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Speed Detection, intertextuality and audiences in Sherlock

Asta Koch et Palle Schantz Lauridsen


En Angleterre, Sherlock a connu un véritable succès lors de sa diffusion sur BBC One. La série est rapidement devenue le centre d'une attention massive, créative, en grande partie portée par les fans internautes. Par conséquent, Sherlock est un exemple intéressant de la coexistence de la vision traditionnelle de la télévision, de la culture participative et de la narration transmédiale. Prenant pour points de départ des exemples de Sherlock, l'article préconise l'importance de l'analyse textuelle du public de Sherlock impliquant stratégies et hypertextes institutionnels afin de comprendre comment une série de diffusion s'est transformée en un phénomène Internet qui s’insère dans la culture post-télévision.

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1Two central characteristics within the development of recent media culture are spreadability and drillability. Spreadability deals with “the capacity of the public to engage actively in the circulation of media content through social networks and in the process expand its economic value and cultural worth” (Jenkins 2009). Drillability, on the other hand, “encourages viewers to dig deeper, probing beneath the surface to understand the compleity of a story and its telling” (Jason Mittell, quoted in Jenkins 2009).

2Taking these concepts as inspirational point of departure, we wish to discuss central aspects in and surrounding BBC’s hit series Sherlock (2010-2017, 13 episodes). Anyone who has taken the slightest interest in Sherlock will be aware of the fact that the third series became UK’s most watched drama series since 2001 (Jones 2014), and that it has been the object of a huge fan attention: the finale of the third series became the most tweeted about episode of a drama series ever (Dekker 2014).

3More specifically, we wish to discuss the relation between Sherlock and its audience or rather audiences. Starting at the level of textual analysis, we wish to show how aspects of the series spur (parts of) the audience to engage actively with the series outside the medium of traditional broadcast flow television. This is one of the ways in which Sherlock places itself at the crossroad between classical flow television and more recent and probably future post-television culture in which media content is and will become distributed on several platforms, which each hold their individual possibilities for producers, distributors, and users alike.

4In the first part of the article, we explore some of the audience participation strategies of Sherlock in terms of narrative hints and intertextuality and distinguish between a number of possible and actual audience regimes. In the second part, we present a model, the tent-pole model, which enables us to deal systematically with the hypertextual transmedia narration surrounding Sherlock, whether these hypertexts be institutional or popular, fact-oriented or fictional or all of these.

5 Though, on the one hand, the close readings of Sherlock reveal only narrative and audience participation strategies in this particular series, we, on the other hand, consider Sherlock an example of general transformations within the fields of television series and audience participation in the move towards post-television culture (cf. Mittell 2015 for further examples).

Intertextuality: Speed deduction and audience participation

6In the first episode of the third series of Sherlock (‘The Empty Hearse’, BBC One, Jan. 1st 2014) Sherlock meets Mary Morstan, the future wife of his friend John (Watson), for the first time. When the three of them part, Sherlock and Mary are on their own for a short while. During this short scene Sherlock thoughtfully watches Mary, and in the reverse shots of Mary we see a lot of words swirling around her head. Having watched the earlier episodes, audiences will recognise the words as part of the representational strategy in which the series depicts Sherlock’s deductions. In this particular example the strategy also includes a musical cue and an auditive clue drawing attention to the moment. It is all over in less than 10 seconds.

7From the small sequence, the ordinary flow television viewer probably understands that Sherlock deduces. But he or she cannot possibly understand what he deduces. It is difficult to catch all the words and impossible to distinguish between the trivial and the more important ones, some of which turn out to be essential clues concerning Mary’s character.

8Had Sherlock been a novel or a poem, the reader could just have gone back a page or two in order to read closely whatever he or she did not catch in the first place. As is also the case with, for instance, the theatrical movie, the medium of flow television, however, continuously and irreversibly forces its viewer onwards. In order to read and process all of the information in the scene in question, the viewer has to go beyond the possibilities offered by flow television and enter into a different regime of watching.

9Spurred by the show, some of Sherlock’s viewers did exactly that. Like students of poetry, they scrutinised every detail of the series in order to understand what happened. Using Jason Mittell’s concepts (Mittell 2015), one might say that they drilled through the immediate surface of the show and turned themselves into agents of forensic fandom. Some shared this particular scene, the ‘liar scene’, on YouTube, others shared transcripts of Sherlock’s speed deductions, thus revealing that he saw Mary as a clever, romantic, short-sighted, size 12, cat-loving, disillusioned Lib Dem-voting part-time nurse and only child who read the Guardian, had a secret tattoo and an appendix scar, baked her own bread and was a linguist as well as a liar. As it turned out in the further development of the narrative, ‘liar’ was the key word. Evidence of the user activity concerning these deductions can be found Online. To quote a few examples, one YouTube user commented: ‘Only now when I look back I see the word liar appearing at the end’, another wrote: ‘OMG ‘LIAR’ and a third admitted to being ‘so confused—why things like liar, disillusioned?’ (CodeDarkBlue 2014).

