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.