Sherlock: A Study in Pilots

Today, I watched the original Sherlock pilot. It comes on the DVDs as an extra, the 60-minute version of A Study in Pink.

*WARNING – EXTENSIVE DISCUSSION OF EPISODE CONTENT. WATCH FIRST.*

My friends told me that it was pretty much the same as the aired pilot, with similar scenes and dialogue, and barely worth watching. When I saw Steven Moffat speak about Sherlock, he said that the unaired pilot suffers badly in comparison to the remake – but that, at the time, execs and distributors were wild about it and couldn’t understand why the creative team wanted to remake it.

My friends are right: the dialogue is exactly the same in places and the set pieces – the meeting at Barts, the pink murder scene, the “date” at the restaurant – are pretty much transferable between the two. And, then again, they’re not.

The entire look and feel of the two pilots is completely different, something that I believe I must attribute to the director. Everything from location to lighting to line delivery is subtly off.

Take wardrobe. Sherlock doesn’t wear all dark colours and is without his mass of dark curls, and John is a lot more modern in dress sense in the original. Sally Donovan wears police uniform and Anderson has a hideous beard and glasses. Same actors and yet they look like different people.

Set dressing and location. 221B looks too modern and the pink murder scene doesn’t have that fabulous staircase. It’s just another terraced house in Cardiff. The Barts meeting is in a computer lab not a scientific laboratory, and Angelo’s is a cosier family restaurant without the open window view of the street.

The lighting is different too. I’m definitely outside my field now, but the aired pilot is darker and harsher with the lighting – almost “glarey” – while the original is softer, more traditionally lit and coloured.

And then acting. They’re the same actors, delivering practically the same lines on most occasions. But the performances and motivations are different. Sherlock is more animated and human in the original, John is less military and reticent. Lestrade is angrier and more commanding. The cabbie seems less master manipulator and more desperate wannabe, even before Sherlock deconstructs him.

Of course, there are also obvious differences. The original lacks Mycroft and Moriaty, so the setup of the rest of the season is absent. It gains Sherlock standing on a rooftop like a vigilante and, the most noticeable difference, is Sherlock being drugged into the cabbie’s clutches. I preferred the choice in the aired pilot – it made Sherlock’s curiosity more palpable. Also, John’s calling of the police was not as fun as his solo chase across London. And the little text overlays are absent. They were one of my favourite things about the Sherlock series and it gained immensely by them.

In conclusion, I believe the original pilot is a good piece of television. It’s solid and watchable – and it would’ve hooked me in. But the aired pilot, the tone set for the whole series, is on the next level and brings a theatrical, big screen flavour to the Sherlock story.

I recommend any filmmaker watch both pilots. It’s a striking example of how another draft, another “what if and the extra mile can raise something good into something great.

4 thoughts on “Sherlock: A Study in Pilots

  1. Sally Donovan IS played by a different person in the pilot. Zawe Ashton in pilot, Vinette Robinson in the rest of the series.

Leave a Reply