10The comment ‘Only now when I look back …’ is central to our point. The viewer in question had not noticed the word ‘liar’ during the initial airing of the episode. As for the other two comments cited, they underline the amazement and confusion experienced by the viewers. Their narrative desire seems to have been deepened by the information that Sherlock saw Mary as a liar; the information was indeed provided by the broadcast scene but the viewers did not become aware of it until they changed their regime of watching, changed their platform of viewing, and implemented, for instance, slow motion viewing and online discussions in their understanding of the scene. In doing so, they became active viewers as opposed to the more or less passive viewers who may have wondered what Sherlock deduced, but just let it slip by.

11The active viewers soon found the particulars of Sherlock’s deductions by themselves or online, although they had to wait until the final episode of the third series to get the payoff from the ‘liar’-set up launched so discretely and almost unnoticeably in Sherlock’s deductions and discussed so eagerly among the fans. In a broader perspective, the point is that Sherlock—the original media text, the primary text or the ‘transmitted image’ as John Fiske would term it (Fiske 1987: 84)—became the subject of discussion between online users who found themselves caught in the suspense between the ‘liar setup’ in the first episode and its payoff in the last. For some viewers the participatory culture on the Internet became an important entryway into the world of Sherlock.

12A different kind of example of the demanding narrative strategy of Sherlock can be found in the case of ‘Redbeard’. In the second episode of the third series, ‘The Sign of Three’, talking to Sherlock on the phone Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, asked whether Sherlock remembered ‘Redbeard’. Sherlock’s reply, ‘I’m not a child anymore’, indicated some childhood connection, but ‘Redbeard’ remained a signifier with no determinable signified, or a blank (Iser 1980) for audiences to fill out, until it was explained in the next episode. Online, the meaning of ‘Redbeard’ was eagerly discussed amongst active viewers, some of whom commented that ‘Redbeard’ was an (in)famous pirate (Abidos 2014). Internet commentators, once again proving themselves keen observers, noted that Mycroft in a previous episode said about Sherlock: ‘Initially, he wanted to be a pirate’ (ibid.). But the connection between ‘Redbeard’ and Sherlock’s childhood remained uncertain for the time being. In the final episode of the third series, ‘His Last Vow’, Charles Augustus Magnussen, the villain, followed up on Mycroft’s setup by also referring to this ‘Redbeard’, so far still a blank to audiences.

13The series did reveal the identity and importance of ‘Redbeard’. It even did it twice, as the meaning of ‘Redbeard’ was developed through series 3 (January 2014) and 4 (January 2017). On the one hand ‘Redbeard’ is thus a pretty straightforward example of a classical setup/pay-off structure suspending audiences during the wait between episodes. In the third series, the pay-off, however, was put across offhandedly, and inattentive viewers may easily have overlooked it: Mary shoots Sherlock and as he falls, his mind wanders back to his childhood combining a traumatic experience with his present fall. In a long corridor Sherlock, the adult, calls for a dog by the name of ‘Redbeard’. The dog runs towards Sherlock, now the child, and at the end of the scene, adult Sherlock cuddles the dog saying: ‘They’re putting me down too now.’ The scene implies an explanation of why Sherlock as an adult has difficulties establishing close emotional relations, having experienced the traumatic loss of his childhood pet dog; a dog, he may even have named himself, if Mycroft was right in claiming that Sherlock initially wanted to be a pirate. The last episode of the fourth series, The Final Problem, took the meaning of ‘Redbeard’ further and deeper into Sherlock’s unconscious mind. It turned out that the idea of Redbeard being a dog was a false memory ‘installed’ in Sherlock’s mind in order to displace an even worse experience. The Holmes family never even had a dog, and ‘Redbeard’ was the nickname of Sherlock’s childhood friend, with whom he used to play pirates, of course. Redbeard disappeared, and it turns out that he was killed by Sherlock’s jealous little sister. Having understood and come to terms with that disturbing fact, Sherlock seems to become more human at the end of series 4.

