The curious incident of Elementary, Left Behind, and the paradox of ‘Bible prophecy’

I’m enjoying Elementary, the new detective show on CBS featuring Sherlock Holmes in contemporary New York City.

The cast and the writing are quite fun so far. The creators of the medical drama House have said that the show was conceived as Sherlock Holmes in the medical profession, and there’s a bit of Hugh Laurie’s House in Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes (which I see as a good thing).

Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson and Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes is a larger-than-life character, but compared to some other successful TV detective series — like CBS’ CSI franchise — Elementary seems almost realistic. Holmes’ super-human powers of observation and deduction may not be strictly realistic, but I’m happy to embrace that as just part of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original premise. But there is one recurring aspect of the show that seems wholly unreal and that can be jarring every time it comes up. Elementary, it turns out, is not really set in contemporary New York City, but rather in some parallel-universe version of contemporary New York in which no one has ever heard of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

The setting is not really New York in 2012, but New York in 2012 as if Conan Doyle’s iconic stories had never existed.

That’s not a huge difference, but we’re constantly reminded of it when watching Elementary. Every time Sherlock Holmes is introduced as “Sherlock Holmes” and people respond without a hint of recognition, we’re confronted with the difference between the world of the show and our own world. Here in our world — the real world — everyone knows that name. Sherlock Holmes is not merely famous, he’s proverbial. “No [kidding], Sherlock,” we say, sarcastically invoking the fictional detective as the universally recognized epitome of deductive brilliance.

That’s the paradoxical problem in all stories like this. In order to present a setting in which Sherlock Homes can seem real, that setting cannot allow for the existence of the fictional Holmes. And a world without the fictional Holmes can never seem wholly familiar or real.

This paradox is not an insurmountable problem for Elementary which is, again, quite fun and entertaining.

But a variation of that same paradox is a far greater problem for stories like the one Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins tell in their best-selling “End Times” thriller Left Behind and its sequels. That story, LaHaye and Jenkins insist, is more than simply a diverting bit of entertainment. It is, they say, a depiction of “Bible prophecy” — an attempt to portray real events that really will, and must, occur here in the real world in which we now live.

I suppose such a claim was more plausible back in the early 20th century, when Cyrus Scofield was first madly scribbling the footnotes of his “prophetic” reference Bible. Back then, one could have read those footnotes in the first editions of Scofield’s annotated Bible and imagined that his “prophecies” might come true. The deceptive rise of the Antichrist’s rule over an unsuspecting world might have at least seemed theoretically possible.

But that deception and that unsuspecting world are necessary ingredients in Scofield’s story — and in the same story as later repackaged and re-sold by popularizers like Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye. But due to the enormous storytelling success of Scofield, Lindsey and LaHaye, this blissfully unsuspecting world no longer exists. The deception integral to their story could no longer occur as they “prophesy” it must.

Just as Elementary requires the conceit of a world in which the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle never existed, so too the fulfillment of these “Bible prophecies” would require a world in which the Scofield Bible, The Late Great Planet Earth, and Left Behind never existed.

That’s not a big problem for Elementary, since enjoying that show does not require one to believe it’s a true story. But since the central claim of Left Behind, et. al., is that these are — or will be — true stories, this paradox is a much bigger problem for them.

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  • EllieMurasaki

    Haven’t seen the ep, but that sounds less like erasing a hard drive and more like installing a new operating system. The programming’s there to tell them how to behave, it’s just not the programming that was there before, and it has no data to work with.

  • Mark Z.

    It’s standard-issue TV amnesia, where you only forget everything that’s specific to you, while remembering everything that’s common to your culture (how to speak, how to tie your shoes, where things are in your city). It’s magic, so who’s to say it doesn’t work that way, etc.

    Still doesn’t explain Spike, though. For that, we have only the Season Six Drinking Game: When you notice you’re watching Season Six, take a drink.

  • It’s been a while since I saw the episode, so my memory is, fittingly, a bit fuzzy, but there’s always the convenient handwave, a la Lucy Lawless on The Simpsons, of “When you notice something like that, a wizard did it.”  Or in this case, a witch.

    The spell that Willow was casting was intended to only erase some specific memories, but it overshot the mark, in a plot-convenient fashion.  I can understand your objections, but I wasn’t particularly bothered by it.

    Certain aspects of their core personalities did remain behind.  For example, while Willow and Xander had decided, based on some clues they had in the form of identification and whatnot that they were a couple (IIRC), the underlying attraction between Willow and Tara managed to manifest itself.

    Of course, I’m not actually trying to defend the episode (or the season, though, I don’t object to the later seasons in the same way that many others do), I merely mentioned it as an instance of characters in a show about vampires who, having no (recalled) experience of encountering vampires, explicitly called the vampires exactly what they were.

  • AnonymousSam

    I’m pretty sure the entire narrative of Left Behind collapses instantaneously as hundreds of millions of grief-stricken, panicking and enraged ex-parents proceed to throw the planet into nuclear chaos. L&J didn’t exactly factor in people acting like human beings either. I have my doubts that the Earth would last long enough for the UN to bother with rearranging its membership.

  • AnonymousSam

    Or, for that matter, the episode where Sam and Dean are transported into the bodies of Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, where they are forced to act out the roles of Sam and Dean in a TV show called Supernatural…

  • AnonymousSam

    FWIW, I’m with you. I think it’s far more inconsistent with reality to say that modern cinema doesn’t exist within a setting which is intended to be as similar to the real world as possible. If someone invented a virus which did as virii in zombie movies are wont to do, anyone calling the resulting mindless hordes “zombies” would most certainly not be committing some kind of existential crisis waiting to happen.

