television

“It’s All About The Legend”: Sherlock’s Final Problem

Sherlock Season 4

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.

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Sherlock: Everyone Always Lets Him Do Whatever He Wants

abominable bride

Lestrade laughed loudly.

“You don’t like being beaten any more than the rest of us do,” said he. “A man can’t expect always to have it his own way, can he, Dr. Watson?” (“The Adventure of the Norwood Builder”)

The seasonal special episode of Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’s Sherlock began with a ‘Previously On’ sequence that was also a statement of intent. These montages of scenes from previous episodes are usually made up of snippets with heavy significant to an overall plot, arranged in such a way that they provide a condensed grounding in whatever on-going story points will be addressed in the coming episode; here, however, they made no such attempt to add up to a coherent narrative primer, but rather appeared to offer a “greatest hits” compilation of the show’s most memorable images or phrases. Almost immediately, indeed, the special began to echo the first of these motifs: in retelling Sherlock and John’s first meeting but doing it in the Victorian garb we are more accustomed to seeing the great detective and his amanuensis don, Moffat and Gattis deliver a series of winks to the viewer that explicitly call back not so much to the original stories (although there are those, too) but to the clips included in the opening sequence.

In other words, Sherlock was coming clean: it is primarily interested in referring to itself.

The Victorian 221B has beneath it a cafe like the one in 2015 and it’s called Speedwell’s not Speedy’s; nineteenth-century Sherlock’s big, billowy coat has a red-stitched buttonhole, too; and the moustachioed John’s limp is psychosomatic, eventually disappearing just like the clean-shaven version’s. Compare this with how the opening scenes of the episode treat the Arthur Conan Doyle canon: “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” has just been published, but somehow Sherlock has also read The Hound of the Baskervilles, written ten years later; Moriarty has died at Reichenbach, but Dr Watson still resides at Baker Street. That later on five orange pips are delivered to a Sir Eustace living at an Abbey Grange-ish house, and Holmes and Watson travel there in poses taken straight from “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” is of a piece with Sherlock‘s now time-honoured tendency to mash up the original stories into new shapes; that the show doesn’t even try to make some internal sense of its Victorian setting (of which more anon) – and yet is utterly obsessed with its contiguity with the twenty-first-century milieu it has over three series conjured – says much, however, about the situation in which this show now finds itself.

In fact, I rather weary of writing about Sherlock for much this reason: from its very first episode, it was a victory of style over substance, and despite having other avenues to explore it has often opted to chase the tail of its own worst tendencies, gradually becoming more and more self-interested and less and less convincing. The lot of a viewer attempting to assess and understand the show as a storytelling artefact, then, is not a happy one; and the sadness of this sad – so sad – sad, sad situation is only further compounded by the quirks of Steven Moffat, who – perhaps more than his co-creator, Mark Gattiss, himself hardly innocent – more or less revels in negative fan commentary. This is primarily because, as Maureen Kincaid Speller has put it in in her own piece on this episode, Moffat enjoys adopting a persona that suggests “anything I might know, he will know better.” If we are fully to engage with this self-interested text, then, let us indulge in its own game and self-refer:

On one level, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is a thoroughly modern SMS addict, firing off 160-character messages almost constantly; on another, his addiction teaches us something about his character, as well as his milieu – that he is distant and distanced, preferring communication at one remove and which has the additional benefit of forcing the elision of all but the most necessary information; but yet further, the SMS is a the modern telegram – priced by the space it takes up, delivered practically immediately, perfect for the issuing of diktats and summonses. This depth of reference makes Sherlock a complex and clever drama, aware of the power its source material bestows, rather than desperate to ditch it. [July 2010]

Elsewhere, there’s much to enjoy, although the dialogue is not as sharp as in the series opener. Cumberbatch and Freeman remain splendid in the main roles, and the central mystery is decidedly more difficult and engaging than in ‘Study in Pink’ (though that ain’t saying a lot). The action sequences aren’t bad, either. But the episode also feels not quite as tight as the premiere, and that silly Chinaman stuff undermines the whole edifice. (Oh, there’s an indeterminately ethnic swordsman at the start, too.) If Sherlock is to maintain its credibility as an anti-period piece, it needs to be more like ‘The Yellow Face‘, in which Conan Doyle showed compassion – rather than condescension – for the denizens of a multicultural England. [August 2010]

