Sherlock: s03 e03 – His Last Vow


Sherlock

Let us begin by acknowledging that, whatever issues i am beginning to have with the third series of Sherlock, the concluding episode, ‘His Last Vow’, redeems everything. Well, almost everything. It is a comprehensive, complex, intricate thriller that, in contrast to ‘The Sign of Three’, contains about twice as much story as can comfortably be contained in ninety minutes and still finds time for sequences that are stretched out beyond their proper length. It features the greatest monster the entire series has to offer, it foreshadows the underlying theme of the fourth series, and it breaks with the credibility of the series by taking two monstrous and unjustifiable steps that, even as I watched them the first time, I rejected as unworthy and ridiculous.

But this is still a brilliant episode, and quite probably the best of the entire run, with a cliffhsnger ending to die for.

The villain, the monster, is newspaper proprietor Charles Augustus Magnussen, played with chilling calmness by Lars Mikkelsen, otherwise best known as Troels Hartmann in the first series of Forbrydelssen/The Killing. He is the moden day equivalent of Conan Doyle’s Charles Augustus Milverton, ‘the Napoleon of Blackmail’. Magnussen is a newspaper proprietor who holds secrets, thousands, millions of secrets, about everything and everyone, stored in vaults beneath his futuristic home, Appledore. Magnussen – Moffat could hardly call him Murdoch, could he, the parallel would be too blatant – knows the secret to everyone, their pressure point(s), the things they will do anything to keep secret.

Despite the warning of Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock has set himself to bring Magnussen down, and boy does he need it! Magnussen is preternaturally unemotional. He is incapable of surprise. How can he be surprised when he controls everything, because no-one dare deny him. He licks Lady Smallwood’s cheek to taste her perfume. He pees in Sherlock’s fireplace. He can do anything he wants.

To draw Magnussen’s attention, Sherlock goes undercover in a crack den. It’s all a fake, for the case, or is it? With Mycroft’s hints… He’s also taken a girlfriend, Janine, who he met and John and Mary’s wedding. Creating a pressure point for Magnussen to use against him, though the gag is that when Magnussen reviews all of Sherlock’s pressure points, the list streams past forever, far too fast for anyone to follow. Sherlock wants to get in. Lady Smallwood has engaged him to obtain certain letters concerning her husband (who later commits suicide so that didn’t work). Sherlock, with John Watson in tow, gets into Magnussen’s private offices. Just behind someone who is holding a gun to Magnussen’s head and who, when he recognises her, shoots him in the chest.

I suppose this is where I ought to insert SPOILER ALERT! for anyone who has not already seen this episode because this is where we fall down the rabbit-hole into a different plane of reality, never to return. Sherlock thinks it’s Lady Smallwood (Lyndsey Duncan, who I remember first as an unknown, playing the girl in Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre more than forty years ago, when they had to take extraordinary precautions for her not to be seen naked once she stripped off, this being theatre-in-the-round: but I digress) because of her claire-de-la-lune perfume. It’s not. It’s another claire-de-la-lune wearer. Mary Watson.

It was hinted at in both previous episodes, passing moments suggesting she’s not an ordinary woman, a doctor’s recptionist, but something more. What that is has to be postponed, first for an hallucinatory sequence inside Sherlock’s head, as he uses his mind-palace (hint hint) to draw down, in the three seconds of consciousness remaining to him, the only right way to possible survive, part of which involves a cameo from Andrew Scott as Jim Moriarty, just to remind us how much we miss him. Impressive as this bit is, it offers too much scope for Moffat to go OTT, and if there’s one thing we know about Steven Moffat as a writer, it is that he cannot resist going OTT.

Then Sherlock sets out to discover the secret of Mary Morstan Watson, such as the real Mary Morstan being a still-birth. Mary warns him that John must never know a word of the truth about her because, and this is where Amanda Abbington takes Moffat’s words and brands them into our minds, because she loves John, and knowing who or what she really is will kill that love and she will not allow that to happen. At which point, Sherlock switches on the light and she and we realise she’s been speaking in frnt of John anyway.

I’m going to blunt. No matter how well it’s done, I disagree in my very bones with what Moffat is doing/has done here. Mary Watson is not an ordinary woman, a bright, sharp, intelligent, understanding, loving woman. She is a psychopath. A former Intelligence Agent with a long list of kills to her name, which isn’t Mary (her real initials are A A, one of those infuriating little in-jokes that you wish people could resist). She is not a nice woman. And what, John Watson wonders, has he done to deserve a wife like this? It’s all his own fault, Sherlock diagnoses: he’s an adrenaline-junkie, he has the hots for psychopaths. No. just, no.

At this point the story goes on hiatus until Xmas Day at the Holmes’, senior, their guests including two of their three children unable to conceal their enmity and rivalry, plus the Watsons, who haven’t been speaking for months whilst Mary gets pregnanter and pregnanter. Until John chooses today to tell her that no, he hasn’t read the memory stick with her whole story on it, and he’s not going to, her past is her business, her future his privilege (that’s the problem, there are so many brilliant lines like that being put to service on a plot-twist I hate), and her drops the memory-stick in the fire (like that’s going to melt it: has he not watch The Lord of the Rings?)

Then Sherlock drugs everyone and steals Mycroft’s laptop, the most secure and confidential laptop in the Kingdom. He’s taking a massive risk, not to mention taking John with him. He’s done a deal with Magnussen, a trade, the laptop in return for every bit of evidence Magnussen has got on Mary. It’s High Treason, but it’s also a Cunning Plan. There’s GPS tracking in the laptop, to draw Mycroft and forces: he would just love to get Magnussen.

But Sherlock has made a colossal mistake, a blunder of immense magnitude, that will destroy evreything and everyone around him. The clues have been there if we were bright enough to spot them. Knowing the answer now, I did. But it’s so very simple. There are no vaults below Appledore, no papers, no evidence. What does Magnussen need of evidence? He owns newspapers. Everything he knows, every secret, is in his head. In his mind palace.

I saw it coming, or rather I thought I did. Magnussen, triumphant, cracks his grave monotone. He can do whatever he wants to. he doesn’t like John’s stupid face, he decides he’ll punch it. No, more humiliating still, echoing the schoolyard bully he has never grown out of being, because what is more petty than carrying out any fleeting whim you have, he flicks John’s face. John stands still and takes it. Martin Freeman takes it, impassive, submitting to try to save his Mary, who he loves, yet you can see his stoicism eroding at every flick, at every gleeful giggle from Magnussen. No man can endure forever, and John has his gun in his jacket pocket. He’ll pull it out and kill Magnussen: there is literally no other way to stop him.

But the name of the series is not John or Watson. Sherlock has made a catastrophic blunder but so too has Magnussen. Sherlock is a high-functioning sociopath. He reminds the Napoleon of Blackmail of that, just before shooting him through the forehead.

