I promised myself I wasn’t going to post this here because two pop-culture posts in a row might seem a little self-indulgent and I’d be a few days late to the party… but fuck it. Time to annoy some more people!
Let’s be honest here, the concept of the Sherlock Christmas special was pretty amazing. The episode was billed as an unconnected Sherlock Holmes story, set in the 19th Century, which just so happens to feature the same actors as the modern-day adaptation. It’s Sherlock as we know it and also as we don’t. To me, this is immensely cool and, to the best of my knowledge, unprecedented for film and/or television. Seeing actors play slightly reset versions of their existing characters is an opportunity not to be squandered – especially when your leads basically own everything they’re in. The closest I can think of would be Blackadder, where the same characters have been imagined in half a dozen different timelines since the series began.
At first, I thought it was a gimmick. Then I thought it was brilliant. And, I have to say, after the trailer and the first few minutes I was absolutely sold that this was a great idea.
The first two acts of the episode, the first 60 minute exactly, is some of the best Sherlock yet. It continues on good form as quick and witty; the references to the original Conan Doyle works remain as charged as ever; and they manage to take the directorial flourishes, the ones that make the series so interesting to simply look at, and merge them seamlessly into the 19th Century. Watson turns back to an author serialising real adventures in The Strand instead of blogging, the deerstalker becomes a matter of course, it’s all brilliant. Fat Mycroft; win. Molly Hooper in drag; brilliantly hilarious. Lestrade’s sideburns; now that’s the new sexy. The image of Holmes catching and looking at free-floating pieces of news clippings, is the perfect Victorian analogue of 21st Century Sherlock’s computer-like wizardry. It remains a great insight into his savant-like qualities in a way that is seamless with the setting.
It was absolute gold throughout, despite it feeling like a Doctor Who Christmas special (a point I don’t feel like expanding on, however).
At this point I was happy they did this. I was even coming around to “hey, they should do this for all the Christmas specials and run a parallel series with the same cast”. It would be a lot of work, which is evident from the gorgeous costuming and the background of the episode, but very rewarding if done right.
And then… a jet comes into land. The dream collapses, and we see the equipment and colour pallet of the modern day.
I confess my heart instantly sank. I just reacted instinctively with a sigh and a feeling that this was all about to be irrevocably ruined. And I don’t mean “you’ve ruined Sherlock forever for me!!” as some pedantic fanboy whine, I mean ruining a fabulous concept for zero pay-off. That was my first thought, and dear gods I hate being right all the damn time.
If Doctor Who wasn’t proof enough, the end of Sherlock season 3 had really cemented Steven Moffat as absolutely incapable of letting his characters face meaningful consequences. They could have put Sherlock in prison for murder. Season 4 could have had him solve crimes and mysteries by remote from a cell. It could have been peppered with his prison-based hijinks for the comic relief. It could have been pretty reminiscent of House, but able to sustain the change of setting over a larger portion of the series before getting dragged kicking and screaming back into the formula.
But no. Sherlock doesn’t face real consequence. He gets “exiled” Just Because. And even that lasts a mere four minutes before a “shocking”, and frankly lazy, twist featuring Moriarty coming back from the dead. That image of a small private jet returning to land at the end of the last series became an emblem of the consequence-free writing endemic in Sherlock and, equally, Doctor Who. Cutting straight to that exact shot tells us that what we’ve just spent an hour watching will have no consequences, either.
It says, to your face, this entire experience is not going to matter.
And for me that’s where it begins to fall apart. It took the sheer joy I had watching that first hour and reduced it to what I feared it was at the very beginning – a cheap gimmick.
It could have been great. I suppose. Though I’m not exactly sure how to salvage a lazy “it’s all a dream” twist. I’ve had a few ideas, but it’s all just polishing a “this isn’t going to matter a jot” flavoured turd. If you re-watch it, you can end it here. Stop playing. Skip straight to the next episode whenever it arrives.
Literally nothing of consequence now happens.
