More (or Less) Organised Thoughts on Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

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…

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.

All of Black Mirror Happens in the Same Universe – Over-baked Fan Theory of the Month

It should go without saying but, dudes, spoilers below – also, for anyone stumbling upon this, this doesn’t include the new Netflix season, and is nothing more than a totally-not-remotely-serious bit of conjecture to fit Fifteen Million Merits  into the chronology in a more interesting way than most other attempts.

Putting all Black Mirror episodes into the same universe is fairly easy.

Of course, it’s not explicit like in the more recent films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe where they’re building a continuity and a whole story, it’s still just flashes and odd references. But keen-eyed viewers can see news reports and the occasional background flourish that nods towards the other episodes. The trial/appeal of Victoria Skillane appearing briefly in the background of a news report, or the I_AM_WALDO username, for example. The Waldo Moment comes before The National Anthem because you can see brief news tickers referring to Carlton Bloom’s art exhibit closing early – and presumably Waldo (now controlled by Jack Napier) has something to say about Michael Callow’s encounter with a farm animal a few weeks later. The technology to resurrect someone seen in Be Right Back looks like a precursor to the technology shown in White Christmas – the early AI-copies fed on your outward expressions put onto the internet. After the development of a neurological interface that was first used to wipe minds clear of a few days of memories, they learned to take it from your brain directly, synthesising a sentient agent from the preferences stored in your brain rather than on Facebook.

Yes, yes, yes, it’s not really all set in the same world.[1] And this is fan-cruft over-interpretation. Nothing serious. It’s just a bit of fun to join the dots. The world of Grains and Cookies are years away from the 15-seconds-into-the-future of The National Anthem and The Waldo Moment, the references are there just for anyone with a sharp eye. Nothing more.

That said….

The trouble is fitting Fifteen Million Merits into the continuity. It’s something of an outlier being the most blatantly futuristic sci-fi of the lot.[2] Where does it fit in? It clearly can’t be contemporary to any of the other stories given its outlier status but it must somehow if this over-baked fan theory is to work.

If you watch the first two series, you might think that it’s what society looks like when it rebuilds after the post-script sequence of The Waldo Moment – hundreds, if not thousands of years in the future after the cartoon bear with the blue cock sinks half the world into an Orwellian nightmare. BUT… consider:

  1. The society in Fifteen Million Merits has no qualms with keeping their drones in perpetual boredom.
  2. They literally do nothing productive. There are no builders or doctors or decorators – and, curiously for the setting, precious little in the way of highly trained maintenance engineers (or ways for the biker drones to become one).
  3. There seems to be no mechanism whereby they reproduce – there are no babies, kids or pregnant women to be seen. Anywhere.
  4. Nor any mechanism for them to grow old and die, for that matter. They get fat and abused, and that’s it.
  5. The bikes couldn’t possibly generate a net-gain in energy so the power thing has to be bollocks – a legend invented to disguise what is really just social control (cf. The Matrix).
  6. And White Christmas does have a flash of the show Hot Shot on it, suggesting it must be contemporary with it somehow…

So isn’t it obvious?

They’re actually Cookies.

The drones are AI copies of real people held in long-term storage. They’ve either had their long-term memories wiped by a digital version of the technology shown in White Bear, since we can assume the neural interface shown for wiping minds must be somehow related to the interface that draws information for the Cookie. Or they’ve been there so long they’ve simply forgotten their past lives. Years? Centuries? We know they can at least crank a thousand years per minute in our time. Once suitably “blanked” they’re transferred in.

Of course, they have to be doing *something* to pass the time, as Trent points out in White Christmas they get driven insane if you just leave them, so they get on a bike and buy stuff for a digital version (of the digital version) of themselves. So in reality, they’re all sat on a hard-drive somewhere, churning through their lives on bikes until they make it onto various TV shows, where producers back in the real world have experimented with using them for light entertainment. Hence the brief reference to Hot Shot and the cross-pollination of the song.

