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



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? Continue reading “Sherlock: The Abominable Bride”

Sherlock: His Last Vow

“I’ve had to do with fifty murderers in my career, but the worst of them never gave me the repulsion which I have for this fellow. And yet I can’t get out of doing business with him — indeed, he is here at my invitation.” – from the journals of Dr John H Watson, MD, The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton



And so, another all too brief season of Sherlock comes to an end, with an episode that should please more of the fans than the previous two (though I’m, sure some will never be satisfied). If you didn’t like the previous two stories’ lurch towards ‘soap opera’ character drama in place of crime plots, the balance of this ep will probably have made you happier – and in retrospect, it has become clear that the previous two were all about building up to this one.

Continue reading “Sherlock: His Last Vow”

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



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.

Continue reading “Sherlock: The Sign of Three”

Sherlock: The Empty Hearse

‘Holmes!’ I cried. ‘Is it really you? Can it indeed be that you are alive?’” – from the journals of Dr John H Watson, MD, The Adventure of the Empty House



It has been, as was noted several times in the script for this episode, just about two years since we last saw an episode of Sherlock (give or take a fortnight). In that time, the stars and writers of the show have hardly been idle. Benedict Cumberbatch has been seemingly everywhere, most notably as the villain in Big Hollywood Movie Star Trek Into Darkness, while Martin Freeman has had two lengthy epics released in which he plays Tolkien’s famous hobbit Bilbo Baggins (with a third due this year). Mark Gatiss has busied himself with MR James adaptations and a series on European horror movies, while Steven Moffat has been busy with something called Doctor Who.

Continue reading “Sherlock: The Empty Hearse”

Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall

“You hope to beat me. I tell you that you will never beat me. If you are clever enough to bring destruction upon me, rest assured that I shall do as much to you.”  – from the journals of Dr John H Watson, MD, The Final Problem

It’s a well-known story. Arthur Conan Doyle, fed up of the public’s insatiable demand for his creation Sherlock Holmes, wrote a story in which he determinedly killed off his hero. Heroically plunging from Austria’s Reichenbach Falls in a death struggle with his arch nemesis Professor James Moriarty, Holmes was no more. Or so it seemed until, bowing once again to his readership’s demands, Doyle revealed that Holmes had survived his certain death after all, and gone underground to protect his friends.

That’s such a good story, in fact, that it was basically the plot of the entire last season of Doctor Who. But last night’s Sherlock saw Steven Moffat and co returning to the source. I must admit, I had slight misgivings when I saw that scripting duties had fallen to Steve Thompson rather than Gatiss or Moffat himself, as I’d thought his middle contribution to the previous series – The Blind Banker – was a bit of a weak link in an otherwise strong chain. Not that it was in any way bad (although the stereotyping of the Chinese seemed a little 19th century), but it was surrounded by two almost perfect stories from Moffat and Gatiss. Knowing that this year’s season finale was very probably going to feature Sherlock’s apparent death, I wasn’t too sure that Thompson was the right guy to write such an important story.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. The Reichenbach Fall has its flaws as a story, and I’ll come on to those, but no more so than either of the previous two. It plays with the expectations of Holmes aficionados far less than recent episodes, taking the bare bones of Doyle’s The Final Problem – a duel between Holmes and Moriarty, culminating in their apparent deaths – and dispensing with the rest to come up with a twisty turny tale all of its own. And in the process, it rather cleverly plays with our expectations not of Holmes the 19th century character, but of Sherlock the now established 21st century hero.

Presumably thinking the audience would be aware of the story’s ultimate end, Thompson actually opened with a scene of a tearful John talking to his therapist about the death of his ‘best friend’ Sherlock Holmes. So expectations were set from the very beginning, but in fact this pre-credits revelation was easily forgotten in the tempestuous story that then unfolded.

In a “Three Months Earlier” timeframe, we were shown a montage of Sherlock solving various crimes, including the theft of the painting ‘The Falls at Reichenbach’ (the only nod to the story’s original setting). But as Holmes began to attract more and more press attention (much to John’s concern), it was as ‘The Reichenbach Hero’ that he was labelled. John, much to his annoyance, simply attracted the label “confirmed bachelor” (“What are they trying to say?!”), in yet another reference to the perception that he and Sherlock could be a couple.

Intercut with all this was a sequence of Moriarty setting up, then executing, a fiendish plan to simultaneously break into Pentonville Prison, the Bank of England, and the Tower of London, where he sat draped in the Crown Jewels until the police turned up to arrest him. Cleverly scored with Rossini’s ‘The Thieving Magpie’, this was a well-put together sequence from frequent Doctor Who director Toby Haynes, who kept up the series’ standard of visual excellence extremely well throughout.

