The series and episodes of BBC Sherlock | Sherlockology Sherlockabilia Shop Now Open

Pilot: A Study in Pink   * Specials

Directed By
Running Time
60 minutes
Written By
First UK Broadcast

(N/A million viewers)

London, 2009: A series of mysterious suicides have struck the English capital. Nothing links the victims, bar the manner of death. The Police investigation, led by DI Lestrade, is baffled. Meanwhile, Dr John Watson, recently invalided home from the war in Afghanistan, finds his existence now without direction. The solution for both parties lies with a single man: Sherlock Holmes.

In the world of television, the Pilot Episode is perhaps the greatest curiosity of all productions. Imagine creating an hour long piece of work that has to act as a mission statement: an introduction to your characters that must ultimately display the theme and tone of the show in its entirety, all with the intent of getting that programme picked up by a network for expansion into a full series. In most cases, and despite the huge gulf between pilot production and full series production that usually occurs, the Pilot episode of a series ends up folded into the final run of the series itself.

But in the case of 'Sherlock', that didn’t occur. And what we are left with is indeed a fascinating and hugely entertaining curiosity, displaying numerous differences from the final version seen onscreen in July 2010, while retaining the same narrative structure in 'A Study in Pink'.

The most striking differences lie in the characterisation. Benedict Cumberbatch’s early interpretation of Sherlock Holmes seems oddly meek, even pleading at times, while Martin Freeman’s John Watson is far angrier, most notably with the famous “Damn my leg!” line – perhaps the most subtle difference in this episode. Both remain completely recognisable as the final characters though, their friendship already developing.

Story wise, the narrative beats are identical for the most part, but compressed due to the shorter runtime of the episode. The first scene is exposition heavy, lacking the eloquence of the ‘deaths montage’ that opens the broadcast version. John’s abduction by a mysterious stranger, later revealed to be Mycroft Holmes, is also missing here, which removes a layer of tension from the plot and instead renders it relatively straight forward. The taxi chase is also absent, and as a result here Holmes has easily deduced the identity of the killer before even venturing out to attempt to find him.

Also, if there was the one thing from the Pilot missing in the final series that hopefully will get used proper in future, it’s the white wine in the face trick. Pure Sherlock Holmes, acting to deceive and extract information, it’s a showpiece moment for Cumberbatch, and deserving of a revisit in a future episode.

Perhaps the single biggest difference between the Pilot and final version of 'A Study in Pink' lie in the meeting between Sherlock and Jeff the Cabbie. Here, Sherlock is kidnapped rather than leaving with him of his own free will. Yes, it fulfills the same narrative function, leading to the big confrontation and ‘game of chance’ at the end, but it ultimately emasculates Sherlock as a character – he is outsmarted in his first confrontation onscreen, and is put into a situation of far higher risk which in turn makes John’s rescue of him a necessity. Plus the logic of setting the confrontation inside 221B makes John’s rescue slightly comedic here, at least if you think about it – to be able shoot Jeff, he would have had to break into the flat of one of his new neighbours to find a firing angle. Not exactly getting off to a good start, etc.

Ultimately though, all of these differences are symptomatic of a pared down length rather than anything else. While the Pilot does indeed lack the visual flair that marks out the final series, it has the sharp lines, performances, and burgeoning friendship locked down already. The promise was clearly there. So enjoy the Pilot episode as a fascinating curio, one of the best games of spot the difference you could ever play, but still wonder what an hour long series of 'Sherlock' would look like. Indeed, we would have likely ended up with more episodes per series, but would they have actually been a match for the quality of what we ended up with?

Although never broadcast, the Pilot version of 'A Study in Pink' is included as a bonus feature on Disc 2 of the DVD and Blu Ray of 'Sherlock: Series One'.