If there’s one thing that marks the BBC’s Sherlock out from most previous TV adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective tales, it’s that the setting is contemporary; but the essential dynamic remains – the brilliant, perceptive but disconnected detective Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the warm, down-to-earth, compassionate companion, Dr John Watson (Martin Freeman).The modern setting allows the essentials of Holmes’ detective method – a combination of observation, almost eidetic memory and brilliant deduction – to work in a context of familiar police procedural technologies such as mobile phones, the internet, fingerprinting and DNA evidence. So why would the writers throw all this away and revert to the Victorian setting of the original stories? Editor’s note: This is a spoiler-heavy review, so if you want to avoid plot points, do not read.
When photos from the New Year special were first posted, no one was quite convinced that it would indeed be set in the 1890s; well, at least we weren’t. The speculation was that the duo were in costume for a murder mystery weekend, perhaps. We also came up with some riveting theories about Moriarty’s daughter, and the possible death of John Watson’s wife Mary (Amanda Abbington).
So were we right? Almost entirely not, as it turns out.
After a brief recap of the Moriarty, Adler and Magnussen plots from the previous series, we were transported to the 1890s for a period retelling of the initial meeting of Holmes and Watson. Watson is invalided out of the Army after Afghanistan, Holmes is a peculiar character first seem thrashing corpses (as in A Study In Pink). Benedict Cumberbatch wears his hair short; otherwise everything is very much as you would expect.
Some years later the partnership is well established, The Blue Carbuncle (a Christmas tale, we remember) is published in The Strand Magazine, Mrs Hudson complains about the lack of lines for her in the stories, and Lestrade (Rupert Graves) is still an idiot.
He brings Sherlock the case of the Abominable Bride, a murderous, spectral figure who apparently returned from the dead to shoot her husband.
There are some good jokes about Mrs Hudson’s lack of dialogue in the stories, the dingy illustrations, the name of the shop in Baker Street, an authentically fat Mycroft Holmes, Holmes’s near absence from The Hound of the Baskervilles, the seven per cent solution of cocaine, Watson acting as Holmes’s Boswell (a reference to a character from The Greek Interpreter), and possibly even to a Manor House mystery, a Granada TV series from 1982 about the young Sherlock; but we get an early clue to what’s really going on when Mary complains about the way she is treated as a woman (despite working as a secret agent for ‘M’ – clearly Mycroft Holmes), and Molly Hooper (Louise Brearly) turns up masquerading as a man.
As the ‘Bride’ killings continue, Holmes is confronted with the case of Lady Carmichael, whose husband (Tim McInnerny) is being threatened by the ghostly figure and by a mysterious letter containing five orange pips. In the original Five Orange Pips, Holmes’ client dies, so we don’t give much for Carmichael’s chances, and indeed, he is stabbed after Holmes and Watson encounter the ghostly Bride.
A cryptic message leads Holmes to believe that Moriarty is still alive, and next thing you know, the two are facing off in 221B. Here’s where the Victorian reality starts to break down; in fact, modern-day Holmes is in a drug-induced state, exploring the Bride case in his mind palace to try to work out how modern-day Moriarty could still be alive.
The solution to the Bride case lies not in Scots or Serbians, but, as Watson suggested, among the suffragists, ‘the women we have ignored and disparaged’; cloaked and hooded (like the Ku Klux Klan, the original participants in The Five Orange Pips), they’ve conspired to fake a suicide, create the myth of the Abominable Bride using the stage illusion of Pepper’s Ghost, and go around murdering misogynists and abusers.
None of this makes much sense, but as imaginary Moriarty says: “It doesn’t make sense because it’s not real – you’re dreaming”.
When the two have an imaginary encounter at the imaginary Reichenbach Falls (looking absolutely stunning), Watson steps in to push Moriarty over the edge; Holmes takes the leap too, awakening from his drug state and concluding that Moriarty must indeed be dead, but that he knows what he’s going to do next.
So it was all a dream, and didn’t have to make much sense; but at least it didn’t end with Sherlock stepping out of the shower like Bobby Ewing in Dallas. Mary got to play a strong part as Mycroft’s agent, and we may well have been right about Moriarty’s daughter, or brother (surely he’s not going to be reincarnated as some disembodied computer program)?
Bravura production effects ranging from Matrix-style freeze-frames to animated text, some opulent settings and costumes, and a non-stop bombardment of in-jokes and character references kept this on the boil; and on the whole we admire the Gatiss and Moffat attempt to reclaim some of the Victorian baggage of Sherlock Holmes, and to work in the currently topical theme of women’s suffrage. But the whole 90 minutes seemed to be a ploy to avoid dealing with the Moriarty problem; they can’t bear to write him out, but they can’t figure out how to keep the character going. Eventually they’ll have to move on.
For all our news and review on Sherlock, go here