Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Performance Shines through “Darkness”

SPOILERS for Star Trek: Into Darkness—If you don’t want to be spoiled about plot and character developments, please don’t read this week’s blog.

Although I’ll probably write more about Star Trek: Into Darkness, if not here, then for conferences or journals, this time I’m focusing only on Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance. After seeing the film more than once in the U.S., with a vastly different crowd each time, I was pleased but not surprised that Cumberbatch’s name is the one most mentioned when the movie is over.

When I first saw the IMAX 3D version last Wednesday (the first U.S. screening for the public), I had a long wait from the moment we were allowed into the theater until the show started more than an hour later. Naturally, with hundreds of friendly Trekkers/Trekkies in the same place, we were bound to start talking to each other. In my row alone were fans from the U.K. and Australia—perhaps not surprising when our IMAX venue is located at Universal City Walk in Orlando. “I’m not here for Benedict Cumberbatch. I’m a long-time Trekkie,” one woman confided after our hellos. “But I want to see what he does in this movie.” Her friend said, “I’m a Cumberbabe,” then added, “although I guess we’re now supposed to be part of the Collective. Sounds kinda like the Borg, though.” Could work, I thought—another Star Trek reference.

On the way out of the theater the next time I saw Star Trek on an IMAX screen (a few days later), my friends enthused about Cumberbatch all the way down the stairs to the lobby. Words like “creepy” and “perfect villain” matched the general group assessment that Mr. Cumberbatch is very, very good in this role. There’s something about watching his expression on a screen stories high and hearing that voice surrounding us in the dark that makes an IMAX-sized impression.

In Benedict Cumberbatch: In Transition, I comment that, although Star Trek certainly would gain the actor a much larger global audience—and, more important, a mainstream audience of blockbuster-lovers worldwide—it likely won’t earn him an Academy Award. SF or fantasy movies don’t tend to receive Oscars for acting or directing, or as best picture, no matter how much money they make at the box office or how much media attention they generate. (Return of the King, with best picture and directing Oscars among its 11, is a big exception in Academy history.) That type of recognition may come with Cumberbatch’s work in other films out later this year, closer to nomination time. Of course, only hindsight will tell where Star Trek ultimately ranks in his list of career-changing films. For now, Star Trek (including its media publicity) is doing a great job of showcasing Cumberbatch (whose name truly does take up the width of the screen credits), but the role is only garnering so much attention because Cumberbatch did his job well first.

The role Cumberbatch was given to play is vastly different from the one scripted for Ricardo Montalban in the 1982 Wrath of Khan. That character sought to avenge the death of his wife and beloved friends, exiled by Kirk to what became a barren planet and then abandoned. Khan's motive was simple: revenge. He had a very personal grudge against Kirk. The “superman” of genetic engineering awakened in theaters in 2013 has much more of a motivational problem; he becomes a terrorist working against the Federation, presumably because his crew is being held hostage and sabotaging the Feds after he has been “fired” by them is his best way to free his friends.

Cumberbatch “Khans” us into believing that rather awkward backstory and assumes the role of a prime villain (even though Admiral Marcus is really the evil mastermind catalyst behind much of the plot). What does Cumberbatch do that’s so effective? Consider Khan's eyes, emotional range (which, for the movie’s “heavy,” is surprisingly wide and deep), physical grace and power, and voice.

When Kirk angrily addresses the incarcerated Khan, Cumberbatch lets the moment build before his response. It’s not a long pause by any means, but he drags his eyes slowly up Kirk until he makes unblinking eye contact. Instead of Kirk being in charge of his prisoner, Khan assesses Kirk and decides best how to talk with him. It’s subtle, but it works beautifully to illustrate that Khan is hardly incapacitated. One critic called Cumberbatch’s eyes serpent-like—and there is a mesmerizing quality to his gaze. Without moving, Cumberbatch-as-Khan exudes menace—he seems all-seeing.

Did you notice how many men tear up in this movie? Best teardrop still goes to Spock. (I could hear the splash!) However, most villains never show the emotional “weakness” of shedding even the quietest tears, and, if they do, their emotion is highly suspect because, well, they’re villains. They’re supposed to lie to us. When Khan gets emotional about his crew, he turns his back to his captors, but the audience can clearly see his eyes fill. A single drop overflows down his cheek. Khan seems truly moved by the loss of his crew, his “family.” The believability of every other action he takes in the movie rests on this teardrop. If we believe he genuinely loves his crew and will do anything to get them back, then we accept Khan’s motive for everything from destroying swaths of major cities to surrendering to Kirk to manipulating others to get what he wants. Khan can become a multidimensional character only if we accept that he is more than just a bad guy who mindlessly seeks the Federation’s destruction.

Cumberbatch sells that scene. It’s quiet. It seems real, even if it manipulates our perception of Khan. It makes him human, not just a killing machine.

When Khan takes over Marcus' ship, he again could seem way over the top with avenging anger, but--although looking every inch the Big Bad as he crushes skulls--Cumberbatch never trips over that fine line into silliness. He does look manic when he turns kamikaze—but the emotion still is grounded in the story's reality (well, as much reality as a summer blockbuster is going to give us). All that emotional control in scenes where Khan sits quietly (and with perfect posture) just explodes when there is no reason for him to rein in his emotions.

