Anyone who has read the original Sherlock Holmes stories, will know what I mean when I say they were constrained by their time frame. The stories are in some ways, very dry. I’m not suggesting emotion and character interaction isn’t there, of course it is, there to such an extent many people then and even now, aren’t entirely sure Holmes was fictitious. The temptation to bring Holmes and Watson into modern day, however, by a modern reader, is not at all surprising. I said at the beginning of the previous series, my clearest emotion on discovering BBC Sherlock, was jealousy at Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat getting to be the first.
Sherlock removes all of the constraints of Victorian and Edwardian propriety, giving it’s creators the freedom to do more or less anything, with one of the greatest fictional characters of all time and as a concept alone, it is brilliant. It is, as I said back then too, something of a creative tightrope. If they had not dared to mess with the canon too much, then there would have been no point in Sherlock. If in the freedom of twenty first century Holmes, they strayed too far from the original stories, then what made the series such an amazing idea, would have disappeared.
Some book fans might disagree with that, but I can’t imagine there are that many purists out there. After all the original stories are littered from start to finish with continuity errors ranging from the unfortunate to the ludicrous. Watson is referred to as James by his wife for an entire story, Arthur Conan Doyle apparently forgetting he’d already given him a first name. Professor Moriarty and his brother, Colonel Moriarty, both have the Christian name James, which seems unlikely. Mrs Hudson turns into Mrs Turner for one story and chronologically, Watson seems to move in and out of Baker Street an unfathomable number of times and it is unclear whether he married once or twice. Beyond continuity, many of the stories involve utterly bizarre and occasionally asinine plot lines and in some cases, noticeably lazy and non-committed endings. This is not nit-picking a great work, this is the predictable result of a writer who for at least a time, had less love for his character than his audience did, by a country mile. ACD was no purist when it came to Sherlock, I see no reason to be either.
In the previous series‘, Gatiss and Moffat walked the tightrope very impressively. The first two series were really, really good. They did have problems, personally I’ve hated the text-on-screen stuff from the start and though I know I’ve said it a lot, I’m saying it again, it looks cheap and is a lazy solution to a narrative challenge. There were other issues, in the second series especially some of the cruder dialogue came off as shallow rather than just irreverent and some of the references to the books felt more perfunctory than clever. I sometimes think the series’ suffers from it’s three ninety-minute episodes format.
None of that mattered, over all. The series’ were exciting, funny, devilishly clever and despite all modernisation, very Sherlock Holmes. Bottom line, it‘s uniquely entertaining. The fact it was also a very true adaptation is if you’re me, a bonus.
The third series, is less easy to call. After the second episode I would mostly say it was crap. In all fairness, looking at the series as a whole, I’m not going to say that, but it was not up to standard. There are elements, that were genuinely brilliant, but unlike the previous two series, the brilliant elements did not make it possible to ignore other faults.
Episode one, could be forgiven for not having much in it, in terms of one solid storyline. The Empty House is a strange story. The fact that no real explanation was given for Sherlock‘s return from the dead was a good thing, to me. The book explanation is so piss-poor as to be laughable, but that is because his ’return’ was never meant to happen. ACD was backed into a corner by a demanding public, he brought Sherlock back with reluctance and the half-arsed nature of his explanation is eloquent on his views. I really think Mark Gatiss got the hardest job of this series, in writing the first one. He had to bring Sherlock back, ‘explain’ his death, show us John’s ruined life but at the same time introduce us to and make us care about Mary Morsten, reintroduce all of the old characters and show us their lives as of two years later, invent and solve the crime that had to bring Sherlock back to England and to do it all, while living up to impossible hype and expectation. Given all of that, it’s not surprising it all felt a little bit disjointed. Within disjointedness there were as ever, moments of utter brilliance, but I’ve already blogged like a super geek about that. Still, these episodes are more or less feature-length, they really need a strong, single thread through them which it did not have.
Episode two, simply annoyed me. Everything that annoyed me before, suddenly could not be ignored anymore. I understand, that many fans want to go as deeply into the relationship between John and Sherlock as possible and that yes, obviously despite their shared social difficulties they are very close friends and yes, that is still the case despite Sherlock’s fake death. What I don’t understand, is devoting ninety minutes of a Sherlock Holmes adaptation to having Sherlock and John tell each other how much they care. We know that, that’s the whole point. We see how much the other means to both, without them needing to say it. If Sherlock’s death brought any of this into question, jumping into a bonfire to save John surely answered it.
I also understand that fans love the fun stuff. John telling Sherlock not to show off with his cheek bones and his collar, Mycroft Holmes saying the words “Sherlock Holmes, put your trousers on.”, and the more sentimental moments like Mycroft telling John Sherlock originally wanted to be a pirate, or John handing over Adler’s phone, because Sherlock showed some vulnerability in wanting it. All of those things, are part of what make Sherlock awesome. The problem is, that in order for those moments to play that part, they have to be in some way unexpected. Large chunks of the Empty Hearse and all of the Sign of the Three, was just that. No great game to fit it all in around.