So Sherlock is now a murderer. There are too many implications in the whole business for him to be tried. Instead, he is to be exiled: an undercover job in Eastern Europe that Mycroft can now no longer shield him from. He will be dead within six months, and that will break Mycroft’s heart. He has always been the protective older brother, even when he told his little brother stories of the fury and devastation caused by the East Wind. Or Euros.

We end on goodbyes, as Sherlock is flown off on his final, redemptive mission. Which lasts four minutes before he’s summoned back. Someone has broken through onto every screen in the entire country, asking the question, ‘Miss Me?’ That’s the cliffhanger. How the hell can he still be alive? ‘Miss Me?’ John Watson gets it right: here comes the East Wind.

Sherlock: s03 e02 – The Sign of Three


Sherlock

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.

Sherlock: s02 e03 – The Reichenbach Fall


Sherlock

Up to this point it’s been disappointing for me to realise that the previous episodes of Sherlocki, especially those of the second series, have not lived up to my memories of them at the time of transmission. This left me trepidatious about ‘The Reichenbach Fall’, even more so given that it was the work of Steve Thompson, responsible for ‘The Blind Banker’.

Well, I was wrong to doubt, except in one general manner that strictly doesn’t apply to the episode itself, and Thompson produced a dense, complex and above all intense conclusion to the series. It would be easy to suggest that there may have been extensive uncredited assistance from Moffat and Gatiss but I’m not going to even think that. Thompson got rightly slated for ‘The Blind Banker’: let him enjoy unadulterated praise for ‘The Reichenbach Fall’.

The episode deserved praise for its boldness in starting at the end, with John Watson back in therapy for the first time in eighteen months (i.e., transmission time between the pilot episode and this), the rain sluicing down his therapist’s windows – one pane revealed normal heavy rain, the other a deluge that was either the product of a broken gutter or a hose – as he admits the reason is that his best friend, Sherlock Holmes, is dead.

Well, we all knew that that was going to be the outcome. Even non-Sherlockians like myself know that in ‘The Final Problem’ – referenced multiple times herein by Jim Moriarty – both the Great Detective and the Professor of Crime fall to their deaths, but that Sherlock Holmes secretly survives (not that this was Conan Doyle’s intention at the time), so we were ready even before that.

The extended flashback began with two things: the briefly established public fame of Sherlock, thanks to his recovery of the famous painting, ‘The Falls of Reichenbach’, and a series of similarly fantastic cases, and the arrest and trial of Jim Moriarty. This is given the length it deserves in which to breathe, and also for people like me who relish the mere sight of Andrew Scott as Moriarty just sitting there with one of those expressions on his face.

Essentially, Moriarty, with his usual insouciance, pulls off three capers simultaneously, breaching security at the Tower of London, the Bank of England and Pentonville Prison. You can imagine the panic. He doesn’t take anything however, he just dresses up in the Crown Jewels and sits there waiting to be arrested. Subsequently, he goes on trial, with the ‘Reichenbach Hero’, as the Press term him, to give evidence against him as to the egregious Jim being a Consulting Criminal etc.

Things fall out as we expect them. Despite John’s warnings to, basically, not be a smartarse, Sherlock plays the smartarse in the witness box, is sent down for Contempt and, despite offering no defence, no witnesses, not even himself, making not the slightest effort to counter the Prosecution’s condemning evidence, the Jury take six minutes to acquit. It’s on.

Because Moriarty has sewt this up, done everything thus far not to entertain and intrigue the audience, though it’s had that effect, but to get into Sherlock’s head and lay down some misdirection. The crimes were an advertisement, of Moriarty’s brilliance and, more concretely, that he has a computer code that can breach any security in the world, which Sherlock trecognises as more valuable t o him than anything he could have stolen.

He also explains that he got off at the Trial because he nobbled the Jury. That is a clue, and one that plays upon Sherlock’s basic weakness. We’ll get back to that. Oh, and let me mention that Sherlock’s smartarsery, and his contempt for those ordinary mortals that he can understand at a glance has made him an enemy. A tabloid reporter named Kitty Riley (Katherine Parkinson) who wants his story from his side. Sherlock says nothing that we wouldn’t want to say to a tabloid reporter if we were in those circumstances, but we wouldn’t say it because we know that they’re spiteful, petty, lying bastards who’ll retaliate. Sherlock is too clever for his own good at certain points, like right now.

The next step is a kidnapping, two children, son and daughter of an American Ambassador. By deduction and scientific analysis, Sherlock moves from a single footprint to where the children are being held, slowly dying from eating chocolate out of mercury-impregnated wrappers. It’s sheer genius, but why does the little girl scream her head off the moment she sees Sherlock, who she’s never met before?

This, and the sheer impossibility of actually resolving the case from a single footprint, gets into the head of Sergeant Sally Donovan. How could Sherlock have got to the right answer from there? Without foreknowledge. Even though we’ve watched the steps as they’re taken, the last one came straight out of his head. We know Sally hates Sherlock as much as we enjoy him, but we can also see the basis for her suspicions. Lestrade dismisses them, but his Superintendent doesn’t, especially when he learns for the first time just how many cases on which the Police have consulted this… amateur.

Suddenly, everything crumbles. Sherlock is arrested, as is John (he punched the Superintendent in the nose: we’d have done the same) and they have to go on the run. Simultaneously, the Press are spilling the exclusive story that the Reichenbach Hero is a fake, that he set up all the ‘crimes’ so he could appear to be a genius detective, but instead it was all a fraud.

And how did Moriarty get all this deadly detail about Sherlock’s life. John is clear: there are only two names in Sherlock’s address book and the other is Mycroft Holmes. Who explained that, to try to get the computer code, they seized Moriarty and held him for six weeks. He wouldn’t take at all. Except to Mycroft. Who could only get him to tak by talking about Sherlock. For someone so bright, in the kind of position he holds, that is incredibly dumb. Mycroft is, however, sorry.

It’s ingenious. It’s clearly Moriarty all the way through. And the journalist breaking this expose? Who else but Kitty Riley. This is why you and I would have held our tongues the way Sherlock didn’t. It’s all been a fake. There is no ‘Jim Moriarty’. There’s Richard Brook (Rich Brook = Reichen Bach), a struggling actor who does children’s programmes, who needed the money when Sherlock Holmes hired him to play ‘Jim Moriarty’. Now he’s selling his story…

It’s ingenious and it’s deadly. Moriarty is destroying Sherlock in the public eye. Destroying him utterly and without harming him physically. But that’s not enough. The final problem, of which of these two geniuses is smarter, has to end only one way. Sherlock, distraught at his exposure, will commit suicide by jumpibg off the roof of St Bart’s Hospital.

It’s the end of Moriarty’s game. He’s in complete control, even if he acts as if he is. Every step, every stage, he’s been ahead of Sherlock, has out-thought, outsmarted and out-manoeuvred him. Even down to the computer code: there isn’t one. Sherlock’s weakness is that he always looks for the clever and was fooled by the obvious: Moriarty bribed the guards. Jim is disappointed in his aversary: he’s ordinary after all, like the rest. Even after listening to Moriarty explain how he nobbled the Jury.

