Sunday, January 8, 2012

"The Great Game"

Mark Gatiss' contribution to the Sherlock writing duties is certainly a stronger entry than the second with a good plot although maybe in some ways not as intriguing as the first. However I think the strength of this story was that it gave the characters several mysteries to investigate which enabled us to see more of Holmes' powers in action. I thought the opening was a little ridiculous; why would Holmes bother to go all the way to Belarus to investigate what he described as an "open and shut domestic murder"? The scene only seems to exist to show him correcting the prisoner's grammar. It's a little pointless. That being said the actual main investigation is quite an interesting one. Someone is playing a game with Sherlock where he is given a number of hours to solve various mysteries or else a hostage is killed. This of course gives us plenty of opportunities where John's compassion towards the hostages is contrasted to Sherlock's view that really only solving the mystery is important, and that it's his eagerness to solve the puzzles, and not any compassion for the victims, which is going to save the people in danger. I thought this was a good example of what should be borne out from the characterisation of Holmes we're given in this particular series. He obviously does want to save the victims; that much is evident in his desperation at trying to stop the old woman from giving away any personal details about her captor. Yet he also provides good reasoning for being so practically-minded about the situation. While it may seem callous to gain such a thrill from solving the problems, it is the best way to save the people involved.
We also see the return of both Lestrade and Mycroft in this episode, which is a welcome feature. Mycroft's plot is adapted from one of his original appearances, "The Bruce-Partington Plans", which while now regarding a missile system rather than a submarine is hybridised with elements of "The Naval Treaty" to give us the best of two excellent espionage intrigues from the Holmes canon and which also gives John a time to shine with his own investigation. We also have more obtuse references to "The Five Orange Pips" with the countdown of the various puzzles. The Carl Powers case with the poisoned eczema medication is a rather chilling cold case which gives us a much earlier link between Holmes and his nemesis. The Janus Cars bust is another interesting one; Gatiss does an excellent job, I think, of stringing together a number of smaller conspiracies into an over-arching plot. It gives us some nice examples of Holmes acting the fool to get clues from the "victim's" wife and analysing the blood to determine that it was from a frozen sample. My criticisms would be two: one that part of the evidence was the Janus Cars' owner's tan from being in South America "settling in" his client - it seems rather elaborate that he would do all that himself. My other is the fact that it was called "Janus Cars". Seems a bit too deliberately suggestive of the organisation's true purpose, and as Sherlock points out the clue is in the name. It makes me think of an evil agency like KAOS from Maxwell Smart or something.
The third crime I have more ambiguous feelings about. For a start, the wound on the victim's hand, supposedly made after death, appears healed - do wounds heal like that on corpses? Also, the incorrect but believed diagnosis was that Connie Prince had died from tetanus. But who gets tetanus in the West these days? I think Sherlock should have pointed this out, because a death from tetanus in London would be so incredibly unlikely as to be suspicious in itself. Still, we did get a nice appearance in full camp mode from John Sessions as her brother, which was quite amusing, but the resolution seemed a little easy. Maybe Gatiss was aware of this dramatically, which explains why he had the old woman who was the hostage in this scenario killed off. I thought this was an effective resolution because it contrasted the mood of the entire investigation with a rather confronting climax with numerous casualities and evidence that Sherlock is dealing with a ruthless opponent.
The fourth and final crime I particularly liked because it dealt with an element of Holmes' character which has its origins in "A Study in Scarlet" itself: the idea that Holmes has no solid working knowledge of astronomy and that he doesn't know that the Earth revolves around the Sun. The way in which he recognises the fake Vermeer is by noticing the presence of the "Van Buren Supernova" in the painting. I would have liked if this little astronomical oddity had been real but it provided a humorous counterpoint to Sherlock's earlier ignorance and was a rather tense moment when it seemed that he would fail. While I enjoyed Sherlock's deduction about the murdered museum worker and the planetarium narration by Peter Davison I wasn't entirely sold on the use of this towering Hammer Horror-esque assassin, "The Golem". That, like the Tong presence in the previous episode, was a bit too far-fetched and spy-fi for me. I would have liked to have seen some consequences for the museum curator who had employed Moriarty to get rid of anyone who knew the painting was fake. Unlike the old woman who was blown up just for describing his voice, the curator even tells them that the name involved is "Moriarty". I was expecting her to at least get shot through a window or something.
Anyway, with the recovery of the Bruce-Partington plans it's time to confront Moriarty. Personally I'm a trifle disappointed that Mycroft didn't make any more appearances, although I did appreciate his disparaging comment towards the need for "legwork" in the West case. Mycroft's typical lethargy about the routine business of investigating problems was a good element to incorporate in this story. I would have preferred some kind of resolution of his plot line within the bounds of the story. Instead Sherlock uses the plans as bait for Moriarty.
I'm not entirely sure the ending of this episode made a huge amount of sense. Moriarty doesn't want the Plans, he mostly just wants to show off. I suppose that does reflect the element of exhibitionism Sherlock said was implicit in the nature of psychopaths back in "A Study in Pink": that they crave attention and recognition. The bit where John walks out talking as if he's the mastermind was very effective as a brief scare moment, however, perhaps moreso than Moriarty's own appearance. Frankly I'm not entirely sure if I'm sold on the "Sherlock" incarnation of Moriarty. I often find that people don't really know what to do with him. Moriarty appears rather peripherally in all of exactly one Holmes story, "The Final Problem," even if he is implicated in "The Valley of Fear," and all we know is that he's a mathematician who is also a criminal mastermind. Watson, our narrator, never meets him and only sees him at a distance. This has been obvious fodder for some Holmes pastiches to suggest that Moriarty never existed. Some more conventional depictions of the Napoleon of Crime paint him as more of a generic criminal mastermind, often manipulating entire governments. The suggestion we get in "The Final Problem" is more that of a man who has his finger in every pie in the criminal activities of London, but we never exactly discover what his ultimate agenda is, if indeed he has one, or what his motivations are beyond what Holmes suggests as a regression to some atavistic criminal nature. As such I do enjoy Moffat and Gatiss' depiction of the character as a "consulting criminal", someone who plugs the holes and covers the bases, for a fee, for the activities of other criminals. He's a man who, as he himself puts it, doesn't like to get his hands dirty, and seems to derive a lot of his direction from deeply repressed rage. What I would have liked retained is the scientific aspect of Moriarty's character, with which I feel no adapation has ever really gotten to grips. His bizarre sing-song voice followed by intense rants is obviously meant to depict him as a deeply unstable individual, but in some ways I feel that makes him a not entirely meaningful parallel to the emotionally controlled, dispassionate, even cold Sherlock. Nonetheless we only see a few minutes of him, so I guess there isn't too much to draw a complete judgement on.
I certainly think "The Great Game" is as good a conclusion to the series as "A Study in Pink" is as an opening, although I believe each contained elements the other ocassionally needed in terms of pacing, plot resolution and characterisation. However, it's a strong first series, and upon finishing my re-watch I found myself wishing there was more. It's certainly a well-written and engaging show and a brave attempt at modernising the concept, and I think moreso than the middle episode this one proved that there was life in the concept.

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