From then on, it was a battle of wits between Sherlock and Jim Moriarty, as Jim used Sherlock’s new press fame in an attempt to discredit and utterly destroy him, while Sherlock tried, seemingly in vain, to keep up and finally nail the villain who sat at the middle of his spiderweb of crime. The resemblance to last year’s finale The Great Game was a little bit of a flaw, but this was anything but formulaic. Perhaps as a result of the Holmes/Moriarty dynamic, the idea of a battle of wits between hero and villain is now de rigeur in crime drama, and when done well – as it was here – it never fails to entertain me.

Far more so than The Great Game (where he only appeared for a few minutes at the very end), Moriarty was given centre stage here along with Sherlock, and Andrew Scott again showed how much fun this new version of Sherlock’s nemesis can be. By turns camp, playful, and utterly, dangerously insane, Jim Moriarty was plainly every bit Sherlock’s equal. And again in keeping with the established idea of the hero/nemesis dynamic, he was presented as Sherlock’s dark mirror equivalent. In the splendid scene when Jim visited Sherlock at 221B Baker Street – another pinch from the original  story – Jim even stated this outright: “We’re just alike, you and I.”

That was hammered home by the fact that both viewed their battle as an intellectual game, while John and Lestrade were there, appalled, to remind them that there were real lives at stake here. But you got the impression that Sherlock cared about these just as little as Jim – chillingly demonstrated by Sherlock’s declaration that, “I might be on the side of the angels, but I’m definitely not one of them.”

Jim utilising his tame tabloid hack (The IT Crowd’s Katherine Parkinson) to demolish Sherlock’s reputation felt oddly timely in the light of the Leveson Inquiry into press standards. As Sherlock was suspected of kidnapping, pursued by the police, and finally confronted by Jim in the alias of ‘Richard Brook’, an actor supposedly hired by Sherlock himself to be an arch nemesis, this had the potential to really screw with the audience’s heads as they reflected that everything they’d seen since the show began might be false.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that clever gambit worked as well as it might have. Like John, we never doubted Sherlock for a moment. Still, even if it didn’t hoodwink the audience, it served its purpose in deceiving the characters in the show – except, of course, John, Mrs Hudson and Lestrade. And so, with nowhere left to go, Sherlock turned to his poor admirer Molly at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, only to find himself in a final confrontation with Jim Moriarty atop its windswept roof.

This was an electric scene, brilliantly played by Scott and Cumberbatch, as each tried to gain the intellectual upper hand in their game. Jim revealed that his supposed ‘unlock anything’ phone app never really existed, and that his plan was for the demoralised Sherlock to kill himself. If he didn’t, assassins were primed to shoot his only friends, John, Lestrade and Mrs Hudson. Sherlock countered with the knowledge that Jim must be able to call them off if necessary. Then Jim made the ultimate endgame move – as the only way to ensure Sherlock’s suicide was for him to die too, he promptly shot himself.

That was a bit of a shocker, but the scene had increasingly and convincingly revealed the extent of Jim’s insanity. You really believed that he would go so far as to die just to win his  intellectual pissing contest with Sherlock. And it looked like he had won; with nothing else left to do, Sherlock confessed to John that he really was a fraud before quite graphically throwing himself from the roof and landing in an all too convincing bloody heap on the pavement.

Even more so than in The Final Problem, this made Sherlock’s death seem a certainty. After all, we’d been shown him stepping off the edge, then shown his bloodied body on the pavement, attended by John who surely couldn’t have misidentified him. And yet the final scene, as a tearful John and Mrs Hudson paid their respects at his graveside, showed him to be very much alive, standing silent and unseen nearby. Rule number one – Moffat lies.

I’m still not sure if this was the right way to play it. Surely it would have been a better cliffhanger if, as in the original story, we thought he really was dead, and hoped against hope that there’d be some way out of it. But on the other hand, I can see why the showrunners might not have wanted to end the series on such a down note. What it does do, though, is leave us with an intellectual cliffhanger – how on earth did he do that?

Unsurprisingly, I’ve seen plenty of internet theories already. Some have speculated on the hallucinogenic drugs from last week’s episode, which seems unlikely – Sherlock would presumably have had to drug all the witnesses. Still, with it taking a gaseous form, not impossible. Another theory is that the ‘help’ he wanted from Molly was to procure a lookalike body from the hospital morgue in just this eventuality; or that there was already a Moriarty-created lookalike – remember the little girl kidnap victim who screamed on seeing Sherlock at the hospital?