But why will Sherlock jump to his death? Moriarty can’t make him. But he can. Even now, there are three assassins waiting, one each for John Watson, Mrs Hudson and Inspector Lestarde. His only friends. Either he dies, or they do. Neat. Easy. Simple.

There’s still another twist. This confrontation between the two greatest minds of our times, who are more alike than Sherlock wants to admit – Jim is up front about it – is holding our attention in an iron grip. How is Sherlock going to get out of this? There must be a way out. And there is. Sherlock suddenly realises that Moriarty has a way of calling off the assassins. All he has to do is get it out of him. By any means. By any means far more ruthless than even Moriarty could be. Sherlock may be on the side of the Angels but he’s not one of them.

It’s the answer, the get-out card, the hidden in the back of the hand trump. You can see it in Moriarty’s eyes as he works it out. The impeccable, unanswerable logic. But Moriarty’s thing is that he cannot and will not let himself be beaten. He’s carried on the impeccable, unanswerable logic beyond the point Sherlock could ever imagine. He pulls a gun from his pocket, swallows it and blows his brains out.

That’s it. There are now only two choices. Sherlock. Or John, Hudson and Lestrade. John is below, emergong from a taxi. Sherlock calls him, dictates he stand in a certain place where he can see Sherlock, can listen to his ‘note’, can hear his confessuion that it’s all true. He is and always was a fake. A con.

John, who came close to believing that for himself, like everybody else except the ultraloyal Molly Hooper, rejects it. But he has to stand there and watch his best friend lean forward and fall, arms, legs, long coat flapping. He starts running in desperation but is knocked down by a bicycle, left half-stunned. There’s a body on the pavement, we heard the crunch. People are milling about. John tries to be the Doctor but is overcome by grief and semi-concussion. Sherl.ock is dead, just like he said back at the start, about 85 objective minutes ago but subjectively the ride has been much much longer: hours at least.

His therapist tries to get him to say it but he can’t. He can only say it at the grave, after Mrs Hudson has left him alone. Thompson has come up with the perfect last line. “Please, there’s just one more thing, one more thing, one more miracle, Sherlock, for me. Don’t … be … dead. Would you do — just for me, just stop it. Stop this.” Even stripped entirely of context it’s a line to force tears into your eyes.

And, of course, as John Watson walks away, holding in his grief, Sherlock Holmes watches him, expressionlessly, from a distance.

Unlike previous episodes, ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ does not fail me. Only Mycroft’s involvement in Moriarty’s scheme is beneath contempt. Everything else is brilliant. Andrew Scott even outdoes his performance at the end of ‘The Great Game’. There’s a point on the rooftop where Sherlock tells him he’s mad, to which Moriarty’s response is the perfect and perfectly hilarious “You’re just getting that now?” Moriarty is genuinely shit-scary. Because he can do anything and it doesn’t take 30 seconds in his presence to understand that he’s shit-scary because he will do anything without the slightest reservation. He is what The Joker is supposed to be but very rarely actually is.

In advance, my biggest concern was the plausibility of Moriarty’s suicide. Would he really go to that length? Hasn’t he got other things to do? But the scene establishes the remorselessness of his thinking. You and I wouldn’t do it, we couldn’t take necessity and logic that far. But Moriarty reasons it through. For him to win – and he cannot accept losing – he has to do it and so he does.

Which places Sherlock, and Sherlock, in an impossible situation. Conan Doyle intended to kill Holmes off permanently, and only brought him back after several years, because his audience demanded it (be very careful about writing what your audience wants). Moffat and Gatiss were faking with us all along, and showed the audience their hand at the last, just in case the dumber elements thought they’d really killed off Sherlock and the series.

But in doing so they raised a hostage to fortune. The only thing the audience could think about in the two years that separated series 2 from series 3, and I should know because I was one of them, was How are they going to get out of that? Because what we saw was pretty bloody conclusive. On the other hand, once you slow down and look back, there are openings. John was knocked down, was woozy, didn’t get to inspect the body. Sherlock came to St Barts because he needed help from Molly: what help? Mycroft, who already felt, so far as such emotions were possible, guilty. You might have expected them to have dropped in a few building blocks. It would be better if they had the answer worked out before this was finished. This time I don’t have to wait two years to see if they had or not.

Sherlock: s02 e02 – The Hounds of Baskerville


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Already it was almost a tradition, or an old charter, that the middle episode of a Sherlock series should be the naff one, the disconnected one that seems to have no bearing on what came before or lies after it. That was the case with ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’, even though it was written by Mark Gatiss. Once again there was the removal of the supporting cast to purely cameo roles, minimal involvement for Mrs Hudson, Mycroft Holmes and Inspector Lestrade – or Greg, as we learned today – and a closing mini-cameo for Andrew Scott as Jim Moriarty, which had nothing to do with the episode but was a ridiculously melodramatic portent for next week that was amateurish in its conception.

Still, what do I know? According the the user reviews on imdb, I am again in a tiny minority, but this was what I felt in 2012 and this is what I still feel in 2022. I am hampered by my non-Holmesian status: the episode is very obviously a take-off on The Hound of the Baskervilles, probably the most famous Sherlock Holmes story of all time, but one which I have never read, nor seen any of the apparently 23 film versions thereof. And in Mark Gatiss’ hands, it was rewritten as a horror story, and I am not a fan of horror stories.

Still, the story meant that 90% of the episode was set on Dartmoor. Again, I am unfamiliar with the Moor and its Tors but I love all our countryside, not just the Lake District, and was happy to see this land. What we had for a story was the case of Henry Knight (Russell Tovey, doing his best with a part that asked him to basically whimper for ninety minutes) who, twenty years earlier, aged 7, saw his father ripped to pieces by the classic Hound of the original story. Henry is under therapy that has led him back to confront his fears but has seen the Hound again and got Sherlock in to investigate.

Instead of Baskerville Hall, we have Baskerville, a highly-secret military research station visible from miles around (at least in Malcolm Saville’s Saucers over the Moor he had the secret Scientific Establishment in a remote and inaccessible place). It’s obvious that the solution is going to emanate from there, and it turned out to be a paranoia drug, created to render its victims extremely suggestible and fearful, which which had side-effects that turned them into panicky homicidal maniacs. Henry Knight was a victim, and so too at different stages were Sherlock and John Watson, the former rattled to the depths of the observational device that doubles for his soul by the fact that the evidence of his own eyes was not what was or could be real.

