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'Sherlock' meets 'The Woman'

Since the late 19th century, the sexual proclivities -- or apparent lack thereof -- of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective Sherlock Holmes have been the subject of everything from literary debate to armchair psychoanalysis.

When the second season of PBS' 21st-century version of "Sherlock" -- starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, with Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson -- premieres at 9 tonight on "Masterpiece Mystery!" expect the conversation to start again in earnest.

Devotees of the consulting detective know the only woman (aside from his housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson) in Holmes' life -- indeed, she is "The Woman" -- is Irene Adler. In Doyle's original, she is a beautiful, brilliant opera singer with an adventurous romantic past who gets embroiled in a royal scandal.

In "A Scandal in Belgravia," the first of three new episodes, Irene (Lara Pulver) is now a dominatrix. She's still involved in a royal brouhaha, but now it's with a distaff member of the ruling clan.

Of course, she crosses swords with Sherlock, but to foil his ability to read clues from what people are wearing, she chooses to meet with him wearing almost nothing whatsoever.

"She's asked to meet with him," says Pulver, "knowing that he's turned up pretending to be an Irish vicar. The game starts from the outset. She pulls out the trump card. She goes, 'OK, if you want to play this game .' It's one-nil to Irene Adler by the end of that scene.

"She throws him off his game instantly. What's brilliant is that, within seconds, you realize it has nothing to do with being naked, with sexuality or anything, because they're both locked into each other's minds, and they're off and running -- in Louboutins, yes."

In Louboutin heels for Irene, that is -- and Pulver ditched them as soon as she could.

"They were painful!" she says.

A few months later, Cumberbatch calls in from the set of the second installment of director J.J. Abrams' revival of the big-screen "Star Trek" franchise, where he's in the makeup trailer having his hair dyed, and says, "For me, Sherlock's not gay. He's not straight, necessarily. He has a sexual appetite, but it's entirely swallowed by his work. He doesn't have time for it.

"That's very much prevalent in the books. But there has always been 'The Woman,' who is Irene Adler. She attracts him, because she is a match for him and outmatches him and outplays him with female intuition, using emotional landscaping to outflank his abilities, to distract him.

"He basically gets distracted by the fact that she's a beautiful woman who has the ability to play the same games as he plays. So it's a great chess match between two very evenly matched players."

"The answer is on the page," says writer and executive producer Steven Moffat, calling in a few weeks before Cumberbatch from a hotel in Austin, Texas, where he's promoting "Sherlock." "The answer is absolutely that he does not get involved in these things, because it would distract him. It's a monastic decision. Our attitude is, it should (satisfy people); it's by far the most dramatic and interesting version of the story.

"It's not that Sherlock Holmes lacks emotion or is asexual. Doyle never says anything of the sort. He says that Sherlock Holmes devotes himself to his work. That's what thrills and fascinates him, and everything else is sublimated towards that end.

"Now, you can play the games of rewriting Sherlock Holmes and say he's a repressed homosexual or asexual or whatever you want, but that's not what was on the page. Since the original is the most successful fictional character in the history of everything, maybe you should stop trying to improve it."

On the cover: Benedict Cumberbatch, left, and Martin Freeman star in "A Scandal in Belgravia," an episode of "Sherlock" airing tonight on PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery!"