“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!