Making A Hero: “The Great Game”

"The papers which this wretched youth had in his pocket were the plans of the Bruce-Partington missile."

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is at least two things: a collection of the first 12 Sherlock Holmes short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; and an only intermittently successful 1939 film starring Basil Rathbone. Those short stories set a template which would be followed by all the great detective’s subsequent adventures, both by Conan Doyle and others; the film tried to splice a series of them together, and install as the orchestrating figure Holmes’s great nemesis, Professor James Moriarty.

Moriarty plans to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London; to do so, he must of course ensure that Sherlock Holmes is not on his tail, since the sleuth’s considerable deductive power would, if turned in full upon Moriarty’s organisation, inevitably discover his masterplan before it could be enacted. Therefore, Moriarty concocts a series of puzzles and diversions to absorb his enemy, famously and vainly hungry for intellectual activity of any sort. The plan very nearly works, although the film doesn’t.

It’s a surprise, then, that Steven Moffat chose this concept to form the basis of the final of his three TV movies. Moriarty has lurked in the background of the entire trilogy, but here he explicitly confirms that the time-sensitive puzzles Sherlock is faced with throughout the 90 minutes – a series of innocent people are strapped to bombs, which will go off if Holmes fails to crack the case – are deliberately designed to distract him from Moriarty’s grander purpose. It very nearly works, in no small part because Holmes is amoral and lacking in compassion – he makes the wrong choices using the wrong criteria and gets caught out.

We should, though, pause: Moriarty’s grander purpose is here quite different to that presented in ‘The Final Problem’. There, he was “the Napoleon of Crime […]  the organiser of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city.” Here, he is a criminal fixer, a clever wideboy hired to devise crimes that profit his client. This seems an acceptable modernisation, but grubbies Moriarty a little – instead of the controller, he is the controlled, or at the very least the hired help. One of the elements which adds to the dread of ‘The Final Problem’ is that Holmes is genuinely out of his depth; the Moriarty of Sherlock feels a more equal adversary, another very clever man for hire.

Moffat does, however, understand Moriarty’s role within the text: in an interview on BBC Breakfast this week, he said, “In a way Moriarty is the man who makes Sherlock a hero … he’s a rather amoral character Sherlock Holmes, so you want someone for him to respond to that turns him into the hero he’s sort of destined to be.” I’d be remiss not to point out that this is my opinion, too, and that I am therefore to some extent bound to cut Moffat some slack. But the conspiracy theory doing the rounds online – that Molly is Moriarty, and Jim her pawn – is attractive because Jim seems such a disappointment. Another man in a series full of men, for a start, but also too influenced by John Simm’s portrayal of the Master in Doctor Who: like Mark Gatiss’s Mycroft in the first episode, Andrew Scott’s turn as Moriarty feels over-played and cartoonish next to the work of Cumberbatch and Freeman.

So this is a ‘series’ still very much finding its feet. I’m not of the mind that three television movies quite makes a series – and nor should it be judged on the same basis as one might judge 22 episodes of a US season. It’s possible to over-emphasise the connective tissue between these mysteries – Sarah appears in two episodes, as does Lestrade, but those previous appearances barely matter here. These movies are much more like the original stories themselves, or that Rathbone series, in that they share characters and refer to previous adventures, but rarely require deep knowledge of what has gone before. Nevertheless, tonally they have been very different internally, let alone when compared with each other. Moriarty, if he is to continue to be Sherlock’s nemesis, will need better to match the manner in which Holmes is played, as well as the manner in which he thinks.

Meanwhile, the canon references continue to abound: the Bruce-Partington plans, of course (complete with the old body-on-the-roof-of-a-train trick), but also Sherlock’s admission that he would be lost without his blogger (or his Boswell, as he may have said in an earlier age); this Sherlock, too, doesn’t care that the earth goes around the sun unless it has an impact on crimonology, and practices a kind of reverse psychology on a victim’s widow as he once would have done on a Covent Garden poultry merchant. He follows Watson without his friend’s knowledge, as he did in The Hound of the Baskervilles; five pips signal to him a terrible warning; and his great enemy is accompanied by at least one shadowy rifleman.

So this is a joyous fangasm of a writing effort, and the enthusiasm of the execution mostly makes up for its failures. (Did Sherlock really spot a gay man by sight? Must the only women on show be bitter, soppy or useless? And isn’t that cliffhanger a massive cheek – and cheat – after just three episodes, and an indeterminate period of time before the next episode is even written, much less filmed or scheduled?) It would be curmudgeonly not to admit that this Sherlock has been something of a triumph; but, like its titular character, it is not yet a heroic one. As good as it has been, it needs to be more careful about its choices in the future.


4 thoughts on “Making A Hero: “The Great Game”

  1. A very thoughtful review – thanks for sharing!

    I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on what I don’t like about Moriarty’s portrayal, aside from the fact that we hadn’t had enough time to truly establish the level of his menace in this series. He is certainly portrayed as being Sherlock’s “evil twin”, but the back-story is forced upon us too quickly, rather than being allowed to simmer in the background.

    I’m not a big fan of the Molly-as-Moriarty theory. Given the chilling, preternatural coolness with which Jim faces off against Sherlock, it would be a real let-down if he was just the front man for the real Moriarty. (It’s a bit too Wizard of Oz too.) And it would feel like a real cheat to the casual viewer.

    It would be churlish to pull up the series on its mostly minor faults, particularly when it has been presented with such wonderful style. I can’t wait for more – in the meantime, it’s back to the original books!

  2. Thanks for dropping by, Tim!

    Yes, the drive to the Moriarty reveal is the one thing about the show which requires some previous knowledge of the Holmes mythos, perhaps – the ‘big reveal’ leans heavily for its impact on expectations we have outside of the current text.

    I’m also less sure about ‘chilling’ and ‘preternaturally cool’ as descriptors for this Moriarty. ‘Showy’ and ‘smug’, maybe…

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