It was so very nearly. It was so very almost – until it wasn’t. To be fair to Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the BBC’s long mooted Victorian reworking of Sherlock was about as keenly anticipated as telly gets – it was never going to be an easy thing to pull off, but even so this felt like an exercise in indulgence. Not un-fun but just not the thing it might have been.
The problem wasn’t with the premise. If anything the opposite was true and I was looking forwards to seeing Benedict Cumberbatch’s high functioning sociopath and Martin Freeman’s eminently capable Dr John Watson transported back to the time of Meerschaum pipes, opium dens and hansom cabs. The idea of seeing their updated take on the characters in a Victorian setting was a pleasingly circular proposition, and an exciting one, but even if it felt like Moffat was trying to eat his cake, ice it, decorate it with those little silver thingies and have it, all at the same time.
It began in a really promising fashion. The first scene was deliciously canonical (why hello there, Stamford) and the first half hour or so was studded with similarly pleasing moments like cherries through clafoutis. Verbatim quotes from the original stories abounded, along with references to Holmes’ untold cases. There were seven per cent solutions, Watson’s moveable war wound (in the shoulder on this occasion), the orange pips of imminent death, several mysterious veiled women (a nod to one of Doyle’s sensational late stories, The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger, and a Mycroft vast of brain and body, exactly as described in The Greek Interpreter. But all this only served to make it more disappointing when the show began to tie itself into increasingly complicated, time-hopping knots.
I do think there’s probably a brilliant bit of television to be made about all the various lenses through which the character of Holmes reaches us. The original stories after all played with the idea of Holmes as a construct. It’s not like some kind of meta-commentary doesn’t have a place here. But while this was full of nods to the Jeremy Brett Holmes, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and even the Guy Ritchie films (the first of which is comfortably better than the worst episodes of the BBC series –wedding episode, I’m looking at you), there was so very much meta to contend with, an Everest of meta, and this strained sense of self-awareness became the dominant characteristic of the episode.
Perhaps part of my problem with it was that I really wanted them to go FULL Victorian but always doubted they would. And while I did win a small bet with myself when the now mountainous Mycroft started talking about viruses and data, I wasn’t pleased about it. To be fair the whole mind-palace-OD was actually an interesting way of allowing these two worlds to interweave, or it might have been if they’d fully committed to the concept. But this was a fidgety bit of television, which not only had to cue up yet another inevitable showdown between Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott’s Moriarty, (as much as I loved in The Dazzle and still think his performance in Sea Wall was one of the Best and Most Heart-breaking Things Ever, I am not sold on his giggling, eye-rolling Moriarty) but also decided it needed to squish in a lot of cumbersome Bechdale-baiting stuff about female agency in the original stories. So, yes, OK, Moffatt and Gatiss have made neglected female characters like Mrs Hudson and Mary Mortsan more integral to Holmes and his world, but all this odd business about their voicelessness in the Conan Doyle stories felt a bit heavy-handed. (And if we’re going to get picky about this, the original Irene Adler did actually get the better of Holmes without taking her kit off and giving him a literal whipping; it was also, for that matter, a woman who put a bullet into villainous blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton). The less said about that strange pointy-hooded, feminist sect business the better. Even though they repeatedly pointed out that this was all some kind of woozy morphine dream and therefore meant to border on the ridiculous, given Moffatt’s patchy record on writing women the tone of it was more than a little odd; it felt a tiny little bit like he was sticking a finger up at a certain subset of his critics and made me want to hurl Lindor truffles at the telly in exasperation.
That said, the idea that Holmes is a frailer, more emotionally complex, and more human character than all the various iterations of him have allowed for, canonical and modern, that he has in some ways become of prisoner of the persona that had been written for him by Watson, is a genuinely intriguing and poignant one. Cumberbatch too seemed to relish the opportunity to explore the contrast between this more fallible Holmes and the sleek, arch Victorian incarnation of the character. It would have been really fascinating to see this aspect of the episode given more room to breathe. But no, we had to nip off to the Reichenbach Falls, because apparently this episode had to do All The Things.
Admittedly I’m coming at this as a bit of a Holmes nerd – I’m with Jonathan Coe on thinking Watson’s swoon in The Empty House to be one of the most romantic moments in literature – and I’m aware that for many the point of entry to these characters and their world. Basically there are an awful lot of people to please. And it feels at times like they’re trying to please them all. But maybe that’s the problem. Since the beginning of Season 3 they seem to have been trying to pleasure those who know their Conan Doyle while also giving the Tumblr pack a good old stroking, to create something which was simultaneously fan serving while also ticking all the boxes of traditional event telly. That’s a lot for any one episode to do, and fun as it was in places, I guess I just ended up wishing had hadn’t tried to do it all at once.
Exeunt’s writers on Sherlock: The Empty Hearse