From Trent and Potter’s discussions, it seems precious few people are actually aware that the Cookies are effectively sentient slaves – and those that are simply don’t give a crap (see the “people are shitheads” point in footnote[2]) that they’re mistreating self-aware pieces of code. So where do people think this new TV show is coming from? Do they realise they can’t actually apply to be on ‘Hot Shot’? They probably don’t ask awkward questions like that when Waldo introduces it to them.[3]

And this has been a boon to TV producers. You don’t need to pay these digital copies. The drones clothe and feed themselves – they even practically produce the TV themselves by signing up and running everything. The drones are exposed to advertising constantly, with no escape unless they pay a penalty against it, and so form a captive (literally) audience to act as a huge focus group when testing the effectiveness of television adverts and product placement. Why test advertising in the real world, where you have to go through the rigmarole of filming a boom against a background and comping it into a shot getting a focus group, paying for the advertising space, correlate the result with profits, and see if it works on real people when you can test it on a literal captive audience and have months or years of data back in an instant?

And since they’re just code, they’re fairly easy to control and manipulate – just exactly how did you think “Cuppliance: Compliance in a Cup!” actually worked? It’s code, manipulative code. It is the mental projection of code infecting an AI/drone/Cookie to make it comply with a new instruction that goes against its original personality. Although clearly it only works on suitably prepared consciousness – as Trent can’t simply give it to Greta in White Christmas, he has to torture her into submission first so she’ll accept the Cuppliance-type programming. Digital-Greta wasn’t just a human psyche broken by boredom, there was clearly something else there – Cuppliance programming applied once the AI was ready. As was explained to AI-Greta, the buttons on her control panel were merely symbolic, they didn’t really do anything per se, so the bikes the Cuppliance probably work in the same way.

As you can do time-compression on Cookies, you can get a brand-new crop of desperate wannabes for reality TV and fresh people for your digitised advertising focus group every single day to exploit – and you only need to spend a few minutes at most producing and “filming” your episodes when they willingly take care of it themselves. The viewing public just watch the pre-rendered result. It’s all taken care of by the likes of Wraith, Hope and Charity, who clearly get a good benefits package to keep the system running whether they’re aware of their status as digital simulations or not.

So the punchline, almost to the entire series as a whole, is that the the Cookie, once thought to be the ultimate form of AI that could do important things such as resurrect people from the dead has become the perfect device for creating shit reality television and perpetuate consumption and consumerism. Abused, like so much great technology, to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

[1] It would certainly be interesting to very explicitly set all the stories in the same world and build a mythos and continuity with the same unifying concept. The inevitable US remake, for example, would suit this because it would fit the bill of adapting it for the television ethos of the US very well. And given the fan theory above, I think it’d make an excellent concept for a connected series. But right now in the present series they’re just sly nods. This is how it should stay. Please, no fucking sequels to episodes. Not ever. This is just pointless fun, okay?

[2] Fifteen Million Merits has been called “dystopian” but I disagree on that assessment since the society actually functions. There’s a little bit of social oppression going on, but it doesn’t have the same hallmarks of classic dystopian science fiction with the gritty industry, the towering statues and faces of the Glorious Leader, or the social breakdown at the lowest level. It’s no Nineteen Eighty-Four by a long shot. It’s not even Escape From New York. The real interesting thing about it is that while a general theme of Black Mirror is that each story requires a piece of – currently non-existent – technology to work (The National Anthem excepted) in Fifteen Million Merits the technology is just window dressing. It’s irrelevant. The social aspects could be happening right now. In fact, it is happening right now. This story could be happening right now, today, and what you see on screen is all in Bing’s head, projected onto the world as he’s driven mad by an existence that consists of nothing but his one-bedroom-flat, his cubicle in an office, and the commute between the two. This episode says a lot more about our society right now than our techno-paranoia of the future. Particularly interesting, I think, is the sexism and misogynistic elements. There’s the blatant stuff – the widely advertised pornography in this world is specifically the degrading kind that doesn’t give a damn about consent, because, as Judge Wraith points out, they can medicate against shame or discomfort. And there’s also the subtle stuff – if you want to read into Judge Charity’s reaction to Wraith and Hope undressing Abi with their eyes and their comments, you’ll see it’s almost a textbook patriarchal bargain (look it up). She neither approves wholeheartedly, nor can she voice any disapproval, so settles for looking and feeling awkward, and covering it up with a joke about “us girls wanting to join in”. That’s her choice, but the choice has been made in a restricted environment, where she has “chosen” to comply with the chauvinism and suffer through and endorse it in exchange for the recognition and the promotion up the society. Men and women wear the same clothes, bike the same bikes, get the same accommodation, food, and identical expectations of their nominal performance – yet equality of respect is still lacking. That’s not the future, that’s today. Overall, Fifteen Million Merits is the outlier in how it explores a wider social side of modern life (the “people are total shitheads” social angle is explored in all of them, of course) rather than focusing on the techno-paranoia of our creations running amok. Anyway…

