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? 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

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

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

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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.

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

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

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

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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…

Shocked by Sherlock? – The problems with diversity on TV.

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As hypothesised in my review of Monday’s Sherlock, the pre-watershed broadcast of (discreetly shot) nudity (only Irene Adler’s, I note, not Sherlock’s) has got certain people all hot under the collar. Well, the Daily Mail, inevitably. Indeed, so eager were they to condemn this filth being available to those children still up at 8.10pm, they printed the above picture of it for children to see at any time of the day, alongside their usual sidebar parade of bikini-clad celebs cavorting on the beach.

It is debatable whether a show where one of the central characters is a paid dominatrix who uses her sexuality as a weapon in her games is acceptable pre-watershed viewing. But I stick to my guns of saying that it walked a thin line without falling off; think of all the pre-watershed crime dramas in which prostitution is a key part of the plot. It used to be almost a weekly occurrence in The Bill, back when that was a half hour show on at 8pm. Not to mention the downright dirty jokes in sitcoms and sketch shows as far back as the 70s – did anybody really not get the double entendres about Mrs Slocombe’s pussy in Are You Being Served?

Nor is (I’ll repeat, discreetly shot) nudity anything new in pre-watershed programming. I don’t recall any storms of protest over pre-9pm broadcasts of Carry On Camping, which contains that scene of a young Barbara Windsor accidentally losing her bra. And oddly, less discreetly shot male nudity seems to go without comment on many occasions – what about that bit in Doctor Who episode Love and Monsters where man-hungry mum Jackie Tyler contrives to get Marc Warren’s shirt off?

No, the Mail’s usual hysteria didn’t strike me as anything to worry about. But as a bit of a lefty liberal, what did concern me was a couple of articles condemning Steven Moffat’s portrayal of Irene Adler as demeaning to women, and a retrograde step from Arthur Conan Doyle’s original character. Both Jane Clare Jones’ piece in The Guardian and its presumable inspiration on the Another Angry Woman blog maintain that the final few minutes of the show undercut a previously good portrait of a strong female character, by having her machinations revealed to have been planned by Moriarty (a man), then falling for Sherlock despite having previously claimed to be gay, and finally and most ignominiously of all, having to be rescued from peril by Holmes himself. Both argue that this reduces the ‘strong woman’ status of a character who, in Doyle’s original, needed no help from a man.

It’s certainly a reading you can make. And I can understand all sorts of objections to that final flashback, which tonally did reduce a previously cerebral drama to the level of Boys’ Own heroism (and yes, I did choose that particular comic as an example intentionally). However, it has provoked the same heated online debates as so many feminist articles in The Guardian – it’s anti-men, it’s humourless, it’s just a TV show etc. I must admit, this was my first reaction on reading the original blog post, but then I realised it was a topic worth thinking more seriously about. And to give her credit, blogger Stavvers posted a well-reasoned follow-up in light of the controversy, making a good argument for the need for diversity in mainstream TV. But in defence of Steven Moffat, I’d like to add my two cents worth as to why I didn’t  – quite – see it this way.

Firstly, it must be remembered that the original Irene Adler only appeared in one, pretty short, Holmes story – A Scandal in Bohemia – and that Arthur Conan Doyle was, at the time, writing basically pulp literature for those with short attention spans (one reason I’ve always found it so accessible, I guess). As such, detail on Irene’s character, her personality and her past is necessarily sparse, and much of the popular perception of her is based on the reams of theses and fan fictions produced by scholars and fans of the Holmes canon.

Yes, in the incident with Holmes she is a strong female character, who achieves everything she does independently, without male help. And yet, how do we, the readers, know that she’s always been this independent? Doyle provides no definitive answer either way. Like so much perceived prejudice on TV, our perception of Moffat’s version of Irene depends on preconceptions we ourselves have developed before watching; I really don’t think we can categorically say that Doyle’s character was definitively a more independent woman than Moffat’s.

The nudity in that scene where Irene first meets Sherlock has been seen as exploitative, too, but I took it to be rather cleverer than that. Most obviously, she’s done her research on Sherlock, and knows how much he can deduce about a person from their clothing. Her nudity is a deliberate attempt to prevent that – as shown by his visualised inability to work out anything about her from her initial appearance. But it does go deeper than that. This Irene, extrapolating from what we know of Doyle’s original, is empowered enough to use her sexuality as a weapon. And while John is most obviously discomfited by this, it’s worth remembering that Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock is cleverly poised between genuinely asexual and deeply repressed. I don’t think he would have been entirely immune.

