If you want to get to the heart of Sherlock Holmes, start by watching Without a Clue.

The 1987 satire follows detective-MD Watson trapped in his own stories of the fictitious “Sherlock Holmes” and the actor he hired to play the public role – an actor who becomes an unkillable press darling and gets credit for all Watson’s work. The duo eventually transform into legend: the savvy, all-knowing investigator and the slightly bumbling right-hand man.

This feature-length commentary is broad, but it’s not wrong. Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous characters in British literature, and a godsend for anyone in film or TV who needs to shortcut something; you can invoke an entire genre simply by having a character reside at 221 anything, or pop on a deerstalker hat (hopefully for holodeck mystery-solving, because let’s be honest, not much call for deerstalkers otherwise).

It also means that when you talk about Sherlock Holmes in film and television, you’re talking about quite a swath of film and television. The first Sherlock Holmes film predates the first World War; he’s been portrayed by nearly a hundred performers, some as a one-off (John Barrymore as a Holmes whose major concerns were romantic), some for years (one of TV’s best-known Sherlocks, Jeremy Brett). Even children’s programming got in on the act, and Holmes had a turn as Basil of Baker Street, the infamous Great Mouse Detective.

The mantle of the mythos is, at this point, inextricable from the character. In fact, the mythos smoothes some rough edges in the original stories, giving Sherlock a more consistent characterization than the wide-ranging serials could manage. A hunt for the quintessential Sherlock is therefore scuttled by the canon itself. The early stories had Holmes’s education so specific that Watson made a list of subjects of which he knew nothing; later stories regularly contradicted it, as Holmes’s knowledge expanded to keep up with the myth of the infallible, unflappable detective.

That hasn’t kept dozens of actors from plumbing the role, of course, and many have done an exemplary job bringing the detective to life while imbuing him with personal quirks. But with so many characteristics to choose from – manic problem-solver, or idle dissolute with his seven per cent solution? Cutting society-following gent, or pugilist who knocks a witness around from time to time? – almost any Holmes is possible. (Remember the time he was a mouse? Never, ever forget the time he was a mouse.)

In fact, Sherlock Holmes is so very much the archetype of the detective that you can trace him through a nice chunk of all the procedurals ever. House was a Sherlock Holmes show. So is Psych. So is The Mentalist (which is also a Psych show, but the Psych people seem to have that covered). So was Goren on Law and Order: Criminal Intent.

Given the sheer breadth of his influence, you end up with so many takes on the character that trying to determine a successful adaptation can get you bogged down in minutiae. In the search for dramatizations in the real spirit of the original, then, an unexpected rubric emerges: the measure of a Holmes adaptation is rarely found in its Holmes, but in its Watson.

Watson – the sharp physician with a flair for storytelling, a ladies’ man, and a man in whom the world’s cleverest detective detects a kindred spirit – is the lens through which nearly all these stories are told, and his fondness and admiration for Holmes is the emotional through-line that carries the stories, on the page or on the screen. Even when Sherlock is otherwise iconic – Basil Rathbone, for example – if Watson is the clueless bumbler Nigel Bruce made famous, you end up with a story about a clever crime-solver and his live-in barnacle. The interplay between them is crucial; the more Watson shines, the more does Holmes. (It’s notable that in The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of the most often adapted Doyle stories, Holmes himself has a marked leave of absence, leaving Watson to befriend Henry Baskerville, and do some solid detective work of his own.)

Three pairings in particular, I think, found great success with this formula:

Peter Cushing and Andre Morell, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Hammer’s take on the tale included some changes from the original. Some are‚Ķinteresting. (Remember the famous Doyle scene where Henry Baskerville is almost killed by a tarantula? Classic!). However, some of them paid off handsomely. Morell’s Watson, a marked departure from the Nigel Bruce School of Eating and Asking for Clarification on Everything Ever, was intelligent and studious; Peter Cushing’s Holmes (in a take that got him a gig playing the detective on TV) is both wry and passionate, and his friendship with Watson is organically affectionate; the scene of their meeting atop the hill particularly shines.

Vasily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. If there’s such a thing as the quintessential Holmes and Watson, you might well find it here. This calculating, dryly funny Holmes and even-keeled, intelligent Watson formed a truly remarkable team, with the sort of respectful and affectionate shorthand that meant a lot of scenes of the two of them smoking and chatting – none of which felt too long. (And if you ever wanted to see Holmes make an unmatchable bitchface, just watch Hound of the Baskervilles, and look for Livanov’s reaction to this movie’s slightly-cowardly Henry Baskerville asking if perhaps he can just abandon the hall.)

Rupert Everett and Ian Hart, Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking. The plot – an original story – is unmitigated Ye Olde SVU, and exists mostly to employ character actors. However, that doesn’t stop Everett and Hart from being one of Holmes canon’s most engaging screen pairings. Everett’s Holmes is at the end of a downward spiral, chasing the dragon from boredom, and equal parts savvy and insufferable. Hart’s Watson (arguably one of the best ever played) is not just smart but canny, funny, and often frustrated by his friend (though not by the case, which he’s instrumental in solving). The movie paints a nuanced and poingnant portrait of the duo’s extrapolated later years, where it’s Watson who does perfectly well alone, and Holmes who’s slightly lost without the doctor of Baker Street.

There is, of course, an eternal great debate over who is and is not an exemplar in the role; it runs parallel to the debate about period vs. contemporary settings, and the value of Holmes apocrypha. (Of the latter, I think some have great value; some, like The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, seem to exist mostly so Billy Wilder can wink broadly at the audience, and so that Christopher Lee can complete the trifecta of having played Holmes, his irascible brother Mycroft, and the evergreen Henry Baskerville, by turns.)

But I think perhaps Without a Clue had it right all along: the man’s been less a character than a myth from the start – and one who, like any archetype, has been often adopted since. Luckily, there’s always enough of an archetype to go around, and though sometimes he might be too far diluted, in the presence of a great Watson, he’ll probably do all right.

Unless he’s a mouse. Maybe then we should talk.