14As we have shown, viewers may be passive or active in relation to a television series such as Sherlock. Audiences, however, can relate to texts in other ways as well. Discussing audiences’ knowledge in relation to adaptations, Linda Hutcheon suggests the conceptual pair of knowing vs. unknowing audiences (Hutcheon 2006: 120). The concept of knowing audiences more or less equals Umberto Eco’s concept of the model reader who possesses the encyclopedic knowledge needed in order to “able to deal interpretatively with the expressions in the same way as the author deals generatively with them” (Eco 1995: 7). Using the term ‘knowing’ to avoid ‘the elitist associations’ of terms such as ‘learned or competent’ (ibid.), she defines it ‘as being savvy and street-smart, as well as knowledgeable’ (ibid.). Whereas the twin concepts of active and passive relate to the regime of the viewer during and after the airing or screening of the individual episode, the conceptual pair of knowing and unknowing has to do with his or her prior knowledge, initially at least. The four terms may be combined. They should also be understood in a temporal order as, for instance, unknowing audiences might develop into knowing ones, and as the individual viewer might be knowing at some points of a narrative and unknowing at others.





Figure 1: Audiences may position themselves very differently in relation to a series such as Sherlock

15In the case of Sherlock, some members of the audience may have a thorough knowledge of the ‘canonical texts’ of Conan Doyle and of all or some of the earlier adaptations thereof, providing them the possibility of comparison. On the other hand, other audiences may never have heard about, let alone read, the old stories. The former understand the often very refined references to the old texts in Sherlock, the latter do not. As knowing audiences enjoy the privilege of recognising ‘the presence of one text in another’ (Genette 1981: 3), they engage in an intertextual reading of the series; and intertextuality is a key feature in Sherlock as well as in the series’ relation to audiences.

16While they may recognise the intertexual relation between the canonical texts and Sherlock, ‘knowledgeable’, old school Sherlockians may not share the ‘savvy and streetsmart’ knowledge found in younger audiences. These ‘New Sherlockians’ may on the other hand be familiar with, for instance, Sherlock’s relations to Doctor Who as established through the presence on both series of creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss or to facts relying on knowledge about the actors and their personal and professional lives.

17Elaborating on the relation between knowing and unknowing audiences, one might wonder how many viewers understood the extremely subtle double intertextuality in the following example when it was first aired in the episode ‘The Reichenbach Fall’. We, for our part, did not. John calls on Mycroft at his club, the Diogenes, in itself a clear-cut example of a quotation, as Mycroft’s club in Conan Doyle’s stories bears the same name. There, John addresses an elderly gentleman. Knowing audiences might recognise him as the actor Douglas Wilmer who played Holmes for the BBC in the middle of the 1960’s. This is a case of what Robert Stam along the lines of ‘Genette’s highly suggestive categories’ (Stam et al., 1992: 207) refers to as celebrity intertextuality, ‘i.e. filmic situations where the presence of a film or television star or celebrity intellectual evokes a genre or a cultural milieu’ (ibid.). To some, but not all, viewers the presence of Douglas Wilmer does indeed evoke a certain cultural environment, suggesting that Holmes has been around on television for many years. The casting of Wilmer may even be said to blueprint the new series for older viewers. But the Wilmer scene takes intertextuality even further. How many know and how many even notice that the colours of Wilmer’s bow tie are similar to those of the three dressing gowns that Holmes wears in Conan Doyle’s writings (blue, purple, and mouse) and that the bow tie is the official one worn by members of The Baker Street Irregulars, the American Sherlock Holmes society? It is difficult to disagree with Stam when he asserts that Genette’s categories ‘tempt one to coin additional terms within the same paradigm’ (ibid.), but though a term like prop intertextuality might suggest itself in the case of the bow tie, we see no reason for making a new term for each slightly different form of intertextuality.

18Knowledge comes in degrees. In both the above cases, expert live tweeters may have helped active viewers in becoming knowing viewers of the show by explaining the intertextual references for multi platform users. Knowledge of Douglas Wilmer and of the official bow tie of The Baker Street Irregulars is probably for the happy few, and though both examples are cases of intertextuality they show that intertextuality exists in many modes and that the concept of ‘text’ must be understood in a very broad sense which includes sign systems of any kind.

