Sherlock: The Hounds of Baskerville

“Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”  – from the journals of Dr John H Watson, MD, The Hound of the Baskervilles


In some ways more enjoyable than last week’s very good effort, Mark Gatiss’ adaptation of perhaps Arthur Conan Doyle’s best known Sherlock Holmes story is, if you’re a fan of the original, one of the cleverest bits of writing I’ve seen in terms of subverting expectations. But more than that, it stood up as a damn good Gothic thriller in its own right. Like last week, it cunningly played with the knowledge of Holmes fans without alienating the casual viewer: either way, even if you knew the story, this was a twisty turny bit of writing that had you never knowing what to expect.

Just as last week’s story showcased Steven Moffat’s preoccupations – sexy femmes fatale and plenty of intrigue – this week’s was in many ways a perfect exhibit of what we’ve come to expect from Mark Gatiss. From the outset, as a terrified little boy on the moors morphed into an equally terrified Russell Tovey in a darkened hollow, it was clear that we were in Gothic Horror territory. As indeed we should be. Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories often have their roots in the atmosphere of 19th century penny dreadfuls, which is exactly what we’re used to getting from Mark Gatiss in The League of Gentlemen.

Steeped in atmosphere it certainly was, but adapting The Hound of the Baskervilles is, in many ways, a more difficult task than last week’s free flowing expansion of a pretty short story. For a start, The Hound of the Baskervilles is a full length novel, so adapting it to a new format doesn’t leave the adapter a lot of room for change. It’s also had probably more previous adaptations than any other Holmes tale, so there’s the problem of familiarity as well. And perhaps most significantly of all, if you’re to follow the original book faithfully, Holmes himself is actually absent for about half of it.

Thankfully, neither of the creators of the new Sherlock have felt themselves bound by the need for ‘faithful’ adaptation – and in the process have actually managed to produce stories that are arguably more faithful to Doyle’s in spirit than some that follow his narratives exactly. Gatiss takes the basics of the tale, and discards what is no longer useful or relevant. In the process, though, he keeps plenty of material just to throw the Holmes aficionados off the track.

In this case, that was most noticeable in the names of the characters, though not so much in their basic relationships to each other. Baskerville Hall became the Baskerville Research Centre, a Porton Down style establishment so inescapably reminiscent of similar ones in early 70s Doctor Who that I kept expecting Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart to pop round the corner. Shorn of his surname, Sir Henry Baskerville had his title moved to the end of his name to become Henry Knight – do you see? Elsewhere, shifty servants the Barrymores had their names transplanted to the Major in charge of the Research Centre, while Dr Mortimer remained as Henry’s faithful physician – but in keeping with the spirit of the times, she was now his therapist. And last but definitely not least, cantankerous neighbour Mr Frankland became Dr Frankland, a perhaps too-friendly scientist.

But before we got into the story proper, the game of sly Holmes references was very much afoot from the outset. Sherlock was seen to burst into his flat covered in blood, carrying a blooded harpoon – only to exclaim – “well, that was tedious!”, showcasing Benedict Cumberbatch’s actually rather adept comic timing. This is, of course, a reference to the solution of The Adventure of Black Peter, in which Holmes tests his theory of a harpoon being the murder weapon by repeatedly hurling it into the corpse of a pig.

Having solved that one, he was bored, and as in the original stories, when he’s bored, he falls back on his addiction. Perhaps more harmful than his original fixation with cocaine, the new Sherlock wants cigarettes – as cocaine was perhaps even more socially acceptable in the late 19th century than tobacco is now, that makes perfect sense. And as a smoker who can’t light up in the house while watching it, I found his demented search for his ‘emergency supply’ both funny and cringeworthy. But lest we miss the reference to his cocaine habit, he wondered about trying something “7% stronger” – like the 7% solution of cocaine he used to inject in the original stories.

This was fun for the Holmes enthusiast and funny for the casual viewer. But the story proper started as Russell Tovey burst in, looking harried and paranoid, and affecting a rather odd ‘posh’ accent that was the only negative point of his otherwise highly intense portrayal of Henry Knight. Sherlock was intrigued by his tale of “a giant hound” (the line lifted verbatim from the original, though Dr Mortimer says it there), and resolved to investigate, rather than take up the odd case of a missing luminous rabbit.

The rabbit thing was the first in a long line of playing with your expectations if you knew the original story – the hound in the original having been painted with luminous chemicals to look as frightening as possible. Obviously the rabbit was going to be connected. But as it turned out, nothing here was obvious – a welcome surprise if you thought you knew exactly what to expect.

For a start, Sherlock didn’t stay out of the action here. After a throwaway line about sending John as “his best man” (as he did in the original), he did an abrupt volte face at Henry’s rather archaic use of the word “hound” rather than “dog”, and went down to Dartmoor himself, with John in tow, for all the world like the Doctor and one of his companions.

Because Gatiss is a Doctor Who fan and writer himself, and it shows. Besides the Baskerville Centre’s obvious resemblance to things like the Inferno Project in 70s Who, the way in which Sherlock and John bluffed their way in – using Mycroft’s stolen ID – was straight out of Who, as was John’s pulling rank on that pretty young Corporal to get him to show them around. Once inside, the ranks of labs and ‘mad scientists’ also owed a fair bit to Who, though I’m sure Gatiss’ horror fixation was drawing inspiration from Frankenstein as well. And cold scientist Dr Stapleton’s answer to the question of why they were doing such weird things – “Why not?” – called to mind a similar exchange with a mad geneticist in The X Files – “Why are you doing these things?” “Because I can.”

