Thoughts on: Empress of Mars

(Gallifreyan Ramblings has an all new look! Read this on my blog!)

There’s a show from the 1970s called Ripping Yarns. It’s one of my favourite comedies, one of the many produced by the BBC around that time, written by and starring Monty Python alumni Michael Palin and Terry Jones. Over nine episodes, each with different settings and characters, it parodied the early 20th Century “boys own adventure” stories targeted at the strapping, wholesome young boys of Imperial Britain. It ventured to such exotic settings as a German WWI prisoner of war camp, the Andes, the British Raj and Cornwall, always following some exciting and pseudo-heroic adventure.

Empress of Mars felt a bit like Doctor Who if it were made into a Ripping Yarns episode. Like Ripping Yarns, this episode is consciously parodying “boys own adventure” type stories of the early 20th Century, which often featured hardy and romantic Victorian soldiers camped out in some far-flung frontier of the Empire. Just substitute Mars for Burma and an Ice Warrior carrying a serving tray for native servants and you’ve got yourself a Doctor Who story, with material for trite political commentary to boot. Actually the political commentary, such as it was, was fairly superficial, which makes this episode a deviation from the norm for this series. Maybe that’s a good thing, because I don’t think Gatiss really had his heart in pushing a political message in this episode. He really just wanted to make an Ice Warrior serve the Doctor and a couple of Victorian British Army officers tea in a cave on Mars. Which is absolutely fine.

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But it’s also indulgent because it’s got Gatiss’s favourite era and Gatiss’s favourite monsters. It looks like Gatiss asked Steven Moffat to have his Christmas and his Birthday presents on the same day. In that sense it looks a lot like a parting gift to Gatiss from Moffat, and I wouldn’t be surprised, and I think Gatiss wouldn’t be surprised, if this were the last we saw of him. This wasn’t as good an Ice Warrior story as Gatiss’s previous one, Cold War. That was an exciting, atmospheric base-under-siege which managed to do something novel and interesting with a monster which was always going to take a bold writer to extract from the 1960s, in all its bulky, slow-moving, hissy-voiced beauty. The Ice Warriors weren’t really that interesting in this one. They had a new gun, the latest in Doctor Who’s growing catalogue of Interesting Alien Weapons, following the Zygons’ electric tumbleweed from last series. They also had a queen, the Ice Empress Iraxxa. I’m interested by the idea of an Ice Empress, but I found it difficult to take Iraxxa seriously when she seemed to be played for self-conscious pantomime up until the last two minutes of the episode. The screechy, comical voice that sounded too much like the Empress of the Racnoss didn’t help either.

It’s worth noting that Mark Gatiss is actually tremendously funny (he wrote Robot of Sherwood, after all, one of the all-time funniest Doctor Who episodes), and seems to have a very similar sense of humour to the Monty Python troupe. Empress of Mars unfortunately doesn’t feature the overtly silly public-schoolboy humour of Monty Python and Ripping Yarns, but there’s definitely a cheekiness and a mirth in the way it makes the quasi-comical Victorian soldiers throw dash-its and tally-hoes and old-boys back and forth, and the way it makes the British look terrifically and resolutely domesticated, not to mention hopelessly class-conscious, even marooned on Mars. It felt like Mark Gatiss was having fun when he wrote this, and it was fun.

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It’s worth saying where I might put Empress of Mars in a ranking of Gatiss’s episodes. Of the nine episodes Gatiss has written for Doctor Who since 2005, I think I’d put it somewhere on the bottom end of that list, probably between Victory of the Daleks and The Idiot’s Lantern, making it seventh out of nine. The delightfully funny and fun Robot of Sherwood would go at the top. It’s worth comparing it to other Gatiss episodes because Gatiss’s scripts have always been a bit different from other present-day Doctor Whos. Gatiss doesn’t shoot straight down the middle. His scripts are offbeat, a bit quirky, a bit left-of-field. Carnivorous sentient televisions, animate dollhouses, robot occupations of 13th Century Nottinghamshire, and Victorian soldiers on the Red Planet. Imagine Mark Gatiss as showrunner. It’d be weird and unpredictable. Probably more shit more often than Doctor Who is now, but at least it wouldn’t be boring.

