Story Pile: The Irregulars

In 2016, Netflix announced that Tom Bidwell, the director of Netflix’s Watership Down was going to make a new series based on the Baker Street Irregulars. For those familiar with Sherlock Holmes stuff, that’s an exciting idea — the Irregulars is a term that Holmes used to refer to a group of youths around Baker Street who he could rely on to do all the tedious parts of investigation that he wouldn’t want to be caught doing. The premise, Bidwell described was even more interesting:

Sherlock Holmes had a group of street kids he’d use to help him gather clues so our series is what if Sherlock was a drug addict and a delinquent and the kids solve the whole case whilst he takes credit.

The idea of ‘Sherlock without Sherlock’ is a really cool one, and it’s not the only time this idea’s been floated. Gene Wilder made The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, which even used an actor who’d been renowned throughout the 60s for playing Holmes. The Great Mouse Detective has Sherlock Holmes in the literal background of its own story, and that movie whips. There’s a lot you can do around Holmes, right?

Anyway, he says, with the affect of someone who is so used to doing this trick of making an obvious platform to talk about a thing then sweve violently into a way that the non-obvious has transpired, The Irregulars is a supernatural monster-of-the-week show. The cast are a diverse and interesting bunch of Victorian era youths, teenagers in a period where that wasn’t a thing that existed.

Your character lineup is Bea, the team mum, Billy the brawler, Jessica the suspiciously observant, Spike the face, and PRINCE LEOPOLD, YOUNGEST SON OF QUEEN VICTORIA and the current vampire queen of the British Empire’s great, great, great uncle, not to mention her husband’s great, great, great uncle because the intense concentration of privilege amongst the wealthiest people in the world has not stopped at all.

These characters go on adventures to solve mysteries, and try to locate a missing Sherlock Holmes, all while sending information through John Watson. These adventures are things like people making zombies out of burying people in candles and haunted crows and teeth fairies and peeling people’s faces off to do magical shapeshifts.

This presents a question, then: Does the presence of the supernatural in a Sherlock Holmes story undermine it?

Obviously yes, of course.

Look, I think at times it’s easy to lose track of what Sherlock Holmes was about when he was made, when he was part of the original vision of Conan Doyle’s ‘great mystery stories.’ It’s because while it’s now commonly accepted that hey, Holmes was an asshole, it seems easily forgotten that Doyle also thought that Holmes was an asshole.

Doyle was a mysticist, a religious man and a firm believer in the supernatural. The man who made Sherlock Holmes, the ultimate rationalist and realist was himself not just a believer in the supernatural but was so credulous that not once but twice he fell for a widespread, extremely public hoax about spirits and fairies. There’s also a reasonably supported idea that he was a perpetrator of a hoax, the Piltdown hoax trying to discredit scientists for evolution.

Sherlock Holmes is a character who can observe the world around him and absorb all the factual information there and present that information in a way that eliminated the impossible and left only the improbable. This is a fundamentally rationalist view of the world, the idea that you can catalogue the information in the world around you, is a very empricist vision of things. Holmes requires the world he’s in to be naturalistic, with a sufficiently coherent non-mystical vision of reality that features no abrogation of the repeatable sequence of cause and effect.

Holmes is an asshole, but he was also Doyle’s vision of an asshole. A man with no room in him for the supernatural, and worse, he was right. In a world with miracles, Holmes is just an irritating know-it-all who’s only right most of the time, which doesn’t justify his behaviour. Which means when you’re telling a Holmes-style story where the supernatural is a reality, and the characters around him are dealing with it so he doesn’t have to you’re fundamentally making Holmes from an important character to a big dumb jerk who sucks.

None of these criticisms are necessarily a big deal at all. They don’t stop The Irregulars from being a fun time, and you might be the kind of person who watches Victorian-Era stories, which are overwhelmingly bound to particular ideas of realism these days, and wonder ‘yeah but what if they had superpowers.’ Even just my own limited watching has included things like The Limehouse Golem, Moriarty the Patriot, Enola Holmes, and The Alienist, all experiences set during this time and all of them eschew the fantastic in the name of making magic out of the ignorance of people.

Instead, The Irregulars wants to be a good time building in a space near a common story, and whether or not it improves or hurts that story don’t matter. It’s not here to make some greater point about Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s there to use Holmes as a sort of pre-prepared genre to work in and while it’s there, it just cares about whether or not it’s a good time. Y’know, a supernatural mystery show like Buffy or Grimm and oh no wait I’m seeing a problem here.

I didn’t like it enough to watch a third episode, though, so I guess I didn’t think it was a good time.

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