The problem was that, unless we were going to produce an actual monster hound, the solution was the only plausible explanation, making the episode an exercise in preventing beginning and ending from meeting in the middle. And since in terms of actual story, Gatiss could only find about sixty minutes worth, this required a lot of atmospherics, and attempts to raise a sense of creepiness and anticipation that had to be given more time than they actually needed. The scene where John is locked into a lab and made to believe the Hound was in there with him, which turned out to be an experiment by Sherlock, was the prime example of this: badly-lit deliberately, no dialogue, the inability to see what the hell is going on, and at least twice as long as it need be so that the atmosphere was dissipated rather than enhanced.

And the script faltered in the case of Doctor Frankland (Clive Mantle), who turned out to be the villain, and who died at the end by fanatically running into the minefield and letting one blow him up rather than be arrested. There is a way of introducing a seemingly minor character that draws attention to him as a major figure in the story and Gatiss did just that with Frankland’s first appearance, in spades. I’ll say this for the BBC’s New Tricks, in its last couple of series it did a wonderful job of showing the ultimate murderer as a minor figure without tipping its hand as to their importance: Gatiss practically drew a neon halo around Frankland’s head.

Once again I’m making the episode out to be crap. It wasn’t, or rather it was only by the standards of Sherlock at its best. There was a lot of detail, a couple of Sherlock’s virtuoso displays of observation and analysis, and a great deal more on both the two sides of Sherlock’s personality, the detective and the inhuman being, not to mention the difficulties always inherent in his relationship with John Watson who, in his quiet and straightforward manner, played more full a role than that of bystander and explainee. Sasha Behar played Henry’s therapist, Louise Thornton, and Amelia Bullimore Dr Stapleton, the geneticist who accidentally created a luminous rabbit for her seven year old daughter. Russell Tovey performed manfully in a role that was impossible for any actor, however skilled. But this was the middle episode, and it was what ‘The Blind Banker’ was to series 1, both then and now.

Sherlock: s02 e01 – A Scandal in Belgravia


Sherlock

One of the marks of a great episode of television is that even as it impresses and dazzles you, it should leave you with mixed feelings. As I watched ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, loosely incorporating an updating of the original Conan Doyle short story, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, many things went through my mind, not all of them complimentary, yet by the end the prevailing response was that this was another excellent story. With flaws, yes, but with more than enough, in one respect, to overwhelm them.

Before we can have the story we have a prelude that is also an extended epilogue. We ended series 1 on a cliffhanger that was something of an impasse: Sherlock and John Watson pinned down by laser sights, Jim Moriarty in danger from the suicide vest Sherlock was prepared to set off with a bullet (which everyone with a knowledge of plastic explosive immediately identified as impossible to achieve).

In retrospect, a beautiful cliffhanger turned into a yoke on Steven Moffat’s neck. How do you get out of that and be remotely plausible? The answer is, you don’t. We’re going to come up against an even worse example of this in just three week’s time, but the answer for now is bathetic, even as it is awkwardly bolted on to the actual story. Jim Moriarty receives a phone call. His ring tone in ‘Staying Alive’, horribly inappropriate, but then Moffat got the idea off his wife, Producer Sue Vertue, who had exactly the same experience at a funeral. Someone wants Messrs Holmes and Watson alive and offers Moriarty something for it, so he lets them go.

It’s a cheat, but we have to accept it as acceptable in the bizarre world of this Sherlock. Thankfully, it’s practically detachable from the real story, but as McGuffins go, it’s loose writing of the kind I called out time and again when blogging Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and I’m not prepared to overlook it here. Flim-flam is still flim-flam, even in a far superior series.

What followed was, in its way, a set-up for later in the series. Sherlock solves cases by the dozen, John blogs them, no details, just impressionistic references. The blog’s a hit (it’s the modern day equivalent of The Strand magazine for those who weren’t aware), Sherlock becomes famous. Would-be clients come to start outlining cases that then get dismissed as ‘boring’. It’s all bits and pieces, postponing the real beginning, fun in themselves but insubstantial.

When that happens, it’s in the middle of a bizarre mystery, the hiker who died in the middle of nowhere, no killer visible, struck by a blunt object (it was a boomerang, Moffat works this mystery into the overall story in a very piecemeal manner, delaying the unlikely resolution in order to make a point that he then reverses in the closing reveal). Sherlock’s on the case, or rather he’s wrapped in a sheet at home, having sent John Watson on-site with a laptop and wi-fi to do the literal groundwork. Which is then interrupted by the arrval of menacingly calm strangers to take him away.

We’re going to get quite a bit of this throughout the episode, with almost Chandlerian regularity: when you temporarily don’t know how to move the story in next, send someone mysterious in to drag one of the stars off. Moffat’s on a particularly bizarre slant, being ludicrous for the sake of being ludicrous, because Sherlock (and John) are being summoned by Mycroft Holmes to the Palace (Buckingham Palace) to take on a case of National Importance so of course Sherlock has to be sat in an anteroom in the Palace wearing nothing but a sheet because, well, because.

I am deliberately focussing on the silly things along the way because they kept catching my attention, unwillingly. I know this is Sherlock and they are part of the pattern, but there are so many of them and they undermined the story by being silly for the sake of it.

The story leans over backwards to impress on us that Sherlock is being commissioned by the Queen herself without actually saying it’s the Queen but surely even a dumb viewer would have got that long before the hints stopped? This is where Irene Adler, ‘The Woman’ of ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ enters the plot. That story involved blackmail and so does this. This Irene Adler (Lara Pulver, a superb performance) is a professional dominatrix (but of course) and a lesbian, who has compromising photographs of her and a younger Royal Princess (Zara? Beatrice? Eugenie? Are there any others? Not a Royalist). Interestingly, she has made no demands. But these must be recovered and no-one can do it but Sherlock Holmes.

From this point onwards, the episode develops its story in many different ways, some of them cheap and unworthy. Moffat makes a point of initially emphasising Adler’s extremely high intelligence and subtlety, and then undermining it by making her appear much less smarter than Sherlock. She’s ‘The Woman’ in ‘Bohemia’ because that Irene Adler is smarter than Sherlock Holmes, she defeats him and he respects her for it. It’s not going to be that way in this story, which is a consistent flaw in Moffat’s writing, that he has a misogynistic streak to his work in which the woman always has to be inferior. So whereas Irene Adler is intelligent enough to defeat Sherlock’s method of deduction by observation by turning up for their first encounter completely naked (even then, he makes one deduction from what he sees, which is one more than John, who’s politely averting his eyes and thus will never work out the safe combination), she has to have the boomerang explained to her and us.

It’s an intriguing encounter, especially the contortions both the cameraman and Ms Pulver are undergoing to both thrust into our faces that she is stitchless and not let us see anything best reseved for close friends and medical practitioners. Sherlock cons her into revealing where the photos are – this being 2012, they’re on a cameraphone – and that’s when the CIA killsquad invades Ms Adler’s Belgravia mansion, and it all gets stupidly silly again.

Because the titillation about the dominatrix and the lesbian Princess is nothing but titillation, another McGuffin. There’s more on that phone that just dirty pictures, all manner of scandal and one piece of very important information that is going to be of immense importance to Adler, as well as Jim Moriarty, which is why he let Sherlock and John go, and it’s of importance to both the British and American goverments.