For all the glorious unconventionality of the idea of putting Victorian soldiers in an Ice Warrior hive on Mars and making them fight each other, this episode actually holds back on the quirkiness and weirdness that usually characterises Gatiss episodes. It’s actually a fairly conventional narrative when you compare it to the rest of Gatiss’s playlist on Doctor Who, and fairly conventional Doctor Who, at that. And I’m not sure that it really worked. There’s nothing conspicuously wrong with it – it’s enjoyable enough. But it was, as the kids say, just ‘meh’. Gatiss’s episodes are weird. That’s what Gatiss does, and does well. I basically regard Sleep No More as peak Gatiss—it was the weirdest Gatiss has ever gone, and it was a triumph, a flawed triumph, but a triumph nonetheless. Admittedly plenty of people didn’t like it. But the one thing no one can dispute about that one is that it was memorable—you’re never going to forget it. You can’t really say the same about Empress of Mars. And that’s its problem. Gatiss compromised on doing what he does best in order to get all his favourite characters onscreen at the same time, and ended up producing a story that was indulgent and high-concept, but just a bit boring. It felt conspicuously like a filler episode, something every filler episode should want to avoid.

Rating: 6/10.

Sherlock: The Final Problem

I began my reviews of Sherlock Series 4 by commenting on how far the show had evolved from its origins as predominantly a crime drama to now a show which revolves around character drama. Character drama has always been at the heart of Sherlock, and it’s one of the reasons, if not the predominant reason, that Sherlock has become the most popular TV adaptation of Conan Doyle’s stories ever. To put it pithily, people come to Sherlock for the crime-solving but stay for the absorbing and well-written characters. Over Series 3 and 4, though, the pendulum has swung decidedly in the direction of character drama and away from crime-solving, such that the crime-solving, once central to the show, is now almost superficial decoration for a show that is now predominantly a character drama about the life of an extraordinary man who happens to be a detective.

The Final Problem exemplifies the swing towards character drama more than any other episode yet, I think. It was all about Sherlock, about delving deeper into Sherlock’s past, into his subconscious even, in order to uncover the secrets of his past and help him and us understand him better. It was about answering the question put by John to Sherlock in The Abominable Bride, “What made you like this?” That moment was a little bit of foreshadowing for what we discovered in The Final Problem, because the John who asked that question was a figment of Sherlock’s drug-addled imagination—Sherlock, or rather Sherlock’s subconscious, was putting that question to himself, because Sherlock subconsciously knew how the events of his childhood involving Redbeard and Eurus had fundamentally shaped who was and who he has been ever since that fateful incident.

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Eurus was not a villain in the mould of Moriarty or Magnussen. She was a superhuman genius completely devoid of morality or human feeling, but she wasn’t here to destroy or conquer or seize, although I think there’s little doubt she’s capable of all of that. The episode was about Eurus’s obsession with Sherlock and, more fundamentally, the significance of Eurus in Sherlock’s life. Eurus made the Sherlock we know—or we thought we knew. At the same time, it was also about what made Eurus, and Sherlock’s personal significance in making Eurus. This episode was all character drama. That’s not a criticism, but a comment. I generally think it was done well, and the revelations about Sherlock’s past and how those childhood traumas shaped him were interesting, well-conceived and necessary. That part of Sherlock’s character had to be confronted at some point—the show couldn’t go on indefinitely without explaining why he is the person he is, and I think this was a good juncture and a very good way of doing it.

So what was it that we found out about Sherlock? That fundamentally he’s sentimental and driven by emotion. That much has always been obvious at some level, as we should have inferred from Mycroft’s comment in A Scandal in Belgravia that Sherlock had the mind of a scientist or a philosopher but elects to be a detective. Or by the unspoken ferocity of his devotion to his friends, above all to John. The emotional, passionate child that Sherlock was never really went away, but he was repressed in the wake of Sherlock’s trauma over Redbeard. We learnt that Sherlock’s emotions, repressed though they might be, made him the strongest and the most mature of the Holmes children, even though he was the least intelligent. At a very real level this episode was a tribute to the importance of human feeling and empathy, even—especially—in the most intelligent people. The cold, calculating machine that was Sherlock in the early seasons may have been fun to watch, but the Sherlock at the end of Series 4 is without a doubt the better person, and he’s the better person because he’s more in touch with his emotions.