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. [August 2010]

Sherlock’s crush on Sherlock is at the root of the show’s problems: the show’s addiction to aggrandising reference, and its incomplete treatment both of other characters and Sherlock’s less formidable sides, lead to weaker characterisation, and weaker thematic treatments, than might be achieved with a clearer-eyed view of the hero. Sherlock’s journey from sociopath to ‘good man’, it seems to me, will be even bumpier than Adler’s from dominatrix to hostage. This leaves us, at the end of the show’s sixth episode, where we were at the close of its third: “As good as it has been, it needs to be more careful about its choices in the future.” [January 2012]

I am not invested in an idea of what Sherlock should be, or in the idea that it should follow the same plot-heavy pattern of the original stories. I’m happy to countenance Moffat’s vision of his show, which is that, “it is not a detective show. It is a show about a detective.” But Moffat then went on to say: “It is a show that celebrates a clever man. So we make the show look complex.” There are a couple of problems with this. First, Sherlock doesn’t celebrate Sherlock: it suggests his high intellect is not so much a virtue as a mental illness; at its moment of crescendo, indeed, ‘His Last Vow’ allows no intellectual escape for its clever man, but instead asks him to fall back on the worst behaviours of his supposed condition.  Secondly, there’s that issue of appearance: why go to the effort of making a show look complex if it is complex already? [January 2014]

I have had five years of writing about Sherlock, then, and yet have so little new to say. I’ve been more charitable towards the show than many, and have wanted it to succeed; but I think you can detect – ho, ho – the slow erosion of that faith across my assessment of the show as it has gone on; certainly by its third series I had given up much hope. What’s startling, though, is how much of the show’s troubles were there from the off – or, rather, from its first broadcast episode. Unusually, Sherlock‘s unaired pilot has been made widely available, most notably on the first series DVD, and in that episode Cumberbatch’s performance is slightly softer, perhaps callower – his character was hardened between that and the broadcast version of Study in Pink, and that hardening has continued ever onwards, presumably because the show’s success justifies writing its bugs large as features. This results in a Sherlock denied a celebration of his intellect (“Must be difficult, being the slow little brother”), but who remains bizarrely lionised by all for dimmer and more dubious reasons.

Indeed, by The Abominable Bride, it is Sherlock who is truly abominable: sneering “You’ll do” at Watson on their first meeting, quipping that he has found the murderer of a dismembered country squire but is “still looking for the legs,” and, of course, being rude to Mrs Hudson. The show is both aware and not of its protagonist’s ickier qualities. It has Watson demand he hold himself to a higher standard – but because, through John’s stories, he’s become a figure that millions look up to. It has him say, quite obviously unfairly, that Watson never understands a word anyone says – and yet has Watson’s wife, Mary, smirk conspiratorially at the “joke”, because everyone on this show must first love Sherlock. It is strange to see a show at the height of its popular success lack quite so much confidence that it treats its lead with such kid gloves.

Most pertinently, the whole episode actually takes place inside Sherlock’s head. I didn’t object to this per se, perhaps because it was clear to me from around the ten-minute mark that this is where we were headed. But as a metaphor for what this show has become it is unbeatable: we are in Sherlock’s imagination; that’s how irrelevant all other considerations have become, how marginal every other character. All of them are – and at least for the Victorian Watson, in his last appearance, happily – simply grist for Sherlock’s self-obsessed mill. In part, this is in the show’s DNA – from episode one, it has been the halting, and increasingly unrewarding, story of how a good man might become a great one – and yet that lack of confidence to shake up the formula has led to a self-defeatingly circular route to that end-point, as if Sherlock must get worse before he gets better. There is an attempt at fixing this near the episode’s end – “there’s always two of us,” says Watson in Sherlock’s dream, in one of the moments that seemed to me at last and again to grok the power of the source material – but even this is marred first by the preceding absurd over-play and sad misinterpretation of the Moriarty relationship (“I am your weakness!” he bellows, entirely missing the fact that Moriarty is what transforms Sherlock Holmes into a heroic figure), and second by the sort of slash-fic fan-service that is beginning to eat the show whole (“On your knees, professor”). 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, more hesitant.

