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

Sherlock Season 4

Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his pipe. ‚ÄúNo doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin,‚ÄĚ he observed. ‚ÄúNow, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends‚Äô thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour‚Äôs 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.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúHave you read Gaboriau‚Äôs works?‚ÄĚ I asked. ‚ÄúDoes Lecoq come up to your idea of a detective?‚ÄĚ

Sherlock Holmes sniffed sardonically. ‚ÄúLecoq was a miserable bungler,‚ÄĚ he said, in an angry voice; ‚Äúhe 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.‚ÄĚ (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‚Äôs 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:¬†‚ÄúIf you don‚Äôt want to be challenged,” he says about Sherlock,¬†“don‚Äôt watch it. It‚Äôs 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.¬†‚ÄúHe isn‚Äôt as smart as Eurus, he isn‚Äôt 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‚Äôre used to, the wise old man ‚Ķ 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.

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‚Äôs 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 ‚Äď 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 ‚Äď 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‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄėStudy in Pink‚Äô (though that ain‚Äôt saying a lot). The action sequences aren‚Äôt 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‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄėThe Yellow Face‚Äė, in which Conan Doyle showed compassion ‚Äď rather than condescension ‚Äď 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‚Äôt that cliffhanger a massive cheek ‚Äď and cheat ‚Äď 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‚Äôs problems: the show‚Äôs addiction to aggrandising reference, and its incomplete treatment both of other characters and Sherlock‚Äôs less formidable sides, lead to weaker characterisation, and weaker thematic treatments, than might be achieved with a clearer-eyed view of the hero. Sherlock‚Äôs journey from sociopath to ‚Äėgood man‚Äô, it seems to me, will be even bumpier than Adler‚Äôs from dominatrix to hostage. This leaves us, at the end of the show‚Äôs sixth episode, where we were at the¬†close of its third: ‚ÄúAs good as it has been, it needs to be more careful about its choices in the future.‚ÄĚ [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‚Äôm happy to countenance Moffat‚Äôs vision of his show, which is that, ‚Äúit is not a detective show. It is a show about a detective.‚ÄĚ But Moffat then went on to say: ‚ÄúIt is a show that celebrates a clever man. So we make the show look complex.‚ÄĚ There are a couple of problems with this. First, Sherlock doesn‚Äôt celebrate Sherlock: it suggests his high intellect is not so much a virtue as a mental illness; at its moment of crescendo, indeed, ‚ÄėHis Last Vow‚Äô 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‚Äôs 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 ‚Äėa war we cannot win‚Äô, 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 Bride,¬†Sherlock is crashing.

Sherlock: Will You Miss Him?


“What effect do you think it will have upon his plans now that he knows you are here?”

“It may cause him to be more cautious, or it may drive him to desperate measures at once. Like most clever criminals, he may be too confident in his own cleverness and imagine that he has completely deceived us.”

Sherlock Holmes had disdain for the self-satisfied. Though he once remarked (in ‘The Creeping Man’) that, “I have never sought to inspire confidence in others –¬†I have quite enough of my own”, many of his triumphs arose out of a knowledge that, eventually, his enemy would grow over-confident. “Pure swank!” he spits of the too-proud villain in ‘The Retired Colourman’. “He felt so clever and so sure of himself that he imagined no one could touch him. He could say to any suspicious neighbour, ‚ÄėLook at the steps I have taken. I have consulted not only the police but even Sherlock Holmes.‚Äô” To Sherlock Holmes, swank was a quality to avoid.

What, however, of Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’s Sherlock Holmes? From its first episode, Sherlock has tweaked the nose of expectation: many might have scoffed when they first heard the idea of transplanting Conan Doyle’s sleuth to the modern day, but it’s an idea with such currency that it hasn’t only been done since – it’s also been done before. Moffat and Gattis’s genius was to do so unapologetically, almost rudely: texts instead of telegraphs, blogs instead of a tin dispatch box. Sherlock has also been bold enough to reimagine the central characters themselves, almost from the very off: though ‘A Study in Pink’ introduced us to characters we at first recognised, by ‘The Great Game’, and with it the close of the show’s first season, it was clear both Sherlock and John were quite different to Holmes and Watson.

In the former’s case, however, it is arguable that the show’s vision of Sherlock as a “high-functioning sociopath”, as was declared at the close of its third series finale (aired last Sunday), is rather less layered than the original. Conan Doyle’s Holmes could certainly be obsessive and detached; but he could also be compassionate and connected. The confidence – perhaps the over-confidence – with which the show has chased this limited vision of its lead character has led it to make several odd mis-steps in the latest trilogy of episodes. Where Sherlock has always been a populist show written by Holmes nuts with irreverence and some pugnacity, in the latest run it has been given the room to follow its preferences at the expense of those concerns of structure, plot and pacing which once kept it – barely, but with often giddy results – in check.

