Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"The Hounds of Baskerville"

If the second series of "Sherlock" maintaining, as I suggested in my previous review, the standards of the first means a somewhat weaker or at least less consistent second episode then this is certainly true to type. In many ways, Gatiss succeeds in reinvigorating one of Conan Doyle's most well-known instalments of his canon. While "The Hound of the Baskervilles" has got to be one of the most over-adapted and perhaps even overrated Holmes mysteries, Gatiss does put a fairly interesting new spin on things here. "Baskerville" is no longer an ancestral family and corresponding estate but a secretive military research centre, and the murder is not a recent affair but rather a cold case. The original novel was written by Conan Doyle due to popular demand after Holmes' apparent death in "The Final Problem" and was set beforehand. His visible exhaustion with the character is very apparent in the original story as Holmes is absent for about half of the adventure while Watson gathers information on the Baskervilles for him. Gatiss of course has no such qualms about using Holmes and so after a nod towards this original situation in which Holmes suggests he's sending Watson in his place they both end up going out to the country to investigate. He's intrigued by their client Henry Knight's use of the term "hound" to describe the apparent beast which is terrorising the region. I'm not sure this was ever explained to my satisfaction; yes, Holmes felt it was a rather overly-poetic term which gave him a clue that something unusual was afoot but it still seems a little bit much.
Another thing I might quibble about is the cold open. This basically just involved a nightmare on the part of Henry, our stand-in for the original Sir Henry Baskerville, and seemed to be rather excessively reminiscent of the cold opening of an episode of modern Doctor Who. There were a few times in this story where I felt a bit of a strong Doctor Who vibe, especially through the numerous horror and science-fiction elements present. The "Baskerville" centre is the source of plentiful urban legends and conspiracy theories in the surrounding region, and rumours abound of genetically engineered animals and devious experiments with living weapons. Of course, by and large we never got the full picture about what was going on at Baskerville but the idea that anyone would really believe or even bother propagating such tales was something of a stretch to my mind and seemed a little out of place in the "realistic" world of Sherlock. Then again the original stories had their fare share of fanciful elements, usually debunked by Holmes, and the original story of The Hound of the Baskervilles was a similar, although much more period, crime connected to fear of something in a sense supernatural, although in that case the fantastic and in this the science-fictional. So I suppose Gatiss has updated the concepts fairly effectively. Conspiracy theories are, after all, the modern equivalent of such demoniac myths, although believed or taken seriously much, much more rarely, and that may be what makes it harder to swallow to my mind. It seems easier to imagine late 19th century people believing in a demonic hound than it does early 21st century people believing in a vicious genetically-engineered dog or some kind of top-secret lab where the military's up to no good with scientific ethics out the window.
Nonetheless, Holmes and Watson go out with Henry to investigate the situation on the moor, and this is when things definitely became interesting. While John's distracted by some lights which ultimately turn out to be a red herring much like in the original tale, albeit of a more pervy nature here, Henry and Sherlock encounter the hound. This led us into one of the best sequences of the episode as Sherlock become paralysed with doubt. Despite telling Henry otherwise, he has seen the hound. The full force of encountering something not only genuinely terrifying but supernatural to an otherwise entirely logical and rational mind is devastating. I once read an old comic which sort of hybridised "The Final Problem" with the plot of Dracula, and part of Moriarty's plot involved manoeuvering Holmes into a confrontation with Dracula himself. Upon being presented with blatant proof of the existence of the supernatural, Holmes falls for a long time into a borderline catatonic state, unable to reconcile the evidence of his senses, upon which he completely relies, with his equally complete conviction that the universe is entirely scientific and mechanical in its function. I was pleased to see Gatiss employ a similar notion in this episode. Our modern Sherlock is a particularly emotionless and mechanistic character, and such cannot cope. He alienates John and is gripped with paranoia.
