SHERLOCK: THE ABOMINABLE BRIDE – January 2 2016
Way back when, July 25 2010 to be precise, an unexpected treat of a show first aired in the UK. The first three, 90 minute episodes of Sherlock gave us an uneven but inventive modern-day take a character beloved for generations. Some eighteen months later, season two returned with even greater confidence, better stories and peaked with a finale that has been unmatched in quality since. Another two years passed and people were still, just about, dissecting the mystery that had come before only to be presented with, well, not exactly a satisfying answer. Season three of Sherlock changed tack so dramatically, I’ve only enjoyed revisiting one of its three episodes since. The opener was fun, but repeated watches have left me annoyed at how smugly it dodged providing any kind of definitive answer to Sherlock’s non-death. Instead, last season opened with good humour and not a lot else. Episode two dove even deeper into self-parody, providing pathos in Sherlock’s wedding speech; an ode to his best friend, but far too great a focus on “comedy”. The season finale thankfully remembered the importance of a good foe and a mystery worth solving.
A further two years have flown by and once again the year begins with a return to 221b Baker Street.
From here on in, I’ll discuss a few SPOILERS so please beware if you’re yet to watch this new, singular 2016 trip back to the 1800s.
After a swift, slightly misguided recap of what had come before, the clock zoomed back in time to find Doctor Watson in his natural, Victorian habitat. Repeating the opening scenes from 2010’s debut, an old friend reacquaints himself offering John and opportunity to find lodgings with a stranger. Cue a repeat of Sherlock whipping a corpse (again, from episode one as we were shown only seconds prior in the series recap) and this decidedly Brett-esque version of The Batch’s sleuth has his first meeting with his Watson. As we enter the Baker Street flat of old, the camera lingers on neat period touches that directly leap from canon as well as reverse-mirror the updated details found in the modern day; an ear-horn hangs from the wall-mounted head instead of a pair of headphones. Telegrams replace texts, with onscreen cursive script replacing the more familiar, modern font. So far, so self-referential but still, good.
The period setting is frequently shot in handsome hues, dramatically lit but relies too often on ugly scene transitions awkwardly contemporising what could have been an admirably dry, historical feel.
More reliably, The Batch and Freeman are clearly having fun. Subtly adjusting their performances by injecting a little more humanity into Sherlock and a dash more austerity into Watson, these are still the characters we’ve loved but with a few layers of the 2000s stripped from them. The episode is peppered with other excellent turns by Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson, Blackadder’s Tim McInnerny as the understandably fearful future victim Sir Eustuce Carmichael and Rupert Graves’ returning Lestrade. Once settled into this new/old take on the show, alas the “humour” creeps in a little too much. An extended joke conveyed via Sign Language in the silent lobby of the Diogenes Club falls flat, paving the way for a visit to Mycroft that struck as having aimed for canon but landed somewhere past it. Purists may have balked at the modern show’s “skinny” Holmes sibling but this version seems inspired more by Monty Python’s Mr Creosote taking Doyle’s original descriptions of “gross” and “massive” perhaps too far. Silly jokes about plum pudding and predictions of remaining lifespan seem, in retrospect, like filler.
It’s by this point, however, that the seeds of an intriguing mystery had been sown. The Abominable Bride herself, with her Joker grin and ghostly veil provide several great pieces of atmosphere and interest. Sadly, proceedings are slowed by some bizarrely standout moments of attempted feminist commentary. As the episode progressed, this thread became more important, but in the first day to follow a year that was filled with magnificent females leads the likes of Rey and Furiosa (still my favourite character from 2015, with the most brilliant backstory), such clunky foundations felt, at least at first, shoe-horned into the story.
Just as disappointingly, for the second time in recent weeks, a script brought forth (in part) from the mind of Mark Gatiss had its central characters uttering phrases like “what the hell is going on” and “it doesn’t make sense” as rugs were pulled and logic went flying out of the window. A few scenes prior, the audience had its “of course!” moment as a brilliant scene between Sherlock and Moriarty unravelled into yet another use of the former’s Sonic Screwdriver, er, I mean Mind Palace and a return to the closing scenes of season three’s modern day setting. Clever, I thought, a neat way to have this pretty diversion to the 1800s make perfect sense WITHIN the story already being told in 2014. Though, by the time we’d snapped back inside Sherlock’s mind and a still terrific Andrew Scott was lifting his own wedding veil, those last thirty minutes of mystery had become too muddled, too self-assured for their own good.
It has been written that Mycroft possesses the greater intellect, the more orderly mind of the Holmes brothers. Having sat through this jumble of drug-induced, exquisitely crafted period drama taking place entirely inside the mind of his younger sibling, all in the name of solving a centuries old case in the hopes of understanding a new one, it seems clear that not only is Mycroft the superior thinker, but also infinitely more capable of acting out the life of a believable human being.
Scenes such as the imagined but literal re-enactment of the infamous Reichenbach Falls stand-off between Holmes and Moriarty will please many fans, but add nothing to a story already creaking under the weight of unnecessary changes in scenery and time period. The addition of Watson to a scene in which he never did feature, smacks more of desperately trying to give lovers of all three characters everything they could wish for, than of good sense.
Way back when, we were treated to six episodes of brilliantly updated mystery solving in the name of Sherlock Holmes. The show was resolutely focussed on story, detective work and built characters we could love along the way. With gaps between seasons filled with an ever increasing level of fame for both its stars, Sherlock returned transformed into a winking parody of itself. While 2016’s Special has reclaimed some of its ability to entertain, as well as an ear for intrigue and mystery, it remains stuck in a desire to impress through fan service, self-awareness (of both character and dramatic structure) instead of the importance of a good story, well told.
With a parting reference to the Holmes’ family pet Redbeard, perhaps season four will return to the kind of deft plundering of source material that gave episodes like season one’s The Great Game such opportunity to shine as both respectful and inventive reuse of what has come before. Now as frustrating as it is entertaining, critics and audiences still love Sherlock in 2016, while I hope for something better in the coming year.
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