I’ve always been surprised by the runaway popular success of BBC One’s Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Doctor John Watson.
It really does take the mantra of ‘smart is the new sexy’ to a whole new level and goes places that are so supremely ambitious that they become indistinguishable from the pretentious and self-indulgent a lot of the time. That makes it very much my sort of show, but I’m surprised it appeals to the mass audience anywhere near as widely as it apparently does if viewing figures are to be believed. The latest 90-minute special entitled “The Abominable Bride” was certainly one of the biggest and most hyped attractions of the BBC’s 2015 Christmas and New Year schedules and its importance was reflected by a near-simultaneous broadcast in the US on the same day.
Co-written by the show’s co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, you can see the DNA contributed by both parents: the dizzyingly complex plotting we’re familiar with from Moffat that twists past and modern strands together with frightening ambition, and the more viscerally pleasing Gothic horror sensibilities of Gatiss who also appears on screen as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft – the smarter of the Holmes boys.
“The Abominable Bride” had been billed in advance as a standalone episode of the BBC’s modern updating of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic character which would take the show’s established stylish sensibility and apply it to a 1880s period setting. That meant it was possible to recreate classic scenes from the original canon such as Holmes and Watson’s first meeting at St Barts followed by Holmes’ face-off with Moriarty first at 221b Baker Street and subsequently on the ledge overlooking the Reichenbach Falls rather than how we’ve previously viewed them through the modern reinterpretation of the series to date. The rendition of Mycroft in his original corpulent form rather than the rake-thin Mandelsonian modern mandarin was also a delight for fans of the original stories (and one of the more impressive bits of fat suit makeup that I’ve seen.)
Overall, I thought this backdating aspect was a delight and an unqualified triumph, and the writing and performances throughout consistently excellent. Despite the Victorian trappings, director Douglas Mackinnon ensured that the show maintained its inventively modern way style of presentation – the way that text messages appearing on screen were replaced by a typed telegram for example, or how the set of Holmes’ sitting room was surreally relocated into the middle of a London street while Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) briefed them on the details of a new case. If this had just been a straightforward fun ‘standalone’ special then I would have been more than happy.
But Moffat being Moffat, there was a bigger plan in mind and it was soon clear that this whole episode was in fact a part of modern Sherlock’s deductive process, a figment of his imagination within his ‘Mind Palace’ that we already knew he uses to puzzle things out. In this case, Sherlock is just where we left him at the end of “His Last Vow” two years ago: on a plane returning to the UK after the briefest exile on record, recalled after the apparent rise from the dead of Moriarty (Andrew Scott). Holmes is trying to figure out how someone who committed suicide with a gunshot to the head could possibly still be alive, and he does this by sublimating his stalled analysis of Moriarty’s death onto the 19th century case of Emilia Ricoletti (Natasha O’Keeffe) who killed herself and then arose from the morgue to kill her husband hours later. Some months later and she returns again, this time to threaten the life of Sir Eustace Carmichael (Tim McInnerny.)
In essence, the modern framing sequence doesn’t really progress the series forward by very much (the episode ends with Sherlock merely getting off the plane) but it’s more than I was expecting and does enough to tie in the throwback story into the main storyline rather than just have it as a standalone oddity. More importantly than that, it plugs a big gap between seasons of the show: the last run of three episodeds was two years ago now, and with the international film careers of both Cumberbatch and Freeman leaving them little time to spend in the UK these days it seems it will be another two before we get a proper continuation of the story. This story simply serves as a stopgap, a mental bookmark for fans of the story so far calling upon them to keep the faith and not give up hope.
I hadn’t been expecting any of the modern tie-in at all, so this was all ‘gravy’ as far as I was concerned. However it seems that many other fans weren’t nearly so happy with the way that it left the current storyline ‘jogging in place’ in exchange for a bit of whimsey, and the reaction I saw on Twitter immediately contained a lot of sharply negative reactions – many from smart people who usually really love this sort of thing.
