Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his pipe. “No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin,” he observed. “Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.”
“Have you read Gaboriau’s works?” I asked. “Does Lecoq come up to your idea of a detective?”
Sherlock Holmes sniffed sardonically. “Lecoq was a miserable bungler,” he said, in an angry voice; “he had only one thing to recommend him, and that was his energy. That book made me positively ill. The question was how to identify an unknown prisoner. I could have done it in twenty-four hours. Lecoq took six months or so. It might be made a text-book for detectives to teach them what to avoid.” (A Study in Scarlet)
It is one of the recurring metatextual jokes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories that their protagonist believes he could write them better than their narrator. In ‘The Copper Beeches’, for example, Holmes declares that Watson has “erred perhaps in attempting to put colour and life into each of your statements instead of confining yourself to the task of placing upon record that severe reasoning from cause to effect which is really the only notable feature about the thing.” In one of only two stories the Master deigned to write himself, Holmes remarks of this ongoing spat with his Boswell that, “I have often had occasion to point out to him how superficial are his own accounts and to accuse him of pandering to popular taste instead of confining himself rigidly to facts and figures.”
Admittedly, in that self-penned story, ‘The Blanched Soldier’, the Great Detective admits that he found in the writing of a case that some thought to the entertainment of the reader is necessary. But one wonders how he would feel about Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the latest series of whose twenty-first-century update of Holmes and Watson, Sherlock, has just finishing airing.
I began more or less as a fan of Sherlock, but as early as the first episode of its second season I was becoming ambivalent; by last year’s “special”, I’d fallen out badly with the show. I wrote then that, “There are hopes here for a Sherlock in series four more aware of his faults, but the show’s own instincts seem to remain less self-critical”, and I take only a little bit of pleasure in having been proven prescient. The first of the new trio of episodes, ‘The Six Thatchers’, seemed to be aimed at doing what Doyle did so many years ago in ‘The Empty House’: reboot the series. It did so via some highly rushed resolutions of several previous cliffhangers, which allowed us to reach a montage of old-fashioned case-solving: Sherlock in his rooms at Baker Street, interviewing clients and putting together pieces of puzzles. Then, as again Doyle had done before them, Moffat and Gatiss killed off Watson’s wife.
One of Sherlock‘s biggest problems – in many ways its original sin -has been to miss the attraction of Doyle’s original stories. The series has assumed at almost every point that what matters is Sherlock Holmes – his psychoses, his addictions, his cruelties and his heroisms – but this was never the case. What mattered in those original stories, and what made Sherlock‘s opening episodes different, was the focus on the relationship between Holmes and Watson. It can hardly be said that Sherlock has entirely ignored that dynamic – the legion of online slash fiction writers happily lapping up every nuance of every scene between them is proof enough that there is material here, there is scope. In this sense, ‘The Six Thatchers’ did its best: by killing off Mary Morstan, and looking at how her self-sacrifice for Sherlock Holmes might affect his relationship with her widowed husband, Sherlock was trying to get back to basics.
But the show could not escape its own dread gravity: not only did Mary deserve rather more, in an adaptation which trumpets its updating of Holmes to a twenty-first-century milieu, than to become female fodder for the series’ central boys (even her Victorian forebear didn’t die for Sherlock Holmes); when Moffat and Gatiss had her leave behind a recorded video message not for her husband John but his best friend Sherlock, all that might have been achieved by the opening episode lay in tatters: it was not for Holmes and Watson, together, to find some meaning and win some justice in a Mary-less world; rather, it was for heroic, super-human Sherlock to save John from his own worst excesses. That is, it was – and shall always be – all about Benedict Cumberbatch’s sexy weirdo.
It was fortunate in papering over these cracks, then, that the season’s second episode, ‘The Lying Detective’, was Sherlock‘s strongest instalment certainly since ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ and very possibly since ‘The Great Game’. Toby Jones’s Culverton Smith may well be the show’s best villain, up to and including Andrew Scott’s over-used Moriarty: he is a caricature to be sure, but played with such conviction by Jones, and just close enough to what are improbable but all-too real cases in our own world, that we buy into the fiction. Sherlock hasn’t seemed to care too much about its own plausibility in this way for years, and if – inevitably – the episode closes with yet another Big Twist focused on Sherlock himself, at least ‘The Lying Detective’ had its moments: Sherlock conjuring a narrow kitchen in a London street to demonstrate how he has deduced the origin of a sun-bleached note; John receiving feedback from Sherlock’s adoring public about the quality of his blogs; Culverton Smith himself, perched over Sherlock’s deathbed, explaining to the audience’s mounting horror the cold logic of a serial killer.
If Sherlock never escapes the flashier parts of its DNA – Mrs Hudson screeching around a residential development in an Aston Martin, Euros Holmes appearing from nowhere with a bullet for John’s brain – ‘The Lying Detective’ held them all in an acceptable balance. It gave us hope that the show could do the impossible -break free of its years of accumulated weight and hype, and return to something approaching a show about two detectives and their relationship as they solved crimes. What Sherlock has always assumed is that bigger is better – the larger the canvas, the clearer and more large-writ its characterisation. In fact, the opposite is true: never has Sherlock been more entertaining than in its quieter moments, in those scenes where Freeman is allowed to act repressed, or Sherlock to doubt himself. For every naval treaty, the Victorian Sherlock Holmes had a half-dozen solitary cyclists; Sherlock Holmes does not need to save the world to be interesting.
