TV Review: Sherlock-ception


{All photos courtesy BBC One.}

Sherlock, series 3/4 Christmas Special, “The Abominable Bride”. Written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (based on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle); directed by Douglas Mackinnon. Copyright 2016: seen January 1, 2016 (with a cinema screening January 6, 2016).

Warning: there are spoilers in this review. You have been warned. (The trailer will be the place where spoilers begin.)

It’s been two years: two long (and if you’re in the fandom, crazy in both the positive and negative definition) years since we last interacted with the BBC version of Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and John Watson (Martin Freeman).

As I wrote in my review of the third episode of series 3, we were left with more questions than answers with regards to Sherlock’s apparent suicide two years prior to that, the character of Mary Morstan Watson (Amanda Abbington), and – of course – the status of ‘big bad’ James Moriarty (Andrew Scott), last seen shooting himself in the head in order to prompt Sherlock’s jump off of Bart’s hospital – until his image popped up in the very last scene of series 3.

The poster for TAB

In that two years, the careers of Cumberbatch and Freeman – already at a high thanks to projects such as The Hobbit trilogy and Star Trek Into Darkness – became even more high profile (especially with Cumberbatch, earning himself an Oscar nomination with his role in The Imitation Game). Both are attached to Marvel projects (Doctor Strange for Cumberbatch; Captain America: Civil War – and potentially others, if his character is who it’s rumored to be – for Freeman), both had successful Shakespearean stage productions in London (I was lucky enough to catch Freeman live in his Richard III, and got to see the cinema screening of Cumberbatch’s Hamlet), and both are doing other projects beyond that.

Meanwhile, showrunner (co-showrunner?) Steven Moffat hasn’t exactly been idle, running Doctor Who and dealing with a new Doctor in Peter Capaldi, the return of not only Davros but Missy, and the eventual exit of companion Clara.

So, the status of Sherlock as a TV show is always a bit of a concern for fans. Series 3 not only got great ratings and critical acclaim, but finally won the show and our two leads Emmy Awards, and both Freeman and Cumberbatch have gone on record that they’re willing to continue the show “as long as it’s interesting”. But when we’ll get those new episodes are always met with an exasperated sigh of concern.

Which leads me to the Christmas special, “The Abominable Bride”. Unlike the Christmas mini-episode “Many Happy Returns” that broadcast right before the third series was shown, this was a fully-fledged episode, with all the major players taking part in an 89-minute long extravaganza, ostensibly set in the (original) Victorian time period.

What we get, however, is a mini-movie that’s not only a glorious meta / reference of the Sherlock TV series up till now (including, if I’m not mistaken, the mobile app game Sherlock: The Network), but of almost every representation of Holmes – from the original Doyle stories to Jeremy Brett’s Granada series to Basil Rathbone’s movies to Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

The plot is several layers deep: the Victorian bits (as many fans had suspected) actually an aspect of Sherlock’s mind palace. He had remembered a story from the late 1800s of Emilia Ricoletti, who had apparently committed suicide by shooting herself in the head – and yet was able to come back and still kill her husband (and perhaps others). By ‘putting himself back in that period’, he hoped to use this crime to figure out how Moriarty was supposedly able to survive at the end of “The Reichenbach Fall”. We also have the modern day sequences giving us the vital information that Sherlock had overdosed in order to do it – and apparently was high even before he got on the tarmac at the end of “His Last Vow”.

In other words, the entire 89-minute episode actually only gives us maybe five minutes worth of overall plot, but tons of characterization: mostly for Sherlock, although we get glimpses of the other main players as well. It’s pretty much Inception, but for the world (and mind) of Sherlock Holmes.

Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch, looking dapper af

As in Inception, there are layers upon layers, as well as meanings upon meanings. Despite the episode broadcasting only a week ago, fans have already developed extensive meta about the mind palace!Moriarty and what it represents; how much of the modern scenes are real, and even if this means that the end of “His Last Vow” may not be real; whether the bet with Mycroft about dying through eating is a warning of Mycroft’s future death or a metaphor for Sherlock’s drug habit; and what this episode means for not only our main duo, but the characters of Mycroft and Mary, picking up such things as Mycroft’s tie being a different color than in “His Last Vow” and Victorian!Mary being noticeably not pregnant and working for “M” (which in episode is shown to be Mycroft, but Moriarty is also an “M”). There’s also debates as to whether Mycroft in the fat suit is a bad joke, if Scott’s portrayal of Moriarty has gone too far into the “depraved homosexual” trope, and what this episode means for the various ships that are out there.

As an episode in and of itself, I mostly enjoyed it. While many have called it self-referential, which I don’t disagree with, I felt it was done more in a fun way – kind of like seeing the pizza truck (or waiting for John Ratzenberger) in all the Pixar movies. Yes, it’s self-indulgent, but in the same way any fan production tends to be – and make no mistake, Sherlock is a fan production, just with the approval of the BBC. In fact, as much as I did enjoy all of the meta references, I have to wonder how either newcomers to the series or casual fans may approach the episode, as you will miss much of what’s going on without a deeper understanding of the character of Sherlock Holmes.