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Benedict Cumberbatch as always delivered an outstanding performance (the scene with Molly was a dazzling highlight), but it was really Sian Brooke as Eurus who stole the show. I loved Eurus, and I loved what Brooke did with Eurus. She was unsettling, spine-chilling, enigmatic and unpredictable, and she was perfect for who she was supposed to be. There’s a case for saying that maybe Eurus was taken somewhat overboard with the dementedness, that perhaps she was too unhinged compared to the Eurus we saw in The Six Thatchers and The Lying Detective, but I think the point was that she was supposed to be unbalanced—and I think this was conveyed by Sian Brooke superbly—she was supposed to be deranged and crazy, thus the reason she was in Sherrinford. The point was that she knew how to be correct, but she’d never been taught how to be beautiful.

So Eurus was outstanding, but I’m not sure about the way the story was handled. Imprisoning Sherlock, John and Mycroft in Sherrinford and making them work their way through a series of puzzles for Eurus’s sadistic scientific interest? Am I the only one whom this strikes as lazy plotting? Apart from perhaps some of the more overtly character-driven scenes, like the scene involving Molly (easily the standout scene of this episode), this can’t have been one of the more difficult Sherlock episodes to write. I’ve seen it compared to The Great Game in the way it was plotted, but The Great Game was a much better-written episode than this one. I can’t help but think that the plot idea, a high concept one to be sure, sounded better in conception than Moffat and Gatiss were able to realise it in practice. Perhaps, if The Great Game was the model, it would have worked better to have followed it more closely, for example by keeping Eurus out of Sherrinford, which turned out not to be that interesting a place in the end. Additionally, the inclusion of Moriarty was pure gratuitous fanservice and really served no purpose in the story at all—Moriarty’s epic entrance perhaps excepted, the episode would probably have been better without him.

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Yeah, so my feelings are mixed about this one. There were aspects of it that I did really like—the revelations about Sherlock’s past, Eurus—but it’s not going to be anywhere near the top of my ranked list of best to worst Sherlock episodes. I would regretfully say that, if this is going to be end of Sherlock, as is rumoured, then I think we deserved better. It’s hard to blame the writers, because it’s obvious they were going for a big, barnstorming finale to Series 4, but the ideas and the conceptions they were clearly excited about perhaps didn’t translate as well into a final product. There are a lot of fans who are disappointed about this season of Sherlock, which, although it delivered its many moments of pure brilliance, has been one of the poorer seasons in the estimation of many fans. I’m inclined to agree with them—although, saying that, even a poor season of Sherlock tends to be high quality television. As I’ve said, though, I hope that Sherlock does not end on a divisive, disappointing note and that there is more Sherlock yet to come.

Whither Sherlock?

Warning: spoilers for The Final Problem.

(My belated review of The Final Problem will be posted soon—I’m doing a Sherlock marathon at the moment and I’m going to write the review when I get to TFP 🙂 )

So the long-awaited fourth series of Sherlock has come and gone in a whirlwind of suspense, emotion, anticipation and controversy and it’s hard to believe, given how long the wait was, that it’s all already over. If nothing else, Series 4 was a feast for the fandom, an indulgent three weeks of event television lapped up by the fans which, for three suspenseful weeks, sent us into a frenzy of speculation and furious discussion.

Certainly Series 4 was divisive, and those in the Sherlock fandom on the Tumblrs or the Twitters would know that The Final Problem sort of triggered an all-out fandom war on those platforms. But even those whose yardstick of a quality series of Sherlock is how much time John and Sherlock spend kissing, and were thus disappointed by Series 4, would have to (reluctantly) admit that Series 4 was probably the most ambitious and momentous series yet. Mary got killed off, after her lurid backstory was revealed; the secret third Holmes sibling was introduced; and the hidden secrets of Sherlock’s past, Sherlock’s “origin story”, so to speak, were revealed.

