**Contains Spoilers for the most recent episode of BBC’s Sherlock, which aired Sunday January 19th, in the United States**
In the play Peter Pan by JM Barrie, the character Tinkerbell is nearly killed by Captain Hook, and the audience is told “If you really believe, Tinkerbell will come back to life” and only by the applause of the audience is she able to live through the attack. First released in 1904 (with a novelization following half a dozen years later), this may be the earliest occurrence of audience-dependent interaction in popular art. Prior to this, art was static; existing in many ways independent of the audience, whom were expected to view/experience the art as an external source.
Jump ahead over half a century to 1974, and you have the birth of table-top role-playing games with the publication of Dungeons & Dragons, which was in many ways conceived as a choose-your-own-adventure version of The Lord of the Rings. Both the table-top games industry and the video game industry would trace their lineage back to this event.
And yet other art mediums have relied on the interaction of their audience to determine their stories. In 1988, Robin was killed in Batman: A Death in the Family which involved a phone poll to determine the character’s fate. In Iron Man 3, a slightly less direct dialogue is made when in a post-Avengers Marvel Cinematic Universe, there was a question of whether the audiences would be interested in the stories of individual heroes. Put bluntly, was Iron Man still capable of holding his own (superheroically in the context of the movie; popularly in the context of the movie-going audiences)? The response was to make that not an issue to be addressed but the very crux of the story.
All of this ties into last night’s episode of Sherlock, the BBC phenomenon that has redefined the classic character. Sherlock reimagines Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective Sherlock Holmes in the modern era. The show has been a critical and popular success, helping to launch (or further vault) the careers of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.
Last night, the first episode of the much-anticipated third series aired (in the United States; it had aired much earlier in the UK). The second series ended with a cliffhanger of the seeming suicide of Sherlock Holmes and a distraught Dr Watson trying to understand what had happened.
In the intervening months, fans of the show have mounted an almost limitless number of theories to postulate how Sherlock Holmes might have faked his own death. Much of the hype and build-up around the new series of episodes was to learn just how Sherlock did it.
So how did he do it?
No one knows. They didn’t explain. Oh, it’s true, the episode opens up with a possible theory that is as implausible as it is fantastic, but it proves to fall apart under the strain of its ridiculousness (which is a narrative kicking-off point for the episode). Several more explanations are offered, but none seemingly truly believable. In the end, no solid and reasonable explanation is given.
But it isn’t the explanation, or lack thereof, that is so remarkable: it’s the fact that the episode largely revolves around the search for an explanation. Repeatedly, the story comes back to ‘how did he do it?’. And the audience is ultimately left with really no more idea than it had before the episode aired. But the episode centralized on it. Oh sure, there’s a subplot about Watson’s struggle with the returned Sherlock. And there’s something about a bomb and a terrorist cell that is practically handwaved away both within the narrative and by the show itself. No, the episode is principally about one thing: how did Sherlock fake his own death?
The story creators and the story writers took the main emphasis of the fans’ curiosity and made it the cornerstone of the episode. Very little actually happens in the episode, it becomes so fixated on this one question. It’s almost not even a story, but a dialogue between the story creators and the fans.
Almost as if the creators told the fans “If you really believe, Sherlock will come back to life…”