Again, I don’t want to lay into the individual writer for it. He had basically a wedding, and a tiny bit of eventual and short lived crime, to work with. He wrote a very witty, very sweet and very charming episode, but without the crimey bit it’s both very un-Conan Doyle (despite the plethora of much appreciated story references) and it kinda derailed the series to the point of taking the mind almost entirely away from the bad guy very briefly introduced in episode one.
On the other hand, the need for us to be very invested in John’s marriage and wife, is made clear in episode three. While for me this doesn’t excuse the Sign of the Three, it goes some way towards explaining it.
And finally, last night’s episode, His Last Vow. Now, this one I did enjoy. Mostly I was pleased to find the return of one solid crime based plots, but there was much more. This episode is based very closely on one of ACD’s creepiest bad guys, Charles Augustus Milverton. He was a true, skin crawling kinda bad guy and almost all of the other plot elements, the truth about Mary, Sherlock’s fiancée, all fit together very well. There were still some disjointed elements. I do think this is mostly because of the length of each episode, the many different relationships and familial interactions while lovely, were a little bit scattered in every direction.
Not surprisingly, Mycroft was my favourite thing about this episode. I have wondered from the start of Sherlock, what prompted the decision to make them not get on. More entertaining would be an obvious answer, but as two great fans of the books Gatiss and Moffat would surely know there’s no sign of discord between them. Sherlock makes two things clear about Mycroft in the books, one, that he is an extremely important and well respected man and two, that he regularly goes to him for help when a puzzle bamboozles him. I guess it’s no more of a departure from the books to have them at each others throats, than having Mycroft be so important a character, is in the first place. Mycroft Holmes is only in two of the sixty Sherlock Holmes stories, only even mentioned in two others. As I’m very glad of the latter, I’m happy to accept the former, even though it hurts!
The scene at Baker St following Mycroft’s drug raid, is probably one of many clues to why this modern day sibling duo aren’t quite such good friends. The first is in the very first episode, “try not to start a war before I get home.” The many signs Sherlock is repelled by Mycroft’s job, rather than Mycroft himself, are mostly awkward or funny. Sherlock’s violent outburst, and one of my favourite lines of the series, is genuinely unpleasant to watch. “Don’t appal me while I’m high.” – In the days of ACD, being a politician possibly did make for a respectable job. All elements of Sherlock are adapted to modern day. Mycroft Holmes, while despite Sherlock’s claim, an excellent big brother, is not really one of the good guys.
I sort of think he knew exactly what Sherlock was planning, (“must be something in the punch”) and presumably a former trained assassin marrying Sherlock’s flatmate didn’t escape his notice either which would suggest he also knows who shot Sherlock and why…then again I assume he knows everything. I was right, to be fair, about what he knew in the second series. 😉
The family scene was fantastically played. Mark Gatiss steals scenes that feature Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, which is pretty amazing. “Oh dear God it’s only two o clock, it’s been Christmas day for at least a week how can it only be two o clock?”
…In fact lets just save some time (though I fear, that horse may have bolted) and say I loved, every bit of Mycroft. I am biased, I love the character anyway, but Mark Gatiss is fantastic. He and Benedict Cumberbatch compliment each other brilliantly. Sherlock’s line, “what the hell am I supposed to say to that?”, was just perfect. Also, Here be Dragons. Awesome.
I realise, at this stage, (Literally, I’m just realising it now) that I am considerably more forgiving of non-crime related story lines when they’re between Sherlock and Mycroft, than between Sherlock and John, which would be unfair of me. The difference is, I think, that Sherlock and John are the centre of Sherlock, therefore they need to be mostly solving crime. Sherlock and Mycroft, or any other character, is just as positive a sub-plot as John and Mary. Even in this episode, there was still quite a noticeable lot, of Sherlock and John telling each other in case we missed it at the wedding, how much they love each other.
There were, among things I didn’t like so much, things I was very unsure of. Mycroft mentioned another brother? I hope not, that’s a deviation I feel I would not enjoy. There are a number of adaptations that theorise a third Holmes brother, an elder Holmes based almost entirely on the fact Sherlock once mentioned his family were country squires so it is assumed that if Mycroft were the eldest he would have inherited a country house but in fact lives in a flat in Pall Mall. I really don’t want any of this distracting crap in Sherlock.
Did CAM, not think it possible or even, probable, that far from needing Sherlock to shoot him, Mycroft’s people would in the interest of public safety, on learning his records existing only in his own mind?
And finally, Moriarty. Brilliant ending, to be fair, but he’s dead. He’s just dead, don’t be silly.
As with not wanting to blame each writer for the other two episodes, I don’t look at His Last Vow and think Steven Moffat is the stand out writer of the series. All three are excellent writers, it was very much the plots that decided my view of each episode and they are less dependent on the individual writer. There is something of a similarity in Sherlock, to the Moffat series’ of Doctor Who. When it started, it was phenomenal. Then it gained popularity and writing and character tropes, and ran itself into a trench. I hope this will not prove to be true in later series, but they need to take care. The original stories should always be the centre, because that’s what makes Sherlock and they and their cast, are more than talented enough to make it their own, without abandoning ACD entirely.
An east wind blowing, was the last we ever saw of Holmes and Watson. I’m glad Sherlock has more time.