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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  • fraser

     That’s one reason I thought Century: 2009 fell flat. The TV didn’t have the punch that the fictional references in earlier stories did. And Moore trying to drive home how he doesn’t like Harry Potter got tired fast too.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Indiana Jones has a different-but-related problem:  Every feature film, he forgets about the existence of the supernatural and “resets” to being a skeptic. In “Raiders,” he really shouldn’t be laughing cynically at descriptions of the Ark of the Covenant’s supposed powers, because JUST LAST YEAR he witnessed pseudo-Hindu death cultists rip people’s still-beating hearts through the power of magic penis-rocks created by Shiva himself. 

  • The reference to West Wing was for a season that never aired in our universe! Same ep has some nice easter eggs in Peter’s comic collection: alt-Justice League, etc. IFAIK one detail was that in the alt-universe there was no Batman or something. 

  • fraser

     God, I hated that one. Marvin Kaye did a novel with a similar concept that worked better.
    Of course, it’s been established since the 1960s that DC’s 1940s comics exist in the Silver Age DCU as fiction (all that changed when they merged universes of course).
    There’s also a Fu Manchu book where he sneeringly refers to the previous book (where the good guys are trying to stop him from killing Hitler, more or less) as propaganda put out by the British government distorting the facts of the case.

  • fraser

     And the superb David Warner as Red Jack (he also did an amazing R’as al Ghul voice in BTAS)

  • Jurgan

    I’m told that the post 9/11 books were very awkward about this, as they constantly referenced 9/11 as a major event, despite the fact that much larger attacks had already occurred in universe.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    I may be mis-remembering WRT the Holmes stories specifically, but I’m fairly certain that Doyle and Stoker are name-checked as existing within the LXG universe. I’ll have to consult my comics later. 

    I also might be conflating it a bit with the Victorian RPG setting, Masque of the Read Death, which explicitly included both, for example, Dracula and Bram Stoker as NPCs. (I believe that the default assumption of the setting was that all stories, unless specifically dated otherwise, take place in the year of their publication.)

  • Similar to that, the character of  Megan Russert on Homicide: Life on the Streets was mentioned in the show to be related to Tim Russert of Meet the Press. 

    I assume Miles O’Brien of ST:TNG and ST:DS9 is somehow related to the CNN reporter of  the same name, but don’t know if that was ever actually mentioned. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    What happens in that setting when presented with two contradictory stories? Like, one Tom Clancy book ends with a plane crashing into the Capitol and killing the President and most of Congress, but any story that postdates that book and isn’t among its sequels is (if the subject comes up) going to talk as though nobody ever assassinated a big chunk of Washington with a plane. Might reference somebody having tried, if it’s a post-9/11 setting, but not anyone having succeeded.

  • I know damn well Raiders was produced & released before Temple.  Was it somehow made apparent that the stories were set the other way around?  Also, Judeo-Christian God being the real deal would specifically exclude the existence of Shiva, so the logic there actually works the opposite from what you suggest.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Wiki assures me Temple is a prequel to Raiders.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Randy: Temple of Doom (1935) takes place before Raiders (1936).  It’s a prequel. Part of its function is to explain how Indy became less mercenary and more altruistic.

    I suppose that Lucas didn’t know when he plotted out Raiders that it would eventually have a prequel. But it’s still a little odd how it’s never been retconned away, to my knowledge. And the error is repeated (more inexcusably) in Last Crusade, where Indy seems unreasonably awestruck by some of the Grail-related wonders.

  • The Lone Gunmen were guests at the Mac OS 10 ship party.

    Star Trek:TNG exists in the Leverage universe; Rogers answers the obvious question about Wil Wheaton’s Leverage character:

     “In the leverage-verse, who played Wesley Crusher?”
    Still Wil Wheaton. Cha0s/Colin has mixed feelings when people point out the resemblance. 


    I don’t think it’s as bit a problem for Elementary as The Return of
    Sherlock Holmes, a TV pilot (failed) of about 20 years ago. Here we have
    Sherlock Holmes himself thawed out of suspended animation but he fails
    to recognize the mystery he’s involved with is The Sign of the Four

    Wooh! I’m not the only one who saw that! Rewatched that as a kid so many times that the betamax tape wore out.

    The animated series ‘Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century’ had the same issue — for all his genius, Holmes never noticed that every adventure he ever went on was just a reprise of something from The Canon, only IN SPACE.  Heck, the fight at Reichenbach falls explicitly happened (They find the original Moriarty’s body there), and no one points out the similarity to the time Holmes and Moriarty’s clone seemingly fell to their deaths in the Reichenbach matter dematerialization grid (Really nice touch in that one. When Holmes reappears, he explains that he caught himself on a ledge on the way down, and kicked some debris over so that onlookers would see an explosion and assume Holmes had died. But he realizes that Moriarty must have done the same thing, since Watson reported exactly simultaneous explosions — since they’d fallen at the same time, Moriarty must have stopped in the middle just like Holmes had.)

