Film 2019: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug


Middle films are always a bugger. They start in the middle and finish in the middle: pitched directly into the action without any suitable scene-setter and lacking any wholly-satisfying conclusion. Not every extended trilogy has a Battle of Helm’s Deep to provide the perfect pseudo-climax. The Hobbit does its best in ‘The Desolation of Smaug’, with the terrifically constructed battle between the Dwarves an the Dragon inside Erebor, but it still has to depend upon a cliffhanger on which to halt. I found it a disappointment first time round and it’s still the same now, when the final film’s another Sunday away, not another December.

That said, Part 2 is a decided uplift on Part 1. It has an awkward double-start, first a very clever flashback, like the Smeagol-Deagol scene that opens ‘The Return of the King’, to Bree in the rain, Thorin Oakenshield in the Prancing Pony and a ‘chance’ meeting with Gandalf the Grey. This is taken from one of those scenes that Tolkien couldn’t fit into the book and which turns up in the Appendices, and at greater length in Unfinished Tales.

Straightway from that, we go to the Dwarf party on the run again from Azog and his pursuing Orcs and rapidly holing up with Beorn. It feels awkward because it has no independence and it’s dealt with too quickly and back-ended with a bit of comedy, reflecting the original children’s book that’s really out of place this far along.

Still, that’s the last of that. There are still comic scenes to come, mostly surrounding the Master of Lake-Town and his obnoxious, servile assistant Alfred (Alfred? Alfred? Beorn, Bard, Smaug, Bilbo, Alfred… Alfred? een if it is spelt Alfrid). This requires a double-act between Stephen Fry and Ryan Gage, one of whom I thoroughly do not like and the other who’s just too good in his role to be comfortable watching. Their humour is based on throwing in cheap rude words, like bollocks and cock, but it isa dimension away from the chilish slapstick Jackson has tried to take from the book.

After the scene at Beorn’s, Jackson stops trying to marry up any of ‘The Hobbit’s tone to the fillm and things are better for it. The Desolation of Smaug can then concentrate on its own tone, fast, dynamic and serious, letting the comedy arise from what’s on the screen, such as the brilliant barrel-escape down the elvish river, fighting off Orcs and Elves with unstinting glee and vigour.

Much of what Jackson et al. invents in this film is simply an expansion on what Tolkien has written that was treated perfunctorily. Bilbo frees the Dwarves, they escape in barrels, full stop. Another, incredibly effective scene is created out of even thinner justification: Cate Blanchett makes a tiny cameo as Galadriel to send Gandalf north as a revised justification for his leaving the Dwarves at Mirkwood, not for an off-screen White Counsel (unmentioned in advance) raid on Dol Guldur, but rather to urgently check the barely accessible and utterly creepy tombs of nine evil Kings. These are all empty: Nazgul…

And Gandalf’s investigation of Dol Guldur, his discovery of the half-mad Thrain, his encounter with the Necromancer and realisation it is Sauron, his capture, all these are drawn into this film where, in strict Tolkien mythology, they date from further back, but they are still all crucial elements of the overarching story that includes The Lord of the Rings, just placed onscreen rather than confined to deep background.

Where Jackson is on truly unjustified ground is in the creation of Tauriel, the elf-warrior-maiden and her ‘relationship’with the youngest and most normal-looking Dwarf, Kili (Aiden Turner). I’m dubious about the ‘love affair’ but as Tauriel is played by Evangeline Lilley, I can’t argue with the decision. Lilley is in her element, especially in the fighting scenes, where she’s as fluid and fearsome as Legolas (Orlando Bloom, another returnee). Jackson’s on firmer ground with having Legolas along: neither he nor Thranduil, his father, are named in ‘The Hobbit’ but it’s obvious in retrospect that they must have been there.

The middle film scores by speeding things up considerably, to remove the stodginess, kicking out the songs and (most of) the slapstick and showing a great deal more confidence in its decision to go for the tone of The Lord of the Rings overall. It’s still a middle film in Middle-Earth, with no real event to conclude it, but I still enjoy it thoroughly.

Uncollected Thoughts: Sherlock series 4, episode 3


Sometimes, no amount of words can be put together to explain a piece of work that you have seen. ‘The Final Problem’ went everywhere and nowhere. It played on fear, love, heartbreak, confusion and the ability of the mind to maintain an ordered account. I found it brilliant beyond my capacity to describe, and will not attempt to explain anything for or to you, when I can’t put it together in a way that does not overwhelm me.

