In the wake of the massive impact of BBC Sherlock, there’s been a growing body of work on the subject of Sherlock Holmes as the first fandom. The fact that the Holmes fans of yore called it ‘scholarship’ can’t really hide anymore the all-too recognisable hallmarks of media fandom as we know it today: fanfic? Yup, they pretty much invented that, with sundry ‘unrecorded cases’ discovered amongst Watson’s papers; Cosplay? Yup, they invented that too, with late middle aged ladies and gentlemen throwing off the mantle of their respectability to gallivant to the Reichenbach Falls in full Victorian costume; biting the hand that feeds? Oh yes, Conan Doyle may have been the de facto writer/producer/director but if you think Holmes scholars let him get away with anything, think again; the concept of canon? Are you kidding? Who knew their initial ‘joke’ of a Bible studies-style ‘canon’ would evolve (or de-evolve) into the monster it has become; and even ‘Headcanon’ is a Holmes-fan invention – disagree people might but nothing could personally convince William Baring-Gould that Holmes didn’t marry Irene Adler and subsequently spend several happy years with her touring America as an in-demand stage actor-and-contralto singer tag team.
What were the rules of this fandom at its early beginnings? Dorothy L Sayers essayed this question of ‘the great game’: it “must be played as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord’s. The slightest touch of extravagance or burlesque ruins the atmosphere.”
But did it though? There’s no question that Sayers’ opinion held considerable sway, and for some decades ‘the great game’ indeed rather stuck to her ‘rules’, to sometimes hideously dull effect. The Americans of the BSI seemed to feel somewhat differently, with not infrequent rebelliousness in bizarre theories such as ‘Watson was a woman’ or ‘Mycroft was an artificial intelligence’. Even the British contingent occasionally broke ranks to suggest Mrs Hudson was really Holmes’ mother/sister/secret wife, or even (gasp!) that some of the stories might even have been made up by Watson!
I read back collections of early Sherlockian ‘criticism’ and see links with the Who fandom that’s been my own bedrock. Ronald E Knox, whilst studying to become a priest, made waves with his essay ‘Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes’. In it, his ideas about the ‘Watson saga’ were voiced through such obviously made-up literary critics as ‘Mr Papier-Mache’ and ‘Professor Backe-Necke’, and discussed such Germanic theories as ‘der Watson-khronologie-problem’. Extravagant and burlesque? Absolutely! But such obvious and absurd campery is part and parcel of Who fandom, where one’s favourite fan writers can be sorted out between the droll (‘Regeneration or Rejuvenation?’, endless Dalek chronologies) or the daft (the Gareth Roberts-scripted ‘Matrix Data Bank’ columns, in which readers’ queries were answered by the Krotons, or the DVD reviews of Gary Gillat, ever sensitive to the camp potential of stories made for tuppence in a BBC studio). It’s telling that even Pixley, the master historian of Dr Who fandom, has utilised a Knox-like fiction in which to discuss his subject matter, such as the ‘awards ceremony’ in DWM to dish out story titles for the 1960s Hartnells!
Really it all comes down to the FUN of the thing. If you know fine well that the thing you’re writing about, and the thing you’re watching/reading which you want to write about, is a wildly made-up slice of complete hokum (“trained cormorants”?? “megabyte modems”??), then detail and diligence and respect for the subject matter is all well and good, but it has to communicate WHY you or anyone else should be even bothering with it in the first place. Nobody, not even fans, really care about chronology or canon whilst you’re in the middle of the story. Old Sherlock fandom and contemporary Who fandom are the best examples I can think of where the perfect balance has been found. The worst example of an imbalance has to be hardcore Trek fans’ response (on the comments board of the programme’s own official website!) to what look like the new Klingons’ design from Star Trek: Discovery (all “shit” this, “fucked up” that and all “you have RUINED the show!!” in between).
As Holmes himself said, ”there is nothing new under the sun.” I look forward to seeing Trek fans discovering Ronald E Knox and chilling the fuck out.