Which also has a bearing on another big objection both Stavvers and Jones have to this portrayal. It can seem as though Irene (who has stated that she’s gay) has overcome her sexuality to fall for Sherlock because he’s just so great, while he, conversely, is free of such ‘feminine’ things as emotions, and therefore superior to her.

Again, though, I disagree on almost every count. Sherlock is portrayed, both in the writing and the performance, as deeply emotionally repressed – but that doesn’t mean he’s without emotions (or superior for that matter – in this regard, John comes off as the better human being). The whole point of the relationship is that, yes, she does have feelings for him, feelings she can’t admit – and so does he. Cumberbatch’s performance sold that to me totally, and I’m surprised anyone missed it.

As to Irene’s apparent disregard of her sexuality, it should be noted that the context of her statement about being gay is very significant. It comes just after she’s been taunting John  about the homoerotic undercurrents in his relationship with Sherlock, and he’s exasperatedly exclaimed, “I am not gay!”, with hints that this is just denial. When she follows it up with, “I am.”, I took that as yet another dig at him and his apparent denial, as we’d already seen that Irene’s sexuality was rather more fluid than that from her ‘clients’. And speaking as a man who is – mostly – gay, I always prefer my TV characters to be sexually fluid rather than rigidly pigeonholed by attraction to one gender or the other; that was one reason I found the portrayal of Captain Jack Harkness in the recent Torchwood so disappointing, as he’d gone from being ‘omnisexual’ to just plain gay. That, to me, felt like more of a retrograde step than this portrayal of Irene Adler. And there, I’m willing to admit, is a view shaped by my preconceptions…

That last flashback, though, in which Sherlock rescues a prone Irene from decapitation-hungry terrorists, is harder to defend. Aside from lowering the tone of the drama rather (not that this bothered me particularly at the time), you can see how Irene ends up as the traditional damsel in distress, dependent on the hero for rescue – very much the antithesis of how the character is usually seen.

The problem here is one that I know has offended Holmes purists as well as feminists – Irene doesn’t win, as she did in the original story. As a Holmes fan, I wasn’t sure I liked that either. But if the final story in this three part series is indeed based on Doyle’s The Final Problem, we’re going to see a cliffhanger which looks like Moriarty has beaten Sherlock – or at the very least ended up with a no-score draw, as both characters are seen to die. I don’t think the series is established enough yet to start showing Sherlock as so fallible at he loses more than he wins in one year. That’s not sexist, it’s just the nature of a show which depends on having a (nearly) infallible hero.

But speaking of Moriarty, what of the claim that his assistance renders Irene’s independence as a woman invalid? That’s an interesting one, precisely because I originally wondered whether, in this new ‘reinvention’, Moriarty would be ‘reinvented’ as a woman. There’s precedent for that kind of thing – Blake’s 7’s ubervillain Servalan was originally conceived as a man, apparently, but the casting of the majestic Jacqueline Pearce in the role gave the narrative a whole new dynamic.

With that in mind, I’d thought that a female Moriarty (the Imelda Marcos of crime?) would be an interesting idea. But I can see precisely why Moffat didn’t do it – because, as a Holmes fan, he wanted to feature Irene Adler as ‘the woman’. So we’ve ended up with a male Moriarty, although I wonder whether, given his level of camp, he’s actually gay. More likely, as a counterpoint to Sherlock, he’s similarly ascetic, I suppose. But I didn’t get the impression that he’d masterminded Irene’s scheme. Again, quite the reverse – he was willing to postpone killing Sherlock and John when he had the chance, simply to allow Irene to use them as tools in her game. That’s how I saw it, anyway.

As Stavvers notes, Doyle’s Irene does what she does to ensure the security of a good marriage, but that’s the social context of the period in which the story was written. Fair enough, but what about the context of this time period? Have we reached a stage where mainstream TV diversity is so guaranteed that it’s irrelevant, plotwise, what gender/sexuality/ethnicity a character is and how independent they are? Both Stavvers and Jones maintain that we haven’t, and further that Steven Moffat is a serial offender in negative portrayals of women as weak and dependent on men.

I find the second point hard to accept about the man who created Lynda Day in Press Gang and River Song in Doctor Who. In fact, I tend to find River Song annoying precisely because she eclipses the (male) main character so much of the time. And Coupling, which Stavvers condemns as “heteronormative” and “binary-obsessed”, was surely a typical situation comedy, not seeking to broaden horizons but merely to entertain in a mainstream way. Besides, from what I’ve seen of it, both genders come off equally unfavourably.