I don’t know how long it will be before, or maybe if, these people can be got together for series 5, but I will do everything I can to live that long.

Uncollected Thoughts: Sherlock series 4 episode 2


I said last week that I couldn’t be objective about Sherlock and I still can’t. Last week’s episode got a lot of abuse for its ‘sexing-up’ and the Bond-ification of Sherlock, instead of the clever, witty, cerebral case solving that, apparently, was the only thing remotely interesting about the first series or two. Some of that criticism was the old, old thing about not letting things change or grow. Some of it, to be fair, was justifiable: I said I never liked the idea of Mary Watson, assassin and mercenary.

Well, given the nature of ‘The Lying Detective’, all about cerebral deduction and the careful trapping of a monster into confessing crimes that, though undetailed, were beautifully conveyed as monstrous by the simple device of having Greg Lestrade push back his chair and suspend the interrogation until the following morning, you’d almost think that Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat (writer of this week’s episode) had been playing for just such a response. Nah, they ain’t that clever, are they?

But this episode was undoubtedly clever, winding an astonishingly convoluted, yet very simple plot into so many curlicues, with hidden motivations and hidden crimes folded into it like the micro-dimensions of string theory, that it became impossible to believe that what we were watching took only ninety minutes of our lives.

To put it at its most basic: John Watson is having therapy for his appalling loss and the unbridgeable gulf it has created between him and Sherlock, only one of which conditions he wishes to resolve. Sherlock, in turn, is back on the smack, collapsing in on himself, driving himself towards death, unable to control his own intelligence.

Both appear to be hallucinating. John is carrying on conversations with Mary, despite her constant reminders that she isn’t real, nor is she independent of his mind. And Sherlock spends an entire night being put onto a complex case by the walking-cane carrying daughter of Culverton Smith, millionaire businessman/philanthropist/serial killer, only to discover that she, too, doesn’t exist (actually, the woman, Faith, does exist, it’s just that Sherlock’s hallucination isn’t her, she just looks alike. She’s not even an hallucination, but lets not get ahead of ourselves).

Sherlock sets out to prove that this highly respected public figure is indeed that most despicable of creatures, a serial killer. Toby Jones plays the part masterfully, a creature of vast intelligence, intellectually the equal of Sherlock, publicly streets ahead of him. Jones treads the delicate line of hiding in plain sight, his every utterance an invitation to see through him, if you actually dare think that. The message that, if you reach a certain level of power and public recognition, you can do anything, was written before Donald Trump was elected, but it’s ghastly apt.

John is drawn into this, against his will, constantly treading his own line between believing Sherlock’s deductive capacities and fearing that it’s all because he’s off his tits. John even puts Sherlock in the hospital where he is directly in Smith’s power, his frustrations leading him to smash Sherlock’s face in.

But it’s a game. An elaborate put-on, a fake. Yes, Culverton Smith is a serial killer, and yes, Sherlock has picked a fight with him because he is a big, powerful, evil figure who needs to be stopped, but that’s not why. It’s not why until we – and John – see the rest of Mary’s DVD, the one where she charges Sherlock with saving John. Where she identifies John Watson as a man who cannot be helped, who will not let himself be helped, but who cannot refuse to help. Who will move mountains to save Sherlock, if only Sherlock can create a scenario where he is in danger. Real, true, palpable danger.

And thus it all comes together, and in a manner that is wholly satisfying and completely believable (to the value of belief that this extraordinarily clever and mannered programme operates), the friendship is restored: Holmes and Watson live on.

Or do they?

There’s a third episode to come and there’s a handful of scattered clues lying around. There’s the hints of a third Holmes brother, Sherringford, that even John Watson susses out. There’s his therapist, with her French accent, the ‘hallucinatory Faith’ and her northern accent, not to mention last week’s girl on the bus with whom John text-cheated. She had a pronounced accent too. All the same woman, Sian Brooke, beautifully disguised.

And a killer. The real therapist is in the airing cupboard. She’s holding John Watson at gunpoint. Her real name is Euros (the East Wind). Her parents had a thing for convoluted names for their children. Euros. Mycroft. Sherlock. The third Holmes brother is a sister. John’s making a silly face. She thinks she’ll put a hole in it. She pulls the trigger.

