Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

“ ‘They are not all successes, Watson,’ said he. ‘But there are some pretty little problems among them. Here’s the record of the Tarleton murders, and the case of Vamberry, the wine merchant, and the adventure of the old Russian woman, and the singular affair of the aluminium crutch, as well as a full account of Ricoletti of the club-foot, and his abominable wife….’ “ – From the journals of Dr John H Watson MD, The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

It’s not quite a festive tradition as entrenched as the Doctor Who Christmas special, but it’s becoming a pattern that, every couple of years or so, Steven Moffat will deign to present us with a new episode of the sporadic Sherlock on New Year’s Day. Last time this happened, it felt for me like the series’ first major misstep, as Moffat tried to have his cake and eat it by spending half the episode playing with the fans’ anticipated explanations for Sherlock’s survival then never actually explaining it. As if to smirkingly revel further in that sleight of hand, a glancing reference to it here seemed to give a true explanation, but who knows?

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Sad to say, I found myself similarly disappointed with this New Year’s offering for similar reasons – it felt so wrapped up in its own cleverness it forgot to tell a satisfying story. Not to say there wasn’t plenty to like here – the thing looked fantastic, as you might expect from a prestige BBC period drama. Yes, ‘period’ – the much-heralded trick of taking Moffat’s modern interpretations of Holmes and Watson and transplanting them back from whence they came was a neat idea.

Hence, we got Watson with his moustache, this time unremarked on by Sherlock, and a restaging of their first meeting in a dimly lit morgue, just as Doyle originally wrote it. But this wasn’t just another fog-bound, Victorian-set adaptation of the characters as Doyle wrote them; rather, we were watching the characters as they’d developed in the contemporary setting, but in an earlier time. This led to some amusing riffs on the show’s own style – I particularly liked the usual text messages and emails in the ‘deduction montage’ being replaced by floating newspaper pages.

The story itself was taken from one of the throwaway mentions of other cases so tantalisingly prolific in Doyle’s original stories – the “full account of Ricoletti of the club-foot, and his abominable wife” casually mentioned at the opening of The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual. These brief references have served as the starting points for many a Holmes fan fiction concoction, some better than others – and since Moffat and Gatiss essentially are writing fan fiction, I had no problem with them expanding on it.

As with their contemporary stories, they also wove in references to other stories, albeit glancingly. Most prominent was the ominous postal death threat from The Five Orange Pips, where, as here, Holmes is unable to prevent the murder he foresees. In the original story, the rather obtuse threat was the work of the Ku Klux Klan, referenced here when Holmes referred to “American death rituals”.

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This time, though, the ‘secret society’ behind the killings was staunchly British (though they still wore sheets with pointy masks on top). Given the increasingly hysterical (and not always unjustified) criticisms of Moffat as a misogynist, it felt like a pointed response that the ‘villains’ were a group of militant women’s rights supporters, including Watson’s own wife and maid. But was it a criticism of the sort of militant feminists who frequently find his work objectionable, or an expression of solidarity with a gender who’ve still yet to receive true equality over a hundred years later? I guess your interpretation will be dependent on what you think of Mr Moffat…

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Still, the re-interpretation of Mary Morstan (who Doyle barely mentions after Watson marries her, and who dies offstage) as both a vengeful feminist and a spy for Mycroft Holmes was very much in keeping with the far stronger character Moffat and Gatiss have crafted for their modern interpretation. Both Mrs Hudson and Janine came across strongly with their protests at being barely mentioned in Watson’s accounts for The Strand magazine (nice bit of leaning on the fourth wall there). And lovelorn Molly has never seemed so strong as here, forced to masquerade as a man to succeed in the medical profession (though not entirely convincingly, I have to say).

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So yes, we had all the makings of a marvellous alternate take on Moffat and Gatiss’ characters – including Gatiss’ own Mycroft, as corpulent here as in Doyle’s stories. Unfortunately, the wheels started to come off the thing with the clever-clever reveal that it wasn’t an alternate take as such – it was happening inside the drug-addled modern Sherlock’s Mind Palace, as he sought inspiration for dealing with the mysteriously ‘returned’ Moriarty.

Even that might not have been so bad – there’s nothing wrong with a bit of twisty plotting. The trouble is, if you’re going to tell a story inside a story, at least one of them should have a proper, coherent conclusion. After that reveal, there followed a series of (impeccably well-staged) hallucinatory dream sequences, riffing on the same ‘dream levels’ from Inception as last year’s Doctor Who Christmas special – I guess Moffat really liked that film.

Unfortunately, all this crashed in on us just as the 19th century Holmes was about to solve the plot – yes, we knew it was the women, to whom Mycroft correctly insisted that “this one we must definitely lose”. But Holmes was right in saying that it made no sense for Lady Carmichael to engage him to investigate, since he was likely to discover the whole thing. OK, he might have kept it to himself (though I suspect even this Holmes would baulk at tacitly sanctioning murder), but as a plot point it was ridiculous. And rather than explain it, that was the point where the figure under the veil was revealed not to be Lady Carmichael but Moriarty, and everything went rather pear-shaped.

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Yes, it was a delight to see Andrew Scott’s deranged Moriarty back to spar with Cumberbatch. Yes, the following dream sequences were well-staged, especially the subversion of the Reichenbach Falls confrontation from The Final Problem (though what the hell was the point of that bit where Sherlock was attacked by a mouldering corpse?).

And yes, I get the point that this was a way of addressing the characters and their relationships. The trouble was that, as in so much of the show’s last series, it did it at the expense of the plot, which after that was left unresolved and forgotten. And unlike the last series, we learned nothing new about them, nor did they particularly develop.

The net effect of all that, and the lack of progression in the main plot in the present day, was that this felt like a filler episode. A beautifully produced, handsomely mounted, impeccably acted filler episode, I’ll grant you, with a lot of wit and plenty to enjoy. But ultimately, the lack of resolution left me unsatisfied, as though the first two-thirds of the story had been trashed by the last third.

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If you’re waiting for the real resolution to what Moriarty’s doing, how he did it, and whether he’s really dead, you’ll be waiting quite a while – the cast are now so successful they’re finding it hard to fit this show in, and the next one apparently isn’t due till 2017. In the mean time, while I didn’t actually hate this episode, I did find it a frustrating mix of excellence and style over substance. Arthur Conan Doyle may have been a populist hack, but his plotting was faultless; this, on the other hand, was all over the place. If only they’d stuck to “Alternatively…”

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