Sherlock: s03 e02 – The Sign of Three


How you view it makes all the difference.

There are, excluding the short preview to the third series, only thirteen episodes of Sherlock all told. These were originally broadcast in four series of three episodes, plus one one-off, these series broadcast at intervals of not less than eighteen months. I watched each episode as it was originally transmitted, enthralled. I defended the last series in particular against the spectacular mass derision mounted by the Guardian in concerted rubbish-it mode.

On the other hand, watching the entire run in consecutive weeks, as a thirteen episode continuum, without the mental and physical long breaks between each series that give the show licence to alter its parameters every time it returns, casts everything in a very different light. Those criticisms tends to look a bit less unreasonable now.

It’s a common issue with a great many series, that the longer they go on the more homogenised they tend to get. Back in the Nineties there was a BBC series called Playing the Field, whose set-up was that it was about a Ladies Football team (inspired by the successful real-life Doncaster Belles). It was popular enough to spawn a second series, and then to go on for two more series. The problem was that the first two series were about the members of a Ladies Football team and the stories that derived from their sport. The second two series were a soap opera about a group of characters who just happened to be linked by playing for a Ladies Football team. The point was pushed out of sight.

Sherlock, when it began, was a re-imagining of the greatest fictional private Detective in contemporary times. It was a programme about complex, imaginative and extremely clever crimes and their solving, filtered through the personalities of the latterday Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson. And it was brilliant. Not only was it complex, involving and puzzling, but it was shot through with flash and dazzle of the kind Steven Moffat had brought to Dr Who with Matt Smith.

‘The Sign of Three’ is the eighth episode of Sherlock overall. It’s set in and around the wedding of John Watson and Mary Morstan. During the course of the episode Sherlock discourses upon two recent unsolved cases before connecting them to a third case, of murder, to be carried out at the wedding itself. It’s ingenious, though the actual murder set-up itself has been criticised as being an unworkable fake. It’s also ‘the middle one’, the episode that, in the two preceding series, has been the naff one, and whilst it’s not as numbing as either ‘The Blind Banker’ or ‘The Hound of Baskerville’, it’s noticeable that the script is by committee, a collaboration between Moffat, Mark Gatiss and third writer Steve Thompson.

What’s far more noticeable now than first time is that despite the detection of two unsolved crimes that are, during the course of the story, are brought together to point to the intended third in time to prevent the murder thus revealed, is that the episode is not about the crime(s). They’re an afterthought, a peg on which to hang the real purpose of the episode, which is John and Mary’s Wedding Reception. And it’s not even really about that, it’s about Sherlock’s ham-fisted and, on any realistic basis, piss-poor attempt at making a Best Man’s Speech.

What’s more, in order to make the episode last 86 minutes, the timescale is twisted into a pretzel to hide the fact that the story itself would not stand up for much more than about 55 minutes.

Oh, it’s clever, I grant you that, and enjoyable, fully too in lots of places. It contains further clues towards the contents of the final episode of the series, though it tries to skillfully disguise these by having Sherlock deduce, before either of the new husband and wife are aware of it, that they’re already on the way from two to three. But whereas earlier episodes very carefully balanced a strong and seemingly impenetrable plot with the enlivening characterisation, that balance has swung well out of true and we’re into character comedy, with the plot being pushed towards the outer edges of the episode.

The point is being displaced. This is no longer about two very different guys brought together by crime-solving but about two eccentric mates, who just happen to solve crimes whilst talking to one another. Homogenisation. Coupled, paradoxically, with Moffat’s problem on Dr Who, that as the conversations are constructed on flash and dazzle, in order to keep the viewer coming back the flash and dazzle has to be upped every week, the cleverness made more overt, the jaded tastes yet further flogged, so the overall effect is pulling in two opposite directions, towards conformity and eccentricity.

It’s not a pretty sight.

On the other hand, I do remember next week’s episode as being superb, so maybe the tide will respond to Canute after all, at least for one week. I’m growing trepidatious about series 4, however.

3 thoughts on “Sherlock: s03 e02 – The Sign of Three

  1. “On the other hand, watching the entire run in consecutive weeks, as a thirteen episode continuum, without the mental and physical long breaks between each series that give the show licence to alter its parameters every time it returns, casts everything in a very different light. Those criticisms tends to look a bit less unreasonable now.”

    The ultimate plot twist, better than Moriarty’s reveal–you end up agreeing that The Guardian was right all along!

    According to tv tropes at least, Moffat and Gatiss took the murder approach here from an incident in 1897, when an anarchist assassinated a member of Austrian royalty using the same method (only there it was the corset that held it together). It may actually be based in reality.

  2. Well, I hope His Last Vow made up for the first two frothy outings. Even the sappiness that you pointed out here in his best man speech is balanced by the next episode, which brings back the old Sherlock in full force. As well as his newer empathetic side. I like froth, though! As I said last week, I’m never going to say no to Freeman and Cumberbatch doing comedy scenes. They’re brilliant at it. And in addition to that, the actual story is very well threaded into this one. ‘It was the butler/photographer’ is hardly original, but I found the piecing-it-together process satisfying in this one.

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