The acting, of course, is excellent – as we’ve come to expect. Seeing Freeman and Cumberbatch finally doing the Victorian versions of these characters is fun, especially knowing that they’re not supposed to be real. Freeman especially has a field day playing Victorian Watson as a blowhard who’s at times the bumbling Watson of Nigel Bruce’s portrayal and at times the more confident Watson we’ve seen elsewhere and in universe. Add in the fact that he’s technically playing three different versions of John Watson – MindPalace!Victorian Watson, MindPalace!Modern John, and real!John – my respect for the subtlety of Freeman’s acting has only grown.

We also get great bits from the ever-growing ensemble cast, from Amanda Abbington’s Mary to Rupert Graves doing a dead-on ‘bumbling Lestrade’ to Louise Brealey as a in-drag Molly Hooper, playing a man to get ahead as a doctor in the Victorian world. And, of course, Andrew Scott returns as Moriarty, balancing that line that makes him sexy and scary.

Sherlock and his violin.

Thematically, the episode is also a political statement: Moffat, long criticized by many for his treatment of female characters both in Sherlock and in Doctor Who, has the basic plot of the Victorian world be that of how women are treated and ignored, not only back in Victorian times but still today. Many have accused the scene of Sherlock solving the Victorian murder as Sherlock (and therefore Moffat and Gatiss) mansplaining feminism: while I can see why they see that, I saw it more as his usual ‘summation’ of the plot so far – that just happened to be feminism as well. I get the impression that Moffat at least is trying to make it better. Whether he succeeded is a different issue.

Finally, the costumes, props (the prop person in me found Holmes’ Victorian cocaine needle and case incredibly sexy), scenery, and direction is gorgeous, giving us gothic horror at it’s best. Although, as with series 3, we get scene transitions that are bizarre bordering on goofy that are only good for drawing attention to themselves.

However, seeing “The Abominable Bride” as part of the series as a whole, I have some issues. As I wrote in my editorial prior to series 9 of Doctor Who, “Looking at DOCTOR WHO Series 9: Breaking Up is Hard to Do”, one of Moffat’s weaknesses as a writer is the seeming inability to do long story arcs without creating massive plot holes, as well as his tendency to steal from himself. And yes, I know he co-wrote this episode with Gatiss, but these issues have cropped up in Sherlock as well – especially in “His Last Vow”, which was written by Moffat.

“The Abominable Bride” just adds to those questions we had at the end of “His Last Vow”, STILL without answering a single one of the ones we already have. (Although, apparently, it is now official that Moriarty is actually dead: the underlying ‘how-dunit’ of the Bride indicating that we’re going to get some sort of Dread Pirate Roberts version of Moriarty.) Considering my first reaction to the plot twist of Mary actually being an assassin was how similar that was to the character of River Song, the episode seems to be continuing the ‘redemption due to the love of a good man’ plot that River got over on Mary’s character (especially as how Sherlock sees her in Victorian times). It also seems a bit cruel that it took two years to give us basically five minutes of story arc, whereby we have to (not-so-patiently) wait another two for series 4.

A tribute to Granada Holmes perhaps?

As I wrote in that review of “His Last Vow”, series 3 was extremely divisive among the fans. The change of the primary point of view from John to Sherlock and the focus on characterization over mystery and plot meant series 3 was vastly different in terms of tone and attitude than the prior two. (No doubt partly to keep Cumberbatch and Freeman ‘entertained’ in portraying these characters.) “The Abominable Bride” continues that trend: after all, we never do find out why Lady Carmichael approached either of the Holmes to solve a murder that she was going to commit herself, as it’s not the point of the episode, and the whole episode is basically a character study of Sherlock. So, if you were unhappy with series 3, it’s a good bet you won’t love “The Abominable Bride”, and may even hate it.

I’m still deciding what I think of it: as with every episode so far (even “The Blind Banker”), the good definitely outweighs the bad. Going into it, I was worried that this would be the episode that made me decide the wait wasn’t worth the result. Thankfully, the worry was unfounded. Even after seeing it three times, I find myself wanting to go back and re-watch it to see what else I can pick up.

Will I be waiting – patiently or not – for series 4? Considering how much of a fan I am of Cumberbatch and especially Freeman, and considering I mostly came away from this liking it, it’s a good bet I’ll still be around in 2017. And considering I could easily add another 1,000 words to this review and still not comment on everything I want to is definitely a positive sign.

My biggest hope for series 4? Well, “TAB” finally gave us an “Elementary, my dear Watson.” I can only hope that we now can get modern!John to say, “No shit, Sherlock.”

PBS will be showing an encore of Sherlock‘s “The Abominable Bride” on Sunday, January 10. The episode is also available on the BBC iPlayer until February 1 if you live in the UK, as well as available to purchase on Amazon Video, iTunes, and on DVD and Blu-Ray.

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