TV scientists – Sherlock and the nerd stereotype


Another well-used cliche

The BBC’s new series of Sherlock is total nerd porn. It’s the sort of programme that makes me shout possible plot developments at the TV screen in a vain attempt to show that my brain still works. It’s not an exaggeration to say that realising the significance of the combination Sherlock entered into Irene Adler’s safe (her vital statistics – score!) was one of my main achievements of 2012 so far (the other was a non-disastrous drive from Hampshire to London through biblical rain after a ‘driving break’ of about 6 months).

Anything that allows me to indulge my love of nerds gets my vote. Especially if it legitimises this minority view by translating it into brilliant prime time TV that arrives exactly when you need it, giving me an excuse to reimmerse myself in all the Sherlock Holmes stories (which I’ve already read about 20 times). But there’s one fly in the ointment. Does this not-so-guilty pleasure perpetuate a damaging nerd stereotype?

I’ve already written about my love for Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory, and I’ve realised that he and Sherlock share some similarities. They’re both justifiably arrogant, burdened by their superiority over their fellow humans, emotionally stunted, and yet somehow rather loveable. To me, they epitomise the concept of a beautiful mind (and a less beautiful personality).

I enjoy this sort of portrayal of nerds, as long as it’s done well. But do characters like this reinforce an unrealistic and unfair concept of what nerds are really like? Does Sherlock subtly suggest that it’s not possible to be both intellectually and socially talented?

You could argue that a character who’s a genius and also irresistibly charming wouldn’t be someone many viewers would identify with, however much they would like to. And flawed heroes are so much more fun than perfect ones. The (crap) film I, Robot made a critical error by trying to turn uber-nerd Susan Calvin into a scientist babe – the character wasn’t likeable or faithful to Isaac Asimov‘s stories. But it might be nice to have some more believable scientists on TV – you know, ones that actually appear to be human. Ones that don’t endow themselves with superpowers, or accidentally unleash killer microbes on humanity.

I’m struggling to think of a good example of a realistic fictional TV scientist. Much as I enjoy Dexter‘s blood spatter analysis and clinical approach to life, a forensic scientist who’s also a morally conflicted serial killer doesn’t really have the believability factor. Frasier likes to think he’s a man of science, and his life is (sometimes) realistically chaotic and ridiculous, but he’s also too driven and not great at personal relationships. Ross from Friends was occasionally charming, but he was a ‘palaeontologist’ the way male leads in rom-coms tend to be ‘architects’ – only when it involves romantic scenarios like ‘taking the girlfriend to the dream concept house/planetarium at the museum’.

Racking my brain for just one good example reminds me of a great quote – ‘science fiction is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are written for ghosts,’ (thanks Brian Aldiss). This is another way of saying that being a scientist should really be just one facet of a character’s personality, not shorthand for the whole thing. I think that’s why Sherlock and Sheldon succeed – they are stereotypes, but their interactions with their friends and enemies make them more than that.

Which brings me to the person who’s probably my favourite TV scientist (a science officer in this case) – Spock. He has facets of the standard nerd stereotype, but it’s so cleverly woven into his character, and he’s so human (ok strictly speaking he’s half human) that he wins the prize for me. Data also gets an honourable mention for being incurably curious, which every scientist should be.

There’s more than a pinch of Spock in Sheldon and Sherlock (although Sherlock of course was created long before). They all struggle with the conflict between reason and emotion, and I think this particular cliche is what makes us love them – everyone has felt torn between what their head tells them and what their heart wants. It’s not a nerd cliche, it’s a universal storytelling device.

So as long as nerd stereotypes can hit the heights of Spock and Sherlock Holmes, I hope they live long and prosper.

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