Speaking of explosions (and in this movie there are many), I was especially impressed with Khan’s (or rather Cumberbatch’s, and in some scenes his stunt double’s) graceful movement and sheer physical power. I love the sweeping motions and dancer's grace as Khan fires weapons to wipe out a Klingon patrol. (That doesn’t seem like a civilized sentiment to write, but I like the battle choreography.) Better yet, on Marcus’ ship, Khan knows the meaning of stealth—he alertly, quietly progresses toward the bridge, but when he encounters a security force, he immediately, violently dispatches them. Those moves made me truly fear Khan. He switches into machine mode and efficiently disposes of anyone in his way—there seems no way to stop such a vicious attack.

I like the man’s moves, but I also appreciate his coiled stillness. Again, in the brig scene, Khan awaits the result of a private conversation between Kirk and Spock. Holding his arm, from which a blood sample has just been taken, Khan watches and waits. When it becomes apparent Kirk is going to talk with him, Khan immediately drops the “weak” stance of holding his arm and instead holds his arms slightly out to his sides. The pose emphasizes his bulk and indicates that he is ready for anything. Even such slight, deliberate movement illustrates the thought behind the performance.

And then there’s the voice, almost a character unto itself. I was impressed with the dark “slithery” quality of Cumberbatch’s delivery—it sounded seductively evil. (I listened to the radio play of Neverwhere a few months ago, and Cumberbatch’s Islington gave me chills because of a similar vocal quality for that character.) One of my favorite Into Darkness lines is “Captain,” a one-word mocking rebuke after Kirk attempts to smash Khan into submission on Kronos. Even two syllables can be nuanced.

Mesmerizing, beguilingly voiced, chilling—Khan compels me to follow him on screen, which is another reason why I continue to follow the career of the captivating Benedict Cumberbatch.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Fast and Furious with Fallon

As an addendum to yesterday's commentary about Benedict Cumberbatch's interviews on talk shows, I’m posting just a few thoughts about this morning's interview with Jimmy Fallon (Late Night with Jimmy Fallon). As far as informative interviews go, the content wasn't the best ever, and the pace was so fast that the audience might not remember details about what was said. So--content-wise, average. However, from a media persona perspective, Cumberbatch was entertaining and more than kept up with Fallon during their mutual fan-fest.

To introduce Cumberbatch to the audience, Fallon mentioned the award nominations that U.S. viewers are more likely to recognize (Golden Globe and Emmy), but he also praised Sherlock at two points in the show, linking the actor with two key projects that American audiences should see. Fallon excelled in elevating Cumberbatch's energy and being so enthusiastic about the actor's work that Cumberbatch seemed empowered. The whole "Who can you impersonate?" game could have led to disaster, because Cumberbatch briefly seemed at a loss for an explanation, repeating his words before launching into a description of a spontaneous impressions game he and Martin Freeman play on set. I wish this moment had smoothly led to more examples of Cumberbatch's mimicry, but at least the guest turned the tables on the host, who then couldn't think of a way to impersonate Hilary Clinton (tough one) or Miss Piggy (at least he tried). The five-minute interview (with Star Trek clip) left little time for long answers or involved stories (although the Harrison Ford anecdote was a winner), but Cumberbatch and Fallon still covered quite a few topics as they ping-ponged words back and forth. Cumberbatch seemed to be with “his people”—Fallon as his greatest fan—and accepted the applause and effusive praise graciously. The nervous mannerisms were still there (at one point upstaging the camera's view of his face), but Cumberbatch seemed to be having fun and was incredibly animated in this interview.

What is interesting is the variety of "Cumbarbatches" U.S. audiences met in just a few days. Of the U.S. television interviews to promote Star Trek this week, Letterman created the most awkward scenarios, which resulted in the weakest “performance,” the Today show only briefly spotlighted Cumberbatch’s film role but presented a well-spoken, confident actor, and Fallon encouraged the hyperactive playmate not everyone in the audience may have yet met. If audiences seeing all three interviews were interested in continuity or had to describe their impression of Cumberbatch based only on these shows, they might have difficulty coming up with a unified conclusion about who he really is (at least in public). On the other hand, the actor showed that he could handle wildly divergent interview styles and present himself differently to each show’s individual audience demographic. It will be interesting to see if, during future promotional appearances, he will present a single “persona,” no matter who conducts the interview or what he is asked, or if Cumberbatch will surprise us with his reactions and responses. Funny, fun, frenetic—a good reason to be watching Fallon and Cumberbatch late night Friday/very early Saturday morning.

The best interview this week—albeit in another medium—is Caitlin Moran’s substantial and well-written article in the Times (full article by subscription here but already available in its entirety on other sites). I enjoy Moran’s books and articles; I admire her style and outlook on life. The new interview is yet another excellent conversation, this time with Cumberbatch and his parents. Moran's word choice is so descriptive that I could "see" the family home and practically sit down to Sunday dinner. For pure enjoyment, Moran's interview is well worth a couple of reads this weekend. It allows Cumberbatch to express himself in depth and to have more control over the way he will be perceived in the media during this incredibly busy time.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Road to Stardom is Paved with Talk Shows

We can’t know an actor by his public appearances, on a red carpet or through a television interview, but the images and sound bites left behind do a lot to track changes in an actor’s public persona and audience expectations for the way stars should act.

Benedict Cumberbatch was talking to the Huffington Post UK about his privacy in light of so much media attention when he commented that “You can't control perceptions any more.” The intense interest in everything he does, whether in front of the camera or behind closed doors, results in dozens of online and in-print articles every day, especially during the double whammy of Sherlock filming and national premieres of Star Trek: Into Darkness.

In the U.S., Cumberbatch has previously been in the entertainment news, ranging from media reports (like those in Variety or The Hollywood Reporter) that tout his heavy work load or television interviews most often broadcast from red carpets or seen on cable networks like MTV or E!. But then came Star Trek.