Oh, mother.

I think we now know how Jim Moriarty has seemingly risen from the dead.


 

A Very Sherlock Xmas


That’s about it, actually. The BBC aren’t releasing their Xmas schedule until next week, and it’s not going to be full of innovative material, but it does include a ‘festive’ edition of Sherlock, so unless we’re talking about a repeat of the last one-off, get ready to clear the decks.

Ninety minutes of great TV is better than none.

Uncollected Thoughts: Doctor Strange


The Drugs better work cos the Voice doesn’t.

From the moment the first reports leaking from filming got anywhere that I could read them, there’s beenĀ  a good vibe about the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest offering, the introduction of Magic in Phase 3, Benedict Cumberbatch’s first – but definitely not last – outing as Doctor Stephen Strange.

And the good vibes kept mounting, up to the reviews of recent days, which have been universally favourable, except, that is, for the one coming from a comics-oriented site, which did not like it, and which slated Cumberbatch as the worst possible choice for the good Doctor.

Which did concern me a little, given that it was the only one from the comic book insider’s perception and you know that, preference for DC or not, that’s my standpoint. Was it only going to go down well with the audience that didn’t know what it was talking about? I am old enough to have encountered Doctor Strange when all was fresh and new, and very very Steve Ditko.

Rest assured however that, after this afternoon’s visit to Grand Central, Stockport, you will indeed enjoy this latest expansion of the MCU, that Benedict Cumberbatch is indeed very fitting as Stephen Strange, arrogant neurosurgeon and potential Sorceror Supreme, and if you are old enough, you too will find yourself playing air guitar in your seat as the introduction to Pink Floyd’s ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ booms onto the soundtrack.

Yes, psychedelic is the way.

Whilst it isn’t free from some tampering with the original story, Doctor Strange is a pretty comprehensive and pretty faithful effort. We have the classic story, updated into the Twenty-First Century, of Stephen Strange, gifted surgeon and all-round selfish arsehole, losing the ability to operate after damaging his hands in a car crash, unable to repair the damage by western, scientific medicine and heading east for a miracle cure that he doesn’t believe in but which has been proven effective.

We have Katmandu, and The Ancient One – controversially not the aged Tibetan of the series but instead Tilda Swinton with a shaved head, who gets referred to once, fleetingly, as a Celt and that’s it – and Wong, the Eye of Agamotto, Dormammu and Mordo. In one form or another, we get practically everything bar the Crimson Bands of Cytorrak, and not the least mention (that I could hear) of Hoggoth, let alone its Hoary Hordes.

You would expect Mordo to be the bad guy, but not so. Instead, the film has called up the obscure sorceror and minion of Baron Mordo, Kaecilius, playing a very Mordo-esque role as chief antagonist under the aegis of Dormammu, whilst the film’s Mordo, a Master not a Baron, is a trusted aide to The Ancient One. On the other hand, he did turn his back in disgust with everybody at the end, for breaking the Laws of Nature to ensure Earth wasn’t subsumed into the Dark Dimension under Dormammu’s rule for ever. Apparently, it’s not enough to save the world, you’ve got to do it in a regulation manner, so expect Mordo to be up for it as a Baddie in Doctor Strange 2.

(Which is planned,Cumberbatch having signed up for at least one more, but has no schedule, which is good because, despite being keen on seeing another film like this, I am even more keen on seeing Sherlock series 4).

These departures from the original were part of the process of de-racial-stereotyping the Doctor Strange set-up, and they were carefully and well-handled throughout. To be honest, what gave me more problems was Cumberbatch’s accent as Doctor Strange. I am no expert on English actors doing American accents but, no matter how accurate he may have been, it will take longer than this film lasted before I look at Benedict Cumberbatch and not expect to hear Sherlock Holmes.

I have to say that, for once, the CGI was one of the best things about this movie. I don’t usually go in for giving the SFX that much credit, and I subscribe to the opinion that any film that lets its CGI play a bigger part than its actors is doing the wrong job, but the opening scene, where The as-yet-unidentified Ancient One pursues Kercilius and his henches to London and starts rolling up the buildings, turning gravity on its side and interlocking old-fashioned and ornate frontages into themselves had my eyes popping out, but when it came to New York, later in the film, London got off easily.

