Sherlock: The Sign of Three

I love you, Mary, as truly as ever a man loved a woman. Because this treasure, these riches, sealed my lips. Now that they are gone I can tell you how I love you. That is why I said, ‘Thank God.’” – from the journals of Dr John H Watson, MD, The Sign of the Four

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

I must confess, I was a trifle surprised last Thursday to find myself being a little negative about the return of Sherlock. Previously, to many people (including me), it’s been a show that needs little criticism, more polished and better thought through than Steven Moffat’s other series du jour, Doctor Who. Imagine my surprise, then, looking online, to discover that my criticisms of it were mild indeed compared to the vitriolic dissatisfaction of many, including plenty who described themselves as formerly having been unalloyed fans of the show.

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It is, of course, a matter of taste. But the reasons aren’t hard to fathom. The show has indeed undergone something of a change in style; as I observed last week, it seems to be concentrating more now on a (undoubtedly well-written) soap opera style of drama, in which the relationships between the characters provide more plot than any actual crimes to be solved.

I expect that this is a conscious decision made by the writers. I’ve certainly enjoyed the show’s previous development of characters who, in Doyle’s original stories, hardly changed much after their introduction. True, the interaction between Doyle’s Holmes and Watson was never less than entertaining, but it was always (well, mostly) well-balanced with enthralling detective plots.

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Moffat, Mark Gatiss and Steve Thompson (for all three were on the writing credits this week) seem to have decided that it’s the characters who provide the true entertainment rather than the mysteries. In this, I respectfully disagree – for me, it should be both.

That said, The Sign of Three worked rather better than The Empty Hearse in this regard; though, in a nice bit of structuring, that didn’t become obvious until near the end of the piece. Sherlock’s rambling best man speech at John’s wedding initially appeared to be an example of the sort of thing Steven Moffat often does in Doctor Who – throwing lots of interesting ideas into the mix, then never developing most of them.

Certainly, even at the end, the prologue concerning Greg Lestrade’s determination to convict the bankrobbing Waters Gang never paid off, being used principally as a (admittedly amusing) buildup to the punchline that Sherlock’s desperate cry for help was (predictably) about writing the wedding speech. More self-indulgently, the show seems to have started referencing itself as much as Arthur Conan Doyle; the case of the French athlete surrounded by a thousand empty matchboxes (except one) derives from the accompanying blog attributed to John Watson (though actually written by one Joseph Lidster). And while it’s always nice to see Lara Pulver, it felt meta in the extreme to see her pop up in Sherlock’s fantasy as ‘The Woman’ (ie Irene Adler). Seeing her again for real might be more fun – perhaps it’s on the cards.

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Still, at one point, about halfway through I think, I found myself grumpily enquiring of the TV whether any semblance of a plot was on the horizon. As it turned out, the pieces of the puzzle that was the plot had been assembling themselves all along – I thought that was rather nicely done. Any armchair critics who found themselves turning off before the end may never even have realised this!

The stakes were certainly lower than those in the last episode – one unsolved murder, a series of disappointed women and one man’s life in the balance. But then, why should Sherlock’s investigations always have to concern near-apocalyptic threats like blowing up the Houses of Parliament? For my money, the stakes here may have been lower, but the actual story had far more weight. And the point where all these seemingly unconnected events joined up to become part of a whole was well-plotted indeed.

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Holmes purists might have been disappointed to find rather fewer nods to Doyle’s original canon here than last time (though I don’t think less time spent on “guess the reference” is necessarily a bad thing). John’s friend Mike Stamford was, of course, the man who first introduced him to Sherlock, both in the original Study in Scarlet and the TV ep Study in Pink. The title itself is, as ever, a reference to an original story; though Doyle’s actual Sign of the Four, a rollicking tale of dark doings with the sinister natives of the Raj, would have been difficult to adapt without being dogged by (deserved) accusations of racism.

In fact, the episode took comparatively little from the original story (much like the last one). Aside from that punning title, the character of Major Sholto derives, in name at least, from the original; though there, he was Mary’s father’s friend rather than John’s, and he turned out to have been dead from the beginning. And the little man glancingly referred to by Sherlock as ‘The Poison Giant’ is presumably a reference to original murderer Jonathan Small’s accomplice Tonga – a “pygmy” Andaman Islander described as a “savage, distorted creature”. Probably just as well they steered clear of adapting that bit too faithfully. Oh, and the murderer was still named ‘Jonathan Small’ – but he had a full complement of legs here.

No, the rest was new, and cleverly woven into the usual non-linear narrative with John and Mary’s wedding as a sort of framing story. The tale of the ‘Bloody Guardsman’ was reminiscent of a few Doyle stories; military men were frequently to be found as either victims or perpetrators, and Doyle liked a locked room mystery. But this was entirely new, and turned out to be one of several keys to the plot proper.