19Intertextuality is part of Sherlock’s modus operandi. The series throws treats, often referred to as ‘easter eggs’, at knowing audiences who probably enjoy being addressed as knowledgeable and also appreciate the high Sherlockian standard of the show. As documented in the many discussions and websites on the Internet, intertextuality encourages active audiences who initially may not be knowing to try and become so. A particularly condensed example of Sherlock’s intertextual play can be found near the beginning of the episode ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, where Sherlock pays tribute to knowledge of the canonical stories and other works of fiction cultivated in Sherlockian societies around the world for decades. At Baker Street, John is blogging about his and Sherlock’s adventures, and later the two of them leave a crime scene trying to conceal their identity by putting on hats or caps. The mere fact that John blogs is of course an intertextual update of the adventures and memoirs his literary predecessor, Doctor John Watson, ‘published’ in Conan Doyles stories. The intertextual play in the scene is, however, considerably more subtle. On the blog, John has called a story ‘Sherlock Holmes Baffled’, thus using the title of the world’s oldest Sherlock Holmes film; the counter of the blog has reached 1895, which is an almost sacred number to Sherlockians who know and cherish Vincent Starrett’s 1942 poem 221B which ends with the often quoted line ‘And it is always eighteen ninety-five’; John, furthermore, mentions Holmes’ monograph on tobacco ashes originally referred to by Holmes in Conan Doyle’s ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’ and Sherlock even playfully alters the number of ashes Sherlock has described. In Conan Doyle’s story the number is 140, John makes it ‘240’, and Sherlock who feels wronged corrects him: ‘twohundredandfortythree’. At the crime scene, Sherlock condescendingly suggests that John may refer to the case as ‘The Belly Button Murders’, but John prefers ‘The Naval Treatment’ punning on Conan Doyle’s ‘The Naval Treaty’. Finally, when Sherlock tries to hide his face for the press he puts on a deerstalker, the quintessential iconic sign of Sherlock Holmes, probably the only commonly known reference in this intertextually saturated sequence; the deerstalker and its iconic status in Sherlockiana from this incident onwards becomes a running joke throughout the rest of the show.

20Does this tour de force of intertextuality then make the sequence unintelligible to unknowing audiences? It definitely does not provide them the pleasures of recognition, but as it also forwards the narrative and deepens our knowledge of the central characters, the intertextual play is just the icing of the cake; but the cake is still there for all to eat.

Post-television audiences: Sherlock as a Transmedia Narrative

21Ever since Sherlock’s first series aired in the summer of 2010 the show has continuously placed emphasis on the potential of users of new media. Both Sherlock and John are digital literates, which we see time and time again through their use of mobile phones and computers.

22Within the media environment controlled by the BBC, a series of official extra-diegetic websites were launched alongside the broadcasting of the series itself. These sites were available online and updated as each series aired. The most prominent of these official sites was John Watson’s blog, ‘The Personal Blog of Doctor John H. Watson’ (BBC 2013), which elaborated on events presented diegetically, that is, in the show itself. On sites such as John’s blog, the active media user will encounter and experience characters from the storyworld, Sherlock and John to mention a few, but also characters that only make their appearance on the official websites. This way the storyworld of Sherlock expands beyond the television screen and instead becomes the centre, the hypotext, of an intricate web of paratextual fragments that expands and adds to the hypotextual narrative.

23The concepts of hypo-, hyper- and paratextuality need to be defined. Genette distinguishes between the hypo- and the hypertext, the earlier and the present text, but in information science the concept of hypertext takes on a somewhat different meaning. It relates to ‘the joining and structuring of units of information in networks made up by links and nodes’ (Liestøl 2009: 198, our translation). The prefix ‘para-’, on the other hand, means beside, alongside of, and Genette uses the metaphor of the threshold or the airlock to describe the paratext as it ‘helps the reader to pass without too much difficulty from one world to the other’ (Genette 1987: 408), from the outside world through the airlock of the paratext to the primary text.

24As the paratexts discussed here are connected by links, they are hypertexts (Olek 2013: 132) within the framework of information science, though not quite within that of Genette as the many media texts, all controlled by the BBC, by and large contribute equally to the unfolding of the narrative. One might argue that the thirteen episodes of Sherlock constitute the primary text, as audiences can watch them without any knowledge of the paratexts. One would, however, place oneself in an untenable position if one were to consider the information provided by, say, John’s blog as only a threshold or an airlock leading to the primary text. Though definitely inspiring, Genette’s concepts to a certain extent thus are not suitable for analysing the relation between texts in the Internet era. John’s blog, for instance, provides information that not only leads into, but also complements the narrative of Sherlock. John’s sister, who is only mentioned a few times in the series, is very active on the blog. The blog and the series even comically contradict each other as in the case of John’s stag party: The series depicts John and Sherlock returning drunk to Baker Street, whereas John in his blog notes that they returned from a ‘a quiet, civilised evening in the pub’ (BBC 2013). Simultaneously presented on multiple transmedia platforms, the overall narrative of Sherlock becomes an example of what Henry Jenkins has labelled ‘transmedia storytelling’ (Jenkins 2006a: 97-98).

