by Paul Kelly
I suspect we're going to have to start viewing Sherlock specials in the same way we view Doctor Who Christmas specials. Despite being cut from the same cloth as a regular season, there's just so much more space to muck about in. Half of tonight's episode played like a Victorian chiller, the other half was like watching panto. Still, with the festive season still in full swing, that was probably the effect they were hoping for—and it kind of worked.
Firstly, I did not expect tonight's episode to have a modern-day component. All of the pre-episode build-up suggested a purely Victorian-era yarn. Did the present-day tie-in offer anything worthwhile to the story? Obviously it was something of a shock to see modern-day Sherlock suddenly appear—and I love it when the writers try to mess with us—but they really didn't offer any explanation as to Moriarty's return in the series proper. Yes, we now know that Moriarty is both 'dead' and yet somehow 'back', but they're obviously saving any further elucidation for next season—which did feel like something of a cheat. The episode would have worked just as well as an alternate-universe story.
Secondly, I did not expect the episode to be so meta. In fact, it was so meta that I almost had a meta-crisis and regenerated into Idris Elba. Not only were there stories within stories, there were also mind palaces within mind palaces—and for me, this is where the episode faltered. While I was under the delusion that the Ricoletti narrative was true, I enjoyed it immensely—it was a prime period romp, full of great visuals, cracking dialogue, and more fake facial hair than you could shake a stick at. But when the façade finally came crashing down, and the focus shifted to Moriarty, I was suddenly left wondering what the point was. Yes, there were some fairly interesting psychological ponderings in there, but was the whole purpose of the episode simply to confirm that Moriarty is dead? Didn't we more or less know this already?
Which made the whole episode suddenly feel like an elaborate story clothes-horse over to which to hang some rather worn comedy underpants. From that moment onwards, it became more about the in-jokes, the one-liners, and the homages. (Or should that be holmages?) Not that I'm complaining, some of them were seriously funny. In fact, after watching 'The Sign of Three' I remember thinking that I'd just witnessed the show at its comedic best, yet 'The Abominable Bride' surely gave it a run for its money. Mrs Hudson in particular was given some great lines ('I never say anything, do I?') Even Sherlock was afforded the rare opportunity of being funny outside of his usual withering put-downs. His 'You're going in the water, Short-arse' had me tittering into my New Year's sherry.
Of course, in many respects the episode was supposed to be disjointed. It was the visible clue that something was amiss. If at any point we felt ill at ease with how things were progressing, that's because we were meant to feel that way. So the occasionally context-less dialogue wasn't necessarily a problem, because the whole shebang was illusory—an amalgam of the past and present, draped in a fictional investigation taking place solely inside Sherlock's drug-addled noggin. Once you got your head around that fact, its meta nature could both be explained and possibly forgiven—as could Sherlock occasionally mixing up his masculine and feminine pronouns, the numerous anachronisms, Sherlock's desire to go 'deeper into himself', and his insistence that 'to solve a case you must first solve another.'
The suffragette stuff fitted in pretty well, too. The late 19th century was obviously an active time in terms of women's rights—what with the formation of National Union of Women's Suffrage Society in 1897 and the later Mud March of 1907—so it was obviously the perfect subject for Holmes to explore, and offer social commentary on. It was also a great excuse to bring back the character of Janine Donlevy (Sherlock's almost-date from 'The Sign of Three'), as well as giving Mary Morstan something to do outside of being John's wife and occasional assassin. And let's face it, anything that extends Molly Hooper's role beyond that of cross-dressing pathologist should be both encouraged and applauded. I thought that Louise Brealey looked rather dapper as a man. Better than Andrew Scott did as a woman, anyway.
The scenes of Sherlock and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls were also eerily effective, and offered an atmospheric backdrop to their verbal duel. Yes, the whole exchange was nothing more than Sherlock struggling with his own inadequacies and fears, but as with his earlier exchange with Moriarty, it offered an interesting insight into how Holmes' views his arch-nemesis. Every time he fails he sees Moriarty's hand in it. Even with Moriarty dead, Sherlock still can't seem to rid himself of his shadow—nor, evidently, the seemingly ever present spectre of Irene Adler. Is his obsession with them a fond reminder of past adventures, or simply a reminder of his own fallibility?