Alas, Sherlock feels he does, and ‘The Lying Detective’ bled out into ‘The Final Problem’, a bizarre instalment of the series that may be its worst, at least since the execrable ‘The Sign of Three’. Sherlock’s long-lost sister, Eurus Holmes, imprisoned for a lifetime in Sherrinford, a high-security prison on a sea-beaten island somewhere, has finally – following a Christmas Day treat of five minutes with Jim Moriarty half a decade ago – broken free. She used her time to get on a bus and text John Watson flirtatiously; pose as the daughter of Culverton Smith and go for chips with Sherlock; and pretend to be John’s new therapist and shoot him at the end of last week’s episode. Then, we learn, she went back to her prison and awaited their arrival.
Mycroft, of course, is at the centre of the conspiracy to secrete Eurus, and Gatiss gets more lines than perhaps he ever has: endless backstory, numerous retcons, a whole barrel-load of pop-psych justifications for the personality quirk of each Holmes sibling. Sherlock’s childhood best friend was murdered by his sister; that’s why he doesn’t like making friends. Mycroft, almost a decade older than his siblings and smarter than his parents, had to take early charge of the situation; that’s why he’s so distant and Machiavellian. Euros just wanted to play with other children, but wasn’t invited; that’s why she became a criminally insane psychopath. She leads Mycroft, Sherlock and John through a series of Saw-like puzzles that she appears to think offer meaningful moral quandaries – will you shoot a man to save his wife?! – in an attempt to we’re not sure. Annoy her brothers? But it’s all very important, and we know this because people get speeches and Andrew Scott gets a cameo.
All this amping-up is entirely unnecessary, but Sherlock has the weirdest case of impostor syndrome we may ever have seen on television: it is wildly popular, internationally successful, and stars some the UK’s most famous actors. It consequently exhibits a certain smugness, a self-regard – Sherlock is a show that cannot believe its luck, and feels pretty happy with itself. (We know this because Mark Gatiss has taken to responding to critics in verse.) Fair enough. But it cannot believe that luck; that is, it is incapable of settling into its own rhythm, of having the confidence simply to be. Rather, it must ape Hammer Horror at one moment, and Skyfall the next. It is always acting out, always assuming that we’ll turn off if it doesn’t one-up itself yet again within the next five minutes. All this despite the self-evident truth that the single most gripping scene in the whole of ‘The Final Problem’ was a telephone conversation between a man and a woman, in which each told the other they loved them. (Kudos to Louise Brearley, sadly under-used in season four and bravely selling a scene that did her character yet another injustice.) Sherlock can do under-stated if it wants to. It chooses otherwise.
In other words, the series focuses too freely on image, on the cool visual. Its scripts are like string threaded through pearls meant for a necklace: important only as connective tissue. Eurus is imprisoned in a glass cell – but the glass isn’t there! Moriarty is flying in on a helicopter – to the strains of ‘I Want To Break Free’! Sherlock is unhappy – so he karate-chops a coffin! One of these is seasoning enough to delight a restless audience’s palate. But Sherlock has always packed itself so full of incident that it is the incidentals which have come to dictate the melody. We might return at this juncture to the Master himself: “Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner,” he insisted to Watson in The Sign of Four. “You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.”
Gatiss might presume to disagree: “If you don’t want to be challenged,” he says about Sherlock, “don’t watch it. It’s a complex and entertaining programme.” But the truth is that the series has not been half as complex as it thinks. Its plots and structures have sometimes been purposefully Byzantine, yes; but this sort of spectacle is chaff. At its most basic level, Sherlock has been so simple that its foundations have always struggled to bear the weight of its accretions. “He’s a great man,” gushed an anonymous plod to Inspector Lestrade at the close of ‘The Final Problem’. “He’s more than that,” says a disappointed Rupert Graves, gearing up dejectedly for the culmination of the show’s entire arc. “He’s a good one.” In my review of the show’s very first instalment six-and-a-half years ago, I wrote: “a great man becoming a good man may not be the most revolutionary of concepts.” It turns out Gatiss and Moffat disagreed, and have spent the intervening years trying to prove themselves right. That seems to me a fair summary of the path Sherlock has taken, in fact: on gender, on sexuality, on Molly and Mrs Hudson, on Sherlock’s centrality and on plot tokens and cliffhangers … it has sought to prove its writers right.
All that said, at the final furlong I’m attracted – diverted, even won over – by another of the duo’s sophistries: that Sherlock so far has been a sort of prequel for the Sherlock Holmes we know. “He isn’t as smart as Eurus, he isn’t as smart as Mycroft but he is always going to win against them because he is better and stronger,” they say in an interview with the Radio Times. “That is him becoming the Sherlock Holmes of Basil Rathbone and [fellow Holmes actor] Jeremy Brett, the one we’re used to, the wise old man … who is still terrifying and still cold but has a heart that you never doubt.” For a show that has long been obsessed with references to the canon – in ‘The Final Problem’ alone we have a Musgrave ritual, no fewer than three Garridebs, a Carfaxian cofin, a best friend named Trevor just as in ‘The Gloria Scott’, and a chalkboard featuring dancing men – it’s rather fitting that where its creators have ended up, and they admit it is by accident more than design, is in the margins: Sherlock is a gloss, one of many ‘young Holmes’ fictions written by fans over the years in an attempt to understand our actual hero. We can debate how successful Moffat and Gatiss have been in their attempt (‘The Final Problem’ looks likely to be the last Sherlock for some time, and certainly the last in which Cumberbatch and Watson can feasibly play young men); that they failed with fondness is beyond question.