Although many (most?) Cumberbatch fans had already found a way to watch the actor on The Graham Norton Show recorded soon after the London Star Trek premiere, the episode was first broadcast in the U.S. on BBC America on May 9, which proved to be the start of a very busy few days for talk show-following American fans. In addition to Graham Norton, Cumberbatch fielded questions on NBC’s Today (in the 10-11 a.m. EDT time slot, outside the viewing time of many 9-to-5ers) and CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman and will do so later on May 10 on NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon—three top shows reaching a wide demographic in different time slots. Ratings published for the week of April 22-26, the latest I could find by the time of this blog, showed that Letterman averaged 2.8 million viewers during that time period, and Fallon was watched by 1.7 million, especially impressive in the latter case because he won the late late time slot in all measured demographics (18- to 34-year-olds, 18-49, and 25-54, men and women).

What does that mean for Cumberbatch? He made it to mainstream U.S. entertainment media that reached millions of potential moviegoers (and new fans) within the span of a couple of brief television appearances. Many U.S. viewers likely had never seen or heard of him before those talk show appearances. Whereas the BBC America audience should already include more Sherlock or Cumberbatch fans, it also is more of a niche cable audience. NBC and CBS are network “biggies” with a wider broadcast area; most homes in the U.S. with televisions can see these networks on basic cable. Add to that the later viewings, such as full online episodes of the Fallon show (not to mention YouTube and media or fan website videos), and Cumberbatch potentially will reach the widest audience ever to see his interviews.

Now the important questions regarding his celebrity and fast-track to film stardom: What do viewers perceive or learn from watching these talk-show interviews? Although those interviewed on television can’t control the show’s content or the host’s approach to the interview, actors can largely control their performance and, in Cumberbatch’s case, he can introduce himself as he wants the American public to see him. His wardrobe, demeanor, and body language are just as important as his words.

Please note that the following comments aren’t critical of Benedict Cumberbatch. He is doing exactly what he should do to develop his image during this transitional stage of his career and smoothly enter what he jokes he has been warned about—a career “blast off” after Star Trek.

The Graham Norton Show and Today

Cumberbatch’s appearance on The Graham Norton Show is a good indicator of the Cumberbatch-as-budding-movie-star persona. Immaculate in a dark suit, the actor looked formal and professional, his demeanor relaxed to the point that, late in the show, he lounged (well, as much as someone with such wonderful posture can slouch). When Norton teased him about the name of his fans, he “acted” embarrassed with obvious mannerisms at the term “Cumberbitches” and suggested an alternative: “The Cumber Collective.” He’s made similar comments (and told the neutron cream story) before, but during much of the show he gave the expected responses—all safe, little to nothing new (depending on the fan's prior knowledge).

During one segment, Norton asked fans how far they had traveled just to be in the audience. When a few who traveled hours by bus or plane just to see Cumberbatch identified themselves, the actor bounded up the studio stairs to briefly hug and kiss cheeks—a move guaranteed to endear him to fans. It also encouraged fellow Star Trek actor Chris Pine to do the same for those “Pine Nuts” who came a long way just to see him. The fan activity seemed unscripted, spontaneous fun, but it also reinforced the image of Cumberbatch as a man who publicly thanks his fans for their support. The Graham Norton Show also provided an opportunity for Cumberbatch to initiate an interaction with fans in a controlled environment (i.e., he wasn’t going to get mobbed on camera). That’s not a cynical comment—it’s a reality of Cumberbatch’s new level of fame that he must walk the proverbial tightrope of communicating directly with fans without putting himself or others in a dangerous position. Recent comparisons have been made between Cumberbatch or Sherlock fans and Beatlemania, as ever-growing crowds await his arrival, whether on location shoots or for an interview.

Cumberbatch’s humorous, self-deprecating anecdotes about working on Star Trek, which most fans have heard before, are safe, funny stories new audiences can remember (and the media can repeat). They provide brief insights into behind-the-scenes antics, and they show that Cumberbatch has a sense of humor, including about himself, and is not as all-knowing as Sherlock or Star Trek’s evil mastermind. In personality, the actor seems more like one of us, or like a friend we’d like to have. Unlike some television interviews, in which the actor displayed a few nervous mannerisms (e.g., the thigh rub/pat, hand-brush over his head), with Norton the actor’s speaking pace was conversationally slower, his tone evenly warm and inviting, his gestures far more controlled. In short, Cumberbatch came across as friendly, humble, humorous, and appreciative—everything the public could want from one of its stars, especially one now representing British actors (perhaps even the U.K.) in global media.

It was an excellent appearance, but it also made me a bit sad because it lacked the spark of something unexpected or “natural” happening between host and interviewee. Even when Cumberbatch was prompted to show how he could make even an innocuous teaser sound threatening, he showed off his talent for improv and a good cold reading while being a good sport. It was entertaining, but I enjoy listening to this actor talk because he is thoughtful and expressive, sometimes taking a long time to answer questions, sometimes getting so caught up in explaining a role or project that he stumbles over a word or rushes through sentences in his enthusiasm. He might fidget, depending on what is happening in the interview. I like a less polished, more free flowing interview that seems a bit riskier or spontaneous.