But the argument that we still haven’t reached a point where diversity is the norm is harder to refute. Many moons ago, Star Trek sought to redress a criticism that its ‘inclusive’ universe didn’t include any LGBT characters, with the awful Next Generation episode The Outcast. This totally fudged the issue in two ways. Firstly, by evading the actual subject, introducing an asexual species for whom any sexuality was a thoughtcrime. Secondly, and more significantly, by making it an issue at all. In a truly inclusive future, it simply wouldn’t be a big deal, which Star Trek later did right in a throwaway line in Deep Space Nine. Confronted by a ‘reincarnation’ of a former lover, now female like herself, Jadzia Dax is torn over whether to rekindle their relationship. But it’s not a gender issue; rather, it’s a cultural one relating to her race. As far as same-sex relationships go, the rest of the crew just shrug and wonder why she isn’t just getting on with it.

That’s the right way to handle it, as soap operas are slowly realising with some believable storylines in shows like EastEnders and Hollyoaks. But there are still plenty of plotlines revolving around homosexuality as an issue in itself. Regardless of Harvey Fierstein’s one-time assertion that any visibility is better than none, I’d rather see LGBT people not ghettoised on TV as they were in the 70s, when John Inman and Larry Grayson were everyone’s TV shorthand for homosexuality.

Of course, Russell T Davies made giant strides here, first with the breakout success of Queer as Folk, then with the “just like anyone else” gay characters in Doctor Who. For which he was, of course, accused of having a “gay agenda”. Again, this is an issue depending on the preconceptions of the viewer, and this viewer saw it as a positive step that, in the Whoniverse, gayness was just accepted (except in the historical context where it wouldn’t have been, in stories set in the past, but even this is generally handled well). For my money, Moffat’s run on the show has continued this trend, with characters like the “thin, fat, married, gay Anglican Marines” in A Good Man Goes to War, and the Doctor’s general acceptance of every kind of relationship – as exemplified by his kissing James Corden to distract him in Closing Time.

In terms of diversity, though, some insightful bloggers like Jennie Rigg have noted a tendency, particularly over the last couple of years, for non-white characters to be treated as cannon-fodder – in Star Trek terms, disposable red shirts. Having watched the show recently, I can see this point, though it’s worth pointing out the flipside of this. Basically, there are now so many characters with no script-specified ethnicity – as it should be – that many of them, including the more numerous background characters, are non-white. The flipside of this, of course, is that non-recurring characters in Doctor Who have a tendency – even under Steve Moffat – to die.

I’d argue that the reason it might seem like Who has a racist agenda in this regard is actually as a result of increased inclusiveness in its casting. This is, after all, the show whose reintroduction featured its white heroine in a relationship with a black man, something some more conservative territories found hard to stomach. True, she did almost immediately run off with a dour Northerner, but Mickey Smith went on to show himself as one of the strongest characters in the show, as did, later, Martha Jones. That’s a non-white, female character saving the world when the Doctor can’t, right there. And it didn’t even seem like an issue, because that’s one thing Who tends to get right.

One that did stand out this year – and this was remarked on – was the death of Muslim character Rita (Amara Karan) in Toby Whithouse episode The God Complex. But here again, this was the most positive portrayal, without being overly earnest, of a Muslim I’ve seen on TV recently. And in that episode, every – human – character died, white or not, leaving the only survivor of the episode David Walliams’ weaselly alien Gibbis – was the episode anti-human?Smile

No, I think Doctor Who’s got it about right, in terms of the balance between ethnic diversity in major, minor, regular and non-regular characters. But having done that, it’s churlish to complain of perceived racism if some of them get killed in a show which, let’s face it, has a lot of death in it. After all, how many white people got killed in the show the last few years. Come to that, how many non-humans? There’s only one ethnic boundary left to conquer – the first black Doctor. How about the brilliant Daniel Kaluuya? Or perhaps a female Doctor, as we know from Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife that Time Lords can change gender when regenerating. If we’re concerning ourselves with diversity, it’s interesting to ask yourself which of those – if either – you’d find harder to deal with. (Clue – it should be neither of them.)

This has ended up being a longer ramble than I originally intended, and the fact that there is so much to say on the subject shows, in my mind, that there are still are problems with diversity on television. But I think we’ve made bigger steps than Stavvers or Jane Claire Jones think. Again, this is a result of my preconceptions, but I’ve tried to examine them and think it through, something I’m not sure those with less reflective agendas have. There are often hints that some commentators believe writers should be issued with an equality checklist for every character like the ones you get on job applications, to ensure that each TV drama/comedy contains the requisite proportion of demographics, and that none are portrayed in any way negatively. But on television, as in life, positive discrimination is still discrimination, and reaching a decent balance needs to be achieved some other way than by militancy.