I knew it. I just knew that there was more to this so-called “Victorian” so-called “non-canonical” Sherlock special than they were letting on. I didn’t know what it would be (I was optimistically entertaining hopes of a WhoLock crossover at one point), but I had a hunch that the first Sherlock we get in two years wasn’t just going to be some quaint Victorian adventure entirely removed from the canon. That doesn’t happen. They wouldn’t have written something like this and not tie it back, somehow, to the award-winning, mass-followed, phenomenon-creating, career-defining main series, even in a small way. I’m pleased that this very peculiar Sherlock special did progress, albeit not by much, the main narrative that we’re all on tenterhooks to see continued.
That said, this special would have absolutely worked, and worked fantastically well, even if it bore no in-story relation to the main series. It was about halfway through that I began thinking to myself that Sherlock, as in Sherlock, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman and produced by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, actually works every bit as well as a show set in the Victorian Era as it does set in modern London. I realise that shouldn’t really be a revelation, given that Sherlock is a contemporary adaptation of Victorian stories and characters, but, after everything, Sherlock is a show set in modern London, and it’s reasonably foreseeable that, in transplanting the characters to a radically different setting, something of the show’s essence would be lost.
I’m pleased to report, though, that nothing at all is lost. If anything, the show benefits from the change of setting: it retains everything we love about Sherlock in its contemporary setting while fully indulging itself in the Victorian, which makes for very evocative, romantic visuals, and a spooky, Gothic case of the sort that could only have worked in the Victorian setting. And, of course, the mystery, the plot, feels very much like an original Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story. Nothing of the humour, the storytelling or the characterisation is lost. Indeed, Sherlock positively benefits from the timezone shift. Here, finally, is Sherlock in his natural habitat. Sherlock is a man totally in his element, a man totally of his times, his stature visibly enhanced in his Victorian surrounds. His florid language and his courtly bearing seem natural in this setting, and Cumberbatch, a sort of semi-Victorian figure himself, absolutely owns it. It’s a genuine pleasure to watch.
Even though this special was essentially an imaginary situation played out entirely in Sherlock’s mind palace for the purpose of determining whether Moriarty was actually dead or not, and that scarcely 10 minutes have passed since the end of His Last Vow, it did, nevertheless, advance the overarching narrative of the show in very significant ways. Mycroft, certainly, has undergone more genuine character development in this one episode than the entire series up to this point. No more the “Ice Man”, he was touchingly shown to care deeply for his little brother, to be intensely concerned about Sherlock’s well-being, and heartbroken by his brother’s self-destructive lifestyle choices. Suggestions about Mycroft’s “concern” for his brother have been seeded throughout the series, but never to this extent. I’m not sure how many of us suspected the intensity of Mycroft’s love and concern for his brother before now. I found that quite poignant, the way Mycroft’s characterisation was dealt with. And, of course, the theme of Sherlock’s reckless addiction and propensity to live on the edge, even in a Victorian fantasy, was explored compellingly, the effect on the people close to Sherlock, most of all Mycroft, brought into sharp relief.
Overall, it’s an emphatic success. It’s worth conjecturing whether the special would have worked better if it really were an adventure into a Victorian alternate universe, totally removed from the canon of the main series. For my part, I think it would have — the lurching back and forth between the 19th Century and now made for a slightly disorienting twist — and I would have been happy if the episode had been just a novelty special in sumptuous period dress: there was definitely enough meat in the Victorian story for it to stand alone. The writing was excellent and the performances reliably superb. But that’s not to say I wasn’t pleased that what ended up being a very quirky special did contribute to the main narrative in the end. To be honest, I’m just glad we’ve got Sherlock back, in some iteration, after two years. Now for at least another year’s wait for Series 4.