Granted, talk-show appearances may always be simply another performance, but Cumberbatch's previous interviews (or lengthier Q&As about films or plays) often gave at least the illusion (and I hope the reality) that audiences see more of the actor than the celebrity or star. Now that Cumberbatch faces more media every day and, in the past few years, has learned some hard lessons about the nature of celebrity, he is doing very well in developing a professional persona for the world’s broadcast media—but such personas can become bland because they become what the public expects to see. I enjoyed seeing London premiere photos emphasizing Cumberbatch's huge grin as he posed on the red carpet. (I doubt I’ve seen so many photos published in which he is smiling so widely that he looks fit to literally burst with happiness.) I liked reading that he cried when overhearing a cast member’s praise. Those expressions of emotion aren’t typically shown or discussed in the press about long-time movie stars. They still are a bit unexpected and different than the usual red carpet stories.

On May 10, Cumberbatch’s brief appearance on Today was again polished and relaxed. Dressed more casually than on Graham Norton or Letterman, Cumberbatch seemed more laid back. His sound bite-sized answers in the brief couple of minutes allotted to his interview gave audiences 1) the neutron cream story, 2) brief identification with a key role in Star Trek, but more important and almost a throwaway line, and 3) mention of his roles as scientists Hawking and Heisenberg. Now, to some fans who want Sherlock included in that list, Cumberbatch’s unprompted comment is sure to rankle. However, from a career standpoint, within about 90 seconds, the actor did a few great things to introduce himself to a potentially new, mainstream U.S. audience (a different crowd at 10 a.m. than at 12:30 a.m.): He mentioned two roles that Americans just getting to know him may not have seen or even known about; he was succinct, well spoken, well dressed, confident, still humble, and sexily deeper voiced. This is the persona that his PR team will want to emphasize Cumberbatch’s star power.

Late Night with David Letterman

Very early on May 10 I posted on Facebook my conclusion that Cumberbatch’s “performance” with Letterman was sweetly endearing. I praised Letterman for complimenting the actor after watching a brief Star Trek clip (“No offense to the rest of the cast, but you really don’t need much more than you.”) Then I headed to bed, figuring that I’d check fan and critical response a few hours later. Not surprising, within a few hours the Cumbernews provided a mix of reviews—with one website giving the interview a 2 (I assume 1 isn’t first place). Others talked about Cumberbatch’s nervousness or possible tiredness, the otters, and Letterman’s confusion between Star Wars and Star Trek. Cumberbatch received fashion kudos for his personal style when he arrived at the Ed Sullivan theatre more than for his formal attire (that London red carpet look), which became a topic of discussion during the interview.

Of these three interviews within 24 hours on U.S. television, the ones from The Graham Norton Show and Today are by far the better as far as development of that movie star persona. Cumberbatch looked suave, confident, yet still reachable from those reach-out-and-hug moments with fans or his perfectly timed responses to Today’s questions. His voice was lower and sexier, and he looked like a man in charge of his destiny, reaping the public benefits of some very hard work.

However, I prefer the Letterman interview because it presented a self-effacing yet still confident actor who was thrown into some unexpectedly silly situations (such as a bogus Star Trek clip, after a too-long session with the otter photos) but who gamely dealt with whatever the host did.

Letterman often is silly, which results in some awkward moments, but he always brings the interview back on track. (Note how he slyly got laughs from Jack Hanna’s explanations or answers but yet introduced animal facts when Hanna didn’t and kept the show rolling along.) When Cumberbatch answered questions rapid fire or surfed the changing conversational currents, his voice was higher, his speaking rate faster, and his syllables sometimes bouncy as he repeated a word or stuttered a bit through sentences. He fidgeted a lot more—rubbing his thigh, scratching the back of his neck, clasping his hands. Only when he talked about his role as John Harrison did he slip into “interview-speak” with smoothly delivered lines used in press junkets (e.g., “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”) He poked gentle fun at himself with a story about an early audition and, after receiving that amazing compliment from Letterman, looked down frequently. He noted that he couldn’t do high kicks like the actor in the cheesy fake ST clip preceding the real clip proving his command of a scene if not of the Enterprise. “No, you’re fine,” Letterman corrected. And Cumberbatch was—he came across as more jittery than on Norton's show but more genuine. He looked pleased about Star Trek but humble about his talent. He went with whatever Letterman asked or showed him, even if such an interview gave him fewer opportunities to plug his work or let the late-night audience get to know him on his own terms.

With Letterman, Cumberbatch’s “Britishness” was also on display—he admitted he “overdressed” for the occasion “in honor of” Letterman, and his audition story was about playing James Bond. When first introduced, he quietly asked the host where he should sit and later to which monitor to direct his attention. He looked like a Letterman newbie (which he was). Those aren’t criticisms, but they separate Cumberbatch from the glib, flamboyant, often supremely outgoing (usually American) guests sitting in the interview chair. Some people might find that reason for concern, but I found it refreshing and endearing—a term I seem to be overusing in response to Cumberbatch’s Star Trek interviews. He was different than most actors promoting a movie and, like he does with his acting, kept me wondering what he would do or say. He was interesting to watch.

Not everyone will dissect these appearances, but, in light of Cumberbatch’s rise to fame, they emphasize that transitional period I keep harping on. The man sitting next to Dave on Thursday night seemed much younger and more eager than the man who chatted with Graham Norton or Billy Bush. If I hadn’t been aware of his long CV of excellent roles, I would’ve been intrigued by the menace and focus of the villain in the ST clip contrasted with the talkative but self-deprecating guy who looked down almost as often as he made direct eye contact with Dave, the one who (when Letterman called him a “kid” and said he didn’t know the actor’s age) immediately affirmed that he still is a kid (pause . . . “at heart”). The difference between the man on the couch and the villain on the screen would make me want to know more about the actor—and that, really more than promoting ST, is what the Letterman appearance was all about.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Potential Spoilers Based on the May 7 Blog--Read this short section only if you have read the long May 7 Sherlock-John blog

S P O I L E R A L E R T This post should only be read if you choose to possibly be spoiled regarding upcoming Sherlock episodes and after you've read the long May 7 blog about Sherlock and John.

