Once upon a time there was a little girl who was just crazy about Sherlock Holmes. She became so obsessed after reading the short stories and novels that she set out to watch every adaptation ever made of the famous detective, and sat in judgment of them all based on how they measured up to her Sherlock Holmes. Some were too fat, too manic, too rude, or too broad to fit her ideal, but one actor, she made an exception for because he was so charming in the role: Ian Richardson.
His two adaptations (The Sign of Four, and The Hound of the Baskervilles) were absurd, campy, ridiculous, melodramatic 80’s films, but despite Ian being too short for the role, she loved him very much because of the charm, wit, and good-natured playfulness that he brought to the role.
So, years later, when she discovered that he was to play Dr. Joseph Bell, the real-life inspiration for Sherlock Holmes for the BBC in a two-hour film, she was delighted. Though not happy with all of the aspects of the pilot (when the BBC decided to pick it up, they recast Doyle, much to her relief), overall she was very impressed with it. Being an American, however, it was quite some time before she realized the BBC had filmed an entire follow-up season, which she purchased sight-unseen and devoured over the course of a rapturous weekend.
That little girl was me, and I have never grown out of my affection for Sherlock Holmes, my appreciation for Ian Richardson, or my fondness for Murder Rooms. Though I had known a few things about Dr. Bell prior to the series, it invigorated my interest in him as an individual and a remarkable man in his own right. I went on to re-watch the series countless times, read biographies about him (in the process, I learned about his devout faith which made me even fonder of him), and even wrote him into one of my speculative fiction novels as a main character. Everything about Bell, from his remarkable insights into the connections between events, to the memorable bedside manner that made everyone in Edinburgh adore him, to him championing the rights of women to attend medical school, fascinates me.
And it all started with Dr. Bell and Mr. Doyle: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes, the pilot episode of an unfortunately short-lived series known simply as Murder Rooms. It follows the introduction of Doyle to the eccentric but brilliant Dr. Bell during his first term as a medical student. Though disliking Doyle’s impertinence at questioning his fantastic methods of deduction, Bell appoints him as a personal clerk, bringing him into contact with a strange series of events that soon threaten all that Doyle holds dear. Written by screenwriter David Pirie, who went on to novelize more adventures with the duo, it is the precursor to Sherlock in the sense that it draws inspiration from Doyle’s original stories but puts a new spin on the context, and meaning of certain events (severed ears in cardboard boxes, death that comes to a woman in a locked room, Bell’s dislike of the local police force, etc). It takes a dark twist in the second half that reveals the true identity of the future Jack the Ripper.
In comparison to the later full season, the pilot is slightly inferior in terms of pacing; it finds solid footing through its characterizations and unique approach but has less of a balance between the two men than subsequent episodes. Here, Doyle is inferior to Bell in status as much as intellect (one marvels at a Victorian society, in which a student can be expelled for impertinence!) where later, he is a practicing medical doctor. Moving the later series from Edinburgh helps, but here it is a jarring glimpse into Victorian sentiment and politics. This Doyle is too outwardly emotional for my taste, prone to exploding at the drop of a hat and rather arrogant in his suppositions (I have to smile at his insulting Bell to his face, without knowing who he is talking to … yet another Edinburgh Charlatan!); but Bell is magnificent. Good natured but stern, brutal in his assessments about the Edinburgh police force (“I will tell you the unwritten law of this town, Doyle: do as little as possible!”) and unwaveringly kind to his patients. It sheds a sinister light on the injustices of Victorian morality … the liberty for a gentleman to do as he pleases, and his wife’s inability to defend herself against false accusations. This is not a pretty sort of place, but a dark, dangerous world in which a wife can be committed to a mental asylum to cover up her husband’s infidelities.
It has all the elements for good television, in terms of being a fast-paced, intriguing adventure that establishes a budding friendship between two very different men. And it is full of interesting individuals… the adoring, overly forgiving wife of a rakish philanderer, an arrogant schoolboy who finds an unexpected mentor in an eccentric but brilliant man, and a Victorian feminist who dons male attire to avoid being harassed by narrow-minded college boys. There are red herrings, false leads, buckets of blood (literally), hints of Ripper lore, and a steadily increasing sense of menace throughout that leads to a dark conclusion. It’s a story that I like both for its daring in flouting traditional happy endings and its characterization of two such different men, drawn together through a mutual belief that it is better to speak out against injustice than to remain silent.