That final episode, ‘His Last Vow’, was evidence enough of what Sherlock can do if it tries: superlative performances (in particular from Martin Freeman, of which more shortly), comforting and clever canon references (an east wind, a false marriage proposal, a chance meeting in an opium den), a vivid premise rolled out in surprising ways. But both ‘The Empty Hearse’ and ‘The Sign of Three’ were palpably over-interested in themselves, in pulling those shapes and popping that swagger: in both episodes, the central and peripheral mysteries alike were unworthy of the supposed intellect of the lead, and were subsumed beneath an over-riding interest in baiting or servicing the show’s fans, in aggrandising or undercutting its own mythologies, in the business of being a television programme.

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?

‘The Empty Hearse’ archly refused to provide an official explanation of Sherlock’s escape from death at the close of the second series. That’s fine – in fact, it’s rather neat, resisting the urge to render Sherlock as some sort of magician, whose genius is besmirched when we understand the turn. Of course, withholding knowledge was¬†not enough for Sherlock – providing three separate explanations is what a “clever” show would do. Likewise, in ‘The Sign of Three’, a full third of the entire third series is more or less devoted to a best man’s speech delivered by Sherlock at John’s wedding to Mary Morstan; a bizarre structural choice, certainly, but made complex and clever, or so the episode willed us to believe, by a series of mini-adventures imparted as component elements of the speech (that the monologue ends by connecting all its dots into a single mystery that needs solving immediately never quite follows from the baggy pace of all that preceded this most sudden of denouements). The directorial flair which has always been part of the show’s look, the snappy dialogue and self-aware comedy, is now so focused upon as to become its centre, almost its raison d’√™tre, rather than the seasoning which made so strange and sometimes flawed a dish so confoundingly flavoursome.

In this way, ‘His Last Vow’, alone in this series, was quintessential Sherlock: fast-paced and funny, awkwardly structured and occasionally tone-deaf, all carried through by stellar performances and a pointed sort of wit. Freeman’s John in particular shined in the finale, with all the suppressed rage we were somewhat unconvincingly, given Freeman’s simultaneous total humanity, told was a sign that he, too, was a sociopath. In contrast, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock felt faintly under-powered. One wished for the Cumberbatch of Parade’s End, endlessly subtle and compelling, rather than the occasionally one-note actor he was forced by Sherlock‘s third season scripts to be. He was given, of course, his workshop moments: the memory palace scenes, his arrival at the restaurant in ‘The Empty Hearse’; but he was also asked to put his hands to his temples and squint a lot. I’ve previously praised the show for its characterisation of Sherlock, but this third series felt to me to be asleep at the wheel, its high-point coming too late to change direction. The trajectory of Sherlock is now not (if it ever were) from great to good man; it is from narrow to narrower, from the sorrowful, considered jump of ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ to the hemmed-in final, fatal action of ‘His Last Vow’.

Into the space vacated by its central character, Sherlock puts an often wonderful Mary Morstan (although this character, too, is whittled down somewhat during ‘His Last Vow’), or a developing but increasingly woobyish Mycroft; it gives us gloriously nasty villains (we should spare a mention for Lars Mikkelsen, who as Charles Augustus Magnussen is memorably horrible), and some lovely moments of misdirection (Major Sholto is no villain, the woman in the blackmailer’s office does not shoot him in the chest). But most of all the show is padded with a cleverness not so much celebrated as fetishised. For all of Sherlock‘s better moments (and for all of its ongoing blind spots, where in the case of gender at least there were some noisy attempts at mitigation), it was this series a show rather more guilty than not of … well, swank. And Sherlock Holmes should not be deceived by swank.

“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 ‚ÄėThe Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle‚Äô. 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.”

“In Memoriam Sherlock”

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are on the run. Hiding in a damp alleyway somewhere in the back-end of Marylebone, they catch a breath, handcuffed together, and regroup. James Moriarty, Sherlock’s greatest enemy, has framed the world’s only consulting detective for a string of crimes, all of which he purported to solve; even his closest allies within the police force are now doubting that their erstwhile collaborator was ever anything more than an elaborate, sociopathic conman. “Everybody wants to believe it, that’s what makes it so clever,” Sherlock reflects. “A lie that’s preferable to the truth: my deductions were a sham. No-one feels inadequate, Sherlock’s an ordinary man.” Sherlock Holmes knows that we want him to be humbled.