Although the team of Gatiss and Moffat have provided fans with a single keyword preview of each episode in the third season/series, some readers may not want to know about them, even if they have been bandied about fandom for months. Also, since filming on series/season three began, photos and media reports suggesting plot and character developments in season/series three have been published in mainstream entertainment news as well as on fan sites. (#setlock anyone?) However, if you’ve avoided that type of information, please stop reading here. I’m trying to be as vague as possible while still adding a few comments about issues raised in the results.


Fans who follow #setlock may know a lot about the first two episodes (but the series’ creators also likely have many more surprises in store that were unable to be glimpsed during location filming). Those who know the one-word descriptor the creators’ provided for the second episode might have certain fears or expectations about this episode in particular. It seems less likely, in light of these revelations, that fans’ “wish list” for John and Sherlock will be fulfilled, at least in the way that much of fan fiction (and there are some excellent reunion or relationship stories out there) envisions as the optimal series’ direction. Because Gatiss and Moffat are on record numerous times as saying that the John-Sherlock friendship is a love story and basically the reason for Sherlock Holmes stories’ longevity, I would hope that the friendship aspects of the series would continue as long as episodes are made. What will be interesting to see (and possibly to record in another survey) is how fans respond to the changing nature of this friendship and the introduction of another cast member.

The survey also generated fan requests for more women in the series, with the emphasis in most comments on Mrs. Hudson, Molly Hooper, Irene Adler, or Sally Donovan. However, within the survey’s context of fan comments, the inclusion of more female characters or characters of color is requested in order to reflect the diversity of modern London. It is not a specific request for female love interests. Whether women brought into the series primarily for this purpose would be construed as a potential threat to the Sherlock-John friendship (or to fans’ perceptions of Johnlock) or whether such female characters would be perceived as playing “stereotypical” roles (e.g., sex objects) for women on television would be interesting to discern. Again, fan comments regarding possible developments in upcoming episodes may be worth studying, from an academic standpoint, because of diversity, sex roles, gender roles, canon v. fanon, or other issues arising from changes to the series over time.

What Fans Think about Sherlock (and John!)

What do fans think about the BBC’s Sherlock—in particular, its characters and actors? What do they want to see in the third batch of episodes? I asked those questions of online Sherlock fandom in July 2012, within weeks of Sherlock’s season two broadcast in the U.S. but more than half a year after its seasonal debut in the U.K. Thanks again to those of you who responded to my lengthy survey!

Shortly after the survey was closed, I posted a brief tally of demographic and multiple-choice answers. In the months since, I’ve incorporated the answers to questions or comments about Benedict Cumberbatch in my book, Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition, and provided more statistical data in articles submitted to other publishers. Today, while we wait for filming of the third episode in the third season/series to begin and look forward to three more Sherlock “movies” possibly arriving late in 2013 or early 2014, I want to share survey participants’ comments about the series in general, the actors and characters they play, and a wish list of changes that, if these fans were writing Sherlock scripts, would guide upcoming episodes. (Although I’m a Sherlock fan, I put on my “objective reporter” hat when documenting survey results and blogging about them, so I use “they” for fans instead of “you” or “we.”)

What is the most important reason you like Sherlock?

Of the 565 people who took the survey, 18.6 per cent (105 fans) stated that the well-written scripts are their primary reason for watching. Another 16.1 per cent (91) like the Sherlock-John relationship best, 14.5 per cent (82) tune in to see high-quality acting performances, and 13.1 per cent (74) enjoy the modernization of this adaptation. Other reasons include the following: 7.6 per cent (43) like the production quality of episodes, 4.6 per cent (26) are fans of one or more actors, 3.2 per cent (18) enjoy the mystery plots or the detective genre, 0.4 per cent (2) like the U.K. (primarily London) settings, and 0.2 per cent (1) prefers television series imported from the U.K. As other results later showed, Sherlock is often perceived as worthwhile television entertainment because it is a “package deal”—well-written and –acted, with excellent production values. The series’ succeeds because it excels in all areas, even the ones (like plot) that fans like to debate and unravel with an eye both to continuity and canon.

Finally, 2.5 per cent (14) chose to specify their reason for watching Sherlock after selecting the “other” multiple-choice option. These fans stated they could not limit themselves to one definitive answer. Two lengthier responses are typical of the theme running through the write-in comments: “More than one of the reasons above. High quality of acting, script, filming, design, costumes etc., etc. Also the wonderful chemistry between the actors, the friendship, the humor and just how exciting and engaging it all is” and “I am an old school Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes fan (since I was 11) and I love the way Gatiss & Moffat, Cumberbatch & Freeman have made it brilliant and wonderful again.” Other respondents praised Sherlock as an “intelligent show.” One added a comment about the series being family viewing: “Both my teenage daughter & I enjoy watching it together.” The rest of the responses were variations of “all of the above” or “Can’t it be all?” Fans enjoy this series on many levels: for its value as television entertainment, as a higher-quality television production compared to other series, or even as a catalyst for bonding with family, friends, or other fans.

How is Sherlock different from the other television series you also like?