25The existence of hypertexts such as John’s blog and Sherlock’s personal website, ‘The Science of Deduction’ (aptly and intertextually named after the second chapter of Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, and the first chapter on the second novel, The Sign of Four), allows the curious media user to seek further narrative information about the show outside the show. And whilst the media content remains under the control of the BBC within the institutionally created hypertexts, we have also seen through the speed detection example, how media users gladly venture onto unofficial platforms in order to satiate their curiosity concerning the show. Henry Jenkins points to an increase in audience activity as a result of transmedia storytelling as the current media environment has made the infrastructure for the distribution and reception of knowledge much more accessible. Jenkins regards this tendency as an expression of a desire for increased knowledge as more and more media users ‘are enjoying participating in online knowledge cultures and discovering what it is like to expand one’s comprehension by tapping the combined expertise of these grassroot communities’ (Jenkins 2006b: 135). These online knowledge cultures can be termed as the ‘collective intelligence’ (ibid: 134) behind Sherlock. Members of the collective intelligence will, as we demonstrated with the example of how users sought to understand Sherlock’s speed deductions and thus gain inside into the character of Mary Morstan, drill for new knowledge and

assume the role of hunters and gatherers, chasing down bits of the story across media channels […] to ensure that everyone who invests time and effort will come away with a richer entertainment experience. (Jenkins 2006a: 21)

26In order to gain insight into the consequences of the transmedia storytelling employed by the BBC and its effect on audiences, it can be beneficial to attempt to map out the hypertextual activity generated outside the control of the BBC as the official media institution behind the show.

Sherlock and The Tent-Pole Model

27As a transmedia narrative Sherlock may be analysed by the crossmedia method called The Tent-Pole Model (Davidson et. al 2010; Jensen & Vistisen 2013). The model is a useful tool in understanding the ‘process of transitioning the audience into producers.’ (Jensen & Vistisen 2013: 3).

28Furthermore the model allows for a graphical distinction between the various hypertextual transmedia expansions deriving from the Sherlock universe. The model, of course, is not only functional for mapping out the textual network surrounding Sherlock, but can be adequately used in relation to any other media text and its hypertexts. The basic tent-pole model looks like this:

Figure 2: The Tent-Pole Model

29The tent-pole model is based upon the graphical representation of a tent-pole circus tent as seen from above. The tent-pole, the primary text, holds it all together, and any hypertext exists as part of one of the four pieces of canvas surrounding the tent-pole. The primary text, here the narrative of Sherlock, is at the centre, and it sets ‘the co-creation into motion […] to create a space in which new narratives as well as transmedia storytelling evolves both on the institutional level […] and the individual level’ (Jensen & Vistisen 2013: 2). The canvas is split into two rows and two subsidiary columns, and thus divided into four quadrants of content: institution factual, institution fictional, people factual, and people fictional. With its quadrants the model charts the relations between the sources (institution/people) and the overall genres (factual/fictional) of the hypertexts all of which can be placed within one or, as we shall see, several quadrants.

30Within the institutional column, the media content is produced by the copyright proprietor, and the content is thus controlled by the media institution. The factual quadrant contains things such as the official website of a show whereas the fictional quadrant is concerned with textual extensions such as comic books or novels that take place within the same fictional universe. Within the People column, the media content is unregulated by the media institution. Websites such as online forums fall within the factual quadrant whereas fan fiction, fan art and roleplaying belong to the people fictional quadrant.

Figure 3: The Tent-Pole Model applied to Sherlock

31As the model illustrates, Sherlock is, indeed, a transmedia narrative. Within the institution factual quadrant one finds the official sites of the show, but also BBC’s various twitter accounts and their YouTube channel. Furthermore BBC delves into the fictional quadrant through the hypertextual expansions of the storyworld, for instance Sherlock’s website and John’s blog.

32As we have seen, the level of activity amongst the audiences of the show is high. This becomes apparent when considering the People column. Within the factual quadrant, users apply hashtags to their discussions on Tumblr and Twitter and similarly the fan-controlled site, Sherlockology, belongs to this category. Finally within the fictional quadrant, a large number of people contribute to the creation of fan fiction, fan art and roleplaying, both online and offline.

The Case of Fanfiction

33One of the reasons why fan activity has been so high is that the production agents have been able to keep the series alive during the long hiatuses between the short, three episode series. At the textual level, the cliffhangers at the end of each series have been extreme and at the paratextual level, creators, producers and others have been very active in promoting the series also acknowledging the huge fan interest.

34The fans themselves have contributed to and expanded the Sherlock universe in many different ways. A site such as has delivered high quality up-to-date information on the show, the actors, the locations etc. and has even functioned as an intermediary between producer Sue Vertue and the fans (Sherlockology 2013). Online, fans have discussed possible plot developments and tried to explain why and how events turned out the way they did. Sherlock’s lethal, or as it turned out non-lethal, jump from the roof of St Barts at the end of the second series ignited discussions so hot that they even entered the primary text in the opening episode of the third series.

35Fans have also used characters and relations between them as stepping-stones for producing a variety of home spun materials: video mash ups, online fan art, fan fiction. Presently, February 2017, one such site, hosts almost 100.000 “works in Sherlock Holmes & Related Fandoms”, whereas hosts some 58.000 pieces of Sherlock fan fiction, which is quite impressive considering that the BBC has turned out only thirteen episodes, and that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a total of ‘only’ 60 Sherlock Holmes stories, including four novels over a 40-year period. There are all sorts of communities on Some write ‘Johnlock’ ‘slash stories’ on the alleged homosexual relationship between Sherlock and John, others concentrate on the relationship between the pathologist Molly Hooper and Sherlock, to mention but a few.

