He may already be the most iconic character in detective fiction, but who says Sherlock Holmes doesn't have a place in science fiction as well? We explore some of the Victorian sleuth's most fantastic adventures.
Sherlock Holmes wasn't the first master detective (that honor probably goes to Edgar Allan Poe's Auguste Dupin, who in his first case worked out the murderer was a knife-wielding orangutan), but his exploits pretty much perfected the genre. Arthur Conan Doyle created a character whose impossibly rational mind and superhuman powers of observation and deduction made him transcend the sixty original stories in which he appeared to become one of the most famous people of his era, real or fictional. Conan Doyle's stories may have remained mostly rooted in reality (although a man partially turned into a monkey, mention of the giant rat of Sumatra, and Holmes's almost superhuman physical prowess pushed the boundaries at times), but later writers have found that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson fit in just as well in far more fantastic settings. Here now are but a few of those stories.
Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century does pretty much exactly what it promises to do, transplanting a recently unfrozen Sherlock Holmes to the year 2104, where he teams up with a robotic Dr. Watson and a descendant of his Scotland Yard contact Inspector Lestrade to take on a clone of his arch-nemesis, Professor James Moriarty. This animated series set out to do reasonably faithful adaptations of the original Conan Doyle stories, except with more flying cars and a much prettier Lestrade (which really were the two main flaws of the originals, to be fair). Although the opening titles seemed to go to exorbitant lengths to prove that, yes, this really is Sherlock Holmes and he really is in the 22nd century.
Of course, the Filmation series BraveStarr actually does one better with its two-part episode, "Sherlock Holmes in the 23rd Century." Here, Holmes falls through a time warp to the year 2249 during his climactic battle with Moriarty, who then freezes himself cryogenically so he can continue his battle with Holmes in the future. Galactic Marshall Bravestarr from the planet New Texas enlists Holmes's help in tracking down a kidnapped boy. Not to give anything away, but anyone want to guess which recently unfrozen Victorian supervillain might be behind the kidnapping?
Lest you think that this sort of thing was limited to animation, the 1987 CBS TV movie The Return of Sherlock Holmes involved private detective Jane Watson, a descendant of the good Doctor, discovering Holmes having cryogenically frozen himself to avoid dying from a dart tipped with bubonic plague. The movie tried to tackle some important questions, such as what would happen if Sherlock Holmes went into a pornographic bookshop? (Answer: Hilarity would ensue.) The concept never became a series, although a different bunch tried pretty much exactly the same idea with almost exactly the same title six years later with Sherlock Holmes Returns.
At this point, I'm sure you're wondering, "This Sherlock Holmes stuff is all well and good, but what about John Cleese?" Well, The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It involves the Monty Python legend as the detective's grandson, Arthur Sherlock Holmes, as he investigates the murder of a thinly disguised Henry Kissinger with the rather counterproductive help of a bionic Doctor Watson. The word "bionic" is pretty much the only reason I'm including this. Well, that and John Cleese.
David Dvorkin's Time for Sherlock Holmes also places the detective in the far future, although this time Holmes gets there via immortality, which he notes with some regret has made him rather more rigid in his thinking than he used to be. Conan Doyle isn't the only author from whom Dvorkin freely borrows; Moriarty manages to catch up to the eternal detective using H.G. Wells's time machine. And that's not the only Wells/Conan Doyle crossover out there - Manly Wade Wellman's Sherlock Holmes's War of the Worlds follows Holmes, Watson, and another Conan Doyle creation, Professor George Edward Challenger, as they take on the Martian invaders. Unlike the Wells book, which finds humanity utterly defenseless against the alien menace, Holmes and company spend pretty much the entire book kicking Martian ass. If only Steven Spielberg had used this version of War of the Worlds...
Star Trek: The Next Generation famously placed Data in the Holmes role as he tangled with a holodeck Professor Moriarty in "Elementary, Dear Data" and "Ship in a Bottle." Sure, the real Holmes and Watson never showed up, but Data and Geordi La Forge made for two very reasonable stand-ins. For that matter, Data didn't even need the holodeck to get his Sherlock on – just a ludicrously out-of-place pipe, some painfully stilted dialogue, and a highly amused Will Riker.
Oh, and Spock quotes one of Holmes's most famous lines in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country when he says, "An ancestor of mine maintained that if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains – however improbable – must be the truth", which totally implies Holmes is his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather or something. You know, come to think of it, I can sort of see the resemblance.