My theory is that it has something to do with the mannequin we already saw at Sherlock’s flat, as he tried to solve a century-old crime. Holmes fans may remember that, in his ‘return from the grave’ story The Adventure of the Empty House, he tricked would-be assassins with a mannequin replica of himself strategically placed in the window of his flat. Given the show’s frequent nods to the source material, my money’s on some variant of this. As Steven Moffat has now confirmed via Twitter that there will be a third series, we shall find out – let’s hope it takes less than eighteen months this time!

Moffat also used Twitter to indicate that there would be “two nods to the past” in this episode. Not sure exactly what he meant, as the show is always chock full of references to Doyle’s original stories. But my guess would be, firstly, the return of that hat, given as a jokey present by the police to Sherlock.

I love what they’ve done with the convention of the character wearing a deerstalker. Doyle’s stories never reference this kind of hat; it was popularised firstly by some of Sidney Paget’s illustrations, then by Basil Rathbone’s screen version. And yet the popular perception has become that this is the kind of hat that Holmes always wears. As John amusingly puts it, “that’s no longer a deerstalker. That’s a Sherlock Holmes hat” – which, as the owner of several deerstalkers, I can confirm is exactly what people think. That Sherlock actively hates the hat makes this even funnier.

The other major reference to Doyle must be the appearance, finally, of Mycroft’s beloved Diogenes Club, a refuge for “the most unsociable and unclubbable men in town”, where speech is strictly forbidden except in one reserved area. Knowing the rule as I did, it was hugely funny to see John trying exasperatedly to get a response from the increasingly appalled looking club members, until finally some stewards hauled him off to the visitors room to meet Mycroft. Latterday literature has recast the Diogenes Club as the public front for shadowy British intelligence agencies – given Mark Gatiss’ portrayal of Mycroft as having fingers in every government pie, that seems equally believable here. I wonder if we’ll see more of it next series?

But the final word on this gripping finale must belong to the portrayals of the main characters. As Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch has been, if anything, even better than he was last year. With the final plot twist that he’ll sacrifice his reputation and even (seemingly) his life to help his friends, this story shows the culmination of an arc of ‘humanisation’ of the Asperger’s-like Sherlock this year. In A Scandal in Belgravia, we saw him exhibit real (if deeply repressed) feelings for Irene Adler, and having to make an awkward, forced apology to poor Molly. By The Hounds of Baskerville, shaken by his experience with the terror-inducing drug, he offers a no less awkward, but voluntary and heartfelt, apology to John. And in The Reichenbach Fall, we see a hero who acknowledges that he loves and needs his few friends – enough to, in effect, destroy himself for them.

And Martin Freeman has stepped up his already likeable performance as John to reflect this. The constant in-jokes about whether he and Sherlock are in a relationship now seem to have a real purpose; because, despite the fact that John is entirely straight, they plainly are. It’s an indication of this series’ fluid approach to love and sexuality that John, while not gay, is genuinely in love with his best friend, to the extent of his heartrending tears in the opening and closing scenes of this episode. A ‘bromance’ indeed, and pretty similar to the highly infrequent displays of emotion from Holmes in the original stories.

This has been a triumphant second series for Sherlock, and any doubts I had about Steve Thompson’s ability to satisfyingly conclude it have been washed away. Each of the stories has been great in its own, uniquely distinct, way, and if anything, the quality has topped the first acclaimed series. Along the way, we’ve seen some thrills, some humour, some brain taxing plots and even some controversy. But I’ve enjoyed it hugely, and if a limit of three episodes per series, produced over a very long period of time, is what it takes to maintain this standard, then so be it. However long it takes, this viewer – and, I suspect, millions of others – will be back.

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…

Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia

“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name…” – Dr John H Watson MD, A Scandal in Bohemia


In the Sherlock Holmes canon, there are only two adversaries who, despite only appearing in one short story each, loom larger than any others. Steven Moffat’s surprise hit modernisation of Holmes dealt with the first, and most obvious of them last year – James Moriarty, reinvented from a professor of mathematics with a dilettante interest in crime to a fully fledged ‘consulting criminal’, the logical opposite of Holmes himself. The other we finally caught up with this week, in the first, hotly anticipated episode after a long eighteen month break.