The entire episode is, as well as a plotless amble into the self-professedly fascinating subconscious of its title character, a metafictional play on whom we consider Holmes to be – is he the Victorian or the modern, the actual human being or the story, his own self-image or how he is experienced by others? This is an interesting route to take when adapting a character already so widely adapted as Sherlock Holmes, but it’s not enough to carry episodes which increasingly lack a central mystery. In this episode, alas, the investigation is not just imaginary but thoroughly fumbled thematically. Helena Coggan, she of the publishing contract at 15 for those of you not paying attention at the back, has a good description of this: “a man walking through a row of mute women in blue Klan outfits and musing that men will really have to give in to women eventually because it is ‘a war we cannot win’, because if they do not, women will physically actually murder men they dislike.” That is, feminism is having your own back because your husband asked you patronisingly at breakfast whether you were going to spend your day at the milliner. Coggan laudably wishes, as I’ve often tried, to give the creators of Sherlock the benefit of the doubt (“Disparaging a show is very easy when you have not had to write, agonise over, cast, set up, fund and film a show yourself”); but, again like me, she struggles. (The only additional commentary I can add to the cloth-eared, cack-handed cultish denouement, by the way, is that it reminded me of the same finale in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), and that it may therefore, as in the episode’s final shot of Cumberbatch, Brett-like, looking out from his window over Baker Street, have been the show again puling itself out of shape to whack out a knowing riff – there is, in Sherlock, nothing new under the sun indeed.)

It is becoming increasingly difficult, then, to argue anything other than that Sherlock is a show fatally flawed under the hood. Conceptually, it simply seems to be broken, back-firing at every turn. On the surface, it is beautiful as ever to look at – its performances, particularly and always Freeman, are excellent, its production values top-notch, and its sheer surface fizz, the amount of stuff it fires out at its audience, is remarkable – but its story engine, its internal combustion of plot and theme, is simply not sparking. I’m currently editing for Strange Horizons a review of Telotte and Duchovnay’s Science Fiction Double Feature: The Science Fiction Film as a Cult Text by Raz Greenberg, and I hope I’ll be forgiven if I quote from its quotation prior to the review’s publication: “cult film cuts across all generic types, it is a form that, in another kinship to the sf world, has tended to privilege the audience and the peculiar nature of the audience experience, in effect, to be marked by a level of self-awareness” (Telotte and Duchovnay, p. 9). Sherlock is a mass-market success – The Abominable Bride took five million dollars in box office when it was released in Chinese and Korean cinemas last weekend, a fact which also suggests that five years of writing about this show is five years wasted – but it comes from, and has retained, a cult aesthetic. It is, then, self-aware to the point of self-regard. But objects in a mirror might be closer than they appear, and, on the evidence of The Abominable BrideSherlock is crashing.

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“The Woman”: Gender and Inheritance in “Sherlock”

Again, a hearty hmm.

The adventures of Sherlock Holmes may not be the best place in all of literature to search for vital, powerful female characters. Mrs Hudson is a classic nurturer, Mary Morstan shows not a care in the world that her husband is constantly on lad’s breaks with his dangerous old smoking buddy, and if Irene Adler is a curious and confused splicing of the Madonna and the Whore, she is also a woman led entirely by her age’s expectations of marriage. I’ve always been fond of Violet Smith from ‘The Solitary Cyclist‘, and Miss Hunter of ‘The Copper Beeches‘ seems similarly capable; but more typical are the women of ‘Thor Bridge‘ and ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax‘.

All of which means that perhaps it is no surprise when, as I noted in my last post, a modern retelling of Sherlock Holmes attracts criticism for its depiction of gender. It’s not even as if this problem is new to Sherlock: I noted in my review of the last episode of its first series that all its women can be categorised either as “bitter, soppy or useless”. Nevertheless, in its depiction of Irene Adler, it seems to me, the show was attempting something rather more complex than it was given credit for; it may have failed in achieving its goal, but that’s not the same as failing to set out to try at all. The writers of Sherlock are working from a source text in which almost every character of any agency at all is male. Gary Reed and Guy Davis did a rather brilliant thing in the 1980s with the comic book series Baker Street, but Sherlock it was not.

The difficulty with this reasoning, however, is that Sherlock is not a faithful adaptation. After reading Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, I noted why Sherlock Holmes could never become so compromised as that novel’s principle investigator, Escherich:

Holmes, for all his at times cavalier approach to human feelings (harsh words to Watson, sham romances with servant girls), never loses sight of the importance of a shared humanity: approaching Christmas, we might remember his act of charity in ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’. This is a generosity and selflessness lost to Escherich, who questions the validity of the law only in his final moments. Holmes, on the other hand, is always aware that natural justice is higher than any human legal system.