Sherlock of course admits in this episode that John is his friend, which is a far more important piece of character development I feel than we received in the Irene Adler scenario in the previous episode. What frustrated me, however, was the perpetuation of this rather tiring depiction of Holmes as a complete jerk. In this instance he dopes John with the fear drug and tricks him into thinking he's being attacked by the hound just to prove a point. However it turns out to all be rather pointless and self-defeating. What did he need to prove to John, especially after admitting his friendship? It was confronting, yes, but just made Holmes look like a tool, which is a tiresomely repetitive source of humour in this series which often subverts the points they're trying to make. Another repetitive element was the overuse of Mycroft. While he had no dialogue and only appeared in one scene the use of his access to government facilities all seemed a little bit too convenient and a rather purposeless exercise. Again, it feels often that this series is more about governmental intrigue and espionage rather than specifically detective work. Nonethless, there is still a murder to investigate.
Of course it couldn't really be a demonic hound. Sherlock's about solving mysteries, not perpetuating absurdities. I think from the moment they saw it in the mist I was convinced that some kind of drug was in use and the similarities to Scarecrow's fear toxin were pretty striking. Gatiss was right to acknowledge that representations of the hound are usually disappointing. That's certainly true in numerous adaptations and while it was successful of them to make the hound mostly an imaginary impression and to have it unseen I think it was a mistake to visualise it at all. The CGI hound we got to see is entirely unconvincing and while it's meant to be understood as a hallucination I think it was a weak concession to make any attempt to depict the beast. I would have had the shots been fired and then shown the entirely ordinary dog falling to the ground. The hound was far more intimidating when we couldn't see it at all, especially in John's experience.
I think the culprit, Dr Frankland, was simultaneously predictable given his apparent helpfulness and rather underdeveloped so that his role as villain seemed a little insignificant or lacking in impact. Similarly the character of Stapleton, obviously a deliberate red herring on Gatiss' part to throw off those of us who know the original story, seemed underdeveloped. All of a sudden she's helping Sherlock out, and her admission of genetic experiments on animals and the recurrent throwing back to her daughter's plea for help seemed a little repetitious of the scenario in the previous episode. Overall the plot started to fall apart by the end. Many reviewers have suggested that there really wasn't enough plot to fill a full ninety-minute episode and I think I hesitatingly agree. The numerous false clues, dead ends and abandoned or barely accounted-for plot threads suggest an element of padding out beyond simply throwing the audience off the scent. At times the heavy atmosphere of horror and conspiracy thriller suggested to me that there was an absence of criminal mystery and that the detective work wasn't that important. Compound this with the scene where Sherlock arrogantly dismisses John on the need to explore his "mind palace" or some nonsense followed by the admission of Sherlock's deliberate poisoning of John with the fear gas and the character development feels rather wobbly too.
I'm not saying it was a bad episode but it was certainly inconsistent. I think that as tempting as it obviously was it wasn't necessary to try to update "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and that there were more challenging and interesting criminal plots they could have developed, from Holmes adventures or of their own creation. The development of Sherlock and John's friendship, as difficult as it is to reconcile it with other parts of the episode, was important, and the scenes where Sherlock loses faith in his own rationality and confidence in the understandability of the universe were very interesting and confronting. This second part in particular really stands out to me as a high point of the episode, even if the direction was a little odd with the juxtaposition of Sherlock's face in close up to John in the background. Unfortunately, however, the plot was a little thin on the ground and several notionally important characters weren't developed enough to give the story a good pace. I feel that there are issues in this episode reminiscent of issues in the modern version of Doctor Who: that some of the fundamental tenets of the concept, in this case the amazing solutions of complex detective mysteries, have been replaced with a general atmosphere of intrigue and air of suspense which isn't enough alone to sustain the plot. Perhaps we've had things like Jonathan Creek for long enough, but the best Holmes stories to me are generally the criminal investigations. In that regard it's possible that applying modern television concepts to a Holmes story which is in my opinion somewhat overrated, reliant on atmosphere more than investigation and representative of a great relunctance on the part of Conan Doyle to continue the character only compounded existing problems. In that way maybe it's a typical Gatiss story: the good bits are normally impressive but the missteps tend to leave you little more than apathetic.

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