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There’s a reason, maybe, that Series 4 was so big and ambitious. It’s been seven years, four series, and who knows how long in-story. The characters have developed in leaps and bounds and the narrative itself has come such a long way. Dragons have been fought and slain, and the characters have faced enough challenges and had enough adventures for a couple of lifetimes. Series 4 ended with a sense of completeness that wasn’t present at the end of any of the previous series, as though Sherlock and John’s stories have been told; there’s nothing left to say—the montage at the end of TFP communicated it all: they continue solving crimes, fighting bad guys, enjoying their dangerous, unconventional lives, being best friends and raising John and Mary’s child together. Moriarty is gone, Magnussen is gone, Irene Adler is safe, Eurus is tamed. Sherlock, through the friendships and relationships he’s formed since we first met him in A Study in Pink, most of all through John, is a better, stronger person, a “good man”, as Lestrade affectionately admitted at the end of TFP. There’s no more to say.

Indeed, that montage seemed to convey the writers’ sentiments that this may well be the last word on Sherlock and John—the end of Sherlock’s story, or at least the end of Sherlock’s story worth making into the cinematic event television that Sherlock is. The writers and the actors have speculated that this might be the end of Sherlock, and with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s professional lives increasingly busy, there might not even be the opportunity to keep making more seasons of Sherlock from now on. It’s Cumberbatch and Freeman’s willingness and availability to do Sherlock, after all, that determines if and when the show gets made, although Moffat and Gatiss have said that they would not be opposed to making more Sherlock if there’s a good enough idea and everyone wants to do it. The problem is finding an idea for more Sherlock good enough to justify making it, a difficult prospect when Series 4 felt so final.

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I’ll agree that if Sherlock were to end now, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad place to end it. And I’ll agree that it would be a hard ask to find an idea worth making into Series 5. But there’s clearly a hunger in, I’d say, the majority of the fandom for more Sherlock. There’s a feeling that this show could still do more and that there’s still more to tell in the story of Sherlock and John. That’s the way I feel, I think. No, I wouldn’t be disappointed if Series 4 were to be the end of Sherlock, but I feel that it doesn’t have to be, and that the show could still do more. I only say Sherlock shouldn’t need to end because I love it so much, and because I think if something is good, if something is working, and if you love it as much as the fans and everyone involved in Sherlock loves Sherlock, then there’s no need for it to end until it really has to. I don’t think Sherlock needs to end. At least not yet.

Moffat and Gatiss have said they would love to see Sherlock and John grow old together. I think I remember reading that either Benedict or Martin said they wanted to grow old with the characters. Why not? Here’s a concept: Series 1-4 are Chapter 1 of the story of Sherlock and John. Chapters 2, 3, 4 etc. are still to be told. That might mean we don’t see Sherlock and John again until the time is right. Let the show rest, give the characters and the narrative time and space to grow and develop offscreen, and come back to them in, say, eight years, and the show will be new again. The characters will be different people in a new and different stage in their lives. Sherlock will be closer to the more familiar, wiser, older, more venerable Sherlock Holmes of Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett. The events of Series 1-4 will be an increasingly distant memory, and the show would not be a continuation of the storylines of Series 1-4 as much as an entirely new chapter in the narrative, even a soft reboot of sorts.

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It doesn’t have to involve making progressive series of the show, as the show has done for the first seven years of its life. I would be happy with a special every couple of years which revisits the characters at appropriate intervals and show Sherlock and John growing and aging—straight crime-solving stories in the nature of The Hounds of Baskerville or A Study in Pink rather than the arc-heavy material that has dominated the show in Series 3 and 4: vintage Sherlock. That said, I really like the idea of doing a full series of Sherlock in the future by way of a big, multi-episode story similar to what Torchwood did in Children of Earth if the writers can find a good enough idea (and I’ve no doubt they can).