Sherlock, on the other hand, is far from “separate but connected”. Abigail Nussbaum, in her post about Sherlock, has some intelligent things to say about the ways in which the show has recast, at times accidentally, its hero as a sociopath: its “emphasis on Sherlock’s need to be the smartest guy in the room–in the pursuit of which, not justice or the greater good, he humiliates Irene and leaves her to a gruesome fate–makes him seem a great deal crueler and less heroic” than even Steven Moffat might have intended, much less Arthur Conan Doyle himself. I write as someone who rather enjoys Robert Downey Jr’s turn as the great detective, and therefore not one who necessarily believes in the purity of adaptation – Sherlock Holmes can and should be refigured. The question must be, however, with what depth and consistency that is done.

In the very first episode of Sherlock, Rupert Graves’s likeable Inspector Lestrade intones that Benedict Cumberbatch’s detective is a great man, but not yet a good one. Vinette Robinson’s Detective Sergeant Sally Robinson (one of the show’s ‘bitter’ women) goes further, telling John that it will only take so long for Sherlock to start committing crimes of his own; in the final episode of the most recent run, she becomes convinced that he has begun to do so. This Sherlock is not our original Holmes, but nor is his sociopathy – or autism, as it is occassionally and rather randomly implied to be – particularly consistent. Much has been made of the toe-curling humiliation meted out to Molly (one of the show’s ‘soppy’ women) in ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, and Sherlock’s subsequent climb-down, ending with his asking for her help in ‘The Reichenbach Fall’; but between these two presumed ‘arc’ points, Sherlock’s interactions with her resemble those from the first season. Likewise, John’s subtle little “ready?” as the two prepare to brave the photographers waiting outside 221B in that final episode also suggests something averse to strangers and crowds in his friend – the most we ever get from him, however, is an uncomfortable smile and a silly hat.

Admittedly, the deerstalker riffs are lovely – it was, of course, not Holmes’s hat, either, but likewise an imposition by an over-eager illustrator. But this sort of clever-clever reference comes to dominate Sherlock‘s style in the second season, with fear gases being transposed from one story to another, coming to stand for the inherited and inchoate fear of the Baskervilles from the original Hound, and curling back towards Sherlock’s own knowingness when he dangles the possibility of – gasp! – sending John to Dartmoor alone. There is something about the intensity of this reference – all the Rathbone stuff in ‘The Reichenbach Fall’, for instance – which is a little over-arch, a little (dare I say it – for Maureen Kincaid Speller certainly has) boyish.

Of course, it is also and primarily self-aware – that is, deliberately altering the source material when convenient for the writers. There, indeed, is the rub: after forty-five minutes of boldly updating ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, and doing so with flair and not a little exciting aplomb, Moffat and company tack on a further forty-five minutes of structurally weaker material which serves to deconstruct, or from one perspective undermine, what has gone before: Lara Pulver’s Adler veers from victorious dominatrix to grateful damsel, undone by the first of the series’ two over-simplistic passwords (which may or may not provide, in their absurd unsoundness, an excuse for Sherlock’s IT illiteracy in the face of Moriarty’s ‘key code’). This is new material quite beyond anything in the source texts – it is a choice on the part of the writers, and they have shown elsewhere how consciously they write. I remain in large part in agreement with Jon Blum that Moffat’s Adler does not represent the deconstruction of female power her critics argue her to be; rather, she is part of a deconstruction of how Sherlock imagines relationships. That she is put to the service of Sherlock’s story has nothing to do with gender – so even is the show’s greatest asset, Freeman’s John. But the fact remains that the choice the writers made was insufficiently developed, or inexpertly executed. Moffat shouldn’t need to explain his writing.

Abigail discusses Sherlock‘s crush on Sherlock, and it is this which is at the root of the show’s problems: the show’s addiction to aggrandising reference, and its incomplete treatment both of other characters and Sherlock’s less formidable sides, lead to weaker characterisation, and weaker thematic treatments, than might be achieved with a clearer-eyed view of the hero. Sherlock’s journey from sociopath to ‘good man’, it seems to me, will be even bumpier than Adler’s from dominatrix to hostage. This leaves us, at the end of the show’s sixth episode, where we were at the close of its third: “As good as it has been, it needs to be more careful about its choices in the future.”

