Review: less than elementary?

After watching the New Years Day special of Sherlock, I tried to imagine what went through Mark Gatiss’ and Stephen Moffat’s heads as they wrote the last sentence of their script. Rubbing their hands, I imagine, Gatiss might have leaned over and whispered seductively in Moffat’s ear (it is my head, no judgement) ‘those kids are going to be AMAZED. So are those women. It was a dream… a feminist dream.’

And perhaps, if no one had ever seen Sherlock or Dr Who before, The Matrix or Inception, our minds might have really been blown. As it was, Sherlock’s attempt to escape the ‘Mind Palace’ conceit felt eerily reminiscent of the Doctor’s fear of being forever trapped in his Confession Dial. It’s all getting a bit predictable. 

To briefly summarise the plot: Sherlock and Watson meet in Victorian England and decide to share a flat at 221b Baker street. Together they work to solve the mystery of the ‘Abominable Bride’, a woman who committed suicide, but seemingly rose from the dead to kill her husband and several other dastardly men. Sherlock and Watson eventually discover that the woman faked her death, and that the ghostly effects were achieved by a series of optical illusions, with the aid of a group of co-conspirators. The conspirators are in fact a group of women campaigning for suffrage, and Sherlock allows them to continue murdering the dastardly men because their cause is ultimately just. However, as the episode progresses a couple of clues reveal that the Victorian World cannot be real. Various anachronisms creep in, as Mycroft declares that ‘the virus is in the data’, and Sherlock mis-genders the murder victim. We come to learn that the entire Victorian episode is only an imaginative space of Sherlock’s mind palace, to which he has retreated to meditate on whether Moriarty, his Arch Nemesis who had previously killed himself and framed Sherlock for his murder, has faked his own death. After exorcising his demons in a scene by the Reichenbach Falls, Sherlock wakes up in the present day, and concludes that Moriarty could not have faked his own death, and is in fact dead after all. Or is he? 

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Some of the episode was brilliant: like Mrs Hudson’s refusal to speak in protest of the small part she plays in Watson’s accounts of their adventures, or when Watson grows a moustache, supposedly in the attempt to keep up with the illustrator. Sherlock has always been characterised by wonderful exuberance and titillating dialogue. The relationship between Mycroft and Sherlock was, as always, brilliantly characterised, as Mycroft steadily eats himself to death just to beat Sherlock in a bet. Basically, the episode was fantastic while it remained a self-enclosed Victorian special, leaving the audience to draw parallels between the Victorian entities and their modern day counterparts. Moffatt studied English as an undergraduate, and there is a lot in his script that can be recognised as typical English student flaws: a fascination with theory and the ‘meta’, which can eventually lead an essay, or in this case a TV show, over the edge of self-indulgence. Self-indulgence, that is, encapsulated by Sherlock crying ‘elementary dear Watson’ as he throws himself off the Reichenback falls to escape from his ‘Mind Palace’. 

As for the cult of Satanic vengeful females, I’m quite divided. Part of me, with my baser film instincts, loves a secret murderous cult as much as the next woman. Certainly the discovery in St Trinian’s II that the world was ruled by a society of patriarchal free masons (true) who were trying to suppress the fact that Shakespeare was actually a woman got me very excited. But Sherlock‘s tone is different. The Ku Klux Klan robes? And the underlying assumption that the feminist movement was started up by a load of bitter, jilted brides? It’s exactly what you would expect from a load of middle-aged men trying to imagine what to role out for the Cumberbitches. 

It’s important to stress that Moffat and Gatiss are Napoleons of the TV world. The first series of Sherlock ranks perhaps with the best television made in my lifetime. Moffat is the man who wrote such Dr Who episodes as ‘Blink’, ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’, and ‘Silence in the Library’. But he now seems to be a victim of his own success, churning out the same stuff over and over again. Together, Moffat and Gatiss have tried to replace good narrative with gimmicks and dreamscapes. It’s time to get back to the fundamentals of plot and character – it’s elementary, Dear Watson.