Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sherlock: "His Last Vow"

"Thought I'd get a head start on the next two years of hibernation."
After watching the previous episode of this show I was in desperate need of relief from Moffat and Gatiss' smug-o-rama so I started rewatching the Granada Sherlock Holmes TV series which began in 1984 starring Jeremy Brett in the role of the Great Detective. It was astonishing how refreshing it was to watch proper adaptations of Holmes stories where the focus was genuinely on the mysteries and where the source material was reflected in dialogue and composition, not just the repurposing of vague references for the supposed titillation of Holmes anoraks like myself. These days Jeremy Brett is generally considered to be the definitive screen Holmes, at least as far as adaptations are concerned, and seeing his performance and those episodes really reinforced to me the difference between an adaptation of Holmes and a show that's just playing at being Holmes. This sense of unease with the current show was rather encapsulated in "His Last Vow", an episode the title of which is a pun upon the 1917 story "His Last Bow", set upon the eve of the First World War, but takes its plot almost entirely from 1904's "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton", a more conventional tale set in 1899. Why these two were thrown together I can't guess, but it does eventuate in a now predictable Moffat case of a meandering narrative far more obsessed with twists and trying to trick the audience than actually providing any kind of substantial detective case.
"And that's for 'The Idiot's Lantern'!"
Villain du jour is Charles Augustus "Magnussen", an evil media mogul who has blackmail material on everyone in Britain, apparently, and likes to urinate in fireplaces. I've already observed this series' fetish for the glory days of British imperialism which are exemplified in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's writing and evident in his political beliefs if one reads his correspondence, and it is compounded further here. Instead of a British Milverton whose entire career is blackmail, "Magnussen" is a European of evidently some manner of Scandinavian descent full of contempt for Britain and the British, considering them to be pliable, docile and weak. So poor old Britain is at the mercy of the evil Johnny Foreigner trying to compromise its secrets, and it's up to Sherlock Holmes to save the day. Magnussen is displayed as having powers of scrutiny over people evocative of something like the Terminator, scrawls of text manifesting across his vision. I was immediately exasperated with the apparent ridiculous cod-spy element - if I want to watch Inspector Gadget, I'll put on the DVD. But of course it's a big twist - Magnussen has no gadget glasses, nor does he possess a vault of compromising information. Rather, it's all in his head, and he trusts the public's capacity for believing anything they read in the papers to manufacture his proof for him. So are we honestly expected to believe that Magnussen, for all intents and purposes, sees text across his vision? At least with Holmes the words appear here and there where relevant to indicate to the viewer what he is noticing, not like some kind of computer readout. And of course this is an excuse for some tiresome Moffat cheekiness, as Magnussen's data-scroll reveals the subject's preference, among other things, for adult material. Of course he only performs this "scan" once upon a female character, indicating no preference, embellishing Moffat's insane gender perception. He seems to buy into some kind of Madonna dichotomy where women are either completely sexless or the reverse without being capable of a balanced portrayal of human sexuality.
A fitting label for whoever said that beanies look good on anyone.
Speaking of which, the other big revelation in this episode is that Mary Watson née Morstan is a former CIA killer whose name is taken from a deceased child and who has a dark past of covert deeds, all known to Magnussen. Watson is understandably exasperated, wondering if everyone he knows is a "psychopath." Much like in New Who, I don't think "psychopath" means what Moffat thinks it means. A "psychopath" is a person with a psychological disorder who is manipulative and has no capacity for empathy. Psychopaths are incapable of loving or even liking people, only seeing them as objects to use for their personal advantage. Mary cannot be a "psychopath" any more than Holmes can be a "high functioning sociopath", not only a scientifically meaningless term according to modern understandings of the concept but one not borne out by his own behaviour. Despite their own agreement, they are not "psychopaths" any more than Moffat's Doctor or River Song are. Holmes could not be Watson's friend, nor "Mary" his loving wife if they genuinely had those disorders. And of course we discover that Mary shoots Holmes in front of Magnussen to put Magnussen off the trail, and that in spite of uncertainty she genuinely loves Watson and that marrying him was not part of any kind of gambit, so the entire section of arguing that Watson has some kind of fetish for these sorts of personalities barely makes sense, at least not in the terms used in the episode. Holmes' constant self-reference as a "high functioning sociopath" just reeks of script-based branding as well, characters putting labels on themselves for the convenience of the writers.
Where every tumblr fangirl wants to be.
In the end there's no mystery or tension at all. Holmes sells Mycroft out to Magnussen in order to get the information he has on Mary, only to discover that everything is in Magnussen's head. Magnussen is going to attempt to make Holmes and Watson look like traitors and the cavalry arrives, Mark Gatiss barking orders from a helicopter as if he believes that his brother would have arbitrarily gone rogue. With no other choice to destroy the compromising information and spare Mary and Watson, Holmes kills Magnussen and is arrested. I honestly thought it was going to turn out that Mycroft was telling Holmes to move away from Magnussen so that they could kill the latter, but no, apparently this was a twist that didn't cross Moffat's mind, Mycroft arbitrarily becoming completely stupid at the end of the story for no obvious reason. Holmes' only hope of a reprieve is to go on a suicide mission to Eastern Europe, but before he can do so Moriarty hijacks the TV, Holmes' plane is turned around and, apparently, everything's back to business for the next series. What's the point? It's entirely manipulative, a big emotional farewell between Holmes and Watson set up just to be instantly subverted. This is, in my opinion, the worst kind of forced drama intended to trick the audience into ignoring the insubstantiality of the plot. It boggles my mind that after two years this was all they could come up with. How hard would it have been to just write a decent detective story?