I’m sorry not to be so energetic and articulate as I usually am at such things, not being at my best just now, but trust me on this one, Doctor Strange is well worth your time. Choose the 3D option, seriously, and if the cinema don’t do 3D screens, go to one that does.

And play yourself some Pink Floyd in advance. The early stuff, the Syd Barratt stuff. Get yourself in the mood. Groovy baby.

Uncollected Thoughts: Sherlock – The Abominable Bride


If we’re only going to get one of these this tear instead of the customary three, then it’s a bloody good job this one was as good as it was. I’m not sure if any spoilers got out, apart from the long-trailed one about the episode being set in Victorian London, but if they did I managed to miss all of them. The Abominable Bride was happily virgin territory for me and I loved (nearly) every minute of it.

Yes, nearly. There’s always something, but we’ll get to that later on.

For the first near hour of the programme, going by the rough estimate of time I was making in my head, it was an immaculate spoof. It was a Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes in every respect, enlivened by a simple metafiction. Gatiss and Moffat took the step of translating their Sherlock and John and their modern relationship very precisely into Victorian terms and introducing this as the ‘real’ Holmes and Watson, both well aware of the public version portrayed in the latter’s immensely popular stories in ‘The Strand’.

Not once did this version of our leading lights lapse into anything verging on 21st century language or behaviour. The closest the programme came to overtipping its hand, and it was dealt with deliberately briefly in order to contain any audience twitching, was the revelation that 19C Mary Watson was herself a highly competent agent, working for the fat Mycroft Holmes.

Actually, the writers could have blown it seriously badly with Mrs Hudson, offended at the limited role given to her literary persona and indulging in bringing her restrictions over to real-life, but the conviction – and straight-facedness – that all the regulars brought to playing their alternate versions carried us over any hurdles this comic approach placed in the audiences’ way.

In fact, for as long as this phase continued, The Abominable Bride was shaping up to be the funniest thing on TV all year (I know this is only Day 1 of 366, but considering how little TV I actually watch now, it’s six, four and evens that it’ll still be so on 31 December).

But of course it wasn’t just a spoof. Why did we ever expect something so simple? The tag attached to the dead Sir Eustace Carmichael read ‘Miss Me?’ Given that the episode had started with a brief rundown of Sherlock-to-date, ending with those very words, was there a viewer who didn’t suddenly tense up and start wondering what was coming?

And a few achronological phrases between Sherlock and fat Mycroft, each commented upon by the other, rammed home that this was suddenly not an amusing little diversion at all. Enter Moriarty for a confrontation with Sherlock (I cannot say how much I love Andrew Scott in this role) and suddenly the plane bringing Sherlock home from his four-minute exile after the killing of Troels Hartman is landing and the whole thing has been a drug-created inner fantasy by 21C Sherlock, trying to work out how Moriarty can be back after blowing his own brains out at the end of series 2.

To do so, he’s built a memory palace to enable him to investigate an unsolved Victorian case where a suicide victim who used the same method as Moriarty came back to life to commit murder and where, by using Victorian methods to solve that riddle, he hopes to work out just how Moriarty survived his own suicide.

It’s been exceedingly clever, and perfectly written and performed up to date, and it retains that level throughout John Watson’s unspoken review of the list of what Sherlock has taken, but once Sherlock gets back into his ‘mind palace’ to conclude his investigation, the programme loses a level of conviction.

We’re invited back into what, so far, has been a perfectly-executed and inexplicable alternate world. Once we go back, we return with the knowledge that this isn’t ‘real’, that it’s all in Sherlock’s mind. The intrigue has gone, and taken with it the intensity, and the uppermost level of conviction. It’s not only not ‘real’, it’s an hallucination, and the rules for how this might happen are rewritten. Anything can happen. The episode has even taken the trouble, earlier on, to remind us of Holmes’ famous dictum about when you have eliminated the impossible…

Now, the show has eliminated the impossible as being impossible.

The Ricotti case is solved with absurd ease, giving 21C Moriarty his way out, but the Carmichael case is given a portentous and ultimately metaphysical solution that digs too deep into metafiction and political correctness. That’s not a term I like, nor one I usually use, but the deliberation in which the secret society is set up, and how it’s been foreshadowed by fat Mycroft as a dangerous, unstoppable opponent who will and must win because they’re right, means that PC is for once an apt term.