[3] And don’t ask awkward questions like “where are all the Z-Eyes in White Bear if Victoria Skillane is on appeal during White Christmas?”[4] and “Why would Michael Callow need to bone a pig in The National Anthem if they have the ability to build a sex-enabled meat-puppet as shown in Be Right Back?” or “What if you just installed a Cookie into Jaime Salter’s brain and made Waldo sentient?” Just don’t ask. Okay?

[4] Or… perhaps she was on appeal after several years trapped in the White Bear Justice Park. Brooker, you bleak motherfucker…

White Bear

This was inspired by Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. In case anyone hasn’t seen it, spoiler alert.

If you were to wipe the memory of an event from your mind, has it still happened? Clearly, yes, because there’s (assuming you’re not a total nihilist) still an objective world out there in which events are recorded. Other people continue to have the experiences in their own memory and will behave accordingly.The record of the event is engrained on the world in terms of physical evidence and will manifest in the physical world accordingly. Even if you wipe out the physical evidence, in principle the chain of causality exists and can be traced back to show an event happening.

But, did it happen to you?

One might naively say “yes” for the same reasons above. Except, consider who you are. How do you want to define “you” in this sense. Is it the physical atoms that compose your body, or the emergent patterns that compose your mind? These aren’t the same thing, that much is obvious.

If it’s just the atoms, then it would suffice to trim someone’s finger nails and place these cuttings in prison for their crime of theft. If it’s just atoms, with no emergent properties, then we would string a handgun up with a noose and hang it, not the person who pulled the trigger, for murder. If it as just the atoms, then even if we wanted to imprison a human body, we would let them out at most a year or two later when every cell in their body had cycled through and the original molecules had decomposed and been replaced. Red blood cells last three months at least, taste buds on the order of days. A life in prison wouldn’t last long under these parameters.

If you, like most sensible people, accept that the mind is the pattern caused independently of the material, then from the perspective of justice, it makes no sense to punish just the material itself. Hence why we don’t release people from prison after they’ve scrubbed a certain number of dead epidermal cells from their skin and we don’t punish firearms for shooting.

So, if you erase an event from someone’s memory, does it make sense to punish them for it?

In White Bear, our (initially nameless) main character is revealed to not really be inhabiting a weird world where everyone is brainwashed (well, they are, but that’s a different point), but is actually living out a form of punishment. Her memory is erased each night and she’s made to relive an episode based on the experience child murder victim that she filmed on a camera phone. This is only revealed at the end, after her confusing day being chased and tormented. Her entire experience is reduced to being an amusement park, and the people following her are actually visitors wanting to see this odd form of justice up close. Her mind is wiped at the end of the day and the whole thing starts fresh once more with no clue of the revelation of what she had previously done until it was all over.

But with her memory erased, is justice even being served? Is the person who was complicit in a murder actually being punished? Such a thing, as strange a sci-fi concept as it is, might sound desirable to some people – wouldn’t they all like a punishment to fit the crime like the rhetoric-spewing table-thumpers they are? – but your memories are a key part of your personality, your experience and your mental state. Without those memories, or with different memories in place, you’re not the same person. What happens in White Bear is that the people all geared up to punish a murderer were, in reality, only punishing an empty shell. Using the proper terms, they’d explicitly removed the mens rea prior to punishment. That makes the punishment unjust. It makes it pointless. I’m pretty sure Charlie Brooker is smart enough to know that this is the feeling people should take from it, but probably don’t.

If anything, considering the inferences she made (and behaviour exhibited) upon waking up with no memory, they’re punishing a very caring person and a very good person – not an evil person or a maniac. There’s no sense of teaching anyone anything, or making them learn. There’s no sense of improvement made anywhere. Only a sense of sating an animalistic inability to separate the emergent mind from the shell that carries it.

You start White Bear thinking that people have been brainwashed into voyeurs by a mysterious alien force. But really, they’ve been brainwashed by their own bloodlust for punishment at all costs – even if that cost is the entire point of punishment and repentance. It’s the people who watch White Bear and think “I wish we could really do that to people” that the episode takes a long, firm, judgemental stare at.