It was interesrting to recall that by series 4, The Guardian were calling the series all sorts of names for Sherlock going all James-Bond-beats-up-the-bad-guys and yet he did that here without a murmur. The cameraphone’s in the safe, the combo is Adler’s ‘measurements’ (what, in my youth long ago in the West, we used to refer to as ‘Vital Statistics’) and the safe’s booby-trapped, giving him and her the advantage of surprise to beat up the two surviving assassins, until Irene escapes, with the cameraphone, having stuck a drug in Sherlock’s upper arm. Adler 1 Holmes 0.

All sorts of things followed as the episode deliberately loosened up. Six months passed, taking us to Xmas. This was an excuse for one of the nastiest and cruellest scenes in the entire series as Molly Hooper (Lousie Brearley’s bravery in exposing herself in this role is not only commendable as an actress but handled with delicacy and ability as she is only there to be a convenience to Sherlock whilst being the butt of his and Moffat’s most vilely misogynistic attitudes) is dissected by Sherlock in a way that is horrible, and having her say it for us and he apologise for his wrong-headed stupidity (some fucking Detective) doesn’t reduce its impact in any way.

It’s made even worse by being placed immediately before Sherlock discovering a Xmas present that is Adler’s cameraphone, the cameraphone. It was her insurance, her protection, what kept her alive and, together with Mycroft, he attends St Batholomew’s Morgue (not Morgue, stupid, America has Morgues, we have Mortuaries!) to identify her dead and badly beaten body.

Sherlock enters a fugue state, of mourning The Woman. He keeps the cameraphone. The idiot CIA killsquad turns up again to beat up Mrs Hudson and in turn be Bonds-ed a second time. John’s watching Sherlock carefully, like a suicide-watch. But Adler isn’t dead. She re-emerges, and even comes to Baker Street to stay temporarily. The romance, the flirting, the very air tingling. He still can’t unlock the cameraphone and access its contents but he can unlock her bra and access her knickers if he wants to (we are assuming the underwearlessness was a one-time thing). Sherlock’s got a girlfriend.

And to impress the lovely Irene, he solves the code she’s been carrying around all this time. He’s had the phone six months and still can’t crack its lock, and when he finally has to do so you’ll be amazed at how he ever managed to not get it inside six seconds, especially as he solves the code in less than a minute. A plane, a specific flight, leaving Heathrow tomorrow night.

This is what it’s all been about and it’s as impressive as can be despite the holes in it. Adler sends a text to Jim Morisarty, Moriarty sends one to Mycroft. She and he have won. It’s the Coventry Conundrum. In the Second World War, the British and Americans broke a German code and learned that they intended to mass-bomb Coventry. To prevent the attack would reveal that the code had been broken and it would be changed, meaning they could not get any further vital information. So Coventry was sacrificed, for the greater good.

So too here. The British and US Government have cracked a Terrorist group’s code. A bomb is to be planted on a 747 leaving Heathrow the next night (Sherlock’s had the phone for six months and god knows how long before that Adler’s had it and isn’t it lucky she finally forced the code under his nose with twenty four hours to spare, how bloody convenient). But if the plane doesn’t fly, the Terrorists know their code has been cracked.

So it has to fly. And in the only sequence of the entire episode that astonishes and impresses and marvels and justifies the looseness of everything else that surrounds it, we come to the heart of things. Sherlock is sent a plane ticket by Mycroft, to the very flight. He enters the darkened and fully-seated craft. In a haunting and frightful sight, it is full of dead people, already dead people. The plane will fly, metaphorically, and everyone on it will die, except that nobody will die and the Terrorists will believe their code is safe. It’s taking years of planning and preparation to set up (years? seriously?) and it’s all been useless thanks to Mycroft Holmes’ little brother. Who broke the code to impress a woman, who told it to the Consulting Criminal who told the Terrorists. Oops.

And that’s not all Irene Adler has on her cameraphone. Now she comes out of the closet, so to speak. It’s all been manipulation, all the way since, we infer, she seduced the lesbain Princess, all of it, to get Sherlock Holmes to crack the code. None of it, the death, the intrigue, the sex, was real. She has a list of requests that won’t completely bankrupt the Nation. And they can’t ignore what’s on her phone or British citizens will die. Game, set and match.

Except. Except Sherlock knew it all along. She did want to fuck his brains out (funny how he can tell that with Ireme, by looking in her eyes when he’s as blind as a bat with Molly) which led her to a fatal flaw, sentiment. Sentiment is for losers. It’s the phone’s locking code. All along it’s been digitally viusualised as ‘I AM _ _ _ _ LOCKED’ but the true answer which he now divines, is S H E R. Spell it out for yourselves. Done and dusted.

There is a coda. I had problems with this in the past. Another six months pass. Mycroft intercepts John to send his brother a message. Three months ago, Irene Adler was killed. She was captured by a Terrorist group and beheaded. They’ll tell Sherlock she got into Witness Protection in America and he’ll never see her again. Yes, after four ninety minute episodes rubbing home Sherlock’s powers of observation and deduction, they’re going to lie to him and he’ll fall for it.

Which he does. Oh, no, wait. He doesn’t. Because three months ago, he turned up in a Terrorist camp disguised as a beheader and saved her. The woman’s never clever enough, she always has to be rescued, doesn’t she, Mr Moffat?

So, whilst I enjoyed ‘A Scandal in Belgravia; and that scenario with the plane full of dead people was in its way utterly extraordinary (as well as recalling to me Christopher Priest’s An American Story), in terms of story logic, this intricate, carefully assembled plot, clever as clever could be in its seamlessness so far as Irene Adler’s plot was concerned, was also as full of holes as wet tissue paper and hung together in much the same fashion. Colincidence, illogic, cleverness for the sake of flash and dazzle, it resembled a Doctor Who plot in its dotage. And this was only the fourth episode, and not the weak one in the middle. I remembered better of it.