  • Matri

    And then there was the time Booth started hallucinating Stewie Griffin smack talking him on Bones.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I haven’t seen these movies but it’s entirely possible that there isn’t a contradiction here. I’ve never thought it odd that in Supernatural, Dean says in season 2 and again in the beginning of season 4 that he doesn’t think angels are real because nobody’s ever seen one. This is Supernatural, where Dean’s hunting ghosts and werewolves and demons every week. That fact does make him an easier sell on the existence of angels than the typical atheist would be (and I’m pretty sure he’s still an atheist right up to late season four, despite earlier episodes in which he kills gods, though I think he and showverse both consider not-Christian gods a sort of monster, which has been ranted about elsewhere at length), but one still has to walk up to him and show off its wings and unkillability before he buys it.


    . At least if we believe the meta reference in Remembrance of the Daleks.

    We never actually hear what that new Science Fiction serial that’s coming on later is, just that the name starts with a D- sound.

    Of course, it’s entirely too not-nighttime out for it to be five in the afternoon at the end of november in England, so who knows what was up with that TV?

  • aunursa

    Plans for the 6th season of Quantum Leap included Sam leaping into the life of Thomas Magnum.  This would have created a paradox, since a character in an earlier QL episode  is seen watching the Magnum P.I. television show.


    While Sherlock still demonstrates the deductive skills we know and love,
    he’s more human and less overwhelmingly arrogant.

    Ironically, this is exactly why I don’t like Elementary as much as Sherlock.  Sherlock(E) is a much more human character than Sherlock(S), and that invites me to judge him by normal human standards.

    And by those standards, he is *horrible*. Arrogant, mean-spirited, a real jerk. Sherlock(S) is arrogant and standoffish by any normal human standards, but he is not a normal human; it would be as inappropriate to complain about Sherlock(S) being arrogant as to complain about Spock being unemotional. Sherlock(S)’s unattractive traits are what they are because he is what he is; Sherlock(E) on the other hand *chooses* to be a jackass, so I don’t like him as much.

    (This is similar to how I feel about Sheldon on The Big Bang theory. If they were actually depicting him as an aspie, I would juge him a lot less harshly. But it’s very clear in his depiction that he’s *not*  an aspie; he’s just an asshole.)

    I do agree with you about Jane Watson. She’s a better character than practically any Watson I’ve seen before.

  • This is absolutely true… obviously the television broadcast slipped through a crack between realities somehow (perfectly feasible in the Doctor Who universe).

  • I think it may have been John Rogers from Leverage

    Yep. New post up, where he says “I will say that although the shows are canonically fictional in each others universes, in my mind Shawn Spencer from Psych is Eliot’s cousin.”

  • Tricksterson

    Haw! Haw! Haw!

  • Tricksterson

    Unless the shows are by Joss Whedon or J. J. Abrams in which case pop references galore.

  • D9000

    Pedantic of North London says: it was The Man Who Never Was, he was washed up on the shores of Spain, not parachuted, and it was the invasion of Sicily, not D-Day, but, yeah.

  • Tricksterson

    Curious, was the deerstalker in the original stories or something the Basil Rathbone movies made up?  I don’t recall.

  • Well, the book was written in the 80s; the author was well acquainted with traffic lights. The protagonist never mentions traffic lights prior to this point, so it is only here that we learn the world he’s from lacks traffic lights. (How they navigate intersections is not explored.)

  •  Also, and perhaps more importantly, in Elementary, it is a curiosity. If everyone in that world knew of the 19th century stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, then it would be taken as a remarkable coincidence that there’s a clever detective with the unlikely name ‘Sherlock’ who was accompanied by someone named ‘Watson’ and who consulted for a  detective named ‘Gregson’. And Sherlock2012 would have to stop claiming that he’s the world’s first consulting detective.

    But the basic principle of the story isn’t broken in any fundamental way by that.

    Whereas, if all the children and hundreds of thousands of adults suddenly vanished and the secretary general of the UN declared world peace while twirling his moustache and acting cartoonishly evil in this world? Yeah, no. That timeline? Could. Not. Come. To. Pass. 

    The entire narrative of Left Behind collapses if any significant number of non-RTC people are familiar with the tradition of PMD prophesy.

  • Ygorbla

    In the worldview of Left Behind, remember, there are only three groups of people:

    1.  Real True Christians.  These are the people who read the Bible as a prophetic checklist, felt the divinely-inspired truth within themselves, and accepted it.  They’ll be raptured away, so they’re not around to do anything.