Many, myself included, have accused Moffat of being a misogynist writer and the awkwardness with which this solution is applied smells of being an intentional riposte to us critics. Sorry buddy, you need to be a bit more natural than that, especially within an episode that has demonstrated itself as being naturalistic.

Perhaps recognising that they had weakened their episode, Messrs Gatiss and Moffat decided to throw in a few extra levels of the fantasy, including a completely metafictional recreation of the Reichenbach Falls in which Moriarty outs himself as being dead but instead being the symbol of Sherlock’s failures. They’re about to go over the Falls together again when the symbol gets deliberately muddied by introducing 19C John Watson, with service revolver, to tip the balance. nd to tip Moriarty over the edge: it’s his turn this time, after all.

Let me emphasise that I emjoyed every minute of this, but I’m critically aware that the last thirty minutes didn’t hold up the first sixty, and given the closing scenes, I’m pretty sure Gatiss and Moffat were also aware of that.

First, we had Sherlock, refreshed after his O.D., walking away with John and Mary, telling them that he now knows what Moriarty has planned next: oh, by the way, he is dead, no-one survives blowing their own brains out. This neatly gets the writers off the task of coming up with an explanation of Moriarty’s survival, and making it different from Sherlock’s (which was never really explained in the end), though it makes it even harder to get Andrew Scott back for series 5 (I’m electing to treat this as series 4, sorry).

Then we cut back to Victorian London and Mr Holmes trying to convince Dr Watson that his mind-experiment of projecting the future 120 years hence is truly plausible. It’s a very lightweight attempt at a St Elsewhere ending which fooled no-one in the slightest, and thw writers’ lack of conviction showed by having 19C Sherlock looking out of 221b’s window onto a 21C Baker Street street scene.

But if this is the only one we’re getting until atheism-knows-when, then it were well that it be as good as it was, and it certainly was. And bearing in mind how badly Moffat has fucked up Dr Who for me, this was either a case of him remembering his mojo, or one of Gatiss carrying him like Sam carried Frodo up the slopes of Orodruin. I’d like to think it was the former.

Sherlock: series 3, episode 3 – Uncollected Thoughts


A monster

I want to say that this is the episode that answers all the critics of series 3, that was all that we hope for and expect from Sherlock, and there is so much of this story that would make it absolutely right to begin by crowing that, and shaking a fist at those who have expressed their disgust at the series so far. Yet I’d be dishonest, guilty of simplification, if I were to do so. For, what, forty five minutes approximately, His Last Vow was on course for just such an outcome but then there was…

Was something I can’t define, even to myself, not yet. It seemed as if the programme lost focus, became detached from its narrative thrust, and for a long period it seemed to float, removed entirely from any motivating force. It ceased to move, as if caught in an eddy, away from the downstream flow, and we became trapped in that eddy, for much too long.

Yes, I think that’s the appropriate metaphor for what I felt. What we were treated to during this eddy was, frequently, brilliant of itself. But it was a stall, and not until the decision was taken, by John Watson, to forgive and accept his mystery of a wife,could the episode begin to move forward again. And as soon as it did, the episode once again took on the mark of genius that had sustained it for its first half.

First thing to say is that all my dire expectations about Mary Watson and her death were confounded entirely. Two people died in this episode, and two people came back to life – and one character cropped up in both lists and he’s the one with his name above the door, which wasn’t what we expected – but Mary Watson was not one of the dead. Nor was she the character I suddenly flashed on her being, during the bit where Sherlock was tricking her into spilling the beans to John, a flash of intuition that had me saying “oh, fuck” whilst I was revealing that I was being a bit too obvious about such things.

So, how do we describe this story? The first thing to say was that it depicted a monster, a true, unalloyedly evil monster, a creature of power and venality, of control, brilliantly incarnated by guest star Lars Mikkelsen. I know Lars from his role as the charismatic Troels Hartman in the first series of The Killing, a seeming good man, a hero, and yet self-centred, self-obsessed, unable to see beyond his own advantage and ultimately a monster.

