Sherlock is back! I confess that I’m somewhat amazed by how stunningly successful and popular the original 2011 three-part series was, the character of Sherlock Holmes having been done to death so many times that you could almost hear people rolling their eyeballs around their sockets at the prospect of another; but Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss produced a genuinely fresh and strikingly new take on the great detective, taking cues and inspirations from the original tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but then spinning them off into something altogether new and exciting.
Even so, this series – like Moffat’s parallel work on Doctor Who – makes no allowances for viewers who aren’t willing to work to keep up and who possess a modicum of intelligence. This isn’t the sort of programme you can watch while multi-tasking, it demands all your attention. I think that’s a good thing, but it can get Moffat into trouble as Doctor Who has shown at times; but he’s unapologetic and even baldly states in this first episode of the second mini-series of Sherlock that “smart is the new sexy” – and we not only believe the sentiment, we embrace it wholeheartedly and keep it close. But that relationship can still be strained, even now.
This second series takes off exactly where the first left-off – a poolside stand off between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Andrew Scott playing ‘Jim’ Moriarty (deliciously styled in this modern version as a ‘consulting criminal’ making him the perfect mirror image of Holmes’ consulting detective.) That segues seamlessly into the new story, which is initially based heavily on one of the best known Conan Doyle stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia”. This time the royal family at risk is Britain’s own, resulting in Holmes and Watson being whisked off to the palace while in the middle of another case. This puts them on the trail of a dominatrix called ‘The Woman’, Irene Adler, played by Lara Pulver who makes an unforgettable entry into the story dressed in … earrings.
Holmes’ ruse to get the blackmail material she possesses is the same as in the original short story, but that’s barely the beginning of proceedings which extends the romantic cat-and-mouse game played between Holmes and Adler. Cumberbatch plays this new side of Holmes quite brilliantly, while Martin Freeman is still quite astoundingly good as John Watson and the relationship between the two is still as wonderfully drawn as it was in the first series. Gatiss himself is back as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, the two providing a sparklingly barbed relationship with poor Watson caught in the middle, while Una Stubbs is also coming into her own as a very resourceful Mrs Hudson and pathologist Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) continues to carry a doomed torch for Sherlock and consequently features in one of the most awkward and touching scenes of the entire 90 minutes.
Just to emphasise that this is a very modern Holmes, technology plays a major part in proceedings: Watson’s blog plays an important role in the story (and listen out for the little gems of more reworked original Holmes titles for the blog posts), the McGuffin is a password-protected smartphone, and even Twitter gets a name-check. The series continues with its audacious gimmick of putting text messages up on screen, and it continues to work unfeasibly well with some lovely visual touches, such as when the text is faintly reflected back in the window behind a character as they’re reading the phone’s screen. And in this episode, the whole texting strand is also augmented by the quite brilliant special ringtone that Adler has set to announce the arrival of her messages: so much so that as well as being laugh-out-loud funny every time, it also plays an important role in itself at two key points of the story.
The whole thing is hurtling along at a million miles an hour keeping an entire state banquet’s worth of cutlery up in the air, and it’s perhaps no surprise that there are a few breakages along the way. The case that Holmes and Watson were working on is thrown away as of little importance and in fact it’s others marked by only a single line in a montage that we’re supposed to recall as the plot comes together at indecent speed. Whiplash (appropriately given Adler’s profession) is a real danger as the story goes into overdrive to tie everything up in the final minutes, and while “smart is the new sexy” this is really straining even the brightest audience’s intellect close to breaking point. You’ll have to rewatch it again, and possibly another couple of times more, in order to really understand how it all fits together. Maybe that’s no bad thing, and possibly even the result Moffat consciously intends.
It’s a Moffat trait that we’ve been critical of in Doctor Who, but whether you’re pro- or anti- this approach it certainly fits much better here in Sherlock (which is all about puzzles, deception and misdirection after all) than it does in an ostensibly action-adventure science fiction family show. As a result, it seems a far less serious flaw for Sherlock than it does the Doctor; but a minor flaw nonetheless in an otherwise perfect gem.
Moffat seems to manage to attract whole legions of vociferous critics attacking his work these days – he has become the number one target for Daily Mail readers in the last year, who turned first on his work for Doctor Who and now seem to be taking aim on his award-winning Sherlock as well. Here it seems to be the presence of implied (although artistically hidden) nudity and the very implication of Adler’s ‘moderate scolding’ profession before the 9pm watershed. Well, for one thing, scheduling is up to the BBC controllers, not Moffat; and for another, this is getting even sillier than the early extremes of political correctness demanded by the obsessed Mary Whitehouse in the 70s. The kind of ultra-sensitivity of people criticising Sherlock would leave you nothing but fluffy kittens (and emphatically none of Mrs Slocombe’s pussies) if they had their way; although it’s “odd” that the criticism is always directed at BBC shows and never about the catalogue of improprieties at, say, ITV’s Downton Abbey.
Perhaps more serious is the criticism from long-time Holmes aficionados that the story is somehow misogynistic and/or betrays the character of Irene Adler from the Conan Doyle originals. On the one hand, ‘The Woman’ here is more striking and capable than any Irene Adler ever seen before on screen. Compare it against the by-rote and quickly backgrounded and finally predictably damsel-in-distress equivalent character played by Rachel McAdams in the Robert Downey Jr. 2009 motion picture. Pulver’s interpretation absolutely wipes the floor with Sherlock for 89 minutes of the running time and is totally in command – most memorably when she totally throws him off with her initial underdressed entrance into Holmes’ life and he’s completely unable to read anything about her. She’s not a character you’re likely to forget in a hurry, and that makes her a very worthy Irene Adler far above the usual sea of mediocrity. However, it’s still a shame she ‘loses’ at the end (unlike in the book) and has to be saved by Sherlock, and that so much of her power in the story appears to be predicated upon sex.
Next week we move on to “The Hounds of Baskerville”, written by series co-creator and occasional Mycroft, Mark Gatiss. Doubtless there will be storms of criticism of implied animal cruelty or outrageous liberties taken with the plot. We can but hope – otherwise where would the fun be in this dependably, deliciously dark detective delight?