Contains some spoilers
With the singular exception of Doctor Who I tend not to write more than one post on any given television show per season, unless something occurs that significantly changes my initial take on it, so I hadn’t intended to contribute any more thoughts about the latest series of Sherlock following my review of the New Year’s Day episode. But since it appears that this might be the very last we see of the Steven Moffat/Mark Gatiss incarnation of the consulting detective, an exception seemed called for in order for us to take one final look at the whole of season 4.
As regular readers might recall, I rather enjoyed “The Six Thatchers” which was the first of this run of three episodes, although some were put off by the Bond/Bourne overtures and pined for the time when the show ‘just solved mysteries’ (which was never the point of Sherlock.) I did however grumble about the final 20 minutes which seemed clunky and mis-paced after what had gone before. Read the rest of this entry »
It’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. Read the rest of this entry »
As things turned out, there wasn’t enough time between the end of Doctor Who series 9 and the follow-up Christmas special for us to produce our now-traditional look back over the most recent run of stories featuring our favourite maverick Time Lord. Instead, we thought we’d allow the holiday festivities to well and truly settle down before finally turning our merciless combined fan gaze on the latest run of episodes. Plus, there was the small matter of John, self-confessed Star Wars superfan, experiencing an awakening of some sort…
Then, just as we were thinking of putting pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard and touchscreen), the news broke that Steven Moffat is to step down as showrunner after the next series and the torch is to be passed on to Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall – himself a man with impeccable Doctor Who fan credentials who has contributed several stories to the show over the years, and also to Torchwood which he co-produced for the first two series.
Does the confirmation of his impending departure colour our perspective of Moffat’s fifth complete series in charge of our favourite show? Will we get misty-eyed and sentimental about the Grand Moff’s achievements now that the end is in sight? You’ll have to read on and see, as we embark on a particularly timey-wimey trip through the highs and lows of series 9.
Spoilers ahoy, Sweeties! Read the rest of this entry »
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. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains spoilers to keep you awake.
Whatever else you might say about Mark Gatiss, you really have to admire his range and diversity when it comes to the stories that he’s written for Doctor Who across the years. From Victorian ghost stories guest starring Charles Dickens to haunted dolls houses on a modern council estate, subservient Daleks making tea for Winston Churchill to murderous BBC continuity announcers in the 1950s, not to mention reviving the Ice Warriors to a soundtrack of 80s pop classics and the real-life origins drama An Adventure in Space and Time. His most recent story contributions have been his most out-and-out comedic, although the gothic black comedy The Crimson Horror and the bright and the breezy historical romp Robots of Sherwood could hardly have been more poles apart.
Just when you think you’ve got a grip on what he’s going to do next, Gatiss tends to want to spin off in a whole new direction – and that’s exactly what he does with this week’s season nine entry. You might not think it would be possible to create a brand new story that is simultaneously equidistant from every single one of his previous seven contributions, but that’s precisely what he does with the highly experimental “Sleep No More” as he conjures up a pure science fiction horror story that’s singularly and surprisingly lacking in laughs despite guest starring his old League of Gentleman pal Reece Shearsmith in a leading role.
The one thing that is always consistent with Gatiss’ contributions is that he delivers an incredibly rich script packed full of ideas – some of them borrowed but equally as many of them fresh and original. There’s usually so much going on that the stories threaten to spin out of control, fizzing so violently that they fly apart or spontaneously implode and combust. As a result the stories rarely all manage to work completely for everyone, but they’re never dull. For the reviewer, however, there’s a risk that any analysis of a Gatiss story will end up becoming a checklist of influences and concepts in play rather than a proper look at the story as a whole. Apologies in advance if that turns out to be the case here. Read the rest of this entry »
The much-anticipated, no-expense-spared BBC television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s multi-award-winning books about King Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell hit the screens this week and achieved one of the largest audience figures for a new drama on the channel in a decade, together with near-unanimous praise from the critics.
