On Joan Watson
I was thinking about how I’ve seen a few people express disappointment that Joan Watson wasn’t a military doctor. I’ll admit, I was disappointed too, especially when I heard the rumour that she was a surgeon who’d been fired for negligence. Except she wasn’t - she quit out of a sense of guilt. But I think it’s also important that she wasn’t involved in the military to begin with.
ACD’s Watson was a military doctor of the British Empire. When he joins, he is assigned to a regiment in British India - ie, he is sent to continue enforcing British rule and white supremacy. Upon arrival in Bombay, he discovers “the second Afghan War had broken out”. This phrasing makes it seem as though Afghanistan was the aggressor. So what actually triggered it? Afghanistan refused to allow Britain to establish a diplomatic mission and turned back the party that tried to come over the Khyber Pass. That’s it. The end result was Afghanistan ceding territory to Britain and allowing Britain control over its foreign relations. Again, white supremacy and British control (if not outright rule). And Watson’s heroism is pre-established by his having been in this military.
Sherlock Holmes was written by a white Englishman for white people of the British Empire, and so it is not surprising that Watson’s military career is presented as a good thing.
Elementary is being written and broadcast almost ninety years after the last ACD Sherlock Holmes story was published, during another series of wars in the Middle East instigated by the West, another series of wars meant to reinforce Western control (political and economical) and white supremacy. To have a character’s heroism and strength pre-established by being in these wars would frankly be tasteless.
Joan Watson is definitely not less empowered, or a weaker character, for not directly participating in this. Even outside of this context (which is a massive thing to ignore), there are still two very simple questions:
- Why is it more empowering/stronger to choose to join the army than to choose not to?
- Why is it more empowering/stronger to be forced to retire due to injury than to choose to leave? (Incidentally, ACD’s Watson chooses to give up his practice, as mentioned in The Norwood Builder. Mrs. Watson is never mentioned again, and has presumably passed - perhaps Elementary’s Watson leaving the surgical field after her patient’s death and its impact on her is a parallel to this)
Elementary’s Watson does not need to be a military doctor simply because ACD’s Watson was - the point of an adaptation is not to cohere to every detail of the original, otherwise there would be no point in creating adaptations. Setting Elementary in the 21st century, it’s important to take into account how this time period (and Watson’s gender, and race) changes her experiences.
In the end, I think I like Joan Watson better this way.