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.