It was good to be sure, but for myself I have to say I was slightly disappointed that it wasn’t even better, twisted and ungrateful though that sounds. I loved Mantel’s original book after which the series is named (the latter half of the six-episode run will be based on the sequel, Bring Up The Bodies) and found it one of the best books I’d ever read, whereas this all-star screen version is … merely excellent television. Read the rest of this entry »
Generation Star Wars‘ John Hood and Taking The Short View’s Andrew Lewin look back over the latest series of Doctor Who and come to a shocking verdict…
Before it started to air, Steven Moffat promised that series 8 of Doctor Who would be completely unlike anything we’d seen before – and he wasn’t joking. Peter Capaldi’s mysterious, unpredictable and at times downright unlikeable portrayal of the titular Time Lord at times evoked Colin Baker’s tenure as the Sixth Doctor. While he didn’t actually try to throttle his companion this time around, the latest Doctor certainly threw enough caustic barbs at Clara Oswald to provoke some of the most memorably heated confrontations between the show’s stars that we’ve ever seen in 51 years of the programme’s history, while at the same time in Danny Pink’s character arc there was a hint of the redemption found by mercenary Lytton in 1985’s über-violent “Attack of the Cybermen”. The eighth series certainly proved full of dark themes, challenging subjects, black humour and genuinely frightening horror to an extent that the series has never before attempted, but it also aspired to moments of pure visual poetry and took time to indulge in the silliest of comedy romps along the way. No wonder that Capaldi’s first year in charge of the TARDIS has proved almost as divisive and controversial as Baker’s did in its day.
With a few weeks now elapsed since the shattering climax, and just before we board the TARDIS once again for the 2014 Christmas special, John and Andrew compare notes about each episode of series 8 in turn with the benefit of distance and hindsight, and then gird themselves to debate the big question of the year: was it a triumphant hit or a disastrous miss? You might be shocked by how it all turns out… Read the rest of this entry »
Contains some spoilers for the aired episode.
Apologies, I’m a little tardy with my thoughts on this week’s episode of Doctor Who. And while I’d like to say this is down to having been really busy and not having had the time to put pen-to-paper/fingers-to-keyboard, the truth is more along the lines that I’ve been stuck for words and unsure exactly what to say about “Robot of Sherwood.”
The thing is, these sort of out-of-character, over-the-top, thigh-slapping high camp ‘romps’ injected into runs of otherwise series dramas make my teeth itch. You may have noticed this from my reviews in the past, where I took against stories such as “The Curse of the Black Spot” and “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” for example. And while you might think that my delight in 2012’s “The Crimson Horror” by Mark Gatiss (who also wrote this week’s story) is therefore an anachronism, the fact is that story was a deliciously black comedy of the darkest hue in which everything was still taken with deadly seriousness despite the laughs that ensued.
It’s not that I think Doctor Who shouldn’t be funny – of course it should. And nor do I object to the show’s unique diversity which enables it to go in quick succession from all-out science fiction action thriller to historical pastiche comedy to chilling ghost story (as apparently next week’s “Listen” will be). I don’t even mind when they do one just for the kids as “Dinosaurs” very much was – it’s a family show after all, and I don’t begrudge the fact that there will be some stories that just aren’t really aimed at me and that I’m not going to like so much. It’s just that this leaves me a little stuck when it comes to attempting to write a fair and balanced review of an episode that, at the end of the day, simply didn’t really click with me. Read the rest of this entry »
The all-too-brief series 3 of Sherlock is over, aired in just 11 days after a wait of nearly two years since the cliffhanger ending of the previous series. I’ve already commented on the first episode, “The Empty Hearse,” which I greatly enjoyed even though for many viewers it couldn’t live up to the impossible expectations that had built up in the interim.
The online griping really started with the second of the three instalments, “The Sign of Three,” which took time out from crime solving (or so it seemed) to focus almost exclusively on the wedding of John Watson (Martin Freeman) and Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington) with Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) comedically out of his element after having best man duties imposed on him. The result was the nearest thing you’ll ever get to Sherlock Holmes: The Sitcom and I have to say that I loved it to bits and laughed throughout, the absolute highlight being the way that Sherlock’s ‘metatag wordcloud’ view of the world was completely compromised by too much beer on the stag night. Read the rest of this entry »
Christmas is over, the New Year has been seen in, but just before we exit holiday standby mode here are three quick reviews of BBC television festive fare from the last week. There are some mild, implied spoilers but nothing too overt.