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sherlock holmes, television

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.

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“I Go Where You Point Me”: ‘The Blind Banker’

Straight out of Paget.

One day when Dr. Somerton was down with a fever a little Andaman Islander was picked up by a convict-gang in the woods. He was sick to death, and had gone to a lonely place to die. I took him in hand, though he was as venomous as a young snake, and after a couple of months I got him all right and able to walk. He took a kind of fancy to me then, and would hardly go back to his woods, but was always hanging about my hut. I learned a little of his lingo from him, and this made him all the fonder of me.

[…] We earned a living at this time by my exhibiting poor Tonga at fairs and other such places as the black cannibal. He would eat raw meat and dance his war-dance: so we always had a hatful of pennies after a day’s work. [The Sign of Four, Chapter XII]

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not averse to the casual Imperial racism of his time. Again and again, his stories featured natives or crudely drawn shadowy-yet-exotic parts foreign – of which Tonga, the dart-blowing ‘pygmy’ of The Sign of Four, is the most famously egregious example. Tonga is practically denied humanity, so savagely separate to the Victorian gentleman around him is he depicted as being. But Tonga isn’t the only one: in ‘The Three Gables‘, a “huge negro” with the improbable name of Steve Dixie barges into Holmes’s study in a flurry of malopropisms and comical misunderstandings; in ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge‘, a wife’s passionate, muderous nature is explained by her Brazilian heritage; ‘The Red Circle‘ assumes that all, or at the very least most, Italians are basically connected to the mafia.

That a 21st century writer should also resort to these sorts of ethnographic shorthand is troubling. True, the broad stereotypes of Conan Doyle are often extended to the English – who, where upper class, are all starched collars and upright dignity and, where working class, mangled vowels and questionable probity – and in part they are part of the fabric of the playful adventure story; but they are also relics of an earlier time, when, with half the globe red, other, more genuine, voices were rarely permitted. In ‘The Blind Banker’, the latest episode of the BBC’s new series, Sherlock, Steven Moffatt tries a little too hard to recreate the Victorian in the modern city.

His story starts – with echoes of ‘The Gloria Scott‘ – with an old university friend. It ends – recalling ‘The Veiled Lodger‘- with sinister circus performers. In between, there are all sorts of other references: the detailed knowledge, as with Henry Baker’s hat, of men’s accessories and their seasons; an enthusiasm for cryptography which matches that in ‘The Dancing Men‘; and a promising young police inspector for whose career Holmes has “high hopes” (for Dimmock read Hopkins). The affection for and knowledge of the original stories exhibited byMoffat cannot be questioned. In a curious way, this modern dress production has a Sherlock at its centre who is closer to Doyle’s than Rupert Everett’s more traditionally garbed Holmes in The Silk Stocking, also a BBC effort.

So it is that a story set in the modern milieu of London – all gherkins, grafitti and chow mein – nevertheless feels somehow as one with our inherited image of the great detective. Partly this is the wardrobe – Watson wears cardigans which serve the function of waistcoats, Holmes great winter coats and a scarf tied like a louche cravat – and partly it is the set dressing, which leaves 221B practically unchanged from the one inhabited by Jeremy Brett. But there is also the question of tone and topic, and here ‘The Blind Banker’ pays homage to the wrong parts of Doyle. It centres on, yep, an exotic crime syndicate; its members, yes, are the sort of racial types which might have troubled Allan Quatermain – stealthy assassins and ruthless, heavily accented, ‘generals’. It’s a nifty transposition, but unworthy of the hip, modern spin the series seeks to give the concept.

Elsewhere, there’s much to enjoy, although the dialogue is not as sharp as in the series opener. Cumberbatch and Freeman remain splendid in the main roles, and the central mystery is decidedly more difficult and engaging than in ‘Study in Pink’ (though that ain’t saying a lot). The action sequences aren’t bad, either. But the episode also feels not quite as tight as the premiere, and that silly Chinaman stuff undermines the whole edifice. (Oh, there’s an indeterminately ethnic swordsman at the start, too.) If Sherlock is to maintain its credibility as an anti-period piece, it needs to be more like ‘The Yellow Face‘, in which Conan Doyle showed compassion – rather than condescension – for the denizens of a multicultural England.

