The BBC’s Sherlock (2010 –) has come and gone again, as ever a hit-and-miss mix of sporadic brilliance and frequent cringes. The series really works when it manages to mix, match and modernise Conan Doyle’s stories while keeping their fundamental dynamics and themes intact. The first two episodes seemed determined to do just the opposite, while with the third they really did the old hack proud.
First for conversion was A Scandal in Bohemia (1891), in which Holmes is famously beaten at his own game of abductive reasoning and crap disguises by a woman (imagine!), thus learning an important lesson in the superficial nature of gender stereotypes. It is made clear that Holmes loses because he breaks his own cardinal rule, shaping facts to fit a theory rather than the other way round. The very Victorian theory in this case being that all women think in predictable patterns shaped by sentiment and romantic love.
A Scandal in Belgravia had plenty of the satisfying ping-pong dialogue that Moffat has made into his bread and butter but, as has been highlighted by others including several women (imagine!), he seemed to deliberately reverse that little gesture towards enlightenment to give us a version where NO, actually, Holmes WINS because women DO think in predictable patterns shaped by sentiment and romance. I think Moffat thinks he’s trying to say that both genders are equally powerless before the forces of bittersweet lurve, and that all our lives are incomplete without it, but that’s not what the show ended up saying at all.
I’ve long had a certain word in mind regarding Moffat’s portrayal of women – an ugly word that’s definitely fine to use because I heard it in an Alan Bennett play – ‘cuntstruck’. This is to say that his fictional mind’s eye sees women with the breathless and fickle excitement of a horny schoolboy. Women are endlessly fascinating and beautiful and precious as long as they exist within ruthlessly narrow, erotic definitions, beyond which they cease to exist at all (with the odd exception like ‘Mummy’, or ‘Nurse’, or ‘Mrs. Hudson’). Think of the Doctor’s empowered, emancipated female counterpart who spends half her screentime practically humping his leg, or TARDIS assistant Amy Pond who was introduced as a policewoman, got demoted to ‘kissogram’ (as close to ‘stripper’ as kids’ TV can get), and found her final, life-completing career path as a perfume model. Naturally the guy’s in denial, someone needs to throw him an intervention or something.
Mark Gatiss on the Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) should by rights have been a highlight, with his proven obsessive love for the horror genre. The original is often cited as the best of the Holmes stories, capturing perfectly their key conflict between the unknown and the urge to know. As always a seemingly impossible, or ‘supernatural’, situation, arises (ghost dog stalking descendants of accursed prick) challenging Holmes’ rational view of the universe, but ultimately gives way to a far more mundane explanation (disgruntled ex-teacher buys big mutt and some glow in the dark paint).
Sadly Gatiss lost this key dynamic by making his supposedly mundane reveal even more outlandish than the ‘fantastical’ version of events. Of course a secret military research station wasn’t engineering animals to use as weapons, that would have been silly. The secret military research station was just covertly developing a hallucinogenic gas that turns people into fear-crazed, psychotic killing machines. In the middle of a minefield. Order restored!
And yet, somehow, none of this really matters having watched the finale. Written by Steve Thompson, alone of this batch The Reichenbach Fall manages to keep the core elements of its model in place, while also allowing us to see the negative aspects of Holmes’ character as negative. Here Holmes’ inflated ego is not vindicated but made into a weapon, which turns everyone in his world against him (almost).
The Final Problem (1893) is really two stories: one in which Sherlock Holmes dies, forever, and one revealed a decade later in which he merely pretends to die to escape certain death. The problem for the writers of Sherlock was how to give us a satisfying mixture of both versions – we all know Holmes never actually falls to his death, and yet it is perhaps the single most enduring image of him that exists. He has to fall, yet he cannot.
The final showdown they came up with relocates us from the Swiss mountains to Giltspur Street, London, and could easily have felt like it was trying too hard to be clever, but was a brilliant example of how the show can cheekily remix Conan Doyle’s tales while staying true to their spirit. The original ends (we think) with Holmes heroically committing suicide in order to ensure his enemy’s destruction. In one of the show’s more surprising moments that move is given to Moriarty himself, elevating him to the same level of altruism. Andrew Scott really goes out with a bang, selling his almost insufferable, manic-depressive characterisation to the hilt.
Even the surreal plot strand with Moriarty trying to convince the rest of the world that he is a figment of Holmes’ imagination is cleverly extracted from the source. It has long been noted with interest that, as depicted in the novella, the “Napoleon of crime” has no real substance outside of Sherlock Holmes’ descriptions of his words and actions to Watson. These emerge along with paranoid ramblings about being hounded through the streets by invisible men with airguns, dangerous drivers, attempted muggers, and stray bricks falling from rooftops. The police see all of these as accidents rather than assassination attempts, which Holmes dismisses – “Of course I knew better, but I could prove nothing” – before scrambling off over Watson’s garden wall like a nutcase.
The great detective readily admits that, despite his nemesis’ supposed criminal dictatorship, “no one has heard of him” and it is “impossible to get evidence which would convict in a court of law”. Even after the struggle is over, and the criminal gang is being rounded up for trial, barely any details emerge of their “terrible chief”. The case is ambiguous enough for Moriarty’s brother to publicly defend his integrity, and in the process attack that of Holmes himself, we are told. Spinning this into a Fight Club-esque reality bender was a great way to expand on the original, while paying homage to it at the same time.
The reason I really loved this episode, though, is quite simple. They got me. For a minute after the body hit, I actually thought they might have decided to go out on a high and kill him off, fulfilling the original’s pact of mutually assured destruction. The ‘fall’ itself is cleverly directed by Haynes to make Sherlock’s death seem utterly inevitable. We see him jump – we watch as he falls – we see the body land and Martin Freeman draws us right into his state of shocked credulity. At first the only possible alternative seemed to be that series 3 would cheat it away with a lame, lying flashback: “Ah but you failed to observe that I bent briefly to tie my shoelace before jumping. The body you saw was really Moriarty in a wig, with little motors to make his arms and legs wave around. Pass the MacBook”.
The real solution is hidden in plain sight and, in keeping with the episode’s ‘reality vs. fairy tales’ discussion, much more ordinary. It would almost be disappointing, like any magic trick when you know how it works, if it didn’t change the meaning of the show’s final act in ways that really do merit a second watch. With nearly half an hour of screentime to go the great contest is all but over, and poor old Moriarty doesn’t stand a chance. As in the original stories, Sherlock Holmes has thought of everything and merely fakes his death to protect himself and his allies from reprisals. His noble self-sacrifice turns out to be a myth, and the only real victim is faithful Watson; left to grieve his heart out for a man who is alive, well, and watching him the whole time. Hopefully this hiatus won’t last ten years . . .