  •  It’s not that their memory erasures were oddly specific that bothers me so much as the fact that they all seemed to have memory *insertions*: they all “remembered” things which weren’t part of their acutal life experience: Spike “remembered” how to act like a normal 20th century human; Giles “remembered” that the supernatural was all stuff and nonsense; Willow “remembered” how to act like a 20 year old in a nice average run of the mill heterosexual relationship. These aren’t just “The way normal people act when they do not have the extra memories of their particular life experiences”, they’re learned behaviors which these characters had never learned.

    (This is why I liked Angel’s equivalent episode better; instead of nebulous memory erasure, their memories are all rolled back to when they were teenagers. So Wesley and Cordelia still know about vampires, but are jerks. Whereas Angel sees a car and freaks the hell out, because when he was a teenager, it was the eighteenth century.  Also, Wesley gets to proudly proclaim “I’m head boy.” which cracks me up even to the day)

    There’s a similar thing in an episode of Power Rangers: Divatox takes a blow to the head and loses her memory, so she becomes a waitress at a diner, acting like any other uncouth, uneducated wage-slave.  Only Divatox is an alien warlord who has only been on earth for a couple of months at this point, so how does she have any idea how to act in away that’s even vaguely recognizable as human social convention?

  • There was an interesting treatment by Star Trek TNG about a memory-loss episode, in which it is revealed that the memory loss was artificially induced.

    It’s really a fascinating episode to watch. Erich Anderson as Keiran MacDuff is really good for a one-show actor. :)

  • I really detest the “Tommy Westphal Universe” theory of “everything that references anything else occurs in the same fictional universe. Hate it.

    The basic flaw underlying the theory is that a character appearing in two different works does not necessarily mean they occupy the same fictional universe. Characters can exist in multiple fictional universes simultaneously. Some characters, like Superman, exist in literally dozens of distinct fictional universes.

    So no, character X appearing in show Y does not mean that X’s show exists in the same fictional universe as show Y. The only thing it definitely means is that character X exists in show Y’s fictional universe. You’re going to need two-way crossover or Word of God to establish shared universes.

  • Sniffnoy

     Note that Darths and Droids is inspired by DM of the Rings (see the FAQ).

  • Andrew

    On “Boston Legal” a witness claimed to have been home watching “Boston Public” when the crime happened; this is an issue because characters from BP had already appeared on BL. My theory was that in the BL universe Boston Public is a documentary series about a real school.

  • Mark Z.

    That, and if we’re talking about ANY “reality” in a fictional work extending beyond what we see on the screen, and we’re not going to accept every little artifact of TV production as part of that reality*, then we need something like what TVTropes calls the Literary Agent Hypothesis to allow for mediation of the “reality” into what we see. And mediation weakens a lot of those supposed “same universe” relationships.

    For example, a key element of the “Tommy Westphal Universe” theory is the appearance of Morley cigarettes in shows like Buffy and The X-Files. Supposedly this makes them co-real.** Except that with Literary Agent mediation, the alternate theory is that the producer*** of a docudrama based on the vampire slayer Buffy Summers felt it was important to show Spike as a heavy smoker, so he went into the prop closet and grabbed several packs of Morleys that had been created for The X-Files (which is purely fictional).

    * including Dr. Watson on Elementary being the same person as Lucy Liu’s character in Kill Bill.
    ** you know, “real in relation to each other”. Like “covariance”.
    *** Indie filmmaker Andrew Wells, who claims to be a self-taught demonologist, vampire hunter, protégé of Rupert Giles, and survivor of the Sunnydale Catastrophe, but is probably just a D&D-playing Slayer fanboy talking out of his ass.


    For example, a key element of the “Tommy Westphal Universe” theory is the appearance of Morley cigarettes in shows like Buffy and The X-Files. Supposedly this makes them co-real.**

    That’s one of the other things I really detest about the theory – it takes almost ANY little shout-out or reference to another work as “this proves they are in the same universe.”

    Sometimes even including references to a character from another show that are clearly “the character is comparing something to a TV show,” or clear in-jokes and actor references. (Witness claims that JAG/NCIS/NCIS:LA are co-real to The Man From Uncle because of a reference to Ducky looking like Ilya Kuryakin when he was young.)

    Indie filmmaker Andrew Wells, who claims to be a self-taught
    demonologist, vampire hunter, protégé of Rupert Giles, and survivor of
    the Sunnydale Catastrophe, but is probably just a D&D-playing Slayer
    fanboy talking out of his ass.

    This may become part of my headcanon now.

    Speaking of headcanon, my RPG group has been running various Star Wars campaigns for years, switching between different eras and GMs, and establishing a distinct multi-campaign continuity. The funny part is that discussion about it caused us to realize that our SWRPG-verse headcanon is comprised of several sources:

    * All levels of official SW canon including the Expanded Universe,
    * All of the Saga Edition SW books,
    * Everything from our campaigns,
    * The Robot Chicken Star Wars specials

    That last one wasn’t anything that we had worked out beforehand, but we realized that we had all more or less accepted it.

  • Steve Condrey

    Jack Lord was born in 1920; Alex O’Loughlin was born in 1976.  The numbers would have worked perfectly for them to be grandfather/grandson (assuming the characters are the same ages as their actors).  Now there’s a missed opportunity!