As is typical in surveys inviting participants to write unique answers, sometimes the responses aren’t usable. Although all respondents were required to write something in the text boxes provided for open-ended questions in order to submit the survey, not all responses to this or other open-ended questions or “other” options were usable as survey results. Some people inserted only a character, such as an asterisk or a question mark, or wrote “no answer” or “N/A” instead of complete phrases or sentences. In this situation, percentages are based on the number of usable answers. For example, although all 565 participants had to write some type of answer, if only 330 responses were evaluated as usable, then the percentage is based on 330.

Answers to this open-ended question were carefully read to ensure that I (and other readers working with me) understood the comments correctly in order to categorize them; we also double-checked answers to make sure we agreed which responses were defined as “usable.” This question resulted in 330 usable responses grouped similar types of responses into these categories:

25.7 per cent (85) High-quality writing, with specific comments about the scripts, dialogue, and on-screen information such as Sherlock’s texts

15.7 per cent (52) Acting

13.6 per cent (45) Directing, cinematography, filming quality, special effects, music, etc. “Movie quality” was mentioned five times within other comments about the series’ production quality.

10.6 per cent (35) More intellectually challenging or stimulating plot twists that hold fans’ attention. This category includes comments about the series’ story content (i.e., topics, subject matter) and episodes’ pace, not specifically about the quality of scripts.

9.3 per cent (31) Sherlock Holmes stories’ characters/modernisation of beloved literary characters/familiarity with literary canon. The modernisation of characters these fans already love was mentioned in the majority of responses, but having Sherlock Holmes as the series’ lead character also was listed six times.

5.4 per cent (18) Length and number of episodes. Fans prefer fewer but longer episodes, although they dislike long hiatuses between groups of episodes.

4.5 per cent (15) Cultural differences between British and U.S. or other countries’ programs

3.6 per cent (12) Preference for mystery/crime/detective genre

3.3 per cent (11) Different genre than that I typically watch: fantasy or science fiction (5), supernatural (2), comedies (2), or police (original emphasis, 2)

2.4 per cent (8) Similarity (not the difference emphasized in the survey question)between Sherlock and other television series that these respondents also like: House (2), Doctor Who (also from showrunner Moffat; 1), NCIS (1), “intelligent shows” (1), or “other detective shows” (1)

2.1 per cent (7) Casting of favorite actors. Within these responses, Cumberbatch was specifically mentioned three times, and the chemistry between Freeman and Cumberbatch twice.

1.5 per cent (5) Fandom, which was praised for its “huge fanbase,” “lots of fan fiction,” “homoerotic tension played up by fandom,” and “as a way to enter Sherlockiana”

0.9 per cent (3) Series’ creators Moffat and Gatiss, who “love & know the Series,” are “brilliant in adapting the series,” or are “genius.”

0.9 per cent (3) Settings/locations, with London specifically listed twice

The following four responses illustrate fan appreciation of Sherlock that goes beyond simple enjoyment of the series as entertainment. Sherlock fans understand the variety of tasks and number of people working on a production behind the scenes to create a single episode; respondents repeatedly mention that they watch episodes more than once and pay attention to details. They analyze not only the stories but the way these stories are told. That fans think of Sherlock as a complete package, with high-quality work at every stage of an episode’s development, is indicated in these representative comments:

“The writers truly deliver the goods. Transforming Arthur Conan Doyle's stories into the modern era is a truly clever and remarkable idea. They, as well as the pre-production team, love to squeeze in a lot of hidden details which one might miss in the first viewing, and so it is very fun to watch it again and gain something new from the episode. The cinematographic techniques are fun and interactive; the direction and acting are first-rate, and the post-production is innovative. I know of no other show that can compare with all this talent.”

“The production quality, the writing, the direction and the acting are all of such excellent quality. I would particularly emphasize the production as being of movie-like quality.”

“It is basically much more like a movie. Writing style, cinematography, plots and so on bring a depth and a weight to it that most other series lack.”

“The obvious love and respect the creators have for the original stories and characters, and for Arthur Conan Doyle, shines through, making this the most heartfelt Holmes series I've ever seen.”

These messages’ content, structure, and word choice show that the respondents took care in writing precisely and in greater detail than might be expected in a long survey that required several written responses. Furthermore, the syntax and word choice indicate that these fans are likely well educated and easily able to express themselves effectively in writing. Although not all responses to this survey question were so long or well phrased, about half of all usable responses were equally effusive.

The following question about the way(s) Sherlock could be improved resulted in three types of responses: 1) the series does not need to be changed, 2) more episodes should be made and broadcast more frequently, and 3) episodes should include specific plot elements that at least some fans want to see. The 502 usable responses to this question were approximately equally divided among these three categories. Typical answers in the “does not need to be changed” category include “It is already perfect,” “Just keep doing what they are doing,” and “I don’t see how it could be better.” Typical entries about improving episodes are “It would be great if we had a series every year instead of every year and a half, but I understand production restraints,” “Coming out more quickly,” and “More episodes more often.”

The greatest variety among responses involves specific interests in a character or scenario. These responses could not be grouped more specifically than a wide-ranging “plot elements that at least some fans want to see” category. For example, a few fans would like to see changes made to Molly Hooper: “Maybe if there was more Sherlolly” or “Molly to be less simpering.” Others wrote they wanted to see more of Mrs. Hudson or Lestrade. However, the majority of responses in this category suggest changes in the way the Sherlock-John relationship is portrayed. Respondents asked for more “Johnlock,” “John and Sherlock snogging,” or “gayness,” but at least a few fans explained more precisely what they would like to see in forthcoming episodes:

“Sherlock and John need to have a frank discussion about how they love each other, but don't want to have sex. I don't like how John keeps saying ‘people will talk’ as if it's a running joke, when their relationship is clearly more nuanced than that.”