Sherlock: s01 e03 – The Great Game


Sherlock

The ending. O my God. Even with the knowledge of it eliminating the surprise factor, the last ten minutes of ‘The Great Game’, Mark Gatiss’ script are still some of the most powerful scenes television has ever committed. This is because, whilst the surprise has gone, the shock remains, and Andrew Scott’s screamingly OTT performance as Jim Moriarty, as divisive as marmite, is one of the great cameos of all time. Gatiss’ writing, Scott’s performance, the lighting and the camerawork emphasising just how spooky a public swimming bath is at midnight. And much less obvious but no less essential, the careful erection of an edifice of preparation to put us here, in this place, alongside our two heroes, in a situation from which they literally cannot escape.
Alongside Scott’s performance as Moriarty, an inconceivable figure, many people complained of finding the episode too confusing, they couldn’t keep up. Well I had no such problems even though my brain is currently fuzzier than wire-wool.
This is the plot. Someone is setting Sherlock puzzles. Puzzles that are completely up his street, that require deep thought, the exercise of the intellect, more than just flashes of inspiration and ingenuity. It’s Moriarty, we know it will be, even if we don’t know who he is.
But they’re more than just puzzles. There’s five of them, five solutions to be found, five deadlines to be observed, and deadlines is indeed literal, because five people, five complete and utter nobodies, having no connection to anything but their own lives, are hostage to Sherlock’s brilliance. And that’s where it goes beyond a game because these are people sitting or standing somewhere, strapped into a suicide vest, the red light of a laser rifle picked out upon them, who will die if Sherlock doesn’t come up with the answer.
This isn’t funny. This isn’t an intricate puzzle. This is you and I dragged into something that has so much nothing to do with us that it might not even be from our own Solar System, made to contemplate the approach of our own death over hours. This isn’t just cruelty, just treating people like things, it’s an indifference to humanity of unimaginable proportions. It’s mad. And I would be mad long before the end if I were one of those victims.
Over and above this there is Mycroft, Gatiss himself, soft-spoken, urbane, condescending to his little brother in just existing. Mycroft has a puzzle, one of national importance: a dead Civil Servant, missing defence plans. Sherlock won’t touch it, even though he has nothing else on, no cases, no spark, no challenge, just the unending boredom of being so much cleverer than everyone around him.
Hence the puzzles. These give Sherlock life. They are more important to him than anything else, including, notably, the lives that depend upon his solving the problems. Along the way, he solves Mycroft’s case, almost in passing, but only because that’s one of the puzzles. The last puzzle even as it was the first one we saw.
The writing and the performances are dazzling, gem-like, but it’s the story’s construction that is the most impressive. Stories curling up inside each other. Plots other series would have been hard-pressed to do justice to in an hour long episode pulled inside out, jump on, next please. And why? We should have known. The episode thrust the villain onto the stage in plain sight, giggling and waving yoo-hoo and even telling us his name: I’m Jim. Psychologically, if not by the application of observation and deductive reasoning, we were ahead of Sherlock. This was the Game. Who’s the smartest, me or you?
Briefly, I flash back, now not when watching, on what Sally Donovan said to John Watson in ‘A Study in Pink’, that one day solving a murder will not be enough for the ‘Freak’: he would end up committing one. So right, about the wrong person.
But this episode was significant in more that just its plot. For this, Gatiss deserves all the credit he can carry, because this episode defined Sherlock as what it was and what it would go on to be, and for that more than just the plot needs to be taken into consideration.
I’ve barely mentioned John Watson before now, yet he’s as deeply involved in what’s going on as Sherlock. The episode set out to precisely delineate the crucial difference between these two unlikely flat-mates, first by showing us and then, not out of a lack of confidence in our ability to understand it, Telling us, in a few, compressed but crucial words, what that it.
From the first post-credits scene – Sherlock, bored, starts shooting the walls, John is outraged – all this pair do is argue. Gatiss is laying out, aided by the brilliance of Messrs Cumberbatch and Freeman, every single reason why they are not suited to be friends. The evidence piles up. We never see them but that they are arguing. It’s noticeable that the first thing John Watson does is storm off to kip at Sarah’s for the night.
It was Zoe Telford’s second and final appearance, and it was no more than a cameo. John’s slept on the lilo, she’s joking about how next time he can sleep at the foot of her bed, and he’s a bit more serious about where might he sleep the time after that. It’s light, but it’s genuine, and then it’s gone and so is she.
What was the point of this scene? If what it depicts was so clearly pointless, why not leave it out? It’s a loose end and a dead end. But I think it’s purpose is more sophisticated than that. It’s there to show us what the series is not about. Sarah was normal. A realistic, ordinary person. But she belonged to another iteration of Sherlock Holmes, one bearing much more of a resemblance to the original.
No, what this episode is making clear is that a relationship such as John and Sarah is and can be as nothing besides the relationship between John and Sherlock. And that other, much more intense relationship, the one of equals, between Sherlock and Moriarty.
Like I said, John and Sherlock bicker constantly. Some of it is the way Sherlock rubs other people up, his unconcealed contempt for their slowness. Well, really it’s all about that. Everywhere we turn, every puzzle, is about one thing more than the intellectual challenge: it’s about a human being, facing death from sheer randomness. John Watson sees that, is agonised by that. Saving that life is the only thing that matters. Sherlock ignores it. John can’t stand that, that Sherlock has no feelings, that he is not motivated by the wish, the urge to save that must underline any Doctor’s character.
He even says it. Caring doesn’t save people’s lives, thinking does. So he doesn’t waste even an erg of mental energy on the former whereas John Watson can’t separate what he is doing from why he is doing it and would probably die if he ever succeeded.
And if the sight of all those people trapped in the hopelessness of their situations, if the performances by the extras – dear heaven that we should call them by such a name – did not convince us, Gatiss found the crystal clear line that said it for us, in the bereaved girlfriend of Andrew West, who died from an accident caused by her own brother. He was a good man. He was my good man.
And so by all these ways and many more that I haven’t the space to address, nor in the case of the ludicrous sore thumb of the freakish assassin, the Golem, the episode’s one blatant and unforgivable error, the desire to, we got to the swimming pool. Sherlock had worked it out. He didn’t ‘care’ like John Watson did, caring didn’t save lives, thinking did. Until John Watson stepped out in a parka, under which, before we saw it, we knew he was wearing a suicide vest. John was talking awkwardly, as if he was repeating what someone else was telling him to say, and it all became too terribly human. Suddenly, Sherlock realised that caring did matter.
Enter Jim Moriarty. An intelligent man. Another Sherlock. Maybe even smarter than Sherlock since the Consulting Detective, for all his impatience with it for boring him, worked within the limitations of civilisation whilst Jim operated under no such restrictions. Jim Moriarty operated under no restrictions whatsoever. He frightened you to death. His casual manner. His sing-song intonations. His unbelievable self-belief. His mood-swings from second to second, o Jesus there is nothing this man wouldn’t do. That sudden, knock you back in your seat moment when he screams ‘That’s what they do’ with its implication that they have no other reason to exist. Not for him.
Jim Moriarty was mad, and in a way that scared the shit out of you. Because he was beyond all limits, all controls. It was the death trap. It was a warning. It had all been too easy. Stay out of my way. Moriarty strolls off.
The moment passed. John could be dragged out of the suicide vest. They could laugh about it, weak with relief. The bonding had taken place. It was over. And then it wasn’t. Oh no, it wasn’t. Oh no.
This time round I’m lucky. I only have to wait until next Tuesday morning to resolve things, not pretty much all of eighteen months. Nor the twenty-seven years required by the only other cliffhanger that punched me so vomit-inducingly in the gut.