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The Police Don’t Consult Amateurs

Sherlock and John.

During my long acquaintance with Mr. Sherlock Holmes, his communiques were never less than terse and to the point, lacking entirely any concession to the niceties of polite conversation. Constrained not just by their medium, but by their composer’s own natural efficiency of expression, they tended at times even towards the terse. Were it not for my intimate association with the world’s only consulting detective, I would often have considered his messages rude, even obstinate, and certainly not the product of a gentlemanly mind aware to the importance of decorum and manners. But my familiarity with my friend’s particular eccentricities of thought and behaviour led me to forgive him his fondness for the imperative. Sherlock Holmes prized above all information: clean, unencumbered, unmediated data. His preferred means of communicating that information, and his abiding preference for the laconic, were merely functions of his greater qualities.

It’s unlikely that John Watson would write in this way on his blog; but were he for some inexplicable reason to ape the precise prose of the Victorian adventure story, what would be striking is the way in which his description of his friend Sherlock Holmes’s enthusiasm for text messaging could be read, in a different context, as a reliance on the telegram. Plus ça change, you might say.

The BBC’s new Sherlock Holmes series, as surely everyone knows by now, is set in the modern day – a return to the approach of those ’40s Rathbone movies which dropped the great detective into the middle of World War II and left him to it. What saves the series, written by Doctor Who supremo Steven Moffat and co-created with Mark Gatiss, from the worst excesses of those patchy productions is its clever refiguring of the original stories. Like Guy Ritchie’s version late last year, this Sherlock at first appears to bear only superficial resemblance to the popular, let alone canonical, image of Holmes; but, like Ritchie’s, this Holmes is deep down the same character in skewed contexts.

Thus the text messaging. On one level, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is a thoroughly modern SMS addict, firing off 160-character messages almost constantly; on another, his addiction teaches us something about his character, as well as his milieu – that he is distant and distanced, preferring communication at one remove and which has the additional benefit of forcing the elision of all but the most necessary information; but yet further, the SMS is a the modern telegram – priced by the space it takes up, delivered practically immediately, perfect for the issuing of diktats and summonses. This depth of reference makes Sherlock a complex and clever drama, aware of the power its source material bestows, rather than desperate to ditch it.

Martin Freeman’s Watson, too, gets similar treatment: like his Victorian forebear, he is recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. In a nod to Sherlockians who have puzzled for a century about the curious flight of the Jezail bullet which wounded him, this Watson has a phantom limp which resolves into his real wound – in the shoulder. These separate instances are dealt with lightly and deftly, making perfect, immediate sense to the initiate but also adding a wealth of reference, allusion and just plain smarts to what could have easily been a fairly brainless series. Only an over-done and unnecessary running ‘joke’ that Holmes and Watson had nothing to fear if they wanted to be big gay buddies (why the constant re-iteration?) rings a truly clumsy note.

None of which is to say that Sherlock is without its hiccups – though its casting, locations and wardrobe are all in the main superb, feeding on the characters’ heritage without compromising its contemporary relevance, all this grit and grain is at times flattened out by unsure execution. In particular, the central mystery felt stretched – perhaps deliberately, it was significantly less interesting or indeed complex than the character introductions, and much agonising was put on screen about a solution which Doyles’s Holmes would probably have arrived at before the opening sitting room scene was over. Furthermore, Mark Gatiss’s performance felt as if it had snuck in from a different series – camp and knowing, it seemed rather to betray the tone of the rest of the episode. Gatiss’s shtick is far more entertaining the less you’ve seen of it.

These are uncharitable gripes, however: Sherlock was a triumph, almost immediately dispelling preconceptions whilst also playing with them, making use of our storied knowledge of Holmes whilst also forbidding us to judge this new version on anything but his own terms. It is a fiendish balancing act to pull off, but the writer and his cast did so with aplomb. If a story about, in DI Lestrade’s words, a great man becoming a good man may not be the most revolutionary of concepts – and if Holmes-as-sociopath under-sells the compassion and decency which has been part of all the most successful versions of Holmes (Doyle’s not least among them, natch) – it’s far too soon to doubt an approach which, in the series’ first episode, worked by and large so impossibly well.

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