If there is to be no more Sherlock, though, if Series 4 is to be the end of Sherlock forever, then of course I’m happy with what the show has been and what everyone involved in the show has given us over the last seven years, and I feel privileged to have been part of this fandom when Sherlock was being made. Sherlock really is an extraordinary show, and I’ve no hesitation at all in calling it some of the best-made television ever. It’s given us some of the finest moments in television history, some of the most thrilling screenplays ever, and we, as fans, really can’t ask for more. It’s undoubtedly become a cultural icon, and is arguably the most iconic screen adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories ever (it’s certainly my favourite, and I’ve seen all the Jeremy Brett episodes). I’ll be sad to see it go, but happy to have had it at all. Everyone involved in Sherlock should be immensely proud of what they’ve made, including us, the fans, who’ve made the Sherlock fandom one of the most fun, energetic and invigorating to be part of.

So thank you, Sherlock. Thanks for the memories, and an emphatic and heartfelt goodbye—but hopefully not yet.

Sherlock: The Lying Detective

Warning: spoilers. If you haven’t seen The Lying Detective read on at your own certain peril.

Well, that was a twist. No, I’m not talking about that twist, but I’ll get to that, too. I’m talking about the one line uttered by Sherlock at the end of this episode that cast everything that happened before it in a completely different light: “I want you to kill me.” Lying, drug-addled and beaten, in hospital, with Culverton Smith arching vulture-like over him, Sherlock says something completely out of the blue: that he wants Culverton Smith to kill him. The explanation for this, as we found out, was that Sherlock’s pursuit of Smith was not about Smith at all, but about John Watson. He was following Mary’s orders and purposefully risking his life to spur John Watson into action and out of his melancholic state, to save John Watson.

It was Mrs Hudson who said it, in case it needed saying: Sherlock is fundamentally a creature of emotion. Everything, all of it, was about John. He teetered on the precipice of hell because Mary told him to, because he loved John Watson. The further we get into this show, the more that’s becoming clearer, no more than here—Sherlock may be a prodigious detective with extraordinary mental powers and unfailing command of logic, but he still put his life in danger for the sake of his friend. He still made a vow to protect John and Mary, and it still destroyed him that he failed to keep that vow. The contrast with his brother couldn’t be clearer. Mycroft says “People die, so what?” Sherlock says “Your life is not your own—keep your hands off it.”

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I’m not sure I’m quite convinced by the convoluted reasoning Moffat engaged in such that he ended up with “Sherlock needs to literally risk his life to make John save him so John will recover from his grief over Mary”, but in any case it made for a captivating character piece about both Sherlock and John. It allowed us to see how crushed and wounded Sherlock was by Mary’s death and his own failure to save Mary. We saw a completely different side of Sherlock. We’ve seen Sherlock the prodigious detective. Here we saw Sherlock the penitent when he admitted he killed Mary and said John was entitled to take out his anger on him. We saw Sherlock the diminished and wasted, numbing his grief with drugs. We also saw Sherlock, fiercely loyal and loving friend to John and Mary, willing to die for both their sakes.

The character study of John was subtler, but equally as powerful. The motif of John’s hallucinations of Mary, talking to him, walking with him, reprimanding him, as if she were still there, potently conveyed the extent of John’s grief. It was a shock seeing her the first time, because the dialogue made it sound like she wasn’t actually dead, that she’d somehow faked her death. It made it that much more gut-wrenching, then, when you realise that it’s just John hallucinating. You feel deeply for the poor man. So to with John’s anger at Sherlock. John’s assaulting Sherlock in the mortuary was quite graphic, but it was powerful in visually conveying the pent-up, festering anger John harboured towards Sherlock. Maybe that’s why it was so emotionally gratifying to see John forgive Sherlock and admit he hadn’t killed Mary at the end. It was also really gratifying seeing John admit to his flirtation in the last episode and Sherlock helping John come to terms with it. That was an important and beautiful little character moment, and it’s a testament to how much both characters, and their relationship, have developed since they first met each other.

