Imagine a world where the first ever episode of Sherlock was like The Final Problem. A mind-controlling supervillian kidnaps Sherlock Holmes and puts him through a series of dastardly puzzles on her island lair, in an episode where action hero Sherlock and trusty sidekick John Watson jump out of a building as a fireball explodes behind them. Would the show have been as critically revered if this had been the first episode?
That description is exactly what you would expect from a clueless, modern update of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories, and it was the defiance of this expectation that made Sherlock so refreshing, so incredible in its early episodes. Unfortunately, with each subsequent episode, the show got closer and closer to a parody Sherlock Holmes, littered with incredulous twists, illogical plot developments and cringey, wacky hijinks.
The Final Problemcould well be the last episode of Sherlock, as a result of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s Hollywood careers. With the massive downturn in quality over the last two seasons, that may well be for the best.
The Lying Detective started and ended with a bang, literally, as two gunshots bookended an episode which contained many of the flaws that have crept into Sherlock but also some of what made it so good in its first two seasons.
Episode two of this fourth series revolved around businessman, philanthropist and serial killer Culverton Smith. Sherlock sought to prove Culverton’s crimes while repairing his relationship with John Watson and coming to terms with his own role in Mary Watson’s death. Also looming in the shadows was the third Holmes sibling, who at episode’s end was revealed to be a sister, Euros/Eurus.
The highlight of the episode was Culverton. Actor Toby Jones brought a disturbing, dirty creepiness to the role – appropriate because the character is unambiguously modelled on Jimmy Savile, the fundraising, much-loved celebrity who turned out to be a monster.
The UK hasn’t really came to terms with Savile. He is probably the most prolific child rapist in British history; a guy who walked through the BBC, hospitals, schools, palaces and political offices dressed like a paedophile and went unchallenged and uncaught.
Once a smart, innovative mystery show, Sherlock has become 30% melodrama, 30% stupid Spooks-like antics, 30% ridiculous, logic-defying twists, and 10% intelligent case-solving. I’m not sure this show is for people who like smart TV anymore ‑ I think it mainly exists for people who like posting hyperbolic reaction gifs on Twitter.
The worst thing to happen to Sherlock, beyond the writers’ insatiable need to force a twist into every plot point and line of dialogue, is Mary Watson, so this episode at least had one thing going for it. Sherlock Holmes is supposed to be an intelligent detective, solving fiendishly clever mysteries with his faithful sidekick, so having a super-secret spy as a third wheel screws the tone up a little. The death of Mary at the episode’s end brings to a close her chapter full of implausible secret agent nonsense.
Sherlock: The Six Thatchers introduced the curious case of Margaret Thatcher statues being broken across the country, something Sherlock thought was connected to Moriarty for some reason, explained away with some mumbo-jumbo about interconnectedness. It turned out they were being broken by a spy, looking for some hidden spy docs inside. Said spy was a former colleague of Mary, who wanted her dead in revenge for an operation gone wrong thanks to a mystery betrayer. Who was that evil traitor? A secretary shown at the start of the episode in a meeting between Sherlock and the UK’s head government and intelligence honchos.
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.
This episode was certainly a lot better than the first two, exciting and fun throughout. It wasn’t a return to form though, and the episode followed the series as a whole in containing major flaws that seriously hurt the quality of the show. The first problem is that the writing contains lots of fragile artifice that falls apart under the slightest scrutiny. The second is that the writers consistently undermine any emotional or climactic scenes in a desire to provide excitement and plot twists. Combined, they damage the integrity and, for anyone interested in something more than a brief rollercoaster ride, the value of the show.
His Last Vow introduced a new villain in media mogul and professional blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnussen. Sherlock was hired by a government official to obtain incriminating letters Magnussen was using to control her. A labyrinth episode followed, with John’s wife revealed to be a former CIA asset and assassin. Sherlock later killed Magnussen, and with it his memory of incriminating information, before relying on his brother to get him off a murder charge.
The Sign of Three started as the last episode finished: badly. The first third of the episode was awful and the second third poor, but the last part returned to the exciting, fast paced and intelligent drama that made Sherlock so good in the first place. The show seems to have lost its way during the two year break between series two and three, and I’d like to take a look at what’s gone wrong.
The episode spun around John’s wedding to Mary Morstan, climaxing with the reveal that two recent cases Sherlock had been working on were linked to a plan to kill John’s former army commander during the reception. Sherlock solved the case before disappearing into the night, leaving John and his new wife with the knowledge that a third Watson would soon be on the way.
The reveal of Sherlock’s death was always going to be a disappointment. The writers painted themselves into a corner it was impossible to get out of without God reaching down from above and lifting them out. I held out hope that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss were actually the greatest TV writers in history and would pull it off, but, alas, that has not turned out to be the case.
Instead of one plausible explanation, they gave us three implausible ones, wrapped them in knowing winks and self-referential jokes, and just for good measure hinted that none of them were true. None of them, of course, were at all credible. They all for some reason focused on Sherlock’s desire to fool John Watson, forgetting that the whole point of the suicide was supposed to be to fool Moriarty’s men.