"Tell me when to stop contracting my fingers."
There are, surprisingly, some decent nods to "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton", including Holmes' fake proposal to gain access to him and the notion of Milverton getting murdered by his victim, although that isn't followed through with here. We also get a reference to "The Man with the Twisted Lip" when Watson discovers Holmes on a case in a drug den. On the other hand there's a bunch of random crap, like Mary's real initials being A.G.R.A., a reference to the Agra fort in India which is the location of some of the back story in "The Sign of the Four." Magnussen also I failed to find very interesting, being depicted as a typical enemy pervert who licks people and, as I've said, relieves himself beneath the mantle, as well as having a passion for classic 1982 arcade game Joust if the ostrich lancer statue in his house is anything to go by. Was "a better class of criminal" another reference to The Dark Knight? Molly slaps Sherlock repeatedly and we are reminded of how in Moffat's world, as we already knew, women have to resort to physical violence to make a point to men, because god forbid they're ever allowed to explain their frustrations or anything. No, they apparently just lash out. This is not egalitarian. It's condescending and crude. Holmes gets Mycroft in an arm lock for little reason, suggesting he's more like modern Mr Spock repressing his violent urges than operating on a different level. He also has an extended, utterly bizarre imaginary sequence much like last week where people he knows embody elements of his thought process and talk him through being shot, including a hallucinatory strait-jacketed Moriarty in a padded cell whose presence at this point totally undermines the surprise of seeing him at the end. Another Moffat cliché gets trotted out when imaginary Moriarty starts rhyming. The revelation of Mary's fake identity has no impact - oh, she was a spy, like every other character in this show - and nothing really happens for any particularly valid reason. Holmes' parents, a one off joke in an earlier episode, are now brought in as supporting cast, Moffat not understanding that less is more. For all Mary's secrecy, we hear more than enough to draw our own conclusions.
"No Steven, I won't play the Master opposite Capaldi."
Sherlock often gets described as "slick", which is really a nice way of saying "style over substance." There's so little to grasp in this episode, just a bunch of set pieces and jumps forward in time which apparently are what Moffat does when he's in a rush. I'm sick of all this crap with "mind palaces" and smug characters going on about how clever they are and then never really doing much at all besides stand around looking intense while dramatic music crashes in the background. I don't even know what I'm watching. Not only is this very far removed from anything really approaching Sherlock Holmes apart from a few character and place names and narrative devices, it's certainly not any kind of detective show anymore, more like an airport-bookstore thriller with loads of soap layered on. I'm hoping that Moriarty isn't really back but that he staged some kind of revenge act after his own death, because their interpretation is arse and Moriarty isn't meant to come back anyway, but who knows when a fourth series will even be made. As it stands I can't help but look at the third series of Sherlock as a terrific waste of time and money which has completely run its course. I don't care about the characters or the plots at all. Of course Holmes wasn't going to die on the operating table. Of course he wasn't going to fly off to his death in (scare quotes) "Eastern Europe" - one of those nasty uncivilised parts of the world where bad people live, apparently - and of course, I suppose, Moriarty wouldn't be gone forever. This is a show that cares more about titillation than earning its dramatic points. I wouldn't be surprised if one of the episodes of series four is eighty minutes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman yelling at each other in a room followed by ten minutes of Holmes running up and down a corridor yelling things like "mind palace" and discovering that in the end poor old Britain actually is safe from all the evil foreign people who hate the Western way of life, interrupted briefly by Mark Gatiss slinking in, drawling and sneering while Moriarty takes up flashing old ladies as his latest dastardly scheme. Yeah, I didn't like "His Last Vow" much but pardon me if I'd prefer if Sherlock Holmes of all people actually solved crimes more than once per series.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Sherlock: "The Sign of Three"

Getting into the spirit of Victorian racial attitudes.
Was I expecting an adaptation of "The Sign of the Four" from the phenomenally witty and clever title of this episode? Not really. The basic gist of this episode is flashbacks, with crimes being served up in dribs and drabs. We begin with Lestrade acting like a tit as he gets more and more frustrated in the company of Donovan who, unlike Anderson, hasn't grown a beard and joined tumblr. There are some dastardly criminals, the Waters Family, on the loose. Their crime? Re enacting the opening scene of The Dark Knight apparently, robbing banks in clown masks. They eventually get caught in the act, a computer warning telling the police "Hacking Detected", some of the most hilariously pathetic Hollywood-style computing misrepresentation I've seen in a while. I'm surprised there wasn't a big red progress bar that beeped loudly when it was full. There's an emergency at Baker Street, however, so Lestrade rushes off to discover that it's just Holmes struggling to write his best man speech for Watson's wedding. Of course, we know it's going to be a joke, it's more predictable than the sun coming up in the morning, but for god's sake. Is this a comedy? How much humour does this show really need?