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Although, as we find out close to the end of the episode, The Lying Detective is essentially a character piece about Sherlock and John, nonetheless it still excels as a detective story. Culverton Smith is a wonderfully creepy and slimy villain, played sublimely by Toby Jones. He completely exudes menace, and you’re left in no doubt that Sherlock is right when he insists that Smith is a serial killer. Sherlock’s obsessive fixation on Smith makes sense—until it doesn’t. It’s a credit to Moffat’s writing that he was able to turn the viewer so quickly and completely against the slimy Smith, but then make viewer doubt themselves by suggesting Sherlock, baked on drugs, had hallucinated everything that made him believe Smith was a serial killer. Which makes Sherlock’s vindication and defeat of Smith so much more satisfying. Although Cumberbatch delivered a masterclass of acting—some of his very best to date—to a great extent it was Toby Jones as Culverton Smith that made this episode so good, by making Culverton Smith as hateful and despicable, and as mesmerising, a villain as Augustus Magnussen and Moriarty.

Finally, let’s talk about what happened at the very end of the episode—the only thing the Sherlock fandom has been talking about all week. So Sherrinford is Euros, and Euros is Sherlock and Mycroft’s secret sister. Much praise to the writing and production team for so smoothly and seamlessly executing that twist, because I’m pretty sure very, very few of us saw that coming, although it’s funny to note how much alike “Faith” and John’s therapist actually look on a rewatch. As for theories about Euros? I’ve seen a few, but the only thing I’m convinced of is that something happened involving Euros in Sherlock’s childhood which traumatised Sherlock, but the memory of it and her he’s repressed—which is why Sherlock didn’t recognise Euros. He probably doesn’t even know he has a sister, because he’s repressed all memory of her. But whatever it is, it’s going to be interesting and I absolutely can’t wait to watch The Final Problem.

Sherlock: The Six Thatchers

Warning: spoilers. Dear lord if you haven’t seen The Six Thatchers then don’t read on because you will be spoiled so hard I’m not even joking.

Seeing Sherlock back in action again after so long has made me realise how much the show has changed since it began in 2010. When Benedict Cumberbatch’s black, moppy-haired iteration of Sherlock Holmes first appeared on television, Sherlock was more like the conventional adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories, albeit with a generous stretch of artistic licence taken with Conan Doyle’s stories and a helping of character drama to spice things up, but to a great extent the show revolved around the cases, the mysteries, and Sherlock’s problem-solving. Watching Cumberbatch’s captivating Holmes solve mysteries was the heart of the show, and the formula worked excellently. It’s what drew the audiences in and made the show the cult phenomenon it is today. Hell, it’s what made Benedict Cumberbatch the A-list Hollywood actor he is today.

Now into its fourth series, nearly seven years running, The Six Thatchers is a testament to how far the show has moved away from the hard mystery/crime genre in the direction of character drama. Although mystery-solving is still the essence and the beating heart of Sherlock, it feels like the show is now moving into different artistic territory. Because The Six Thatchers was, basically, an episode about Mary Watson. As far we can tell, it was an episode written and produced for the sole purpose of moving along the character drama—in a pretty radical way, as the final shocking scenes demonstrated. There was still plenty of juicy mystery and problem-solving in this episode, but it was for the overriding purpose of the character drama. From what it looks like, this episode was for the sole purpose of moving all the characters to a new place in their relationships with each other.

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I’m not necessarily criticising. As much as we fans complain that Sherlock takes forever to make and we only get three episodes every two years, we have to remember that they’re fairly long episodes—they’re practically movies, and the Sherlock team are practically making three movies every two years. But consider if Sherlock just stuck to the Series 1-and-2 style hard mystery-solving formula. I think it’d actually get old. It’d be like making twelve of the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes films in the course of seven years without altering the formula. The hardcore fans would love it, but a lot of the audience would get bored after a while. It’s basically the reason I stopped watching The Big Bang Theory. But in Sherlock‘s case, the character drama has almost dwarfed the mystery aspect of the show for much of the fandom. Some fans (you know who you are) seem to think Sherlock’s love life is the main point of the show. That’s a testament to the exceptional character writing on this show, not to mention the exceptional acting. But, for this fan, although I welcome playing up the character drama as a necessary and inevitable consequence of the narrative’s progression, I’d still like to see Sherlock keep a firm foothold in its roots. There should be at least one hard mystery episode per series, and I’m hoping that’s what we’ll be seeing tonight in The Lying Detective.

