Welcome, then, 2016, and with it, another bi-yearly, sharp, short dose of Sherlock. 2014’s offering was pretty awful, a huge drop on the quality of the first two seasons, the reason for which I went into great depth about here, here and here.
This year we got a one-off special, The Abominable Bride, which was billed as a period piece set in the original 19th century world of Sherlock Holmes. It was instead our 21st century Sherlock dreaming up a 160-year-old version of himself in order to try and work out how Moriarty could be back from the dead, as he appeared to be at the end of series three.
You can look at this episode two ways. Either it was an experimental one off: an ephemeral, Christmas treat, in which case you cut it a lot of slack and take it for what it was – a fun rollercoaster ride.
Or, you judge it as a normal episode in the series, and worry at its self-indulgent, jumbled plotting and self-referential winks at the audience.
I’m inclined to go with the latter, because, hell, they’ve had two years to make this episode. They weren’t just knocking it out between seasons to tide people over; they had plenty of time to do it right. And we won’t be getting another one until 2017.
Certainly, it was better than any episode in series three. It didn’t suffer from that series’ most unforgivable flaws: turning Sherlock into a bumbling sitcom character, turning his and Watson’s relationship into a slapstick joke, solving mysteries with superhero-like powers rather than ingenious intelligence.
Its plotting too, was not as ridiculous. It began pretty worryingly though, with an absurd appearance of Watson’s wife Mary dressed in black, seemingly going to extraordinary lengths – buying a dress, standing silent in Sherlock’s room awaiting their return, pretending to be somebody else to Sherlock’s landlady – all for… what? Because she could ‘think of no other way to see my husband,’ apparently. How about just, you know, showing up?
That kind of ridiculous plotting, all for a dumb joke twist, is what will ruin this show – it already ruined the third series.
Let’s look first at the 19th century story. in general, I enjoyed it. There were a few missteps: the aforementioned opening, the unnecessary character changes – look, Mycroft is fat now! – and Watson being a pretty unlikable person in this version.
At times, it felt a bit too much like an episode of Jonathan Creek (edging ever so close to Scooby Doo territory with the ghostly apparitions) but broadly it was pretty fun, with sharp dialogue, funny jokes (‘Votes for women,’ ‘And are you for or against?’), Sherlock’s humorous lack of social decorum, and a lot of mystery.
Mycroft’s line about the mysterious threat being one ‘we most certainly must lose to, because they are right and we are wrong,’ was intriguing. A line like that in the first two seasons would pay-off fantastically at the episode’s end; in the third series it would have ended with some horribly clunky reveal or cheap joke. In this special, the reveal for me worked, to an extent. The bad guys behind the murders were women fighting for suffrage and equal rights.
A nice idea, but a little poor in execution. What were the women trying to achieve by murdering a few men in such an ostentatious way? Nobody in the show’s world seemed to understand their motivations, so all they were achieving was death and murder. They wouldn’t be the first political group with noble aims and terrible execution but the show made them out to be heroes, not the incompetents they were.
More importantly, this plot line was one of the two writers, Steven Moffat, being incredibly self-indulgent. Moffat has been criticised for a long time now for supposedly being misogynistic – the criticism coming mainly from fans of Doctor Who, on which he is a writer and showrunner (see for instance this article – 10 sexist Stephen Moffat quotes).
You can write a TV show with the goal of entertaining – that works – and you can write a TV show with the goal of making a political point – that also works if done right – but you can’t write a TV show with the goal of telling the world that you, the screenwriter, are a good person. That will only lead to bad decisions, because the quality of the show is now secondary to the impression you want people to have of you, the writer. The show is now just a vehicle for your ego.
Hence, some would argue, the constant twists: ‘look at how smart we are as writers.’ I like twists, twists are good, but they need to be used sparingly, because they are hard to do right. Try a trick once too often and people will work out the mechanism behind it.
From the start of the episode there were hints that something strange was afoot. The use of anachronisms – ‘shotgun wedding,’ talk of viruses – Sherlock’s distracted mumbling, and finally Moriarty showing up, and suddenly we were back in the present day.