But not such a monster as here, as Charles Arthur Magnussen, newspaper proprietor, Napoleon of Blackmail and a character who does whatever he wishes in the knowledge that he owns everyone. Mikkelsen was not just cold and precise, using only the faintest hint of a Danish accent, but he was creepy as hell. The early scene when he licks Lindsay Duncan’s face, just because no-one can stop him, established him as something not human. After that, his pissing in Sherlock’s fireplace as he and John stand by was comic with a very sharp edge, and his game with John’s face at the end, in which he let slip the callousness enough to show that he was enjoying himself, was icing on the cake.

This came on top of his revelation that his ‘Vaults’, into which he would disappear to search for material, making curiously precise yet stylised hand-movements, was a Mind Palace equivalent to Sherlock’s. The revelation that there never were, and never had been, physical documents to retrieve did set up the obvious conclusion, yet even there I got it wrong as I expected John to put a bullet through Magnussen’s head, instead of Sherlock: mentally outwitted but taking the curiously obvious step.

Magnusson was the river. We rode its currents from the improbable start of finding Sherlock in a drug’s den, the hugely comic spectacle of everyone homing in on him to protect him from exposure, in the face of his weary claims that he was undercover, working a case: creating a Pressure Point for Magnussen to ‘use’ against him. The big laugh was that Magnussen, the kind of guy who, Sherlock-fashion, analyses everyone he meets for what he’s got on them before identifying said Pressure Point, had a torrent of red lines for Sherlock, zipping by too fast to be seen or even counted!

So the clues were there for us, if not Sherlock, to see all along, that there were no Vaults, not real ones. Sherlock pursues the retrieval of certain documents, going so far as to acquire a girl-friend (Magnussen’s PA) in order to get inside his flat (another lovely comic improbability, though by the end we do learn he hadn’t actually gone so far as to shag her). Inside, he finds Magnusson with a gun to his head, pointed by a black-clad figure wearing Claire-de-Lune perfume. The sleazy Magnussen had already impressed upon us that Lady Smallwood (Duncan’s character) wears Claire-de-Lune, but it’s also dropped in, in passing, that so does Mary Watson. And though Sherlock calls on Lady Smallwood to stop, when she turns it is Mary.

And she shoots him.

Now, of necessity, the storyline stops here, for a bravura sequence in which Sherlock, in the three seconds he has before collapsing, manages with the aid of Mycroft and Molly Hooper – not to mention the late Jim Moriarty, played to manic perfection by Andrew Scott – oh how I miss him – to self-diagnose how best to keep himself from dying. Yet die he does, his heart stopping on the operating table, until he’s spurred on by the desire not to be Moriarty into returning to life.

Now all this creates a situation that then takes precedence, forcing the story for a long period, into an essentially static eddy. John’s wife – who Sherlock has already categorised as a liar, who can recognise skip codes and has a bloody good memory of her own, is being black-mailed by Magnussen and has come close to killing our hero. Who is she? What is she? Why?

We never do get those answers, and we’re better for it, as these are all questions that are better put in the past tense: was, not is. What little we are allowed to share sounds grim, yet to Sherlock his Vow takes precedence. She loves John, and John needs her: she saved his life (by a shot so precise that it did not kill, and by calling the ambulance before John found him).

This is the sequence that basically pulls me up short from praising the episode unceasingly: that and the moment where I threatened to disconnect entirely, when John demands to know why it always seems to be his fault, and Sherlock explains that it is, because John is addicted to danger, which his why his best friend is a highly-functioning sociopath and he’s fallen in love with a psychopath. Oh well, if you put it that way…

Nevertheless, the episode gets itself back on track with its ending, with Sherlock’s desperately risky plan to bring Magnussen down, that leads to the revelation of the Mind Palace and the tormenting of John Watson (who has his gun on him and who knows that a bullet to the brain will destroy Magnussen’s hold over his wife). But again we are confounded, for it is Sherlock who takes the necessary, and not necessarily regrettable step.

His lot is exile, to an undercover role that Mycroft predicts will kill him in six months time. There’s a few parting words with John, in which the two have almost nothing to say, having done all this before, a private flight into exile and the closing credits begin without the slightest suggestion of an end-of-series cliffhanger…

Except that the credits turn into a pub TV showing football but experiencing interference. The same interference everyone is seeing, all over Britain, at the same time, which causes an awful lot of reactions and which is directly responsible for Sherlock’s exile being cut short after a record-breaking four minutes. It’s a face and a voice: it’s Andrew Scott, it’s Jim Moriarty.”Miss Me?” he asks. And oh but I did.