Efforts to topple the great detective from his self-selected lofty heights have a long vintage. They began with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, who famously attempted to rid his career of the success that had so blighted it by sending Holmes careering off the edge of a cliff; it is a need which has continued to be fulfilled right to the present day, in manners as disparate as Michael Chabon’s in The Final Solution or Mitch Cullin’s in A Slight Trick of the Mind, both of which imagine Holmes in his creaking senescence, and Matt Frewer’s in four TV movies for the Hallmark Channel, in which Holmes is a joke of a character, zany and cartoonish in a fashion that renders him a laughable caricature. Attempts to humanise Holmes – Rupert Everett’s turn in The Case of the Silk Stocking – or to uncover his psychology – Nicholas Meyer‘s The Seven Per Cent Solution –¬† have the same ultimate end: to find a chink in Holmes’s armour, and to prise him open.

It is to the credit of the latest series of Sherlock, Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’s reimaginng of Conan Doyle, that it takes this trope and uses it for another purpose: to, on the contrary, re-affirm Holmes’s other-worldliness. To one extent or another, the gambit may be slightly weakened by its similarity to the plot of Moffat’s most recent season of Doctor Who, in which a disassociated super-being with few meaningful relationships has only one option if he is to avoid the power of his own myth: fake his own death (and here Benedict Cumberbatch’s pitch-perfect Sherlock is given in ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ the motivation of Holmes’s creator), and recede from the immortal limelight. On the other hand, and with a hat tip to the reputedly “preternaturally urbane” Graham Sleight, I’ve been mulling over Jon Blum’s post about ‘A Scandal In Belgravia’, the first of the latest Sherlock trilogy, and along with much of the rest of his analysis tend to agree that beneath the surface resemblance between the Doctor and Sherlock beat three quite different hearts.

In fact, let’s begin with the Belgravian imbroglio. As Blum points out, the episode caused some consternation, since many viewers felt its depiction of Irene Adler – a character who appeared in the first of Conan Doyle’s short stories, got married, and left again – fell short in its gender politics of a literally Victorian forebear. Moffat’s Adler is a professional dominatrix with a string of high-profile clients (an earlier age may euphemistically have called her an ‘adventuress’) who seeks security not from a twist of gold around her finger but by blackmailing the British state. When Holmes arrives at her home, dressed as in the original story as a doddery clergyman, this Adler sees through him; when Holmes tricks her into revealing the location of her hidden valuables, this Adler has booby-trapped the safe; and, when orchestrating her escape, this Adler has no need to dress as a man and do a moonlight flit – she incapacitates Holmes, using his body against him.

That Adler is ultimately and rather triumphantly defanged is also true; but, it seems to me, her role is not to defeat the series’ hero (since nor does she achieve this in the source text): it is, in a manner far more potent than a few Watsonian lines at the end of a story, to test and undermine his commitment to reason and rationality (a characteristic so fundamental to the Holmes character that even Guy Ritchie’s foppish iteration shares it). Holmes’s feelings for Adler – again, so much more far-reaching and plainly stated than in the source text – lead even he to question the central, Spockish tenets of his existence. All limbs and rolling eyes, crashing to the floor, Holmes is out of control not because he cannot solve a puzzle, which of course he may always do at the very last minute, but because he has been incapacitated, literally brought low.

Likewise, in ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’ (the first of two titles this season which play with plurals), Holmes is confounded by the barrier which exists between the world and his mind. In this case, his senses are assaulted by a non-corporeal influence, glimpsing a gigantic hound on the moors – even though, as he insists, ‘hound’ is an archaic term wildly out of place in a world of SMS and first-name-terms, and despite the fact that, to paraphrase Jeremy Brett’s dyspeptic Holmes of ‘The Last Vampyre’, “werewolves don’t exist!” How to respond, then, to a problem which does not yield to the rationalistic observation method Sherlock brings to bear upon every problem? He is for a while at a loss, and confesses an extended moment of real doubt to John (a masterful Martin Freeman, who will not receive the attention of Cumberbatch but deserves all the plaudits). Holmes – naturally – ultimately solves the mystery. But he does so by passing through a Gethsemane, and the audience enjoys it. We – and here we should sigh a sad, patronised, joyless sigh – ‘identify’.

All of this leads to a new kind of precipice, both figurative and literal: Sherlock, defeated and check-mated, is goaded to self-annihilation by Moriarty, atop the roof of Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital. At the end of an episode which gleefully retells The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the first of Basil Rathbone’s appearances as the detective and the source both of the courtroom drama and the Tower of London heist, the site of Sherlock’s first contact with John is refigured as an alternate location for what Conan Doyle long ago wished would be his last. The Reichenbach fall of the title, however, is not a torrent of water but a movement from unconquerable rescuer of a stolen Turner to potential suicide standing at the edge of a tall building as his greatest enemy brands him a less than worthy adversary. “I’m disappointed in you, ordinary Sherlock,” groans Moriarty, chagrined that even his finest adversary is, in the final analysis, no match for his genius – just normal, just human. Just a sham.