Personally I thought it was all absolutely terrific, one of the best episodes there has been of Sherlock which hasn’t always been terribly consistent or entirely successful in its previous nine outings. This one though was pretty much perfect, with whip-smart dialogue throughout together with lovely little in-jokes – its sly recreation of the title sequence of the 1980s/90s Granada series starring Jeremy Brett was just beautiful. Not a line was wasted, and as is invariably the case with Moffat’s work you really do need to pay attention to every moment to get the best out of it.
The only aspect of the plot to give me pause for concern was that this was a story of dreams within dreams, Inception-style: there is even one point where Sherlock sighs as he realises he’s still dreaming and hasn’t actually woken up as he thought he had. There’s nothing wrong with that by itself, but it comes at the end of a year in which both Moffat and Gatiss have both riffed on similar themes for Doctor Who (in “Last Christmas” and “Sleep No More” respectively.) Coming in last in the sequence it did make this episode of Sherlock feel like a tired retread of a much-travelled path and too close to its sister show than is entirely for comfort.
I doubt that was why the episode went down so poorly with so much of its usual fanbase, however: what most perplexed me about the hostile Twitter reaction was the way the episode was slammed for being misogynistic. In fact it’s made clear right from the start that the Victorian era was a period in which women had no rights and were effectively the property of their fathers or husbands, with no vote and no recourse to the law in the event of mistreatment or violence. Telling interjections from the characters of Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs), Mary Watson (Amanda Abbington) and Dr Hooper (Louise Brealey) are used to make this status even more striking and personal. Ultimately, the titular bride is a composite creation of a group of women who are desperate, determined and resourceful enough to take their fates into their own hands rather than sit back like good little wives and daughters accepting their lot and that there is nothing that they can do about the situation. Even Mycroft – the ultimate personification of the establishment – is moved to admit upfront that this is one battle they (that is, society) must lose in order to right the bigger wrongs and move forward into the 20th and 21st centuries.
This should by rights be a story of female empowerment, but such is Moffat’s perceived problem with the way he treats women in his work (which admittedly in some respects is one that he’s inadvertently brought upon himself over the years) many of the reactions from women that I saw on Twitter after the show were instead absolutely outraged by the perceived misogyny. Admittedly I have no standing to allow me to have an informed opinion on this – I’m just a middle class, middle aged white guy at the end of the day and therefore can’t have the life experience to make a valid call – but I can’t help but feel that in this case at least his detractors have wildly missed the entire point of the episode – partly because Moffat’s writing is so incredibly detailed and intricate that it’s entirely possible to miss crucial elements and hence come out with a completely inaccurate view of what the episode was trying to do. But at the end of the day it’s also clearly a story in which the women in the story are the agents of change who successful undertake things that need to be done rather than sit back and allow themselves to be victims whose actions are directed by the corrupt, venal and odious men around them who seek to imprison and maltreat them.
Moffat’s realisation of this theme might not be perfect – it does appear as though one man (Sherlock) has to explain the whole thing to another (Watson) in a group full of completely mute women wearing bizarre hooded outfits, which does rather send out a carelessly unfortunate and uncomfortable impression – but to me at least it does show that Moffat’s heart is in the right place and that he was actually doing what he earnestly felt was a stridently feminist piece. That the effort should be rounded upon on social media as the very antithesis of this aim just shows how completely unnavigable the treacherous waters of social and sexual politics have become in the last decade where black is white, white is black, and misogyny and sexism become indistinguishable to many from feminism and inchoate rage.
Anyway, the episode left its incontrovertible real howler until the final scene. Oh, the outrage on social media at the sight of a number 11 bus going down Baker Street – can no one on the production team do basic research anymore, exclaimed a storm of post-show tweets? Of course, it was a scene that pulled back from Victorian-era Holmes and Watson in their sitting room to reveal the modern world outside their window, so the precise veracity of this scene in the grand scheme of things is very much open to question. Maybe it was still all a dream and the improper bus route is the clue that we still haven’t woken up yet? Or maybe someone on the production team responsible for locations and continuity is getting their P45 on Monday?
Knowing Moffat, he’ll already have used this to come up with the basis of an entire 90-minute story to explain the discrepancy when the show returns for its next proper run in a year or two’s time. That’s the way he rolls – whether we like it or not.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Available on BBC iPlayer and on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK from January 11, 2016.