Several years ago, when I first heard that the BBC was doing a version of the Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories re-set in the modern day, I was skeptical. I’ve long loved the Holmes stories. I believe I finished reading the Canon for the first time by the age of ten. For me, part of the charm was the fog/smog filled Victorian streets of London, with the hansom cabs, the gaslights, et al. For me, the era and setting were as much characters in the stories as Holmes and Watson. I might have given the series a pass except that the co-creator and frequent writer for the series was going to be Steven Moffat.
I knew Moffat from some remarkable work he had done on Doctor Who. He has penned what I felt were some of the best episodes I’d ever watched on the series, full of surprises but also deep feeling, moments that truly touched me. So I gave his new series, co-created with writer/actor Mark Gatiss, a look and was generally delighted. The modern setting worked surprisingly well and, while not faithful to the letter of the stories, kept to the spirit of Conan Doyle’s canon. The series benefited as well from a very strong Holmes and Watson in the persons of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman respectively.
Each season consists of just three ninety minute episodes and each has ended on something of a cliffhanger or at least we are left with questions to be answered. We’re introduced to their version of Holmes’s arch nemesis, James Moriarty, at the end of the first season as he puts Holmes and Watson into a death trap with no seeming escape. At the end of the second season, Moffat and Gatiss do their version of the last meeting of the two. In their version, it results with Moriarty blowing his own brains out and Holmes forced to jump to his apparent death. We know Holmes is not dead by the end of the episode but we don’t know how he managed it. That would have to wait for Season Three. In theory.
Spoiler Alert. Lots of spoilers below.
The most recent season had pluses and minuses. The first episode,The Empty Hearse, deals with Holmes’ return from the dead after having been gone a few years. Watson, in the meantime, has met and is wooing Mary Morstan (this is a nod to the source material, in which Watson does indeed meet and wed a Mary Morstan, who later dies). Holmes surprises the pair while they dine in a restaurant and Watson’s first instinct it to try and strangle Holmes which, under the circumstances, is understandable. I’d have done the same. The mystery, such as it is, seems lifted from the climax to V For Vendetta.
My bigger problem with this episode is that it cheats; it doesn’t really give us an answer as to how Holmes avoided death at the end of the previous season. They give us multiple possibilities as different characters have their theories but even the one Holmes tells to someone has holes in it (which they admit). None are evidently true. That leads me to think that Moffat and Gatiss didn’t really have a solution when they created the problem. That’s a cheat.
The second episode of Season Three, The Sign of Three, was much better and I found it a delight. It takes place primarily at the wedding of John Watson and Mary Morstan and largely during the toast that Holmes, as best man, is giving. Holmes has been described in the series (including by Holmes himself) as a “high functioning sociopath”. Given his lack of social graces, the toast promises to be a train wreck. It is, in part, but it also has very touching moments and Holmes also discovers (and prevents) a murder in the making.
One of the delights of this episode and, indeed, of the third season is Mary Morstan, as played by Martin Freeman’s real life partner, Amanda Abbington. At least until they screw it up in the next episode. In her first two appearances, Mary is a wonderful addition to the two men. There is no jealousy of Holmes; she likes him and, surprisingly, Holmes likes her. She is sharp, funny, intelligent, perceptive and an interesting character in her own right.
Which brings us to The Final Vow. While the other episodes were written by others or Moffat writing with others, this episode is Moffat’s alone. As I wrote earlier, I think he can do wonderful work. When he’s on, he’s terrific. When he’s not – well, this is what you get. Like the Doctor Who Christmas Special this year, the plot is all over the place, a lot of it doesn’t make sense, and it’s full of twists for the sake of twists rather than coming out of plot and/or character. Moffat is a very clever writer but, it seems to me, he’s just into being clever rather than good.
One of the things I really dislike is what was done with Watson’s wife, the former Mary Morstan. It’s now revealed that she’s a former CIA assassin gone freelance. WTF? There was no indication of that before. She seems to be another iteration of the Doctor Who character River Song, who I adore, but is misplaced here.
At one point she shoots Sherlock with a very carefully placed shot that incapacitates him and doesn’t quite kill him but might have. There follows a long sequence of small scenes as Holmes rallies himself to survive; I half expected him to regenerate, possibly into Matt Smith which I think would have been more interesting than what followed.
There were other Doctor Who tropes in the show. Both the Doctor Who Christmas Special and this Sherlock episode had a family Christmas scene. This one had the parents of Sherlock and Mycroft, played by Benedict Cumberbatch’s actual parents. It was fairly amusing but doesn’t do much to explain the Holmes siblings.
The bad guy, Charles Augustus Magnussen, is Rupert Murdoch as a blackmailer (that could be redundant) and a loathsome creep. He has these extensive files on everyone in power but it turns out the vaults are in his mind. So he knows things but really doesn’t have any proof of them which is sort of stupid for a blackmailer. Just shoot him, which is what Mary Morstan was going to do before interrupted by Holmes and what Holmes winds up doing. The thing just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
And as a final touch, at the very end Moriarty shows up again via a video saying, ”Miss me?” Not really, no. So now we have to wait to find out how HE survived the end of the Second Season (assuming this isn’t just a video from before he died). Given how they resolved the apparent death of Sherlock, I’m not hopeful.
We’ve been told this past week that it will be at least two years before everyone’s schedule coincides and the stars align before we can hope to see another season of Sherlock. That’s a long time and given how this last season turned out (one good episode, one so-so, one pretty bad), I’m not sure how eager I am right now. Oh, I’ll probably watch it when it eventually shows up but I won’t be waiting as I was for this season. Hopefully, Moffat and Gatiss will stop trying to be clever and remember that it’s about the story. That, gentlemen, should indeed be elementary.