Yet despite the high adventure at the falls, and a fascinating bout of fisticuffs to-the-death with Moriarty, the ending still managed to lose focus when Watson showed up out of nowhere, booted Moriarty up the arse, and sent him hurtling into the abyss. Again, the meta nature of the episode just kept pulling you out of the story. A good writer knows when to keep the drama and comedy separate, and when humour is necessary to relieve the tension—and this just wasn't one of those moments. Watson referring to his stories in the Strand as a context for his seemingly miraculous appearance was undeniably amusing, but it completely neutered Moriarty and Sherlock's tense showdown.
I actually didn't mind the coda. It was obviously there to throw some doubt on which version of Sherlock is real. Is modern-day Sherlock a drug-induced projection of Victorian origins, or is Victorian-era Sherlock a drug-fuelled projection from the present? We'll probably never know, but I enjoyed it as a piece of writing, even if I'm not sure it added anything worthwhile to the mythos. Sometimes one can be unsure about a piece of art, yet still appreciate it for its craft. Which pretty much sums up this episode for me: beautiful to look at, occasionally brilliant, frequently funny, but somehow less than the sum of its parts.
Bits and Pieces:
—When an episode has dual authorship, it's hard to work out exactly who wrote what. If the Spielberg/Kubrick AI fiasco has taught me anything, it's that you should never trust your instincts. However, I'm tempted to guess that Moffat was mostly responsible for the mad plotting, while Gatiss contributed the bulk of the meta-narrative. I could be wrong.
—I really liked Douglas Mackinnon's direction in this episode. The inter-cutting of the murder scene with Holmes' study, the maze transitioning into fingers, the floating newspaper pieces, the close-up of Sherlock's face after seeing 'Miss me', even the rotating wipes, all made for a handsome, fast-paced romp.
—What a pity that Watson's conversation with Sherlock about his sexuality didn't go anywhere. It's something they keep bringing up, but never seem to get around to addressing. Unless they did address it with Moriarty's 'gun in pocket' quip and we were just too distracted to see it.
—After being initially lukewarm to Andrew Scott's interpretation of Moriarty, I'm really liking him these days. Here's hoping that they find a way to keep him forever hovering in the periphery.
—John's first meeting with Sherlock almost exactly paralleled their first meeting in 'A Study in Pink'. The dialogue was almost word for word—with some subtle tweaks.
Sherlock: 'Fear is wisdom in the face of danger. It is nothing to be afraid of.'
Sherlock: 'For God's sake, give her some lines. She's perfectly capable of starving us.'
Watson: 'Holmes, against absolutely no opposition whatsoever, I am your closest friend.'
Sherlock: 'I concede it.'
Mrs Hudson: 'I've been rushed off my feet making tea.'
Lestrade: 'Why do you make 'em tea?'
Mrs Hudson: 'I don't know, I just sort of do.'
Watson: 'Sherlock, tell me where my bloody wife is, you pompous prick, or I'll punch your lights out.'
Watson: 'Time to wake up, Sherlock. I'm a storyteller—I know when I'm in one.'
Watson: 'I thought I was losing you. I thought perhaps we were neglecting each other.'
Sherlock: 'Well, you're the one who moved out.'
Watson: 'I was talking to my wife.'
Moriarty: 'I mean, come on, be serious. Costumes? The gong? Speaking as a criminal mastermind, we don't really have gongs, or special outfits.'
Watson: 'I'm taking Mary home.'
Mary: 'You're what?'
Watson: 'Mary's taking me home.'
Sherlock: 'When it comes to the matter of unarmed combat and the edge of the precipice... you're going in the water, short-arse.'
Four moor peaces eye rote, sea hear.