I’d guessed at the vanishing murder weapon being made out of ice, hence its disappearance in the hot shower. The actual solution – stabbing with a thin blade, the wound not opening till the tight military belt was undone – is novel, though I’m uncertain how medically plausible it is. It was, however, lovely to see the extremely attractive Alfie Enoch as Guardsman Bainbridge, albeit fleetingly – genre fans might remember him as Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter movies, but he’s also the son of original Doctor Who companion William Russell, of which I’m sure Moffat and Gatiss are aware.

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The mysterious ‘Mayfly Man’ was given more screen time, with the initial flashback of the case interwoven with the actually very funny story of Sherlock taking John out for his stag night. I imagine some Holmes purists might have found the sequence rather objectionable, what with the aloof, ascetic hero getting screamingly drunk, falling asleep on the floor and then vomiting on the rug; I thought it was a stroke of genius to show him trying to extend his intellect to enjoying the same things as his friend, and, predictably, not being very good at it. The little detail of his usual deductive onscreen text being bleary and nonsensical fitted perfectly.

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I also liked (once he’d sobered up) the conceit of his online meeting with the culprit’s deceived lady friends being visualised as a gathering in what appeared to be a lecture hall – though his pointing at, and ruling out of, various of the women recalled nothing so much as Dr House’s ‘audition’ for a new team in season 4 of that show. Not sure about Sherlock needing prompting from an imaginary Mycroft; though I did enjoy seeing Gatiss embarrassed at pedalling away on an exercise bike. Presumably that’s why the Mycroft we see here isn’t the “absolutely corpulent” figure Doyle describes in The Greek Interpreter.

The Mayfly Man turned out to be the key linking all the pieces together, which I must admit I didn’t see coming. Slightly more obvious, though, was the fact that the culprit turned out to be hiding in plain sight the whole time, as the wedding photographer – that seems to have been a trope of the show since the beginning, with Phil Davis’ murderous cabbie in A Study in Pink. Still, nice to see Sugar Rush’s Jalaal Hartley as the mystery man, another attractive face in an ep with quite a few of them.

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But if you are one of the fans (and there are many) who really tune in for the characters, there was plenty of fun to be had – it’s just that, for me at least, it didn’t eclipse the mystery plot entirely as last time. Una Stubbs’ Mrs Hudson continues to be a joy, blithely detailing her sex life with her now-executed murderous husband, to John’s utter horror. I also loved little page-boy Archie, who brought out the ghoulish little boy in Sherlock himself (“get it right and there’s a headless nun in it for you”). Molly was on top form too, still accompanied by her Sherlock-alike boyfriend – I wonder how long that’ll last?

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But the most fun was probably Yasmine Akram as Janine, who found Sherlock’s deductions invaluable in her quest for a hookup at the wedding. Sherlock’s merciless demolition of most of the possibilities was a lot of fun, but the obvious chemistry between the two served as a nice bit of misdirection, leading the viewer to the conclusion that they’d end up together. After all, Moffat’s on record as saying that he doesn’t consider Sherlock as asexual or gay, so why not?

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In the end, though, she went off with the comic book geek (“they try harder”), and Sherlock went off alone, leaving the party to those enjoying it. The shot of him pulling his collar up and walking away from the still-ongoing party felt strangely reminiscent of Jon Pertwee in Doctor Who, leaving alone from former companion Jo Grant’s engagement bash in The Green Death. With the writers involved here, I doubt that that was a coincidence.

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With all that going on, I did feel that Mary herself got a bit short changed, though, especially compared to the previous ep. She was level headed and sensible, dealing well with the excesses of Sherlock and John, but she didn’t actually get that much to do, either with the mystery or the character interaction. A shame really, considering that it was her wedding and all. Still, we can hope that the final story of this all too brief series will see her fulfil her potential. Amanda Abbington’s real-life chemistry with Martin Freeman is fun to watch, and even in the original Sign of Four, Holmes describes Mary as, “one of the most charming young ladies I ever met and might have been most useful in such work as we have been doing”. With the final explanation of the ep’s title being that the ‘sign of three’ is her pregnancy, let’s hope John and Mary get a happier ending than her ‘offscreen’ death in Doyle’s stories.

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I have to say, I enjoyed this far more than the previous ep. Yes, the mystery was fairly slight, but it was ingeniously constructed and woven into the narrative with far more imagination than the sledgehammer approach of last time’s V for Vendetta imitation. And without being freighted with the providing a resolution to a massive cliffhanger that couldn’t possible live up to expectations, it had more freedom to construct a better balance between the development of the characters and a proper Holmesian mystery.

Having briefly glanced at Twitter and Facebook, I know there’s plenty of viewers out there still unsatisfied with the show’s current, character-heavy style. And to be fair, if that’s not to your taste, you’ll never enjoy an episode centred around one of the main characters getting married. For me though, this was a script that worked well, and far better integrated the ‘soap opera’ aspect with the need to tell a good mystery story. It wasn’t perfect, and the show still feels like it’s disappearing up its own meta celebrity rather; but I’m happier with this than I was with the first.