Sherlock S4E1 “The Six Thatchers” (BBC One)

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Contains spoilers

sherlockIt’s been almost exactly three years since the last ‘regular’ episode of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ modern Sherlock, not counting the one-off 2016 New Year’s special which took Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Martin Freeman’s Watson out of time and back to the original Victorian-era setting of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories.

When last we were with Sherlock, it appeared that his arch enemy Moriarty had risen from the dead to threaten Britain with a new crime. Three years is a long period over which to sustain interest in any cliffhanger, so you’d expect “The Six Thatchers” to waste no more time getting stuck into the long-awaited denouement, but you’d be gravely mistaken. Instead, the whole Moriarty aspect is quickly kicked to the kerb, used briefly as a plot device to get Sherlock reinstated after his cold bloded murder of Charles Augustus Magnussen in “His Last Vow” and thereafter as a distraction and a red herring to obscure the true crime that is underway, which is signalled by the destruction of six china busts of Margaret Thatchers in varying locations around the country.

The episode splits neatly into three parts: the first is almost a reintroduction to the character of Sherlock, showing the detective at his peak as he solves crime after crime in seconds from just a single clue, frequently several at once, and even one while he’s at the baptismal font to become godfather to Watson’s new born daughter Rosamund. But the case of the broken busts is an altogether different affair: Sherlock initially believes it’s related to the theft of the Black Pearl of the Borgias (a delightful connoisseur’s in-joke reference to Conan Doyle’s “The Six Napoleons” and the Basil Rathbone film The Pearl of Death, one of my personal favourites) and then suspects it must be a part of Moriarty’s posthumous grand revenge, but he’s wrong on both counts.

Instead, Sherlock is plunged into the world of spies, secret agents and assassins when he comes up against Ajay, a Bourne-like lethal weapon played by the always-excellent Sacha Dhawan, who reveals that he’s on a mission of revenge to kill his former partner whom he believes betrayed him six years ago – none other than Mary Watson (Amanda Abbington), whom Sherlock is sworn to protect. Playing out the consequences of this revelation takes up the main middle part of the episode, and then the final 20 minutes deals with the aftermath of what happens.

Overall I thought “The Six Thatcher” was an excellent 90 minute instalment of Sherlock, showcasing all that has made the series such a popular success over the years, with special kudos going to director Rachel Talalay’s handling of Sherlock and Ajay’s showdown in a swimming pool and the subsequent eerie use of the London Aquarium, as well as making Mary’s globe trotting adventures look immaculately authentic and expensive. If there’s a problem with the episode, it with the final section in which everything slows down and becomes awkwardly drawn out, and has some obvious lapses in plotting logic that rather undermine the intended impact of what the episode had been building up to all along.

Whether the climax will be a shock depends on how well you know your Sherlock canon. While Moffat and Gatiss freely change and reinvent the traditional Conan Doyle stories when they want to, they generally stick fairly close to the established Sherlock facts than they’re given credit for, and that always pointed to one particular character having a short life in the series just as they did in the books. In many ways the character has to go for precisely the same reason as Conan Doyle himself concluded: they disrupt the central Holmes/Watson dynamic to such a degree that the show becomes less and less viable unless something is done about it. And “The Six Thatchers” is the series indeed taking care of said business, while giving the character the sort of triumphant send-off that would never have occurred to Conan Doyle to attempt.

On the whole, then, I thought “The Six Thatchers” was great stuff and one of the very best Sherlock stories, albeit not without some qualms. That said, there’s nothing but praise for both Cumberbatch and Freeman, both of whom are at the top of their games here and a sight for sore eyes after the New Year revels.

Sherlock season 4 continues on BBC One on Sunday evenings at 9pm, and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on January 23 2017.

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