Otherwise, The Six Thatchers was a good episode, well made, although—and you can probably tell by my long discussion about character drama—I thought it was something of a waste to spend a whole episode dedicated to killing off Mary Watson. I think they almost tried to do too much with this episode: they were trying to bring Sherlock back in a big way as well as elaborate on Mary’s backstory, kill Mary off and setup the necessary new character dynamics as a consequence of that event, and establish the Moriarty arc, even if only in anticipation. It did a lot, and the result, I think, was a remarkably well pieced-together production for how much it was trying to do; but, for me, it still fell a bit flat. Mary’s shocking death and the character fallout in consequence notwithstanding, this episode was one of the poorer in the show so far, in my opinion.

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For what it’s worth, I think what the writers were trying to accomplish narratively in this episode could have been carried out better if they played it as a regular mystery episode (another A Study in Pink or A Scandal in Belgravia type episode), but unexpectedly killed off Mary at the end—in the same way, with Mary saving Sherlock’s life. It would have come as a bigger shock (with the way it was done, I half saw it coming and wasn’t that shocked as a consequence), and it still would have worked equally as well to bring Sherlock’s hubris crashing down on him. The details about Mary’s backstory could always have been seeded in in a later episode.

But all that said, I think the character writing in this episode was very good—especially the writing of Sherlock. The way the ending was played, Sherlock’s overconfidence getting the better of him, only for his inflated hubris to be punctured in the most dramatic way possible—like a smashing of the Tower of Babel moment—was brilliant writing. It shows that it’s not just all fun and games on this show, that being Sherlock Holmes, Britain’s favourite hat-wearing detective, isn’t a lark, it’s fantastically dangerous and positively lethal to the people around him. It shows that there are consequences on this show, something John Watson seems to be coming to terms with, only too late. Seeing Sherlock visibly deflate in disbelief and humiliation over Mary’s corpse was almost as painful as watching John literally moaning with grief. If Gatiss and Moffat keep up the good work, it looks like the arrogant, superior Sherlock is gone. It’s getting interesting.

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride Review

Warning: spoilers.

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.

sherlock the abominable bride2

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.

Thoughts on: Sleep No More

Warning: spoilers.

I’ve watched Mark Gatiss’s latest effort, Sleep No More, three times, and have had more time than usual (due to preoccupation with exams) to think about it and mull over my impressions. I think that’s for the better in this case, because my impressions of the episode now have shifted quite considerably since my first viewing. If I’d reviewed this episode on the day of broadcast, this review would probably have read quite differently. While I won’t presume to tell others to watch it again and reconsider their opinions, I think this is definitely one that needs to be watched at least twice to be properly appreciated. Needless to say, this has also been one of the most divisive episodes of Doctor Who I’ve seen—the most divisive, at least, since Kill the Moon, and even that one received a broadly positive reception. This one has divided opinion more violently than almost any I’ve seen.

Divided opinion is to be expected from a script as experimental as this. Whenever the show, Doctor Who seemingly more than any other, does something differently and left-of-field, there are inevitably going to be fans who love it and fans who hate it. It’s not just the found footage style that’s different about this episode, although, to say something about that, I found it effective. For the most part, I didn’t notice the difference from a regular episode, but, at its best, it allowed for the amplification of the intrigue and atmosphere and thrill of the episode. It provided for some wonderful moments, including the numerous moments Peter Capaldi spoke directly to the camera.

sandmen

They were sand… and they were men… like… a hybrid?

