December 17th, 2013


on the value of fourth walls

This weekend, some very lucky Brits were treated to an advance screening of “The Empty Hearse,” the first episode in BBC Sherlock’s series three. If you’re at all familiar with Steven Moffat productions, you know what a tight control he keeps on spoilers. To my knowledge, no one has actually talked about the content of the episode itself, which is smart as the room was full of people with enough access to score a seat in said room (and probably want to get invited to future events). So I don’t have any spoilers or even speculation on TEH worth sharing, as fun as that would be. No one does.

Rather, the internet (at least the Sherlockish corner of it) has been set pretty well ablaze by an incident from the Q&A following the screening. Caitlin Moran, a British entertainment columnist who I know mostly through her book How to Be a Woman, asked Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman to read a scene from a piece of Sherlock fanfic. A rather sexually explicit scene, or more precisely, a conversation leading up to a very passionate kiss that is very clearly leading into a sexually explicit scene, although the part that was read was itself more implication (but clear implication; everyone, Freeman and Cumberbatch included, knew precisely where this scene was going) rather than what might typically be traditionally called erotica.

There’s so much worth talking about in this incident. Did Moran break British copyright law when she used this writing without permission in a shaming way like this? (According to one British copyright lawyer, probably.) Are there ethical problems in what she did here? In my opinion – and I want to write more on this when I have time – absolutely. Aside from taking another person’s words and using them without her permission or appropriate context, to shame her in front of the show creators and the wider audience, Moran’s request basically implied that there was something worth being ashamed of here. It shamed non-professional writers. It shamed what is predominantly an all-female subculture for having an interest in sexuality. Arguably, it shamed homoeroticism, which is a whole other topic worth going into; or at least it put the show creators and actors in a position where, once again, they have to deny the relationship as outlandish. (Which is not entirely her doing and is a whole other other issue, one I’ve talked about before and most likely will talk about again.) Even the fact that she cut the scene off where she did was troubling.

But that’s not even the worst part, really. It’s the fourth wall thing.

In classic theater, there’s a conceit that the audience can see into the scene being played out for them but that the actors can’t see out. We are aware of what they’re doing; they are not aware of us. And conversely, we have access to their lives on stage but not to the rest of their lives, unless they choose to share those parts of their lives with us. And this moment in the Q&A broke that implied contract in a big way. Basically, Caitlin Moran took Martin Freeman (a forty-two year old man with a stable partner and kids) and Benedict Cumberbatch (a thirty-seven year old man, unmarried but clearly heterosexual and interested in stable relationships – he once said in an interview that the person he most wanted to meet was the mother of his children), put them on a stage and asked them to read what was clearly leading up to gay pornography involving the characters they’re most famous for. The story itself is nothing to be ashamed of in my opinion, but Moran acted like it was, and then she put Freeman and Cumberbatch in the extremely difficult position of refusing to read it or actually reading it in a room full of their fans and on the eve of the long-anticipated show release.

I can’t even imagine how difficult that would be. I’m willing to give the actors and show-creators a bit more leeway in this incident in their calling the John/Sherlock romantic relationship a fantasy in this incident, particularly because it was such a hard moment to thread. They’ve said worse and when I disagree with future statements I’ll certainly not be shy about objecting at that point. :-) But for today, I think the thing that really deserves focusing on is Caitlin Moran’s actions which are to my mind completely inappropriate. She essentially tore down the fourth wall given both fans of the show to interact with other fans in their own kind of private domain, more or less unobserved (or at least now knowing they were being observed) by the Sherlock PTB; and at the same time infringing on the actors’ rights to have a life that wasn’t subsumed by their role as Sherlock authors. Because they are actors playing Sherlock characters, not the characters themselves. Those characters are fictional, which is a big part of why fannish creators have more latitude to put them in situations the actors bringing them to life might not approve of. Because the actors aren’t the characters, or vice versa. There’s a connection, but imagining Sherlock as gay or “three-continents” Watson as a womanizer or whatever else you might want to imagine isn’t really a comment on Cumberbatch or Freeman. Or shouldn’t be, in any event.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent comments on why he isn’t on Twitter seem worth mentioning:

“I DO sleep, unlike James Franco, and I know lots of other people who are busier than me, and they’re just better at being concise. And while that would be a good exercise, I would much rather put my energies into other things to be honest. And that’s no disrespect for the people who are on Twitter, I’ve just said from the beginning that social media is not where I’m at, with my job, it just isn’t. There’s a certain amount of me that likes to respect the idea that my work is public but my life isn’t. You’re really asking for an awkward bleed if you’re talking about who you’ve just seen, and where you’ve just met them. But who knows, maybe I’ll decide it’s a game I’d like to play? At the moment I’m just really enjoying the space I’ve got in the public, which is through my work, and this is an extraordinary year.” (source)

The interesting thing is the show itself has encouraged a bit of this. Not to the extreme Moran took it, by any stretch, but this is the first show I’m aware of where the actors, producers, even the parent company show an awareness of the crazy shenanigans we fans pull. The tweet above is just one example; we’ve also had photos of Benedict Cumberbatch holding up “I Heart Johnlock” signs, and even him producing non-slash fanart himself. Martin Freeman and to a lesser extent Steven Moffat have gotten in on the fun as well. There are reviews on product websites written by show creators, thanking people who donated site props but written as Watson and Sherlock. It’s a much more fluid environment which is a lot of fun and makes the two-year hiatuses bearable (sort of) and keeps people excited in the show. But it creates an environment where some people go too far (c.f. the death threats against Amanda Abbington).