    2.  Evildoers.  People who read the Bible as a prophetic checklist, felt the divinely-inspired truth within themselves, and obstinately decided to reject it.  These people are beyond all help and will deny the truth even when it’s directly in front of them (in fact, you could say that the paradox you see is part of the point to the authors — they’re saying that the people who disagree with them are not just misguided but are deliberately rejecting what they know to be true in their hearts, and will therefore continue to deny and ignore the Prophecy Checklist even when it is happening right in front of them.)

    3.  People who, somehow, have never heard of this whole “Bible” thing before or anything inside it.  (By which they mean the ‘real’ Bible, of course, ie the prophetic checklist.)

    But category 3 isn’t really important, especially not to the authors of Left Behind, except as this vaguely-defined body of people to preach to (obviously, in their worldview, only people in category 3 can be preached to successfully — if you’ve heard of the Real True Bible before, you’re either saved or willfully choosing damnation.)

  • Has there really been no reference yet to the fact that Supernatural is a popular fantasy series (of books) within the world of Supernatural, thanks to a Prophet charged with transcribing the Books of Sam and Dean so future generations can read them (and deciding to make a profit from being a prophet)?

    This leads to wonderful moments like the two of them revealing themselves to the president of the Supernatural Fan Club, or participating in a Supernatural LARP at a convention, or (my personal favorite) discovering Supernatural fanfiction on the Internet. (“Don’t they realize we’re brothers?!?” “I don’t think they care.”)

  • D9000

    That’s not quite the same thing, though: the premise of BookWorld is not that various fictions are parallel universes to this one but that Fiction, itself, is a subsidiary universe of ours. Only not quite real. Sort of. It’s complicated.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yeah, that would be a fascinating story, wouldn’t it. Shame it never happened.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Ellie: In the LXG-verse, Moore often implies that none of our real-world fictional works are entirely accurate, which is a perfectly reasonable assumption, given how contradictory some of the source material is. Hell, just looking at Jules Verne’s Nemo stories, “20,000 Leagues” and “Mysterious Island,” they’re so full of inconsistencies that there’s no way to resolve them without some serious retconning. So Moore just picked and chose whatever suited the story.

    In the Masque universe, I suspect it would be a similar approach that regarded conflicting stories as half-truths, with reality lying somewhere between them.  Masque was never brought beyond the 1890s in official published materials, so it’s hard to say how the internally contradictory output of prolific fiction authors like Clancy would eventually be resolved.

  • Matri

    Somewhat. Check the wiki.

  • D9000

    I’ve heard two stories, 1) that it was taken from illustrations in the Strand magazine, and 2) it was first used in a theatre production. Certainly never referenced in the books. It would have been a bit of a social faux pas to wear country gear in London.

  • fraser

     Most Holmesian fans consider Doyle exists in the canon, too–Watson’s literary agent and mentor, and the distinguished author of The White Company and Sir Nigel.
    There’s also a Dracula sequel by one of Stoker’s modern-day relatives which explains the book as Van Helsing hiring Stoker to ghost-write his memoirs only to see it turned into a lurid (and inaccurate) thriller.

  • Tricksterson

    Batman isn’t an expy of Sherlock HOlmes.  he was deliberately modeled on Zorro and The Shadow.

  • fraser

     Darn, I was going to mention the ‘toon series as another example. I still greatly enjoyed it.

  • fraser

     In a DC comics miniseries, Phil Foglio has a character suggest that most of the time they just block that stuff out. Easier than realizing that there are entities and aliens who can squoosh the earth without batting an eye.
    But yeah, Indie should be much more savvy.

  • fraser

    Which reminds me (though it’s not equivalent) of the standard complaints against Dr. Thirteen, DC Comics’ “ghost breaker” is that he’s crazy not to believe in the supernatural. But in reality, he’s had consistent experience proving that at least some supernatural forces are phony, so it’s not surprising.
    In a novel I recently finished (now making the rounds), most forms of paranormal power (super-science, psi, magic) work. The hero is agnostic from personal belief and discounts all divine manifestations because it’s so easy to fake them.

  • fraser

     It appears in a couple of the original illustrations but yes, became canon more for other media.
    The curved pipe was introduced by William Gillette, who did a successful Holmes stage play–he found it easier to speak and keep the pipe in his mouth. Apparently the pipes described in the stories don’t fit.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Yes and fine, but being a master sleuth (“World’s Greatest Detective” ring any bells?) is as much a part of the Batman’s character as are his aesthetics, and the comparison of the Batman to Holmes has been explicitly made within the pages of many a Bat-title over the past 73 years.