36As suggested by Poore, fan writers tend to apply other generic features to their stories than the ones traditionally connected with Holmes (Poore 2012). Generically, Conan Doyle labelled the first volume of the Holmes short stories ‘Adventures’. ‘Crime’ and ‘mystery’, of course, were central parts of the 60 stories, and the most famous of them all, The Hound of the Baskervilles, had strong Gothic elements, ‘a real Creeper’, Conan Doyle called it in a letter to his mother (Conan Doyle 2007: 477). Examining the Sherlock-stories on more closely these four genres, however, account for only 7,5 % of the generic labels on the site. The fan writers are obliged to determine the genre of the stories they share and must choose one or more of 21 suggested genres. ‘Romance’, which is almost absent in Conan Doyle’s Holmes oeuvre, tops the list of as almost one fourth of the stories fall within the category. Leaving aside the indistinct genre ‘general’, the three runners up are ‘friendship’, ‘hurt/comfort’ and ‘angst’. Together with ‘romance’ approximately 60 % of the stories fall within these categories, which by no means are quintessentially Sherlockian. When Sherlock hit the fans, they bracketed genres traditionally connected with Holmes. Instead, they produced material dealing with matters of personal (‘angst’) and especially interpersonal (‘romance’, ‘friendship’, ‘hurt/comfort’) relevance.

37Fans not only develop the relations between the characters (‘Johnlock’, etc.) and change the generic substance of the Holmes/Sherlock universe. They have characters from Sherlock interact with characters from other works of fiction in so-called crossovers. hosts more than 5600 stories pairing Sherlock with a total of almost 500 different works of fiction. Sherlock/Doctor Who stories are by far the most common and account for approximately one third of all these crossovers, a fact which indicates the intimate relation between the two series for parts of the audiences.

38One of the most interesting inventions of the Internet users has been the I believe in Sherlock-movement. Originally posted on a blog the day after the airing of The Reichenbach Fall, the idea of the movement was for fans to act as if they were part of Sherlock’s story world and to oppose the incriminating allegations made by Moriarty and the tabloids in the Reichenbach episode (Hallor 2012). That is, by the way, the opposite strategy of classical Sherlockians who playfully agree on the ‘gentle fiction’ (Klinger 2005: xii) that Holmes and Watson were real. With their imaginative actions, the active participants of the I believe in Sherlock-movement have made quite an impact—on the Internet and in real life.

Active Audiences Made Produsers

39As previously seen, the official hypertexts encourage a more active viewership, as it is up to the individual media user to seek out and engage with the paratexts of the show. This way audiences can prolong their engagement with their show and simultaneously become more knowledgeable. As the speed detection example demonstrated, for some audience members, some of the hypertexts generated outside the official media institution serve the same purpose.

40This may be a result of fans merging the drillability and the spreadability related to the show, being motivated by what Jenkins has labelled epistephilia; ‘not simply a pleasure in knowing but a pleasure in exchanging knowledge.’ (Jenkins 2006b: 139). The primary purpose must then be found in the sharing of knowledge where the collective intelligence surrounding Sherlock is seen in the light of what Axel Bruns terms ‘produsage’. The term is defined as ‘the collaborative and continuous building and extending of existing content in pursuit of further improvement’ (Bruns 2008: 21). For instance, in the case of fan fiction, authors will often change the direction of the storyline from the one taken in the series itself to pursue the formation of a certain couple, e.g. Sherlock and John, Johnlock, og Sherlock and Molly, Sherlolly. And so, active audiences becomes ‘produsers’ by concurrently using each other’s products to expand their knowledge of the show as well as they themselves can create textual products that contribute to the paratextual universe of Sherlock. Where in Genette, paratexts are basically produced by professionals whether they be publishers or the authors, within recent years, fans have taken to constructing paratexts in relation to texts generated within their own community.

41In mapping the process of how Sherlock-audiences transcend the television screen and becomes produsers, the tent-pole model presents a valuable tool.

42For instance, the paratexts created within the people factual quadrant need to be considered in relation to the collective knowledge produced when active audience members interact, and so they expand the knowledge possessed by the collective intelligence of the show (Jenkins 2006b: 140). harvests knowledge about the show from a variety of sources and distributes it via easily accessible channels such as Twitter or Facebook. As such it represents the collective intelligence within the people factual quadrant. By accessing the people factual paratexts,

a form of universally distributed intelligence [is created, which is] constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills […]. The basis and goal of collaborative intelligence is the mutual recognition and enrichment of individuals rather than the cult of fetishized or hypostatized communities. (Lévy quoted in Bruns 2008: 33)

43Thus knowledge is produced throughout the use of the people factual paratexts, and the users of these still act as produsers as they continue to use and contribute to the collective intelligence.