As Sherlock and John investigated, nothing was quite as it seemed – either here or in the original story. I was expecting the usual escaped convict to show up, particularly when the barman in the pub mentioned “the prisoner”. Instead, in a laugh out loud moment, the apparent Morse signalling John spotted across the moor was actually caused by some unfortunate joggling on a headlight switch at a local dogging site. ‘Hound’, ‘dogging’ – do you see?

The usual running gag about Sherlock and John being more than friends was also much in evidence, although I’m beginning to wonder whether that’s been done to death now. Still, it was nice that they met a genuine gay couple in the wilds of Devon, in the form of pub landlord Gordon Kennedy and his mustachioed young feller (and barman). And they had a role to play too; in this version, they were the ones keeping the half-starved vicious dog roaming the moor, though they were trying to drum up tourist trade rather than commit murder. By this point, I’d been so thoroughly thrown off the track I thought I knew that I was perfectly prepared to believe them when they said they’d had it put down – a mistake, as it turned out.

Sherlock and John’s ‘bromance’ was at its best this week, as a penitent Sherlock actually found it in himself to actually apologise (sort of) for his cavalier treatment of his only friend while under the influence of terror-generating drugs. There’s been some criticism of this aspect of their relationship, with the recently coined term ‘bromance’ thrown about as an accusation, but fair’s fair – this is absolutely the way they were in Doyle’s stories. No, if I have any criticism of Gatiss here, it’s actually the one that was thrown at Moffat last week – he really doesn’t do female characters well. There were two major characters here who were women, and neither was much more than a cypher. Sasha Behar did her best as Henry’s therapist Dr Mortimer, but the character was paper thin; beyond being ‘caring’ she was only there to be the subject of another of John’s doomed flirtations. Amelia Bullmore as Dr Stapleton fared a little better, as the red herring ‘mad scientist’, but she didn’t really get much to play with either.

But mentioning Dr Stapleton brings me to the point that some Holmes purists might find hard to take – this time round, Stapleton didn’t do it. Instead, the culprit was Clive Mantle’s avuncular Dr Frankland, which I must confess I really didn’t see coming. I did twig fairly early on that the ‘terror’ of the hound was down to weapons-grade hallucinogens – Cumberbatch’s out of character twitchiness after ‘seeing’ the monster was a dead giveaway. This also led to the initially terrifying sequence of John being menaced by an unseen ‘something’ in the Baskerville lab, which in retrospect became very funny when it was shown that it was actually Sherlock putting him through the ordeal as an experiment, while casually playing growling sounds down the PA system. Much kudos to director Paul McGuigan, who pulled off some genuinely heart in mouth suspense sequences while being equally at home with the light touch required for the character comedy.

He also pulled off possibly my favourite sequence of the series so far – a perfect visualisation of Doyle’s conceit of Sherlock’s ‘memory palace’, the artificial mental construct where he files his memories and data. As we were treated to an inspired and often funny scene of Wikipedia-like info scrolling across the screen, and sometimes across Sherlock’s very face (marvellously composited), he finally put together what Henry was remembering – the words “Liberty, In”. All right, the actual solution that it was a secret project in Liberty Indiana, codenamed H.O.U.N.D., and emblazoned across Frankland’s T shirt when he murdered Henry’s father was a little (well, actually a lot) contrived. But it was a neat solution.

As was the revelation that the hallucinogen was actually in the fog at the murder scene – “it’s the scene of the crime and the murder weapon!” That’s one of the neatest ideas I’ve seen in any crime drama, up there with the murderer actually feeding her murder weapon – a leg of lamb – to the police in Tales of the Unexpected. But even after that, Gatiss pulled out a last ace – we weren’t to be cheated of a scary monster after all, as the vicious dog was still alive and roaming, and we got to see it as our drug-addled heroes did, a red-eyed CG monstrosity that was… well, fairly convincing anyway.

All that remained was for Frankland to stumble into Grimpen Mire, here reinvented as Grimpen Minefield, and never get out again. Which he duly did, with an impressively large explosion. That part was reasonably faithful to the original tale, and I’d guessed it would happen early on; but by the time it actually did, the script had played around with my expectations so much I wasn’t sure of anything any more!

This was a series at the top of its game, and – minor criticisms aside – I think I may actually have enjoyed it even more than last week’s. Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman continue to have fantastic and believable chemistry, and the direction was once again top flight. My only question would have to be, why can’t Mark Gatiss write Doctor Who episodes this good?

Next week, to judge by a chilling epilogue, Moriarty is properly back for a reckoning. We saw him released from what appeared to be some kind of psychiatric cell by who knows who (although it sounded like Mark Gatiss as Mycroft), with Sherlock’s name scratched with lunatic obsession into every surface. As Moriarty was perfectly at liberty last time we saw him, there’s plainly some backstory to be filled in here. And it’s notable that, while hallucinating, Sherlock’s ‘greatest fear’ was a vision of Moriarty. Next week may be hard to come back from. Although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle managed it…