“More domestic John and Sherlock. I think their friendship/bromance/pseudo-romance/pre-relationship-ness is what makes the show so wonderful. I think some of the best scenes from series one and two are when Sherlock and John are just in 221b being flatmates.”

To avoid making potentially spoilery comments about this section, I've written a vaguely worded response to this section as a separate blog post, labeled Potential Spoilers Based on the May 7 Blog. If you want to read my comments, please read this separate post after you finish today's blog. Thanks!

What else would fans change?

The series is not above criticism, despite a high number of responses indicating that fans are happy with what they have been seeing. A few respondents suggested greater diversity, from casting to character development:

“It could be less ridiculously white in the modern era. Irene Adler, for instance, could easily have been portrayed by Freema Agyeman or Gemma Chan (these are just examples).”

“More female characters—because there were many in the stories. Along with that, this series takes place in modern London; there shouldn't be an excuse for the lack of female presence. Molly Hooper received more dialogue in the second series, which was wonderful because the show made a point to show she mattered, but Sherlock needs to add more to the females that are already there so they are not just there at the expense of the male characters. Less shamming and using them just as villains—especially Sally Donovan.”

Other fans criticized “plot holes” or complexity in episodes like “A Scandal in Belgravia” that was difficult for some viewers to follow. Three fans wanted the less frequently adapted Conan Doyle stories to become the basis of plots, rather than stories involving Moriarty or Adler, “which everyone knows.” Finally, four respondents wanted to see more—quite literally—of Cumberbatch. One wrote in all capital letters “MORE BENEDICT!!!” and another suggested more nudity for the lead actor.

Such diversity within a category makes it almost meaningless statistically, but the variety of comments shows the many ways in which individual fans relate to Sherlock and want to see aspects of the series reflect their preferences. In some ways, such as a call for more Johnlock, fans would like to see the official television series become more like the fan fiction thriving on many slash or gen forums and web sites. Despite fans’ wide-ranging responses to this question about change, the majority of respondents indicated that they like Sherlock as it is, want to see more episodes, and look forward to enjoying the next group of three episodes.

Actors and Characters

The survey asked two questions about characters: Of these Sherlock characters, which is your favorite in series/season one or two? and Why is this character your favorite in series/season one or two? The former is a multiple-choice question with the characters’ names in alphabetical order by first word, as automatically ordered by the survey software: Anderson, Greg Lestrade, Henry Knight, Irene Adler, Jim Moriarty, John Watson, Molly Hooper, Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft Holmes, Sally Donovan, and Sherlock Holmes, plus an “other” text box.

A higher number/percentage of responses to the multiple-choice character question might be expected to favor first Sherlock, then John. The results are as expected for the two lead characters: 56.6 per cent (320) selected Sherlock Holmes as their favorite character, and 23.0 per cent (130) chose John Watson.

After these characters, the percentages drop considerably: 7.6 per cent (43) Jim Moriarty, 3.4 per cent (19) Molly Hooper, 3.0 per cent (17) Mycroft Holmes, 2.5 per cent (14) Greg Lestrade, 1.2 per cent (7) Mrs. Hudson, 1.1 per cent (6) Irene Adler, and 0.2 per cent (1) each for Sally Donovan and Henry Knight. These percentages also reflect a character’s amount of screen time and role development, or, as is the case with Adler and Knight, significant character development but only in one episode. The more time on screen and prominence of the character, the more likely respondents were to choose that character as “favorite.”

Sherlock and John’s friendship, plus the chemistry of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, created, in many fans’ minds, an inseparable Sherlock-John entity (not, in this case, referring to “Johnlock”). The “other” responses are comments like “I can’t choose Sherlock without John” and “John and Sherlock go together,” as well as “I love them all equally” or “Please don’t make me choose.”

The second question about characters resulted in a variety of “essay” answers that I later grouped by similar content: 40.2 per cent (227) described the character’s personality (e.g., “intelligent,” “evilly genius,” “everyman”) as the primary reason for being a fan’s favorite; 25.1 per cent (142) like a character because of the way an actor portrays him or her; 14.7 per cent (83) like the way a character has been written (e.g., dialogue, backstory, emotional development across episodes); 10.3 per cent (58) prefer this modernization of the character; and 9.7 per cent (55) relate to a specific character (i.e., Molly, John, or Sherlock).

In a similar pairing of questions about respondents’ favorite actor (again stipulating that only one actor could be chosen) and the reason for choosing this actor, the main cast all received votes as fans’ favorite. Cumberbatch was chosen most often (65.6 per cent; 365). As the actor playing the titular character and someone with a high media profile in mid-2012 (the time frame for the survey), Cumberbatch might be expected to be listed as favorite actor most often. Also, this actor has a greater number of fan sites on which to post or otherwise pass along the link.

Freeman was listed as favorite actor by 18.2 per cent (103), Andrew Scott (Jim Moriarty) was favored by 9.0 per cent (51), and Mark Gatiss (Mycroft Holmes) by 2.7 per cent (15). These four actors had more screen time and more prominent roles than the other actors listed in this question. The following regular cast members, as well as one-episode guest actors Russell Tovey (Henry Knight) and Lara Pulver (Irene Adler), were listed as at least one respondent’s favorite: Rupert Graves (Greg Lestrade; 1.4 per cent, 8), Pulver (1.1 per cent, 6); Tovey or Louise Brealey (Molly Hooper; 0.7 per cent, 4); Vinette Robinson (Sally Donovan; 0.4 per cent, 2); and Una Stubbs (Mrs. Hudson; 0.2 per cent, 1). The “other actor” category was used by 1.1 per cent (6) to list groups of favorites, primarily Cumberbatch and Freeman but also “Cumberbatch Freeman Gatiss Graves Stubbs.” Sherlock fans may have had to state a favorite for this survey, but they are very loyal to the entire cast, including guest actors.

