Sherlock DVD Box Set

How Sherlock’s Unaired Pilot Would’ve Changed Benedict Cumberbatch’s Character

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The unaired pilot for BBC’s Sherlock TV series would’ve made significant changes to Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s pipe-smoking mastermind. By all accounts, Sherlock Holmes looks good for 133, and the drug-addled detective’s popularity remains evergreen. In the past few years alone, Robert Downey Jr. and Henry Cavill have both donned the famous deerstalker, but it’s Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC’s Sherlock that arguably left the biggest impression.

Premiering in 2010, Sherlock modernized Doyle’s mythology, translating his most iconic stories (and some new ones) into modern day London. Utilizing a feature-length format and co-starring Martin Freeman as John Watson, Sherlock boasted a dream team of behind-the-scenes creatives led by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Although later seasons would be met with less enthusiasm, Sherlock’s earlier years were rapturously received by fans and critics who praised the urban setting, the Doctor Who-esque tone, and the chemistry between Holmes and Watson.

In spite of the greatness Sherlock would eventually attain, production began inauspiciously with an unaired BBC pilot, since released via DVD bonus material. The pilot uses the same script as Sherlock premiere “A Study In Pink,” but is greatly changed, featuring different locations, some new actors, and weighing in 30 minutes lighter. Through this raft of additions and omissions, the characterization of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes is massively shifted.

Sherlock Isn’t A Highly-Functioning Sociopath

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One of Sherlock’s most famous lines comes in the very first episode, when the world’s one and only consulting detective corrects Anderson, “I’m not a psychopath, I’m a high-functioning sociopath.” The line not only proves Sherlock’s profound awareness of his status as a social outcast, but also shows Benedict Cumberbatch’s character embracing perceived flaws as strengths. Most would be insulted by the “sociopath” label, but Sherlock wears it like a badge of honor, and the line became a rallying call that Holmes would repeat throughout the series. In the pilot, however, the line is missing entirely, and Sherlock reacts very differently to being called a “psychopath.”

After attending their first crime scene, Watson tells Sherlock about Donovan calling him a psychopath, only for Holmes to respond, “I didn’t know she was that smart.” While misrepresenting Sherlock as a psychopath is a problem in itself, the bigger issue is the tragic implication. Sherlock’s “sociopath” retort is confident, sharp and dismissive, establishing the detective as a man who fully accepts the burden of genius. His comeback in the pilot is merely a half-hearted attempt to play down a nasty insult, like a bullied child trying to brush off his abuser’s cruel words, but failing to mask the hurt inside.

Sherlock Is More Self-Destructive

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Sherlock’s self-destructive tendencies can be traced all the way back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s source material, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance doesn’t hold back in conveying this darker aspect. Both versions of “A Study In Pink” leave no doubt about Sherlock’s lack of self-regard, with the pilot including the “three-patch problem” scene from the aired version, where Watson finds his new flatmate enjoying three nicotine patches on the same arm.

But the pilot goes even further in establishing Sherlock’s self-destructive nature. While staking out the murderer in a restaurant (which happens in both episodes), John asks whether Sherlock has eaten recently. When Holmes responds by asking what day it is, Watson is naturally concerned that his new friend is malnourished, and this concern plays into the final scene, where John whisks Sherlock off for a Chinese takeaway. In the series proper, the full scale of Sherlock’s self-care problem doesn’t become clear until Moriarty arrives, but the pilot was immediately open about the mountain John Watson faced getting Sherlock to look after himself.

Sherlock Is The Sole Focus

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Both the pilot and the reshot episode end with John Watson saving Sherlock by shooting the murderous cab driver before Holmes is forced to swallow a potentially fatal pill. In the version that aired in 2010, viewers follow Dr. Watson as he grabs his old army sidearm, rushes to Sherlock’s aid, and pulls the trigger, chronicling the climax from John’s perspective. Changing tack, Sherlock’s pilot sidelines Martin Freeman entirely during the closing act. Watson is seen jumping into a cab in pursuit of his friend, but doesn’t resurface until Sherlock realizes it was he who took the shot, long after the dust has settled.

Withholding Watson’s point of view keeps the focus entirely on Sherlock, setting a very different precedent for the rest of the series – a dynamic similar to Doctor Who, where Holmes is the undisputed star and Watson his exposition-loving assistant. The finished episode (and Sherlock as a whole) treats the pair far more evenly, with John effectively serving as the narrator of “A Study In Pink.”

Sherlock Is (A Bit) Cleverer

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The key to unlocking “A Study In Pink” is realizing the murderer is a taxi driver, hiding in plain sight on the streets of London, able to move around free from suspicion. In the final version, Sherlock only makes this connection when the murderer is quite literally on his doorstep, far too late to do anything about it. Before that point, genius of Baker Street had believed his prime suspect was a taxi passenger, not the actual driver. In the unaired episode, Sherlock makes this deduction far earlier, during the restaurant stakeout with John Watson.

This change was likely made to afford the story more mystery, encouraging the audience to figure out the case for themselves, rather than relying on a well-timed light bulb moment from Holmes. While Sherlock’s premiere is certainly better for it, the titular sleuth doesn’t quite look as brainy when the “science of deduction” takes so long to kick in.

Sherlock Isn’t As Egotistical

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In addition to excising John Watson from the climactic sequence, Sherlock’s pilot also makes Holmes much less of an ego monster. The finished episode finds Sherlock lured into the murderer’s cab solely through taunting, with the killer promising to reveal his method if Holmes goes quietly. He also gives the option of shouting for the cops and promises not to run, but Sherlock’s curiosity gets the better of him, the temptation of learning the cabbie’s secret proving too great. When Sherlock faces the murderer in a psychological game of wits, Watson shoots the criminal before the drugs are swallowed, prompting Sherlock to hit the ground and implore the dying man to reveal who would’ve won. Once again, Sherlock’s desperation to prove his intellect reigns supreme.

This isn’t the case in Sherlock’s unaired pilot. To begin with, the cab driver abducts Sherlock forcefully, drugging him into the vehicle rather than appealing to his inflated ego. Unlike the finished episode, Sherlock isn’t given a choice to hand the murderer over to Lestrade either. By the same token, Sherlock doesn’t try to find out which pill was poisoned; when Lestrade asks, “did you choose the right pill?” Sherlock seems unfazed, genuinely not caring about the result.

Sherlock & Mycroft Get Along Better

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The fractious relationship between Holmes brothers evolves into a long-running story arc in Sherlock, their feud gradually turning to grudging respect and, finally, friendship of a fashion. But in Sherlock season 1, Sherlock and Mycroft are strangely estranged – so much so, Mycroft even attempts recruiting John Watson as a spy who could feed back information on his brother’s activities. The first impression of Sherlock and Mycroft’s dysfunction paves the way for bridges to be built further down the line, but this couldn’t have happened in the BBC’s unaired pilot. Mark Gatiss’ Mycroft doesn’t appear in the opening episode’s pilot draft, but Sherlock is seen emailing his brother, solving a case on his behalf. This proves the bothersome brothers are, at the very least, on speaking terms – even if they aren’t exchanging Christmas cards.

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