The rest of the episode, even though it’s only the final third, descends into incomprehensible gibberish as we begin to run around in Sherlock’s mind way more than necessary. Instead of wowing us by showing us its cleverness, the sudden shifts between the 19th and 21st centuries are telling us that we should be wowed by its cleverness.
Going into Sherlock’s head as an excuse to be surreal is nothing but… well, an excuse to be surreal. I can only imagine that it went along the lines of “Hey, Inception was cool, why don’t we do that?” – “Erm, because it’s not internally consistent with our own universe?” – “So?”
The point of Sherlock Holmes is that it’s narrated from Dr Watson’s perspective – Holmes is an enigma, his thought processes are hidden, he’s a damn superhero of intellect. The on-screen text flashes of the first two series were more than enough insight into his processes, and just mysterious enough to keep the enigma while giving us a fresher-looking Sherlock Holmes adaptation. The third series was marred by him physically running around the Mind Palace, because it isn’t consistent with the first six episodes.
It was an excuse to be surreal – and worse, it was nothing but an excuse to have Moriarty back.
In the original stories, Moriarty was a one-shot plot device. However, a hundred years of Holmes assimilating into popular culture has raised him to the level of important supervillain. Everything from his rat-like proxy in Basil The Great Mouse Detective to his appearance in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Moriarty out of the hands of Conan Doyle is a Big Thing, so Sherlock has to follow suit. The trouble is; they shot him. They killed him. The consequence-free writing, though, brings him back. The reason and rationale don’t really matter. Just get them on screen talking to each other. Why? Doesn’t matter.
A show with real consequences would have dealt with this more maturely – either by not killing him in a shocking twist, or leaving him dead and not coming back.
Of course, no piece discussing something written by Steven Moffat would be complete without talking about how he treats women. And yes, people who use the word “feminazi” non-ironically can stop reading here, because three words come to mind on this: Jesus. Fucking. Christ.
Can anyone name a woman in The Abominable Bride who wasn’t merely a plot device? Does the show pass the Bechdel Test? Do any of the female characters get real agency? It might take a re-watch to answer that more thoroughly, but first impressions say “no”.
Molly is brought in for a one-shot drag king joke – on its own, not a bad thing especially if you don’t draw too much attention to it, but against the backdrop of moralising about her just trying to pass “in a man’s world” it comes across as brutally awkward. Mary has become vastly overpowered (someone please tell TV writers that isn’t how hacking works), which actually flattens her character a lot – and at the same time she just ends up as Mycroft’s bitch in the 19th Century and a piece of plot-contrivance in the 21st. She doesn’t seem to have any thoughts outside “this is what the writer thinks a strong female character looks like” – something that might have flown in the ‘90s, but it’s 2016 now. Mrs Hudson is… present. The little nods to how Watson leaves her silent in the novels/serials is a great point, a nice little bit of lampshade hanging, but that comes in the first hour when most people watching actually still gave a shit about this story.
Hell, guys, with the amount of dodgy contrivance going on elsewhere (since it is Sherlock, after all) would it be too hard to get Molly and Mary in the same room and have them have a conversation and drive a bit of the plot? It wouldn’t even take 60 seconds of screen time.
The rest of the female characters don’t… well, are there any other main female characters introduced, as opposed to mere bit-part NPCs, in the whole thing? We’ve got tropes galore, sure – scorned woman, hard-done-by maid, another scorned woman…
Even a few seconds of actual agency and plot-driving and thought alone would be a bigger service to women in fiction than 20 minutes of rousing speeches by the central male characters.
So… as for that long and tedious “aren’t women oppressed” speech, the “one half of humanity at war with the other” one… I… I can only apologise to that half the planet for how obnoxiously cringe-worthy it was. You can’t add in a big speech that says “you know, this show has really treated women badly” to the audiences face and then absolutely follow through on that observation.