All I ask now is that somehow Messrs Moffat, Gatiss, Cumberbatch and Watson, not to mention Ms Abbington, get their act together to let us see this in 2015 because I seriously do not want to wait two years to see how they got out of that (although I suppose there’s a certain irony to it: this year’s cliffhanger is almost identical to 2012’s, and look what consternation that caused!).

Sherlock: series 3, episode 2 – Uncollected Thoughts


Traditionally, the middle episode of a series of Sherlock is the one where it sags, the worthy-but-slightly-dull one, the one not written by Mark Gatiss or Steven Moffat. There’s no such failure here, in an episode in which the funny lines sometimes ran the risk of colliding with each other, but the episode has already provoked a lot of online unrest and accusations of shark-jumping that are hard to refute for the obvious reason: they’re entirely valid.

Now, I liked this story, even though, properly speaking, there was only about ten minutes of story in it, and that right at the end. The advance publicity – which the opening and potentially completely irelevant sequence only emphasised – laid heavily on the idea that Sherlock’s biggest ever task was being Best Man at John Watson’s wedding, and giving a speech.

The episode set out to be a comedy, whose paucity of plot was disguised by an intricate chronological to-and-fro about the build-up to the wedding, interspersed with a Best Man’s speech that seemed to fill about two-thirds of the running time and which did, with the best will in the world, test the credibility of the wedding audience’s patience. A lot of the speech, and its accompanying byways, was designed to build up Watson to the point where his character could be put on a par with Holmes, which was laudable, and entirely in keeping with Martin Freeman’s continuing note-perfect performances, but which is potentially lethal to the classic concept of the partnership’s skills: I know this is a modern interpretation, a re-creation rather than an adaptation, but how far can you get from the original Holmes-Watson template before the point is lost?

What you had no sense of, throughout all this time, was that the thin and unconvincing cases the time-filling duo were engaged in were not only serious but related. The show gave the very smart ample opportunity to see this before it was spelt out, given that it began with the intended murder victim – Watson’s old Commander – strapping on the very belt that would prove key to deciphering the plot. The seeming scattergun approach scattered all the clues necessary, in a very fair manner, in plain sight between the dazzling distractions of the one-liners.

So many people seem to have hated it, yet in many ways this episode does fill the classic mould of detection. What makes it differ from previous episodes is the fact that, exactly like the first episode, the plot isn’t the focus of the story. It’s there throughout, unseen until Sherlock finally adds enough of the pieces together, but by then a lot of people were way out of sympathy with the show.

And I take their point. Part of the beauty of Sherlock, inherent to its appeal but simultaneously a pain in the arse, is that the series are so short: three 90 minute stories every couple of years. The series started less than a week ago, and its final episode – for another two years – is on Sunday: everything in twelve days only. So whilst this story is a brilliant change of pace if taken in isolation, it’s an enormous and potentially destabilising step in a series of three: change of pace from what? And given that so much of the first episode was devoted to atmosphere and relationships, pushing the plot to one side, the series doesn’t only risk being imbalanced, it actually is imbalanced.

What remains to be seen is how the series will end, on Sunday. Reading between the lines of what I’ve seen so far, and factoring in my decidedly imperfect knowledge of the original (confession: I have read very little Conan Doyle, and have not been impressed by what I have – I much prefer Raffles if I’m being honest), I am expecting a massive changing up through the gears in the final episode, and a very much blacker affair.

There’s the unexplained but vivid assault on Watson in episode one, the mysterious observer that everyone thinks is Alex Ferguson but who’s really Troels Hartman from The Killing series one, the elusive Waters gang from the start of this episode, the fact that the Conan Doyle Mary Watson died, and the title of episode three – His Last Vow. A vow made explicitly near the end of this episode, to love and protect the Watsons, and their barely-conceived child.

This series has, I think, been planned over four and a half hours, planned so that these two, somewhat uncharacteristic episodes create a mood, an atmosphere that will be blown apart. I recognise Dave Sim’s technique, honed over a quarter century of reading Cerebus, of breaking free of the confines of the individual chapter to greatly enhance the force of the overall story.

