Monday, 4 January 2016

Remember how good the first episode of Sherlock was?

It was incredible television.

And now… what went wrong?

After a two-year break, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ modern-day updating of the Victorian detective returned for a special set in, erm, Victorian times. I was very skeptical about that element – surely the whole point of Sherlock is to be a modern updating of the Holmes stories and to show that the period setting isn’t necessary, and this gimmick sounded like a step too far into the self-referentiality that hampered the third series. 

As it happened, the 1890s setting didn’t work too badly, with the case well suited to it; a ghostly bride stalking London is a very Victorian horror idea, and the nighttime stake-out outside the grand mansion most likely wouldn’t be as atmospheric if Watson had his smartphone instead of a revolver. Plus, the repartee between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Martin Freeman’s Watson, like a crime-solving Blackadder and Baldrick, would work in any period.

And, importantly, I actually liked the explanation that was given – modern-day Sherlock was immersing himself into a nineteenth-century cold case in order to help him figure out the secret to Moriarty’s survival. Sherlock meets Waking the Dead. A neat link tying the episode’s gimmick into the overarching story.

But Moffat and Gatiss aren’t able to leave it at that, and the episode starts to fall apart when it throws in a number of seemingly random tangents from the plot, pulling not one, but two unrelated tête-à-têtes between Sherlock and Moriarty out of its deerstalker. It’s all over the place, to the extent that there’s a fifteen-minute stretch midway through the episode where the mystery isn’t even mentioned.

Look, too, at this episode’s handling of its themes – is it about Sherlock as an addict? Feminism? Friendship? Sherlock vs. Moriarty? Answer: all of them and none of them. And at its insistence on putting all the famous Sherlock Holmes scenes into the Victorian setting – why must we watch Watson and Sherlock meet for the first time again? What does the Reichenbach Fall scene have to do with anything? So much is superfluous.

And then there’s the issue of the gender politics. With this and recent Doctor Who, Steven Moffat seems to be actively trying to make up for accusations of misogyny that were rightfully thrown at his first few Who series. And good on him for trying. But, well, it’s more than a little clumsily handled. Firstly, seeing Watson being a dick to his wife and maid is uncomfortable watching. The Sherlock formula worked because Holmes was the abrasive, arrogant one and Watson the moral compass who held him back; if they’re both dickheads, there’s no reason to root for them, and that’s the case here, with his personality having been adjusted to make the twist work (there’s a comparison to 1970s Doctor Who – when Jo Grant was introduced as a more explicitly feminist companion, the writers had Jon Pertwee’s Doctor make sexist jokes just so she could call him out on it).

And secondly, maybe portraying feminists as a murderous cult who dress up as the KKK for no reason at all isn’t the best way to make them sympathetic. I mean, what is up with that cult? Sure, the motive of fighting back against sexism is a good one, but why did these men in particular deserve murdering, and why do they go about it using the most needlessly bizarre scheme since the Silence tried to kill the Doctor by dressing his friends’ daughter as an astronaut? They say Emilia Rossellini dies as a martyr for her cause, but what does her death actually achieve other than a creepy story for the Penny Dreadfuls? From the writers’ perspective, the whole purpose of the ghostly scheme is to facilitate the moments of horror, and it shows in the lack of plot logic. Similarly, them being a cult is there for the visual moments only, with little justification in the plot and it being handwaved away as ‘it’s all in Sherlock’s imagination’.

And this is the problem with current Sherlock; it’s presented to us as a series of moments, cool scenes which its writers think will create immediate reaction and will be turned into tumblr gifsets (again, those superfluous scenes of the Reichenbach Fall and the first Holmes/Watson meeting). And yet these moments have no binding narrative; Moffat and Gatiss seem to have forgotten that what made the first few episodes so good is that they gave us solid, satisfactory detective drama with the cool tumblr-able moments drawn out naturally from within that structure.

Perhaps Sherlock’s format is a problem, with the sparsity of episodes pressuring its creators to make every one into a mini-movie with as much crammed in as possible. Perhaps if we had more episodes with shorter running times, then, like Doctor Who, all the big character-developing moments could go into openings and finales and we’d get time to breathe and enjoy the team solving crimes in between.

Either way, The Abominable Bride’s indulgences hold it back. The Victorian setting works well for the case, allowing some good scenes of horror and period detective work, and there are some fun comedic moments with Holmes and Watson back together again, but that’s all they are – moments, with no satisfying whole.


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