Irene Adler looms very large in the Holmes mythos, despite appearing in only one story – A Scandal in Bohemia, from which this episode drew its title and the first half of its plot. She’s far from the only female villain Holmes encounters, but she holds a unique position, unrivalled even by Moriarty, of being the only one of his foes to have actually beaten him. Holmes fans ascribe all sorts of interpretations to her relationship with the generally ascetic, asexual hero – the most common being that there was the merest frisson of a potential romance between them. Which makes sense – Sherlock may be distinctly lacking in carnal lusts, but what does turn him on is an intelligence equal to his own. Steven Moffat’s clever script for this first episode draws on all of that, cleverly playing with the expectations of Holmes aficionados while still telling a story that is perfectly accessible to those without encyclopaedic knowledge of Arthur Conan Doyle’s back catalogue.

First though, he had to get our two heroes out of the cliffhanger ending he’d left them in all those months ago. I must say that, in the event, this seemed something of an anticlimax. If you recall, Holmes and Watson had been lured to a deserted swimming pool by Moriarty, at last revealed, who had hidden snipers trained on them while Sherlock decided that the best way out was to kill them all by shooting at, and detonating, the bomb which had until then been strapped round Watson. Got that?

Flashing forward to the now, we saw our heroes saved by a last minute phone call to Moriarty, heralded by his improbable ringtone of the Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin Alive’. For reasons that at first seemed unclear, this made him change his mind about killing Sherlock and John. This seemed like a copout, but as ever, the ending of the story made me reappraise this – when we saw the other end of the phone call, with a woman’s red painted nails ending the call, it was clear that this was Irene. And Moriarty’s change of heart, in light of what came later, actually made perfect sense.

Andrew Scott was as much fun as last series as Moriarty, playfully camp and humorous – the ‘awkward’ interplay of him excusing himself to answer the phone with Sherlock was hysterically funny. But as last year, he showed how he could change on a sixpence to being genuinely terrifying, as he capriciously switched to rage with his unknown caller. Moriarty’s role as puppetmaster meant that he was ‘present’ throughout, despite barely appearing onscreen, and I doubt we’ve seen the last of him for this year.

But on to Irene Adler. Given her reputation, it’s a demanding role; she has to be fiercely intelligent, calculating, and yet with a hidden depth of romance that she may not even be admitting to herself. Step up then, Lara Pulver, last seen battling enemy agents with her immaculately coiffured hair in the final series of Spooks. Given a very well-written role in Steven Moffat’s script, she seemed well up to the challenge. This new, modern Irene tempted her subjects to compromising, blackmail-prone photos as a high class dominatrix, simply known as ‘The Woman’, and there were less than subtle hints that she genuinely enjoyed her work.

This seemed like strong stuff for a pre-watershed show, and in fact I found myself wondering whether the 8.10 broadcast had originally been envisioned to go out after 9pm. But I think the show sailed just the right side of the line; any younger viewers watching a show like this can’t be entirely unaware of, ahem, ‘unusual’ sexual peccadilloes.

Which is just as well, as the new, modern Irene first presented herself to Holmes and Watson completely naked (albeit discreetly shot so no naughty bits were seen). Lara Pulver made her every bit as charming, glamorous and confident as she should have been, and her byplay with Holmes throughout was a joy.

Good as he had been last time, this was a new level of challenge for Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, and he rose to it admirably. It’s not difficult for an actor playing Holmes to convey icy intellectual aloofness; it’s far harder to deal with the implied feelings for Irene, feelings he too can’t really admit to himself. Cumberbatch added another layer to his performance here, not just in his deeply repressed feelings for Irene, but also his very real attachment to his friends. As we saw, when Mrs Hudson (the sublime Una Stubbs) was threatened by heavies, he got pretty angry – angry enough to throw the offending heavy out of the window. Several times. With hilarious consequences.

Not to say that the humour of the last series was absent in its portrayal of Sherlock though. Cumberbatch continues to make a good team with Martin Freeman as John Watson, and they have excellent comic timing. And the running gag of them being more than friends was still in evidence, as John’s latest disposable girlfriend told him he really was a great boyfriend – to Sherlock anyway. By the time Irene herself was dropping hints, he was exasperated enough to exclaim, “if there’s anyone out there who still cares, I am not gay!”

The plot was a typically labyrinthine Moffat puzzle, the first half faithfully adapting the original Scandal in Bohemia in a tale of Irene having hired Moriarty to help her in a twisty turny endeavour of blackmailing the British government over a shady intelligence plan. Complex it was, but as the pieces fell into place, it was clear that it hung together rather better than Moffat’s similarly convoluted plot for last year’s Doctor Who.