Moffat’s come in for a lot of flak for using this approach in Doctor Who, and is now being slagged off for bringing the two series’ closer togethet, in tone and attack. But where the criticism has a degree of validity when applied to the long-running Who, I think that in such a short series, appearing so rapidly, that the combination of episodes in this manner is entirely justified. And, frankly, there are enough programmes out there that pander to the audience’s dull wish to be led by the hand through the tulip fields, and I really don’t want to be held up waiting for them.

So: loved it, recognise it’s flaws, but if I’m right about the final episode, I think that those ‘flaws’ will then be seen as a perfectly judged element of a whole. Not so much a three act play, as a three movement Symphony.

But that’s down to Moffat…

Sherlock: series 3, episode 1: Uncollected Thoughts


Whatever they came up with, it was going to be a disappointment on some level. You can’t leave a climax like that hanging for two years and come up with the perfect explanation. Either it’s going to be so plausible that it could never have been a mystery in the first place, or so convoluted that the only mystery lies in how you let yourself be taken in by it.

So how did Sherlock Holmes survive The Reichenbach Fall? Mark Gattis, writing the opening episode of the third (and no longer intended to be final) series offered not one explanation but three. Two came from poor, obsessive, semi-demented Anderson or his group of like-minded conspiracy theorists and one from Sherlock himself, explaining it to Anderson, who professes himself, well… disappointed.

From that I think we are supposed to take the latter as gospel, but as it was no more plausible than the first explanation (the one about it being a plot between gay lovers Sherlock and Moriarty was a nod to fan slash-fiction and not meant to be taken seriously), and as Sherlock was immediately afterwards shown telling the most enormous lie of the story, I remain unconvinced. Clearly, like the best of all death-traps, we were never meant to know how it was really done. Having escaped from having to come up with anything serious, the writers heaved a sigh of relief.

So, and we do not do SPOILER SPACE here, so read on at your own risk, just what had Sherlock been doing these past two-planned-to-be-one-but-it-got-away-from-us years? The answer was, dismantling Moriarty’s network into unreconstructable pieces, which is a damned shame given how much I loved Andrew Collins’ Jim Moriarty (who deserved the soubriquet, Count). Now, with an underground terrorist threat aimed at London, Sherlock has to come home and come out into the open.

And he has to explain to his old colleague, Dr John Watson, both a) that he is, in fact, alive and b) that there was a good reason why he didn’t let John in on the closely-guarded but still mildly open secret that he’s still alive. The fact that Sherlock does not anticipate the remotest antipathy from John, who he interrupts just before the crucial ‘Will you marry me?’ bit of Watson’s marriage proposal, led to the absolute best and funniest part of the episode, which was John’s increasingly violent reaction to the whole thing.

(Mary does accept the never-delivered proposal, incidentally, as you might expect given that Amanda Abbington in Martin Freeman’s real life partner).

The terrorist threat is clearly intended to be the plot of this story, though it only plays a part for the final half-hour, and even then the main piece of drama – the drugging, kidnapping and near-death of John Watson in a bonfire seeingly being lit on November 4th – in fact relates to something else entirely, which will not become an issue until the third and final episode, much as Moriarty never emerged thus in series 1. I was a little bit disappointed with the notion of a tube-car-turned-bomb being left on a disused branch line directly beneath Parliament as that’s a direct steal from the finale of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta.

But I was even more disappointed with Sherlock’s cruel and mocking deception of John Watson over the fact that he’d switched the bomb off without letting John know that he wasn’t going to die in ninety seconds time. Where the original Watson’s reaction to the reappearance of his dead friend had to be made more believably robust, this went too far in the opposite direction as most people in Watson’s shoes at that point would have killed Holmes, and in the case of one viewer at least have made this the last episode ever, in that this time I really would have never gone near Sherlock again.

But then I’m not being written into a stylised, highly enjoyable and not necessarily ultra-plausible TV drama.

The pattern of the two preceding series has been a superb first and third episode with a bit of a slump in the middle. Whilst I enjoyed The Empty Hearse overall, it wasn’t a match for either its predecessors as opening episode, so I’m hoping for something more completely satisfying next week. And the news of a confirmed series 4, in 2016, is welcome, though it puts a further delay on my plan not to get a DVD set of Sherlock until it’s of the Complete variety.