It’s redeemed by Moriarty (in Sherlock’s head, of course) telling him that this scenario is absurd, but by the time the voice of reason (Moriarty is the voice of god-damned reason here!) pipes up, the damage is done. The characters’ voices and the writers’ voices have got muddled together, and that’s the core problem with that bit. Does Sherlock think we should bring women to the fore but Moffat can’t quite manage it? Or does Moffat think we should, but Sherlock is a closet misogynist and won’t let him? You can’t tell.
Now, for example, you can see that in Song of Ice and Fire women are treated like crap – because that’s the world they live it, it’s internally consistent, but it’s clear that George R. R. Martin isn’t endorsing it as a Good Thing, and many of his female characters are solid and strong throughout. He doesn’t need the rousing quasi-feminist speeches to get away with it. By contrast, John Norman’s Gor series treats women as (literal) objects – yet it’s clear that it’s all the author’s own personal masturbatory fantasy of women consistently held in subservience for being women. If you’re not already aware of Gor then just take my word for this, please. These are two fantasy worlds that are as misogynistic as you can get, but the writers’ voices are unwavering in their very opposite opinions on the subject. That’s because they can at least separate character voice from author voice effectively.
In this Sherlock, however it’s… it’s hard to tell. The distinction between the author’s thoughts and ones simply hemmed in by the character’s consistent opinions is too blurred. It fails to make sense. Sherlock hasn’t gone on massive pro-women rants before, he’s hardly the kind to care about that sort of thing, so it’s out of character to make a rousing speech. Ditto with Mycroft – these guys are analytical engines not social crusaders. But… does the author’s voice really come across as pro-women, or just plain patronising? Or is it pro-women rendered patronising by the characterisation? We don’t know, all we can say is that it definitely comes across as exceptionally awkward.
Moffat has a track record of being completely unable to treat women like humans. We know this. This has been done to death before. Throwing that prior knowledge into the mix, the whole thing becomes an absolutely confused, muddled mess in its message. You simply can’t try to make a message that says “but women should be treated equally” and put the focus on a man as the only one to say it out loud, in a way that’s heard, while the women saying it are reduced to well-worn, one-line tropes. And those one-liners aren’t terrible, I should add, since they come across as very knowing and good nods to modern television misogyny and the sexism of the Victorian era. Importantly, it’s writing that isn’t faked or forced in any way. Mixed in with the more overt moralising, however, and even the on-message nods fall flat. They emphasise the treatment of women in the series. Put it all together, and that section comes across as the bastard offspring of a ham-fisted non-apology and “oh, shut up already you blasted harpies”.
Now, the “suffragettes = KKK” thing isn’t absolutely terrible on its own, I suppose. The Ku Klux Klan featured in the original five pips story; the point being that the KKK were relatively unknown at the time of Conan Doyle’s writing so it was quite a good deduction on Holmes’ part. The twist that it’s another organisation behind it might have been better if Holmes had initially been misled into thinking it was the KKK, as in the original, a little more explicitly. This is in keeping with the established style and direction of the previous episodes, where solutions from the originals are used as misdirection for an informed audience. However, the uninformed audience is simply the context-free visual comparison between women and the Klan, and asked to make the connection. An whether you’re aware of the original or not, you’re left asking whether the writers are genuinely implying that the suffragettes were a cult. Again, a muddled mess of a message that, in its attempt to mean well, shoots itself in the face. Several times.
It’s really difficult to come to a single concluding opinion on this episode. Traditionally, reviews give something out of 10, or a percent, or a star-rating… but that would be an oversimplification. Edited down to the first hour and re-imagined to literally be a one-off, unconnected special, this would be 10-out-of-10, 5 stars, and a must-watch. But those cringe-worthy bits about women, the disjointed running around, and the fact that literally nothing of consequence or value happened in 90 minutes, reduces it to 0%, and something you just literally shouldn’t bother watching or wasting your time on. The episode is both of these at the same time. Even giving it a weighted average would be misleading, because it’s not a 7-out-of-10 job, either.
Quite literally, this is 80% some of the best Sherlock ever written. I know it doesn’t come across as it, but it really is – and that’s because 20% is the very, very worst.