I’m a storyteller. I know when I’m in one. –Dr. Watson, Sherlock: The Abominable Bride
Literally and figuratively, if were it not for Dr. Watson there would be no Sherlock Holmes. Let me go on record here: I do not believe anything should be referred to as “literally” if there is no figurative corollary. There! I’ve gotten that out of my system. Moving on, let’s not forget that Watson is not only Holmes’ side-kick, but more importantly, his chronicler.
Watson, as a literary device does several things for, Arthur Conan Doyle, the Scottish author who brought Sherlock Holmes to life in the story A Study in Scarlet (first published in 1887): he gives the reader access to Sherlock Holmes, and he helps to humanize him. Without the filter of Watson, Holmes is unapproachable, indecipherable and most of all–unlikeable.
I must state my objection to Sherlock Holmes as a comic book action hero type dude as per the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey movie of 2009 because it really negates the need for Watson and turns Holmes into a cartoon.Think about it. If Holmes were that out there, that charming, that approachable he’d have the ladies and the press camped on his doorstep. He’d write about his adventures himself or hire a ghostwriter, and he’d have an agent. The darkness and internally obsessive nature of Holmes is what the world has been drawn to for more than one hundred years. Holmes’ mind is where the action is.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (first published primarily in The Strand magazine starting in 1891) Watson writes about the adventures he and Holmes get into, which subsequently are published in–The Strand; this is how Holmes gains superstar status as the world’s first “consulting detective.” In the PBS reboot this occurs through Dr. Watson’s blog on the internet.
Between slop-shop and a gin-shop, approached by a steep flight of steps leading down to a black gap like the mouth of a cave, I found the den of which I was in search. — The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Adventure VI: The Man with the Twisted Lip
If you have not read the source, the actual Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, you are missing out, because reading them can give depth and a whole new meaning to every Sherlock Holmes movie or TV show you’ve ever seen, including the revamped for the 21st Century version starring Benjamin Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.
As Dr. Watson, Freeman keeps Holmes grounded and accountable, much as and at times even more so than in the written stories. Watson has much more intimate experience with the outside world than Holmes.Watson’s been to war, he’s had a j.o.b., suffered deprivation and hardships.
In the Granada TV series, starring Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, Watson (as portrayed by David Burke and Edward Hardwicke) alludes to not having the financials to start a private medical practice forcing him into the military to serve as an army doctor. It is because Watson needs lodgings and Holmes needs a roommate that the two are thrown together.
In essence, we the reader, the audience are Dr. Watson, attracted and repelled by the genius of Sherlock Holmes yet touched by his failings and frailty, and always ready for the next adventure that will find Dr. Watson with pen or computer at hand.