Of course, all that follows¬† – with different moves, but the same shape as Conan Doyle’s original Swiss tango – exists, as it exists in the real world which so confounded Conan Doyle’s assumption that Sherlock Holmes was mortal, to disprove Moriarty’s thesis. Sherlock, like Holmes, is extra-ordinary, capable of evading certain death, of solving every puzzle, of championing the power of human faculty. This is how we should understand and embrace him – not as an impossible ideal, a tabloid celebrity whom we, like Katherine Parkinson’s Kitty Reilly, are desperate to tear back down (see that issue with Moffat and women? It’s there, but let’s leave it for another day). Sherlock Holmes offers us necessary hope: we leave Freeman’s John walking into a bleak landscape of duller colours, having begged a tombstone to perform one last restorative miracle.

Across the churchyard, hidden and unseen – but prepared, like another figure of British legend, to return when we are most in need him – Sherlock Holmes, unhumbled, abides.

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.

“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.

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 √ßa 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.

Long Live the Doctor

"No time for gurning."

Doctor Who is a funny old show. Its principle joy, for casual viewer or long-term fan alike, often seems to be in its inconsistency – of tone, of setting, of character. The TARDIS, that space- and time-hopping king of all McGuffins, enables the show’s protagonists, whomever they may be, to travel not just from place to place but genre to genre; from one week to the next this modal fluidity allows the writers to fluctuate from high tragedy to low farce; and the Doctor, of course can, literally and figuratively, be whomever he wants. This, of course, is what makes the show so long-lived – and it is also the key to its appeal. Doctor Who is a deliverer of modern myth, as confused and confusing as that role demands.

The problem, of course, is that it is also a television series, and these are judged on certain criteria which simply cannot apply to a show so constituted. This is a point Abigail concedes in her recent overview of the latest season, recently concluded and the first for which Steven Moffat has been showrunner, taking over from its saviour, Russell T Davies: “I kept on with Davies’s Doctor Who despite the fact that it wasn’t, and had no interest in being, any good because even very close to its end there were moments of enormous fun in it.” She then proceeds, however, nevertheless to hold Moffat’s version of the show to set standards. In his response to Abigail at Torque Control, Niall chooses to take the show on its own terms (something he found harder to do for Davies): its focus on time travel, on the Doctor himself, gives Niall the show he wants to watch. Abigail would perhaps be happier with a version of Davies’s incarnation of the show which maybe – just maybe – allowed itself some room to breathe.

Fans of Doctor Who provide themselves with hours of entertainment by attempting to impose continuity on their show. The fact, however, is that there is none to be had – and that, though it’s possible to pretend Ten and Eleven, or Two and Seven, are the same man, they are for all intents and purposes different characters filling in a vaguely similar role: that of intergalactic magic man. So broad is that particular job description, however, that even the Doctor can be in one incarnation a martial arts-loving dandy with a penchant for working with the military, or in another a northern freelancer who dresses like Jeremy Clarkson and is struggling for atonement and interstellar peace. The question – the difference – that lies between Niall and Abigail is not ‘is Doctor Who any good?’ but ‘is this Doctor?’

Russell T Davies found his true metier with the Tenth. In his Ninth incarnation, the Doctor was too fond of poor puns, manic angst and fetishising young women from council estates. The Tenth Doctor, however – irreverent, promiscuous, self-centred – played precisely to Davies’s strengths. Like unearned melodrama, over-played angst, and strained romance? Ten is your man. Prefer professorial hi-jinx, tangential detail and a sort of tweedy nobility? Eleven will be a closer fit. Moffat’s first season puts its Doctor front and centre, and he defines the terms of the game: his first 13 episodes are darker than those which have gone before, but they are also in a strange way more innocent and transparent. Niall’s right to link to Selenak’s piece on the series in the comments to his post, because that exploration of the fairy tale elements of the season are spot on: the Eleventh Doctor feels more old-fashioned, and morally more fixed, than the Tenth. The show, too, feels consequently more disciplined.

Undoubtedly the season had clunkers – barring serving tea, the Daleks of ‘Victory of the Daleks’ were dull things indeed, and nor could I understand the widespread praise for Richard Curtis’s syrupy, tensionless ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ (Cathode Ray can speak for me here). But never did it reach the nadir of an ‘Aliens of London’ or ‘Daleks in New York’, and, like Matt Smith’s performance, the show begins by referencing and echoing David Tennant’s era by slowly becoming its own beast. This alone was fascinating to watch, and by the season finale – in which there is no big villain and nobody dies in a swirl of overwrung orchestra – Doctor Who has very much repositioned itself. Whether or not you like it – whether or not you forgive Moffat his own brand of illogic, his own blind spots or particular sacrifices to the altar of action which are made by all Doctor Who writers – will depend very much on what you think of his regeneration. Because this show is no longer Doctor Who. It’s a new show, entitled Doctor Who.

I rather liked it. And not just because Eleven wears tweed, too.