Speaking of "Elementary, Dear Data", apparently there was some rule in the late eighties/early nineties stipulating that every show that includes the great detective had to use this same formula for its title. Thus we have The Real Ghostbusters and "Elementary, My Dear Winston" as well as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and "Elementary, My Dear Turtle." I suppose now is as good a time as any to point out that Sherlock Holmes never actually, you know, said those exact words in any of the original Conan Doyle stories. Still, when we're talking about mutated, super-intelligent turtles falling through a time slip and helping Sherlock Holmes recover an atomic clock from Moriarty before he can somehow use it to change history and declare himself the emperor of the world, a slight misquote should probably be the least of my logical issues.
Moving to Doctor Who, although the Doctor has never shared the screen with Sherlock Holmes, that doesn't mean they haven't had an adventure or two together. The biggest was the seventh Doctor novel All-Consuming Fire, in which the two team up to take on the chaos god Azathoth. At the time, there was even some thought of making Holmes and Watson the Doctor's new companions, which I guess they decided was just too nutty, even by the standards of nineties Doctor Who novels (not that that's necessarily a bad thing). And, although there aren't any explicit mentions made to the great detective, the Doctor's costume in the The Talons of Weng-Chiang, complete with deerstalker cap, is clearly inspired by Holmes.
There are plenty of anthologies of Sherlock Holmes stories with science fiction elements, so I won't attempt anything more than a general sampling of what's out there. For instance, in Sherlock Holmes in Orbit, edited by Mike Resnick and Martin H. Greenburg, you can find Dean Wesley Smith's "Two Roads, No Choices", which involves time-travelers from the 21st century asking Holmes to investigate why the Titanic never sank, which I'm going to assume ends with a certain master detective introducing a certain unsinkable ship to a certain iceberg. There's also Josepha Sherman's story "The Case of the Purloined L'isitek", which features super-intelligent horses called Shrr'loks that live on the planet Kholmes under the rule of a pony that acts an awful lot like Sherlock Holmes himself – none of which technically involves the man himself, but it deserves mentioning if only for the sheer insanity of the premise.
Isaac Asimov edited the anthology Sherlock Holmes Through Time and Space, which among others featured two stories by the late Philip José Farmer set in his Wold Newton universe: "The Problem of the Sore Bridge - Among Others" and "A Scarletin Study". Holmes's ancestors were among those affected by the radioactive meteorite that hit Wold Newton, Yorkshire in 1795, along with pretty much every other character in the history of literature. The first story deals with that most impossible of ideas - three cases Sherlock Holmes failed to solve - while the second story finds the detective finally meeting his match in the form of a German Shepard with a 200 IQ.
Sadly, Asimov never really tackled the character himself, despite being a proud member of the Baker Street Irregulars, the preeminent Holmes appreciation society. Still, he did write a short story, "The Ultimate Crime", involving his puzzle-solving Black Widowers characters wherein a Holmes enthusiast asks them to work out the precise topic of Professor Moriarty's famed physics The Dynamics of an Asteroid. Since the hypothetical solution involves blowing up the Earth, I'm counting it as just sneaking over into science fiction territory.
Holmes has also made his fair share of appearances in comics. Perhaps his biggest role was in Warren Ellis's Planetary, in which he agrees to mentor series protagonist Elijah Snow in the secret history of the world that he had helped shape. The fiftieth anniversary issue of Detective Comics finds Batman along with some of the DC Universe's other great sleuths taking on a bunch of Moriarty's descendants. After they wrap up the case, Sherlock Holmes himself shows up to congratulate them and acknowledge the Dark Knight as his true successor. I've got to say, he's looking pretty good for 135, but something is definitely a bit off with Batman's mask.
There was also this past week's Sherlock Holmes/Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which was reasonably diverting if beset with a couple unfortunate Americanisms (you'll never get me to accept Holmes would say "pants" instead of "trousers"). He only appeared in one scene of the Victorian public domain character orgy that is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (which has since expanded to include pretty much every fictional character ever created), as writer Alan Moore acknowledged that Holmes was, along with Dracula, just too big a character to place in the midst of an ensemble, since he'd simply take over the whole story. Still, his presence looms large over that entire enterprise as well, with both Moriarty and his brother Mycroft Holmes playing major roles.
Tangles with superheroes are no longer limited to the pages of comic books, however, as last Friday's Batman: The Brave and the Bold ably demonstrates. Everyone's (well, Graeme's) favorite lighthearted Caped Crusader finds himself summoned by Holmes to Victorian London to help clear the name of the lovably demonic Jason Blood. Since the show isn't called Sherlock: The Brave and the Bold, Batman does outwit him once or twice, but Holmes holds his own in a fight with the week's villain (who, refreshingly, is not Moriarty), and at the end Batman declares Holmes "the world's greatest detective." You said it, Bats.