Before Bronies, Browncoats or even Trekkies, there were The Baker Street Irregulars. Named after the street children that Sherlock Holmes employed to gather information, the fan collective known as The Baker Street Irregulars have congregated to discuss and share in their enjoyment of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional master detective for almost eighty years. Now a surge in popularity for the character created in part by a pair of successful Hollywood films by Guy Richie and starring Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), and the critically acclaimed BBC series which uses an updated time-frame by Steven Moffat (Doctor Who), has inspired domestic broadcaster CBS to create their own take on a modern day Holmes. Currently titled Elementary, this new series will add two new twists: a New York setting and something that has those long-time Holmes fans talking: the role of classic Holmes sidekick Dr. Watson will be played by Lucy Liu (Charlie’s Angels).
“From Ling Woo in Ally McBeal to John Watson is a stretch and would be really hard for people who know the stories and characters to accept,” says Donald J. Terras, a Baker Street Irregular, and head of the organization’s Chicago branch: The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic). Formed in 1943, they were the first western hemisphere Holmes fan society organized after the forming of The Baker Street Irregulars by Christopher Morley in 1933 England. “Personally, it’s amazing to me that the story lines and characters continue to be a creative force over 125 years after they were introduced.”
Aiding in the enduring appeal of watching or reading about the acerbic, eminently intelligent detective go about his work is the presence of the Sherlock Holmes canon in the public domain. Holmes has proved fertile ground for interpretation and adaption not just recently, but for decades, as Terras illuminates, “The Sherlock Holmes resurgence actually goes back to the 1960s and the first television airings of the Basil Rathbone Hollywood productions of the stories. These were followed by the Jeremy Brett/British Holmes series in the 1980s. Both are still immensely popular today. Of course there were other Hollywood Holmes productions during this time that helped keep the Holmes tenor at a high pitch: Young Sherlock Holmes, The Seven Percent Solution, and Murder by Decree, to name a few.”
Despite their organization's longevity, or perhaps because of it, The Baker Street Irregulars are not too different from other fan collectives in their defense of the original version of their passion. When asked about the community’s opinion about the aforementioned recent film adaptations, Terras deduces the problem right away in classic Holmes-like fashion, “[The Richie/Downey Sherlock Holmes films], while being very successful at the box office, haven’t made a very favorable impression among long-time fans of Holmes. Most feel that these productions have strayed too far from the original story line and literary characterization for the sake of creating an action adventure epic. However, there are those who feel that it’s just Hollywood reinventing the character for a less literary public and, hopefully, it will lead to greater interest in the original written works.”
On the other hand, and as a possible buoy to the prospects for the new CBS series, the BBC’s Sherlock has engendered a different reaction, “[It] has fared much better in the ‘community,’” Terras explains, “Sherlockians would seemingly rather see the character brought into contemporary times as an update to the series.” As new as the idea of a modern version, or a female Watson might seem, the depth and breadth of Holmes adaptations actually include both of those format twists already, in particular the 1987 television movie The Return of Sherlock Holmes which featured a cryogenically frozen Holmes awoken in the ‘modern’ day and teaming up with Dr. Watson's granddaughter, Jane.
Looking past casting trepidation, Terras and the larger, international fan community that he in part represents is optimistic about the new series, “Sherlock Holmes is the most famous literary character in the world, apologies to James Bond who is just approaching age 60. Hopefully, this CBS production will be successful in extending the creative range of these remarkable literary creations and spurring interest in the stories to generations on into the 21st century. As [author, Chicago Tribune columnist and The Hounds of the Baskerville co-founder,] Vincent Starrett wrote: Those who never lived and so can never die.”