Sherlock S3 E1 “The Empty Hearse” (BBC One)
The BBC’s high-quality modern version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous consulting detective finally made its long-awaited return to our screens two years after Sherlock Holmes’ apparently fatal plunge off a hospital rooftop. There had been much speculation about how Holmes cheated death and the episode had great fun in dodging and deferring that question, instead presenting some of the more outlandish Internet theories that have been bandied around in the interim (one of which included a lovely cameo by Derren Brown); when the real solution is finally rolled out late in the day, the in-show conspiracy theorist deflates and pronounces it “Disappointing” before immediately picking holes in it, refusing to believe the answer – just like the real-life social media reaction that followed after the show aired. Co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat know their audience, that’s for sure. Read the rest of this entry »
Having rather taken a knife to Doctor Who, here’s a quick palette cleanser with a more positive review of The Tractate Middoth penned by Steven Moffat’s Sherlock partner-in-crime Mark Gatiss, who also makes his directorial début with this adaptation of the MR James short story. Read the rest of this entry »
Cutting straight to the chase, An Adventure in Space and Time is without doubt one of the best dramas that’s been made this year.
Of course I’m biased, being a long-time fan of Doctor Who to which this biographical docu-drama is an emphatic and unashamed love letter (as it is also to the iconic BBC Television Centre building, so beautifully used as a location throughout.) The 80 minutes tell the story of how the world’s longest-running science fiction programme was created by the BBC in 1963, and of its first three years which starred William Hartnell in the title role. However you don’t have to be a ‘Whovian’ to appreciate just how good this drama is, just as I didn’t need to be a fan of a certain long-running soap to be wowed by the similar The Road to Coronation Street in 2010, which I still rate as one of the best things the BBC made that year.
To true Who fans, all the characters involved and a lot of the events of An Adventure in Space and Time will be as well known as one’s own family myths and legends, and writer (and life-long fan) Mark Gatiss tells them all with a lightness and deftness of touch which keeps everything both breezy and entertaining while at the same time also utterly true and reverential to the documented facts – a very hard high-wire act to pull off as successfully as he does here. For example, scenes showing Hartnell fretting about mapping out what each button on the Tardis console does – and refusing to follow the instructions of a director where it contradicts what he’s mapped out – are very much part of established Who lore and yet are included here as important character traits rather than being shoe-horned in to flatter the Who cognoscenti. Read the rest of this entry »
While I’m delighted to see all the attention being given to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, I’m somewhat saddened to see a lack of any mention at all for another significant anniversary in the annals of television science fiction: July 18 saw the 60th anniversary of the 1953 début of one Bernard Quatermass, arguably the Doctor’s spiritual father.
Quatermass was a phenomenon in the 1950s, the first science-fiction/horror show to really go mainstream in British television and literally clear the streets when it was on. There were three six-part serials beginning with The Quatermass Experiment in 1953 then followed by Quatermass II in 1955 and Quatermass and the Pit at the end of 1958. The lead character was always the same, a leading British rocket scientist played initially by Reginald Tate but who sadly passed away before the sequel in which John Robinson was hastily cast; Andre Morell took over for the third story, and Sir John Mills subsequently played Quatermass in a 1979 big-budget production for ITV, the last new story to be filmed. All three of the original serials were also made into films – indeed, 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment (as it was retitled) was the first horror outing for the small Hammer Film Productions and which persuaded them that the genre might be a good one to exploit more fully in future…
The film version is good (despite a miscast American actor Brian Donlevy starring as Quatermass) and has stood for a long time as the definitive record of the original story since the telecast has been mostly lost. Off-air recordings of the first two episodes do survive and were released on DVD by the BBC in 2005, but they are in a pretty poor condition: watchable for the connoisseur, but not broadcastable. Nonetheless they’re fascinating for a true fan of this sort of thing such as myself. The story revolves around the return of a rocket presumed lost which crash-lands near London; three crewmen were on board but only one is recovered, and he’s acting very strangely. In the end it’s clear he’s undergoing a violent metamorphosis and Quatermass is in a race against time to save the planet. Read the rest of this entry »
One consistently recurring question among fans over recent years has been why accomplished writer and performer Mark Gatiss hasn’t been able to deliver a follow-up to match “The Unquiet Dead,” his first Doctor Who episode back in 2005. There was the undercooked ‘meh’-ness of “The Idiot’s Lantern” for example, and the flat-out disappointment of “Victory of the Daleks” which was only partially the result of the new-model primary-coloured candy-floss iDaleks. Even 2011’s “Night Terrors” felt like it should have been so much better rather than just acceptably decent.