    Per Batman co-creator, Bill Finger:

    Robin was an outgrowth of a conversation I had with Bob [Kane]. As I said, Batman was a combination of Douglas Fairbanks and Sherlock Holmes. Holmes had his Watson. The thing that bothered me was that Batman didn’t have anyone to talk to, and it got a little tiresome always having him thinking. I found that as I went along Batman needed a Watson to talk to. That’s how Robin came to be. Bob called me over and said he was going to put a boy in the strip to identify with Batman. I thought it was a great idea”.

  • In terms of Doctor Who, it’s been suggested that everything fictional is also canon and somehow exists in Doctor Who except for one particular series of books.  Like 99% of Doctor Who, the series does not go out of its way to explain how that is possible.  But then, Doctor Who often explicitly works off of narrative logic instead of actual plot logic.  It even suggests that the Doctor himself is an escapee from the Land of Fiction in one of its earliest episodes.  The fact that in the new series he pops in and out of pop culture through showing up in TV shows and movies reinforces that idea.

  • but mummies could well represent the 1% whose immortal capital gets passed down generation to generation compounding interest in hoary Swiss vaults, but don’t you dare touch it, ye 99%, lest you awaken the Curse of the Job Creators!

    OMG. I missed the word “Job” in your last sentence, causing my brain to superimpose “Intellectual Property” over “Curse of the Mummy.” I think this is a metaphor with legs and someone who’s got less on their plate right now than I do should get on that, pronto.

  • In one of the Doctor Who Missing Adventures, Ace meets Sherlock Holmes, who is a real person and a character in Doyle’s stories (I don’t remember the explanation for this). Being Ace, she at one point uses the common expression our host bowdlerized, to Holmes’ bafflement.

  • Indiana Jones has a different-but-related problem:  Every feature film, he forgets about the existence of the supernatural and “resets” to being a skeptic. In “Raiders,” he really shouldn’t be laughing cynically at descriptions of the Ark of the Covenant’s supposed powers, because JUST LAST YEAR he witnessed pseudo-Hindu death cultists rip people’s still-beating hearts through the power of magic penis-rocks created by Shiva himself.

    Sheriff Carter (Eureka) has this problem. Of course he starts Season 1 Episode 1 in total ignorance, but by the time we get to the “scince fair” episode, he’s dealt with enough of his adopted town’s peculiarities that he really should know better than to scoff at others’ nervousness. His sarcastic quip about “oh, you’re worried someone might have an accident with a vinegar-and-baking-soda volcano?” had me furious. I was all, “Excuse me, dimwit, but who was it had to save people from some other high-schooler’s genius invention last episode? You know, I think it was you?”

    I love Eureka, but it has its moments where its clear “learns from experience” is a trait the writers revoke from certain of their characters when convenient.

  • Kinda-sorta-not-exactly. Doyle wouldn’t have gone into that kind of detail about what Sherlock was wearing himself. But when the stories were originally published, they ran with illustrations by Sydney Paget which are widely considered to be a canonical supplement to the text. Sherlock wears a deerstalker in one of the illustrations accompanying ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’. Paget’s brief was presumably something like “Holmes and Watson are going out to the country” and drew them in the appropriate attire for such an outing.

    (The hat and the pipe were both popularized by Willaim Gillette, who played Holmes on the stage, and who was the source for a lot of Rathbone’s affectations. I have always been fond of this quote from Orson Welles: “It is not enough to say that William Gillette looked like Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes looks exactly like William Gillette.”)

  •  Here’s a fun one that this reminds me of.

    In the Power Rangers universe, the Japanese show Super Sentai exists, and is based on the exploits of the world-famous superheroes.  Now, in one episode of Power Rangers Dino Thunder, they watch an episode of the Japanese show. And the Japanese show features Triptoids as the mook-class villain. Only in the Power Rangers Dino Thunder continuity, Triptoids are characters from a World of Warcraft-like MMO who were brought into reality by magic science.   Which means that their presence in the Japanese show can only be explained as a form of product placement by the WoW-like.

  • > Yeah, that would be a fascinating story, wouldn’t it. Shame it never happened.

    (blink) It didn’t?
    If you’re ever inclined to unpack that, I’d appreciate it.

  • EllieMurasaki

    It doesn’t make sense as portrayed from either a Doylist or a Watsonian perspective. Sam and Dean ought to have been calling Chuck every week to find out what they were up against and how to deal with it, at least until he either told them he wouldn’t know what was going on until they did or he changed to an unlisted number.

    Also, nice to know what the show creators think of their female fans. And as Chuck is fairly obviously a Kripke self-insert, and the S5 finale plays coy about whether Chuck is God…ego much?

  • El Durazno de la Muerte

     Also, Not Using the Zed Word.  (I won’t link it because one black hole in the comment thread is enough.)