out of water,'' Doherty explains. ''London he knows like the back of his hand, now he's in one of the loudest, busiest, most confounding places on the planet, New York City, so it's fun to see him adjust, or struggle to adjust.''

Miller, for his part, wants to keep his options open. He and Doherty are on the same page in that respect - the source material is open to enough interpretation that he doesn't feel too boxed in as an actor. ''If I put too much into the 'Oh, look at this legendary character', then I am going to probably try too hard or put too much pressure on myself,'' Miller says. ''What is wonderful is having a vast amount of literature to be able to call on. It's like a treasure trove of information and you can pick and choose as you like.''

Miller loved the pilot script, and the relationship between Holmes and Watson. In this case, Holmes is a recovering addict, and Liu's Watson is assigned to monitor his sobriety. ''We get to shine a lens on a different side to Sherlock Holmes, which I don't think has really been done before,'' Miller says. ''I think that's what makes the project interesting, really.''

While making Watson female - Chinese-American to boot - might be anathema to the purists, it's what makes this version so compelling, contends Aidan Quinn, who plays Captain Toby Gregson. Gregson, we learn, worked with Holmes in London post-September 11 and is so impressed with his skills he calls upon him as an expert consultant, much to the chagrin of some foot soldiers in New York's police department. Presumably, Gregson knows something about Holmes's troubled past and his difficult relationship with his father, which the opening episodes hint at.

''There's male-female comedy stuff going on, there's maternal, platonic, combative things happening,'' Quinn says of Holmes and Watson. ''It's an interesting relationship and friendship that develops, they have their ups and downs where they can't stand being around each other. It's a bit like a marriage.''

Unlike most cop-show pairings, this one isn't a slow dance towards romance. For Quinn, Holmes and Watson becoming a couple may as well signal the show is over, ''something you do in the dying gasps of the sixth or seventh year … [though] I could be dead wrong. They're such interesting actors if it was well written they could probably make it quite compelling. But I don't think anyone is looking for that to happen.''

New York, where Elementary is filmed, provides a rich backdrop in this imagining of Holmes. As well as providing ample source material for the crimes that Holmes and Watson solve, the city has a rich cast of actors for casting directors to draw upon.

There's also the parallels between contemporary Gotham and the Victorian-era London with which Doyle was familiar.

The elephant in the room is, of course, the British Sherlock, and the sense of unease that surrounded the announcement of the American adaptation.

Though Doyle's original works are in the public domain, there were early conversations about adapting the British version for the US market. That plan was shelved and CBS decided to go it alone, but not without poking a hornet's nest of the Holmes cognoscenti, who were concerned the US version would merely be a knock-off.

In a commercial sense, it's not unlike opening a new Hamlet on Broadway while an established stage production of Hamlet, critically acclaimed no less, is already open at another theatre on the same block. Doherty says the film and British TV adaptations each offer their own unique take on Holmes. ''Around the time the British series was in its first series and the first [Robert] Downey Jr film had come out, absolutely Holmes was in the zeitgeist,'' he says. ''They absolutely set a very, very high bar. That can be intimidating, when you're thinking of dipping your toe in that pool.''

Comparisons, he says, are inevitable, particularly as Miller and [Sherlock's Benedict] Cumberbatch are both British and, as it turns out, friends. ''This character is in the public domain and has been interpreted and reinterpreted many, many times over the decades. You always run the risk of comparison. That's only natural.''

The strength of Elementary, Quinn says, is its characters, stories, and the quirks of Holmes and his relationships with others. ''It's through his intellect and brain that these crimes are solved, rather than DNA. Sherlock uses 95 per cent of his brain and observational skills, whereas most of us walk around using 5 [per cent] or 10 per cent if we're lucky.''

Elementary airs February 4 on Ten.

This story Evolutionary, dear Watson first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.