Given his undoubted talents – just check out his writing for Sherlock for example – and his unimpeachable love of the series, a resounding Doctor Who success for Gatiss has been long over due. Arguably last month’s “Cold War” was the best of Gatiss follow-ups, and it was certainly pretty good and well-received even if I personally thought it narrowly failed to fully deliver. So you can understand then when I say I’d rather given up hope of ever finding a Gatiss-penned Doctor Who that I could unreservedly, unhesitatingly gush over and declare as being his best contribution to the series of all time; and I certainly wasn’t expecting “The Crimson Horror” to be the episode to prove me wrong.
Well paint me red, dress me in long johns and call me dear monster, because I’ve never been happier having to eat my words: “The Crimson Horror” was the most tongue-in-cheek fun that Doctor Who has had in a very long time. Possibly ever, actually. It is delightfully wicked and clever from first to last and shows just how good Gatiss can truly be when he slips his leash and goes on the rampage unfettered by cerebral concerns of what a ‘good’ Doctor Who episode needs to or should look like. Read the rest of this entry »
Having previously reviewed the first of the three stories of this second series of Sherlock I think I said all I wanted to about the series as a whole, which allows me to aim to keep this follow-up to a single manageable blog post for the remaining two stories. Here goes …
One of the real strengths of this version of the Sherlock Holmes character is the way that it’s the creation and love-child of two very different writers, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, who are both excellent and currently at the top of their respective games but who also possess completely contrasting narrative styles. Sometimes, such a combination could stunt one or other (or even both) of the talents involved, but just sometimes the diversities feed on each other and not only survive but thrive, and build far more quality and depth to the end result than even the sum of their parts could lead us to expect. Such is the case with Moffat and Gatiss’s Sherlock.
Following on from Moffat’s extraordinarily intelligent and detailed intellectual puzzle box opener A Scandal in Belgravia comes Gatiss’ take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous (and arguably best) original Holmes story, here titularly tweaked into The Hounds of Baskerville. While it was possible to watch and re-watch Moffat’s preceding episode and still not fully understand it weeks later, there was no such problem here: Hounds was a triumph of (Hammer House of Horror) style over substance. The mystery, such as it was, wasn’t very complex: I’d pretty much worked out the solution before the midway point, although the exact ‘Who?’ remained split between two suspects until much nearer the end. But that didn’t matter – its not like Conan Doyle’s story was ever particularly difficult to puzzle out, either. In any case Gatiss wasn’t trying to out-smart us, he was trying to out-creep us – and he did, through one of the most effective and evocative Hounds committed to screen. Differing hugely from the original novel, it nonetheless had enough grace notes to the source text to make even aficionados feel warm and loved by the homage.
The extreme terror scenario did push some of the actors close to the breaking point of credibility: even Benedict Cumberbatch teetered on the edge of believability in the scenes where Holmes takes fright (although it was his playing of the scene that was also the key to realising precisely what was going on.) Poor Russell Tovey’s guest role started at “suppressed hysteria” and then had no where to go except into total histrionic breakdown, a rather thankless part; not to mention the fact that Tovey’s most famous recent role in Being Human meant that in the back of your mind was the red herring that his character (the sublimely named Henry Knight) could himself transmogrify into the hound at any point. I’m sure that this little mind game was entirely intentional from Gatiss, who is such a devotee of the classic Hammer and Universal horror films as well as Jacques Tourneur’s films including Cat People. Interestingly, the most effective “acting blind scared” came from the series star who invariably gets less attention and praise than he merits – but more of Martin Freeman in a minute.
Then we came to the season finale, The Reichenbach Fall, based on Conan Doyle’s short story “The Final Problem” which was dominated by the presence of Moriarty, and by the author killing off his most famous literary creation. We knew what to expect from this 90 minutes going in, in other words.