Sherlock: s01 e02 – The Blind Banker


Sherlock

The Guardian, whose record on this series is not exactly reputable, actually thought that the second episode of Sherlock‘s first series was better than the first. It’s not. It’s very well made, intricate, a carefully balanced mystery with room for action, humour and a date that’s a bit of a nightmare, but it employs an unwelcome degree of stereotype (Chinese Tongs in 2010? We’re supposed to be riffing off Sherlock Holmes here, not Dr. Fu Manchu) and practically eliminates the supporting cast for no good reason. For this, you can blame writer Steve Thompson, but then again it’s not his fault that he’s neither Stephen Moffat or Mark Gatiss. He lacks the flair, and so does this episode.

We begin in properly oblique manner with the lovely Soo Lin Yao (Gemma Chan) demonstrating improbable methods of maintaining antique Chinese teapots whilst fending off the nervous attentions of colleague Andy, with John Watson dealing with self-sevice check-outs and declined debit cards in a supermarket and Sherlock keeping himself engaged by defending himself against a strangely adorned Chinese assassin in their flat, which is of only peripheral attachment to the plot. These random slices set up the parameters of the story.

Which begins properly with Sherlock being hired, for a much-needed excessive sum, by his old University ‘chum’ Sebastian (Bertie Carval, unrecognisable from his role as Jonathan Strange), who isn’t a popular stereotype of the ‘heartless banker’, no sir. Someone has broken in to the ex-Chairman’s office and sprayed yellow aerosol paint across the eyes of the portrait, plus a character on the wall that’s instantly recognisable as something oriental, almost certainly Chinese (come on, that deduction’s easy, Chinese teapots, remember?)

The thing is, it’s impossible to get into the room without tripping security, so how was it done? By a little bit of literal ducking and diving, Sherlock deduces that the cypher is a message for Hong Kong specialist trader Eddie van Coon, shortly to be found dead in his inaccessible apartment, shot in the right temple. An obvious suicide concludes Detective Inspector Dimmock (Paul Chequer), who’s substituting for Lestrade (with Molly Hooper and Mrs Hudson getting about two minutes of screen-time and three lines between them there’s a definite atmosphere of on-the-cheap this week). And Dimmock – an obvious nod to nominative determinism there – goes on believing it’s suicide even after Sherlock conclusively proves van Coon (I hate that name for its racist aspect) was left-handed and couldn’t shoot himself where he supposedly did with his left hand.

Next up, a freelance journalist is killed in a much more downmarket yet still inaccessible flat, which means there’s something in common between the two (hint, it’s Hong Kong). Indeed, rather than take the time the episode does to spell things out, I’ll connect the dots straight away. It’s about international smuggling, of ancient and valuable Chinese artefacts, held by the Black Lotus Tong (even the name’s a cliche). Van Coon and Lukis, the journalist, smuggled things into Britain which are then auctioned for shedloads of money. Unfortunately, one of them has pilfered something valuable, a jade hatpin worn by the Empress a thousand years before, worth a cool, or indeed red hot £9,000,000: they want it back and will kill anyone they have to. Or want to. Soo Lin is next on the list, but only after she’s explained a few things about the plot, including the Black Lotus tattoo on the heels of every foot-soldier for the Tong – foot-soldier, foot-soldier, get it? – and how she was impressed at the age of 15, a starving orphan.

The assassin who kills her turns out to be her brother. That’s another one from out of the Cliche drawer.

But I mentioned a date. Due to the need of money, John Watson goes back to work as a locum in a practice run by a very attractive Doctor named Sarah, who quite evidently fancies him from the outset and who winds up going on a date with him, even after he falls asleep in the surgery after staying up all night working on the case by going through crates of books and she ends up taking half a dozen of his patients on top of her being pulled out already: cute but just a tad unrealistic. Zoe Telford plays Sarah, and turns up for the date in a mid-thigh length skirt with opaque tights, and the woman has great legs.

The date. Ah, yes. John was going to take Sarah to the cinema (boring: Sherlock) until his flat-mate suggests the one-night only Chinese Dragon Circus, which is of course the Tong by another name and he’s gooseberrying their date. Of course it kicks off. Sarah wades in to whack a would-be thug with what looked like but surely couldn’t be the sheath for a Chinese sword – never go out on a first date without one in your handbag – and it all ends up with her and John kidnapped to an abandoned tunnel with Sarah facing an ancient Chinese death trap (bloody hell, we don’t just need a drawer for all these cliches, it’s got to be at least a tea-chest).

By a series of cleverly built up moments, the Tong, under the evil, vicious and poweful General Shan (uncredited) believe that John is actually Sherlock and that, by being Sherlock he will have cracked the puzzle and have the treasure, which he’ll hand over in exchange for Sarah’s life. There’s just one flaw in that thought. However, Sherlock arrives in Cavalry-mode, duffing up Shan’s two hemchmen whilst John saves the day by knocking over the death trap (it was pointed out at the time that Sherlock makes two unsuccessful attempts to untie Sarah from her chair where he could just have knocked it over to get her out of the way, but then that wouldn’t have provided the exciting last second escape, would it?)

So it’s all over, bar two codas, one in, one outside the programme. Shan has escaped, no doubt to make further mischief. She apologetically and almost tearfully has an on-line chat with a mystery individual known only as ‘M'(oriarty) who is apparently responsible for getting her and the Tong into London in the first place (so he’s a Passport Officer, is he?). She’s almost bawling over the intervention of this Sherlock Holmes but promises she won’t fail M again. I am certain, he types as the light of a laser rifle sight wobbles on her forehead (from where?) and we cut to black before we hear the shot.

The other is Zoe Telford. She was excellent in this episode, calm, competent, a strong female presence. And even though Moffat wasn’t writing this episode, she very quickly got reduced to the damsel-in-distress. What a waste.

Incidentally, the hairpin? It turned out it was van Coon who nicked it, having no idea that it was in the least bit valuable, as an apology-present for his secretary and occasional shag, who was using it to keep her hair up in the office…