The descriptors provided in the follow-up question asking for the reason(s) why an actor was chosen as favorite indicate again how Sherlock actors are viewed as talented professionals in a series that elevates their art, even though each of them also received comments about their sex appeal or personality. These comments were much more difficult to categorize, because each respondent provided more than one reason. Fans’ discussion of Freeman’s work provides a typical example of the range of comments received in answer to the follow-up question:

Martin Freeman

About his acting: “broke my heart,” “from the very first scene he’s brilliant,” “can’t imagine anyone else in the role,” “made me cry,” “believable,” “emotionally compelling”

About physical appearance: “adorable,” “likable face,” “good looking,” “easy on the eye,” “handsome,” “my hedgehog” (a reference to an online series of photographs comparing Freeman to a hedgehog)

About his personality: “funny in interviews” [the quotation “I won a (expletive) BAFTA” from an appearance on The Graham Norton Show was mentioned three times], “made from kittens, jam, and rage,” “lovely, honest guy”

About the actor’s body of work: four references to The Office and The Hobbit

About the respondent’s love for or appreciation of the actor: “I fancy him,” “I just love him”

Fewer comments were made about Gatiss (“he’s very smart,” “he’s funny”), Scott (“he’s such a nice guy in person”), and Graves (“loved him since A Room with a View”). Pulver and Brealey were described as “sweet,” “sexy,” or “seductive.” Some respondents additionally commented that, although they appreciated an actor, they especially like him or her in Sherlock.

The number of comments reflects the percentage/number of respondents choosing an actor as favorite; Cumberbatch received the majority of comments indicating why he is a fan favorite, with the second greatest number of comments about Freeman.

What may be most notable about these fan responses is Sherlock fans’ interest in the actors as much as the series. Results indicate fans’ loyalty to the entire cast and shared appreciation of the series as a whole. A television series often creates one star, or one actor receives all the attention, but, even considering Cumberbatch’s and Freeman’s incredible fame not only through Sherlock but high-profile film roles, fans positively review and make a point to mention all cast members, the creative team behind the series, and the production values. Although these fans generally enjoy the series as it is and have few suggestions to change it, they offered some contextually significant criticisms to broaden the series’ appeal by casting more people of color and making women’s roles more prominent, for example. These fans are devoted to the actors and the characters they play, but they show a special fondness for Cumberbatch/Sherlock and Freeman/John individually but, equally important, together.

On another, but related subject: The Fan/Scholar and Studies in Popular Culture and Celebrity

These results are hardly the proverbial “earth shattering” news that can be attributed to results from some public surveys or scientific questionnaires. They also aren’t the stuff of online polls of the day or instant results. So why bother if the results don’t turn up anything shocking or surprising or provide immediate entertainment value?

A survey should be like an experiment—with an established method of inquiry and a plan in the researcher’s mind. However, great care should be taken so that the results will not be skewed but will be as objectively gathered as possible. Surveys should be created to gather data, and sometimes the results only reinforce what other sources have indicated. That doesn’t mean that the act of experimentation or the results gathered are insignificant. Documenting popular culture and recording what fans think of, in this case, television are important to understanding more about our interests at this particular time and the significance of a specific piece of art (such as Sherlock) in popular culture, now, as well as over time. Whether the results are reported in books, journals, or blogs (and mine have or will be published in all three), the process of asking questions, gathering data, and interpreting results is worthwhile and helps fans, readers, academics, critics, historians, etc., not only see a work of art from a different perspective but to provide a record for the future of what was important, interesting, trendsetting, or commonplace in our popular culture.

The term “fan/scholar” is often used to describe people who enjoy an aspect of popular culture but also learn as much as possible about it, analyze its significance (which is different from reporting facts or the latest news), and document trends (perhaps for posterity). I consider myself a fan/scholar of some very specific aspects of popular culture. If you’ve read any of my (single- or co-authored) books, including those about LOST, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Torchwood, The Hobbit, or The Lord of the Rings, as well as Sherlock, then you know the kind of critical interpretation, analysis, documentation, or commentary about a person’s, film’s, book’s, or television series’ significance to popular culture that I write.

In Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition, I take the same approach to an actor’s career, by dissecting a performance, commenting on its place within popular culture, and explaining what career milestones say about our fascination with celebrity. My writing style and type of information are different from what fans might read in an entertainment magazine or newspaper or on a fan site. All of these formats of published information can be enlightening and enjoyable to read, but each has a separate purpose. My method is a combination of reporting but primarily interpreting, to write about not only what but why that’s important or how that reveals something about our culture as much as the person involved.

In the next week or two, I’ll be posting blogs that, I hope, provide a few insights into the ways that Benedict Cumberbatch’s appearances on talk shows, to promote Star Trek: Into Darkness, illustrate this stage of his career and the nature of celebrity. I won’t report what he says so much as how his words or actions signal a new phase to his development as a film star and why his appearances say as much about our expectations of celebrities as they do about the actor. After Star Trek: Into Darkness has had its opening weekend in the U.S., I’ll post my review of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance and its likely place in his evolving career, as well as his significance to the Star Trek franchise—not a typical type of review, but one that fits well with a performance biography.