But it’s also the way the story, and its overarching conceit, played out that’s bound to frustrate some. If you’re like me, you probably came out of the episode upon first viewing more than a bit confused about what had just happened and feeling rather unsatisfied. After two subsequent viewings, I’ve managed to wrap my head around the slightly convoluted conceit the script was weaving—that all the events of the episode were orchestrated by the dust to tell a story to keep the viewers hooked, to infect them with the Morpheus signal—and I appreciate the “action” of the episode a lot more with that in mind. Although the episode plays out like a stock-standard base-under-siege with some gimmicky camerawork, it’s really quite a concept-heavy piece. Again, I think you need to watch it a few times to fully appreciate that. Its narrative appeal is primarily on the meta level, and if that isn’t to your taste, then this episode is probably not going to work for you, especially if, like me upon my first viewing, you found the action a bit boring and the plot overly complex.

That said, there’s a lot that could’ve been improved upon. The Sandmen, notwithstanding their intriguing concept, in practice were fairly unoriginal creations. They were snarling, groping monster-men practically indistinguishable from the zombies in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. In the Sandmen there’s a reticence on Gatiss’s part to take the brilliant ideas he’s put into this script as far as they could have been taken. Why not show a person’s transformation into a Sandman? (Deep-Ando’s death was a perfect opportunity) Why not illustrate exactly how these creatures are sentient sleep dust, rather than just showing them stomping around like generic zombies and having the Doctor tell us “they’re sleep dust”. Moreover, the other problem I had with this episode is that, even given that the action was all engineered to tell a riveting story, there wasn’t enough plot to tease out to fill the whole 45 minutes. We watch the Doctor, Clara and the crew getting into scrapes and near-misses for most of the episode—yes, it was all manufactured by the dust, but after a while it all became a bit tedious. The first plot development of any significance came 30 minutes in, when the Doctor realised the dust had been recording them. By then you’d be forgiven if you’d lost interest.

But yet… I rather enjoyed it. I enjoyed it more upon each subsequent viewing, perhaps because, wrapping my head around the confusing plot points and meta-narrative, I was in a better position to appreciate the script for the clever and engaging piece of writing it was. I was in a better position to appreciate that this wasn’t just a typical monster runaround with a clever twist tacked on at the end, but that Mark Gatiss really has, for all its faults, crafted an exquisite script. And, I mean, it wasn’t that boring. Perhaps I overstated my impatience with the episode above—I was certainly unsatisfied the first time round, but, like I said, it improved for me once I grasped what the point of it all was. Contrary to others’ impressions, I found the characters all fairly well-written, especially the unsettling Rassmussen, and I loved the amusing Chopra-474 double-act. And I have no hesitation in affirming that I’d watch this episode again just for that ending. I think the last minute of the episode is the one thing everyone agrees was superb. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by suggesting it was one of the creepiest, freakiest, most chilling moments in a  Doctor Who episode ever. I’m sure if I were 10 years old, I’d have been petrified about going to bed after watching that. It just reeked of Mark Gatiss’s dark, morbid sense of humour. I love that.

Is it Mark Gatiss’s best script yet? Although that isn’t really saying much, I’d be tempted to say “yes” if it weren’t for the exceptional Robot of Sherwood in Series 8. Even if we accept, though, that Sleep No More is the weakest episode of Series 9 so far (it’s vying for that honour with Before the Flood and The Woman Who Lived, to my mind), that is undoubtedly to the credit of Series 9, because this is by no means a bad script, and I have no hesitation in saying that every series since 2005 has had episodes much weaker than this, even the stellar Series 4 and 5 had Partners in Crime and Victory of the Daleks, respectively. And, I mean, there’s a tendency to overstate the poorness of the quality of Doctor Who scripts. The average quality of Doctor Who compared to most everything else on television is emphatically higher, and even Doctor Who’s weakest scripts generally make for good television. Because we devotees of this wonderful show are used to an unusually high standard of writing and storytelling in our show, this episode might not necessarily have made for great Doctor Who, but it certainly made for stunningly good television. Admit it, you’d much rather be watching this than anything else that was on at the time.

Rating: 8/10.


Quote of the week:

“No, you don’t get to name things. I’m the Doctor. I do the naming.”