It was admittedly quite a cool surprise, kept impressively under wraps during production of the show. It is though a further example of a constant flaw in Sherlock: using twists which undermine what’s gone before, making it often pointless to get emotionally invested in the show and the characters.
Why care about 19th century Watson when you know he isn’t real? It wasn’t quite as bad as series three, because at least in this episode you could argue the plot and dialogue was relevant because Sherlock was talking to himself in his head – the scene were Holmes and Sherlock discussed Sherlock’s loneliness could be Sherlock himself ruminating on it – but it’s still annoying. If nothing in the show is real – and for a list of emotional moments which turned out to be fake see all of series three – then why care about it?
It’s a shame because I like the idea of Sherlock using a 19th century setting to explore Moriarty’s supposed return, but they part-ruined it by forcing in a twist. Not everything has to be a twist, guys. Some things can just happen. A to B. Plenty of great writers do it.
At the episode’s end, Sherlock had decided Moriarty is definitely dead. Let’s hope so. But the writers are still stuck painted into a corner. Because how do you bring Moriarty back without it being some awful Saw-like contrivance where he has left dastardly video messages behind.
I’ve seen some suggestion online that, with all the talk of viruses this episode, Moriarty will be some computer AI. That, of course, would be fucking terrible.
Maybe I’m wrong though. This episode was better than series three, if still very flawed. Maybe this is the show stumbling its way back to the top; vomiting up the bile of last season.
We’ll find out in 2017 at some point. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have a year to get out of the box they locked themselves in. Here’s hoping for a Great Houdini. Or a great Sherlock Holmes.
- The opening scenes – Watson in Afghanistan, meeting a friend, being introduced to Sherlock at the mortuary – were the same as the opening to the very first episode, A Study in Pink, with much of the same dialogue and even the same actor playing Watson’s friend.
- ‘Pure reason toppled by melodrama, your life in a nutshell’ – maybe, but it’s not a justification for unbelievable twists and poor plotting.
- ‘You can’t set a trap without bait.’ ‘My husband is not bait, Mr Holmes.’ ‘No, but he could be if we play our cards right.’
- ‘I fear she’s branched into literary criticism by means of satire; it is a distressing trend in the modern landlady.’ I feel like that’s a reference to something; not sure what though.
- Directing was okay, if a little more prosaic than in previous episodes. I liked the transition from the ghostly maze to Sherlock’s fingers.
- ‘We all have a past, Watson – ghosts: they are the shadows that define our every sunny day.’
- The scenes between Moriarty and Sherlock are great, and Andrew Scott and Benedict Cumberbatch play-off each other incredibly well. I can see why the writers are desperate to keep Moriarty in the show. If you don’t won’t to lose a character though, don’t kill them.
- What is the true reality: 21st century Sherlock dreaming the 19th century, or 19th century Sherlock imagining the future? It’s the former, obviously, unless 19th century Sherlock is so incredible he can accurately predict every single aspect of the 21st century, right down to the cultural references.
- ‘Let’s not get into all that again’ Sherlock says of his fake death. Yes, let’s not, seeing as it was an awful low point for the show.
- ‘Socialists, anarchists, the French, the suffragettes… the Scots?’ ‘Are you aware of recent theories concerning what is called paranoia?’ ‘Ooh, sounds Serbian.’
- If the 19th century scenes took place in Sherlock’s head then every character should have come from his imagining. But why was Watson sexist? Does Sherlock see Watson as sexist? And his brother as, what, gluttonous? And Molly as… manly? I feel they could have done this better, assuming they tried to do it at all.
- Here’s a huge rebuttal I found online to the view that Stephen Moffat is sexist. I think it reaches quite a bit at times, but I found it an interesting read.
- Has Sherlock been a poor show for female characters? This episode’s obvious feminist theme made me wonder. I remember a pretty poor Guardian article arguing it was sexist, but nothing stands out for me as being particularly bad, although Watson’s wife Mary is a pretty useless and terrible character for the most part, to the extent I feel the need to prefix her name with ‘Watson’s wife’ everytime I mention her.