This Moran brouhaha is clearly not cool, under any definition. But it does point to why having a bit of distance between fan and show creators can be a good thing. What a brave new world we live in these days! It’s worth thinking about where the boundaries should be, I think.

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.


Synchroblog: Can You Ever Come Home Again?

I am a Sherlock fan. You know, just in case there was any doubt. For most of you that read this blog regularly I really doubt there will be much of a question on that point, because I talk about it a fair amount around here. But this post is also written for the December 2013 synchroblog and I hope some people will read this who wouldn’t regularly, so perhaps it’s a connection worth making explicit.

(Also: major spoilers both for Reichenbach, minor for the series three trailers)

This month, Synchrobloggers were invited to talk about the topic of “coming home.” I suspect a lot of participants will write about happy memories of family holidays and what it means to come home. That kind of thing. But for me, the phrase evokes happy thoughts of a different sort: Sherlock is coming home. Really. Fans of the BBC show have been waiting for nearly two years for the resolution of one of the most gut-wrenching season finales I’ve ever witnessed, and that led to Sherlock having to fake his own death. (If he refused, Moriarty had assassins set to kill the people closest to him.) The series ends with Sherlock throwing himself off the roof of St. Bart’s, in front of John no less – and then in the final seconds we see he’s actually alive.

And… roll credits. Begin one of those long periods of waiting where shows of the show wonder just how the show-creators would work their way out of this. Sherlock is still alive, which is good, but also forced to hide himself away and estrange him from everyone in his life. His friends and family will go on believing he really died. And then, because two years pass by between that moment in series two and when we take up the story again in series three, people will move on.

Can you ever really go home again, though? The trailer for the new series includes includes a truly heart-breaking moment where Sherlock talks about going back to Baker Street and surprising John. But of course John doesn’t live there anymore. He’s moved on with his life. It’s been two years. But from Sherlock’s perspective, he’s been away and so he’s caught offguard that things have also moved on in his absence.

I think a lot of people dream of going home at Christmas and getting back to an almost nostalgic past of good conversation and spending time with people you love. But even if your home situation is a good one (which it isn’t always, and that makes the holidays particularly difficult for some), I often wonder how well we ever can go home again? Even if home stays the same, I’m not the same person I was all those years ago. And even if I stay more or less the same, home seems to always change in my absence. I can certainly go somewhere, and it can be good for quite a few people. But is it ever coming home, coming back to that same place I remember in my rose-tinted memories?

Probably not. Because even if we had the best reasons in the world to go away, after two years away the John’s in our life will have moved on. They have to. Because, as Heraclitus puts it (I’m paraphrasing), No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

This is worth thinking about theologically, and I’m certainly glad the Synchroblog asked this question. Many Christians look forward to the Kingdom of God as a return to Eden, as a homecoming, as quite literally a re-turning toward home. I’m not sure, though, that such a return is ever really possible. Like Sherlock we may have had the best of reasons to turn away. Or the worst reasons. The why we were separated doesn’t really matter; the that is sufficient to change what we had into something we can’t return to.

Of course, even if Sherlock and John hadn’t been driven apart by that swan-dive off St. Bart’s, there’s no way they would have been the same men two years later that they were at that point in their life. They would have grown apart, perhaps, or grown together into something else entirely. And that thing might have been better, or worse, or equally good in a different way. So it is with us: we cannot return to that moment of innocence in the garden, because the way things were is always stuck in the past. But that doesn’t mean we can’t come back into communion with God and with the people in our lives we want to see next week. It can be good again, even better – but it probably can’t be the same.

That actually strikes me as very good news. How awful would it be if we were stuck in a world of how-things-were, now that we’ve grown into something better (I can only hope) that doesn’t really fit there anymore? Any homecoming worthy of the Kingdom of God won’t be a coming again to the home we remember, but to a home worthy of the people God is making us into.

But that hardly strikes me as a bad thing. A bit scary, perhaps, but certainly worth the adventure. Actually, as a certain ex-army doctor would put it, that’s fantastic.


You can find the other contributions to this Synchroblog here. I’ll add a link of all participants when I am back at a computer connection tomorrow evening.

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.