44Applying the tent-pole model to Sherlock allows us to regard the paratexts created by active audiences, post-television (Lynn & Olsson 2004, Leverette et al. 2008, Clarke 2013) audiences perhaps, as an essential part of the complete transmedia experience. While the distribution of the user-generated paratexts remains less structured than the distribution of the paratexts created within the institutional environment of the BBC, we wish to argue that these unofficial paratexts still possess the potential to affect the primary text, the tent-pole itself, Sherlock. Whilst the official hypertexts are updated, it happens only while the series airs (circa every two years). In comparison, the user-generated content circulates dynamically and constantly. Thus, to quote Alex Bruns:

What emerges is that in the online, networked, information economy, participants are not simply passive consumers, but active users [that] are inherently constructive and productive of social networks and communal content. (Bruns 2008: 23)

45The active media use adds, through its dynamic infrastructure and collective intelligence, new means of communication. And of this, the BBC and the production team are highly aware, as when on various occasions producer Sue Vertue retweets YouTube videos created by fans or information from (Vertue 2013).

A unique case of transmedia content

46The potential of new media has been present in Sherlock since it first aired. Both Sherlock and John are presented as digitally literate through their constant use of new media, e.g. John’s blog and Sherlock’s reliance on networked communication. What is more though, is how Sherlock as a TV series demonstrates its awareness of the series’ collective intelligence or, in other words, active post-television audiences. Especially during the promotion of the third series, the BBC proved how attentive they really are.

47On 23 November 2013, the eagerly awaited 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who aired on BBC1. Apart from being a media event in itself, the occasion was further utilised to promote the coming series 3 of Sherlock. Of course, both of Sherlock’s creators, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, were involved with Doctor Who. Judging from fan activities many of the British viewers are the same, and so, following the airing of the Doctor Who episode, the BBC elected to air the launch trailer for the third series. If the launch trailer is to be placed within the tent-pole model, it belongs to the institution factual quadrant as it was produced by the BBC. What makes the trailer interesting as a part of understanding the relationship between Sherlock and its active audiences, is the hashtag #SherlockLives presented towards the end of the trailer. This must be considered an invitation to the active users; and instead of regarding audience activity ‘a potential loss of control over their intellectual property’ (Jenkins, 2006b, p146), the BBC here seeks to incorporate and utilise the potential and functions of the collective intelligence. Although the hashtag was created under institutional control within the tent-pole model’s institution factual quadrant, the BBC relinquished control and the hashtag converged into the people factual quadrant the minute active audiences started using it on social media platforms such as Twitter and Tumblr.

48However, the BBC continuously used #SherlockLives themselves by renaming BBC One’s Twitter Profile ‘#SherlockLives’.

49Furthermore, the #SherlockLives hashtag appears diegetically. In the launch trailer, a scene from the episode The Empty Hearse shows former Scotland Yard forensic officer, Anderson, together with a group of Sherlock Holmes fans. Suddenly various phone alerts go off and soon a series of hashtags appear on screen, #SherlockLives included.

50Thus #SherlockLives is incorporated in the primary text, in the show itself. The fans in the show must be considered a diegetic representation of the collective intelligence surrounding Sherlock. The series truly became ‘blog-aware’ or ‘web-aware’ to such a degree that Mark Lawson of The Guardian issued a warning noted in a critical comment (Lawson 2014).

51Following the airing of ‘The Empty Hearse’, John’s blog was updated. Here, too, #SherlockLives lives. In the blog entry titled ‘The Empty Hearse’, John notes, after announcing that Sherlock is, in fact, not dead: ‘So, yes. It’s all good. Better than good. It’s bloody brilliant. #sherlocklives means #johnwatsonlives’ (BBC, 2013). Here the hashtag was placed within the institutional fictional quadrant as it served as part of an institutionally controlled hypertext.

52The #SherlockLives hashtag migrated across multiple media platforms. It came into existence through the primary text, the tent-pole, but was further distributed through the BBC via the launch trailer to the tent-pole model’s people categories. Thus, the hashtag also exemplified the concept of Axel Bruns’ produsage as it ‘is based on a principle of inclusivity [and] draws on as broad a range of available knowledge, skills, talents, and ideas as is available, and encourages its participants to apply these diverse capacities to the project at hand.’ (Bruns, 2008, p. 25).