I admit to having been anxious about this instalment going in, as it had been entrusted to the third (and, to put it rather cruelly, the most junior) member of the writing team behind Sherlock. Steve Thompson had contributed the middle story of season 1, The Blind Banker, and it had been by far the least of the first year’s stories – although interestingly, I found it more enjoyable second time around when I saw it on DVD again late in 2011. Perhaps its ‘average’ rating is more to do with the company it was keeping, rather like Watson inevitably looks rather dim in the company of the two Holmes boys. But another mark against Thompson was his contribution to the most recent series of Doctor Who, “The Curse of the Black Spot” – by far the weakest episode of that 2011 series as far as I was concerned. So that was two strikes against Thompson: was The Reichenbach Fall to be the third? It would be appalling to foul up this story among all others, and the season finale to boot.
Well, I stand corrected. Not only did Thompson’s script do justice to the occasion, it was without question a match for the two stories that had preceded it. In fact in many ways it was the best of the three and perfectly pitched, fulfilment of how the combination of Gatiss and Moffat’s styles into one story by Thompson can produce new heights of genius: atmospheric, thrilling and tense like Hounds but packed full with Sherlock being as clever as only Holmes can be and all without losing the audience in the process. Sherlock got unrestricted license to show off in this episode thanks to the presence of Moriarty: no matter how clever Holmes was being, you always felt and knew that Moriarty was at least two steps in front and being even more insanely clever. Actor Andrew Scott must have had a blast with this part, which allowed him to veer from threatening and sinister to light-hearted and playful, from cunning and focused to cackling and even faux-terrified. It was a style of villain much in the vein of Heath Ledger’s Joker or John Simm’s Master, but at the same time completely individual and unique.
Scott’s towering, scene-grabbing portrayal of Moriarty has been controversial and divisive, but I loved every minute of it – it shone in a series stuffed full of great performances, from Cumberbatch himself as Holmes of course, to Lara Pulver’s memorably classy and sexy Irene Adler to Gatiss’s own cameos as a svelte brother Mycroft (particularly well used in the season finale.) In such stellar company it would be easy to forget about the down-to-earth, unshowy performance of Martin Freeman – a usual fate for actors essaying the role of Watson down the years. But he gave such an exceptional performance here, as indeed he has done throughout: thoroughly normal and yet also quietly extraordinary, and given the best line of the episode when he says “Don’t be dead” to a tombstone, before about-turning and walking away with a subtle but emphatic military gait that bestows years of invaluable, believable backstory to this usually most nondescript of men.
The sheer pace and energy of the cat-and-mouse game between Homes and Moriarty kept the episode careering along at the highest speed, although it didn’t stint on character work either. The lab scene between Molly Hooper and Sherlock was a show-stopper, as Molly suddenly floored Holmes with an emotional perception he hadn’t thought possible from her or indeed from anyone. For me, the episode only flagged when it came to the final scenes at St Barts, which felt just a little drawn out; intended to milk the moment for all the tension and drama it was worth, I found that rather than white knuckles I was instead thinking “Oh, just get on with it now, will you?” – but I suspect the pacing of these moments simultaneously hid an awful lot of the intricate mechanism by which Sherlock will be restored to life come season 3.
And yes, of course there will be a season 3. Moffat, Gatiss and Thompson’s Reichenbach Fall was no more likely or able to put a stop to Holmes than was Conan Doyle’s original Final Solution. After having teased the viewers in advance of the airing by saying “This might be the end of Sherlock,” Moffat popped up on Twitter the next day and gleefully revealed that the matter had never been in doubt: the series had been re-commissioned a year ago not just for this season two, but also for a further season three at the same time. It had been a done deal before anyone even asked the question.
A nation breathes a sigh of relief: Mr Holmes and the redoubtable Dr Watson (Cumberbatch and Freeman both on day release from The Hobbit duties in New Zealand, presumably) will return in 2013. And we’ll get to find out just how Holmes manages to resurrect himself from one of the more serious and emphatically documented cases of absolutely certain sudden death seen outside of religious texts; and exactly how well Watson is going to take the news.
Have the strong smelling salts standing by.