Along the way, the script was littered with Moffat’s trademark quickfire comic dialogue, delivered with precision by all concerned. Series co-creator Mark Gatiss popped up again as Sherlock’s shady spook brother Mycroft, and again, their interplay was both comic and revealing as the script dropped subtle hints about how bizarre it must have been growing up in the Holmes household. Sherlock, for his part, was again a semi-autistic ‘high functioning sociopath’, as he failed to recognise coroner Molly’s affection for him, embarrassing her in front of the guests at his Christmas gathering, and turned up, unconcerned and unclothed, for a consultation at Buckingham Palace (on a side note, I’d never realised what a nice body Benedict Cumberbatch has…)

While not alienating non-Holmes aficionados, the script was still littered with sly references to classic Arthur Conan Doyle stories and Holmes tropes in general, and I’m sure I didn’t pick them all up in one viewing. John’s blog continues to be the modern equivalent of his published accounts in the original stories, and there was much fun to be had with the titles he gave to the parade of cases they saw before they became entangled with Irene. Hence, a case involving comic book nerds became ‘the Geek Interpreter’ (referencing the Doyle story The Greek Interpreter), a mysterious dead woman became ‘The Speckled Blonde’ (The Speckled Band), and in perhaps the most side-splittingly contrived example, a strange belly button related case became ‘The Navel Treatment’ (The Naval Treaty).

Elsewhere, as John’s blog spread Sherlock’s fame, he was forced to disguise himself from the press by grabbing a handy nearby hat – a deerstalker, of course. I also liked the sly reference to John’s increasingly long list of disposable girlfriends – a nod, presumably, to Doyle’s inconsistent, cavalier treatment of Watson’s love life, in which girlfriends and even a wife were casually forgotten and not mentioned again.

Of course, the question for Holmes fans was whether Moffat would want to redress the balance by having Sherlock beat Irene this time. After it became clear that the original Scandal in Bohemia story had been dealt with about halfway in, the script cleverly played with our expectations here as first one, then the other seemed to gain the upper hand, in the game they played that obviously delighted them both. Right up to the very end, I thought that the script had let Irene win after all – then Sherlock pulled out his last ace, having scientifically deduced that she really did have feelings for him in order to finally work out the lock code for the cameraphone that was this modern version’s interpretation of the original’s photographs.

I’m forced to admit, that final solution did seem a little forced; I’ve never seen a phone that declares “I’M ____ LOCKED”, which was the only way to add the final touch of the code being “SHER” – still, I’m no smartphone expert, so maybe there is one. On a less technical side, it was a little obvious after the first try that Sherlock would have several goes at working out the code, and be successful on his last chance; but that didn’t really detract from the satisfaction of seeing it happen.

The totally hip, up to date stuff  – like smartphones – was as inventive as ever, with clever visual representations of text messages, blog writing, and Sherlock’s effortless ‘decoding’ of Irene’s mysterious email. It’s been a consistently appealing trademark of this modernisation that it paints Sherlock as being a man who – like the original – makes use of every cutting edge resource available to him. I suppose the one worry is that in being so up to the minute culturally, it might not age well. Still, that’s a pretty small niggle.

As the story came to a close, the script again played games with our expectations of whether this most worthy of Sherlock’s adversaries might survive to come back another day. She gets away with it in Doyle’s original story, but despite occasional references is never seen again. Here, we were (perhaps) hoodwinked by Mycroft’s revelation to John that she’d been beheaded by vengeance-hungry terrorists, only to have the rug pulled out from us again by a flashback revealing that Sherlock himself had been her sabre-wielding saviour in that scenario.

At least one person I know felt that that stretched credibility too far, with Holmes becoming almost a comic book superhero figure; but it worked for me in the same way as Robert Downey’s more atypically physical portrayal in Guy Ritchie’s recent movies. Doyle’s stories make clear that, as well as being an ascetic genius, Holmes is one double-hard bastard – we just never see it, only hearing about it secondhand from Holmes himself (of course, he might be bullshitting). Still, this reader has always been prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt…

All told, this was a great opener that shows the series has lost none of the verve and appeal that made it a hit last time round. The cast are as great as ever, with Cumberbatch playing a role he could have been born for, and Martin Freeman making the best use I’ve ever seen of his established ‘decent normal bloke’ persona. Lara Pulver was a welcome addition as a modernised but totally faithful Irene Adler, and the script and direction continue to sparkle in a way that, for me, works better than Moffat’s recent Doctor Whos – if anything, this works better as a ‘family show’ than Doctor Who’s current ‘children’s show’ approach. Next week, it’s Russell Tovey and Russell Tovey-lookalike Stephen Wight in a new version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Can’t wait!