53The #SherlockLives campaign illustrated how the BBC as a media institution was aware of post-television audiences’ contribution to the construction of a transmedia text through their collective intelligence and produsage potential. This was further acknowledged by the BBC by offering media content that was solely available to active audiences. In the case of #SherlockLives, an interactive version of the launch trailer for series 3 of Sherlock enabled active viewers to gain access to exclusive content and knowledge about the forthcoming series. Thus, Sherlock involved post-television audiences diegetically which comes to mean a gradual breakdown of the boundaries set between the categories in the tent-pole model.

Figure 4: #SherlockLives transgresses the borders of the tent-pole model

54As the above version of the tent-pole model illustrates, the transmedia experience of Sherlock was not limited to official, institutionally controlled paratexts. Instead, the show elected to acknowledge its collective intelligence by presenting it in the primary text and thus as part of the tent-pole itself. Thus, the categories as presented by Jensen and Vistisen were partly erased; instead the media content converged across multiple platforms. By incorporating and presenting the series’ collective intelligence as a part of the diegesis of the show, the unofficial as well as the official paratexts became an imperative part of the transmedia narrative of Sherlock. As a media text Sherlock became a text that was ‘always already a collaboratively created entity.’ (Gray 2010: 166). Consequently, Sherlock can be considered a transmedia text, that actively seeked to engage with post-television audiences and to exploit the potential and capacity such audiences represents.


55Sherlock was originally commissioned and broadcast by the BBC but it was not just another television series. It walked the line between traditionally passive and more recent active audiences and thus was an indication that television culture is changing.

56It could be enjoyed merely as a regular flow television show but as we have seen from our opening examples it implores audiences to active participation. Sherlock’s speed deductions required scrutiny to ensure audience comprehension and active audience members of gladly embrace the requirements. They followed a trail laid out by the BBC and tracked it across different media platforms drilling for more knowledge, and so they voluntarily entered into a different regime of watching. This was equally true for the understanding of diegetic elements speedily hinted at within the story as for various forms of intertextual references.

57Sherlock existed in a digital media environment and distribution of knowledge amongst individual audience members was quick and almost constant. As a result of the digital infrastructure, audiences collectively generated knowledge that extended the universe of Sherlock by assuming the roles of concurrent producers and users. Thus Sherlock moved beyond the realm of flow television and into the post-television era. #Sherlocklives, although originating from the BBC, soon generated activity across all four quadrants of the tent-pole model, indicating that media content may converge across multiple media platforms and that institutional producers as well as popular produsers may take part in generating paratexts. In the case of the fan fiction paratexts, the primary text of Sherlock to some extent became secondary as fan fiction writers created their contributions in relation to other fan fictions not only taking Sherlock as their point of departure. Fan writers created their own story lines, genres and crossovers, elaborating on story lines and blanks in Sherlock and disregarded the generic characteristics of the Conan Doyle stories as they focussed on the interpersonal rather than on the adventurous or crime related possibilities laid out by Sherlock.

58‘A New Sleuth for the 21st Century’ was BBC’s tagline for the first series of Sherlock. Fans picked up the thread and took the stories and characters provided by the BBC in their own, new directions. Fans not only participated in produsing the series as a transmedia narration. They transformed it. In the post-television era of transmedia narration, producers and produsers alike changed Holmes radically.

59The medium of television has also changed. Sherlock is but one example of television in the post-television era or at least an example of what television may become. TV is no longer limited to the screen of flow television, instead audiences migrate across media platforms to extend and prolong their viewing experience. Of course, it cannot be said that this is the only certain progression for TV as a medium. Online streaming services such as Netflix constantly pressure flow television and more recent TV productions employ transmedia storytelling in order to engage differently with audiences. Sherlock serves as an example of a TV show that embraces the current media environment. As such Sherlock epitomized television as a medium in transition.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 2: The Tent-Pole Model
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Légende Figure 3: The Tent-Pole Model applied to Sherlock
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Légende Figure 4: #SherlockLives transgresses the borders of the tent-pole model
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Asta Koch et Palle Schantz Lauridsen, « Speed Detection, intertextuality and audiences in Sherlock », Mise au point [En ligne], 9 | 2017, mis en ligne le 02 mai 2017, consulté le 18 février 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Asta Koch

Asta Koch, MA in Film and Media Studies, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen Business School and University of Liverpool. Member of Sherlock Holmes Klubben i Danmark, The Danish Baker Street Irregulars.

Palle Schantz Lauridsen

Palle Schantz Lauridsen, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Nordic Studies and Linguistics, University of Copenhagen. Author of books and articles in Danish on film sound, media history, television series, the analysis of media. Articles in other languages include: "Genre and generic modulation", "Genere, spettatori e media. Il caso di Sherlock Holmes", Fictions 10/2011; “The Making of a Popular Hero. Sherlock Holmes in Early, Danish Media History”, Northern Lights 9/2011.

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