Sherlock: s01 e01 – A Study in Pink


Sherlock

To begin with, I should explain that I have never been into Sherlock Holmes. I have maybe read one or two of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories, certainly no more, and I remain immune to the Great Detective’s charms. Indeed, I had read far more pastiche Holmes than the real thing. But, like everyone else, I know Holmes and his world by the same cultural osmosis that imprints certain classic fictional characters us, whole and entire.
So I was not instantly the audience for Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s updating of the character for the 21st Century, and the massive gulf in pretty much everything between it and the 1890s, having no intrinsic curiosity about Holmes. But on the other hand, my lack of commitment made me the perfect subject, precisely because I could not be disturbed by the divergences from the original and could take this on its own merits.
Because Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman was completely a thing of its own. The names may be the same, the relationships may be the same, the parallels exist in abundance, albeit frequently twisted out of shape, but Moffat and Gatiss were bent on creating a 21st Century product and using Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation as building blocks to lay out a very different, very modern television programme.
Re-watching the first episode, I realised that I had forgotten just how good it was is. I knew it was good, I remember it as good but it takes watching it again to remember just how good this was, in every little detail, and how much I loved it. Maybe I have only watched it once again since that first broadcast in 2010.
I had remembered only the broad sweep of the episode, and had time now to appreciate how it was put together. This is Moffat’s episode, written at a time when he was starting to burn out on Doctor Who. He was sinking into incoherence there, but given this fresh subject to explore, he was back to his best form, fresh, lively, bold, bursting with life and unpredictability.
‘A Study in Pink’ started the habit of using familiar titles but turning them at least 45 degrees away from the original. It began by holding Sherlock back from us for a surprisingly long time, a technique first used brilliantly by Milton Caniff in starting his second great newspaper strip, Steve Canyon. Instead, we focus on John Watson, Martin Freman in a vastly different role from The Office. War footage, a lonely, empty room, a cane, a therapist trying to challenge an isolated man out of his self-repression about his experiences.
Just as I’d identified with Freeman as Tim Canterbury, I reluctantly identified with him here. I lived alone in a small room, isolated, separated and going through divorce proceedings. I was no soldier, but I could see this Dr Watson’s self-containment for what it was.
We’re still not ready for Sherlock himself, though Moffat will adapt the original circumstances virtually unaltered, but we’re also seeing, briefly three very different people, all of whom tremblingly take a caplet, and who become suicide victims. Even though we’ve already seen the answer, beautifully disguised in plain sight, we suspect a connection. But how can you have serial suicides?
Time now to introduce the man himself, Benedict Cumberbatch (of whom I was completely ignorant up to that point) introduced upside down, peering delightedly into a body bag, perpetrating the first of his casual cruelties towards poor, vulnerable Molly Hooper (Louise Brearley), who gets to watch him viciously flaying the corpse with a riding crop. It’s very Sherlock at the same time as being very… not.
We’re still hewing fairly close to Conan Doyle’s original account of how Holmes and Watson meet and come to share their rooms at 221b Baker Street, under the aegis of Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs having great fun: ‘I’m your landlady, Sherlock, not your housemaid.’)
So far, so relatively low key. Fascinating, intriguing, funny in a quite natural way arising from the very different characters of Sherlock and John. But then we cut to Inspector Lestrade’s Press Conference. Rupert Graves portraying a very different version of the harassed, ordinary copper, trying to satisfy the kind of Press you didn’t have to put up with in Victorian times, and things suddenly blast off as the entire press corps simultaneously get texts, bounding all over our screens, saying ‘Wrong!’. Several times over.
Suddenly the show rockets into 2010, and leaves you trailing in its wake, much like John Watson with his cane and his psychosomatic limp that he determinedly believes is real is going in the wake of the world’s only Consulting Detective, finally brought in by Lestrade over the heads of his subordinates, Sergeant Sally Donovan (Vinette Robinson), who actually hates Sherlock violently for overshadowing the Police, and forensic scientist Anderson (Jonathan Aris), whose hate is less vicious despite being rooted in how Sherlock outclasses him in every respect.
For there has been a fourth suicide, only this one, a professional woman in a pink suit, has left a note, the word ‘Rache’ scratched into the floorboards with her nails. Sherlock is almost delirious with delight. He has the one thing he desperately needs, a challenge. Something to alleviate the utter boredom of being so much more intelligent than everyone he knows (save for one person).
The game is now afoot. Though the episode is very different from A Study in Scarlet in terms of the murders that permeate it, my lack of familiarity with the original preventing me from seeing just how many elements Moffat took directly from the novel, an added dimension for the cognoscenti to which I was oblivious, but not affected thereby.
I’m not going to go into any depth as to how things progressed towards its conclusion. Though the crime was serious and disturbing – how can you make four different people kill themselves? – the episode was shot through with humour, and a very clever form of humour: not jokes, this was as natural in its setting as Bob and Terry in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, and unafraid to not spell things out for the slower members of the audience.
I was conscious whilst watching it that my mother would have rejected it in disgust, protesting that it’s not the real Sherlock. Worse still were the great pangs I suffered at having to watch this alone. It hurt not to be sharing this with my wife, who I knew would love it too, the way I did, and get every point.
But despite this long build up and its humour, the show slid naturally into a serious drama when the moment called for it, when Sherlock suddenly saw what had been shown to us right at the start but which everybody had overlooked, and the murderer stepped into the light and drew the detective away into a personal challenge. How had he done it? He was, himself, extremely clever, though overlooked, an intelligence on a level with Sherlock, who believed himself to be even smarter, smart enough to walk his adversary through the whole process of making him into suicide no. 5.
And Sherlock took on the challenge. Would he have won? He claimed that he had it all worked out but we only know that because he said so, it was never tested, because John Watson, who had crippled himself physically and mentally by his inability to shy away from danger, was steely enough to cut the Gordian Knot and make the point moot. The partnership was born.
The only real problem with this first episode is that it’s too good. It’s too rich in detail and contains so much you want to comment about, to draw attention to, praise or just plain repeat because it’s so brilliant, that if you were to do so then you would end up practically having to transcribe the entire episode and you should just watch it again instead.
Two last things. Whilst the individual episodes are separate, Moffat and Gatiss provide a link that turns them into a continuum, building to the final episode. The murderer kills in part because he is as clever as Sherlock and superior to those who don’t see him at all, in part because he has an aneurysm and is engaged in the process of outliving people, but as much because he had a sponsor, a figure interested in Sherlock, and in testing his intelligence with a real challenge. We know what the name will be before Sherlock unmercifully forces it out of a dying man. Phil Davis played the murderer, brilliantly. But then everyone was brilliant, another example of perfect casting throughout.
The other is that, until I turned to imdb to check cast details, I was not aware that when the series was originally commissioned, it was in the form of sixty minute episodes, but after seeing this story as a pilot, the BBC asked for it to be expanded to a 90 minute film, rather like Lew Grade asking Gerry Anderson to expand the first episode of Thunderbirds from 25 to 50 minutes: take note of such a wonderful thing because the age of executives making bold, imaginative and, above all, creative decisions isn’t coming back.
The Unaired Pilot has, apparently, been aired once, in Finland in 2011. I now want to see it, to see what has been added to make the version I know.
I suspect that a very large part of that is the sequence about halfway in which introduced Mark Gatiss as an actor. Watson is gently but inexorably kidnapped and brought to meet a suave, composed, languid and condescending figure who wants to know what he has to do with Sherlock, and asks him to spy for him and report back, a proposition Watson rejects in a controlled display of anger that he will not release. The sequence teases us with the notion that this is the modern day Professor Moriarty, but in the dying moments we learn that it is that other possibly superior intelligence, Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older brother.
So, a brilliant beginning. I still can’t forget not getting to share this episode and all its successors, like we shared so many intelligent and involving series, but that was never possible, and at least the lack never felt so bad again after this brilliant start.

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.


 

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.