You either die a hero, or live long enough
to see yourself performing a Moffat/Gatiss(/Thompson) script.
Anyway, in a rather repetitious fashion, this episode, much like the one before, is primarily a character study. That's fine, but this show does three episodes every couple of years, roughly speaking. Does there really need to be another episode that's primarily character focused? The next one had better be pretty damn intriguing. Of course the crimes Holmes recollects in this episode during his speech all tie together but basically it's just a bit of the old stabby-stabby, foreseen from the outset when we get a long lingering shot of a horribly scarred military officer with burns all over one side of his face. Am I watching The Dark Knight? Anyway because it's Sherlock we can expect that he's probably the target, what with, as I mentioned last week, the general sense of nostalgia for Britain's glory days. If this was Castle he'd almost definitely be a former special forces mercenary, 'cause they love to show soldiers becoming criminals. And of course I'm not going to act like this episode is all "the army is brilliant" because we can see that clearly Major Sholto's scars are more than skin deep. Sholto's name is of course a reference to "The Sign of the Four" but these connections are, by contrast to this character's trauma, relatively shallow.
"Off the adult furniture, Martin."
So how does this episode go on the character front? It's all right, I suppose. The thing is, we already know this version of Holmes is really weird and that Watson is his friend in spite of it all. We see how he's been a positive, humanising influence on Holmes, which is something that comes out in the original stories. So that's all right, even if I think it's a tad laboured. In fact Holmes has changed so much he's actually started to act a bit like the Eleventh Doctor in the days of his dotage, running up and down, yelling, waving his arms around and slapping himself. We get a nice pointless cameo from Irene Adler - she must have been either really bored or in the need of some quick dosh - to remind us of that episode which should have been handling all this last series when the Holmes/Watson friendship fell, at times, by the wayside. And of course we get to see what Holmes would act like when he's drunk, which is basically just like any comedy drunk person in a TV show (and to a certain extent in reality): he stumbles around, falls asleep and throws up. At times funny, mostly a bit cliché, could have been better.
"I've just graduated from Harvard College Yale.
I aced every semester and I got an A."
We're suddenly all on board with Mary too, which is pretty startling given that we've known her all of one episode before this, but given that it's all fairly run of the mill Sherlock Holmes stuff I don't really care. I guess I felt slightly moved when Holmes was saying what a good chap he thought Watson was and all that? It just bores me to tears when character development becomes the focus. I'm generally in favour of plot-driven drama in cases like this because I think characterisation works better in the background. But Sherlock knows its audience, right? I mean, it knows that if anyone wants to see a slightly eccentric man in the modern day solving unusual crimes they can put on an old Jonathan Creek or something, so they focus on the character of the detective rather than the crimes he solves. But I feel like they've really wrung as much mileage as they can from poking and prodding Holmes' peculiarities and reassuring us that at the end of the day he's really a big softie like the rest of us by now, haven't they? I feel like there has to be a better compromise here, I mean, they've got ninety minutes to work with, serve us up a proper mystery.
Oh, was this written by Moffat? I wouldn't have guessed.
One letter short of a description of the episode.
The mystery in this episode turns out to be the connection between the murder of Dean from Harry Potter and the attempted murder of Major Sholto, each stabbed through the belt so that they'd die when they removed their uniforms. Interesting that they didn't notice the pain of getting stabbed. I'm not sure we're really offered quite enough explanation for why Dean or whatever he was called in this was so exposed to his killer that he thought he was being stalked by him. Why did the photographer need to hang around so much that he attracted suspicion? The revenge plot involving Sholto is pretty by the numbers as well. The tie in of course is with the photographer's role as a "ghost" dater who apparently found out information on Sholto by taking the identities of dead men and dating Sholto's staff. Makes sense, I suppose, but it was mostly worth it for Alice Lowe. It's ten years this year since Garth Marenghi's Darkplace first aired. Bloody hell. I dunno why, but I've always had a thing for Alice Lowe. I wish she was in more stuff. I dunno why I feel the need to mention it but what else is there to say? Oh, apparently Holmes' inner landscape sometimes is a kind of parliamentary room where Mark Gatiss dictates to him from a pulpit. Why does Mycroft need to be in this so much? He gets a scene in this for absolutely no reason, similar to related bits of padding with, for instance, Mrs Hudson. The second Mrs Hudson scene made me want to chew off my own leg with boredom. Are we supposed to assume that Holmes is always imagining Mycroft telling him what to do? I suppose Mycroft is supposed to represent his rationality but it still seems weird and kind of pointless.
"...are you done yet?"
There's a line Watson makes in this about "faking opinions" which is more or less reused from Coupling, Moffat seemingly resorting to cannibalising his own stuff. Is Sherlock doomed to always have boring middle episodes full of extraneous cushioning? Also, was the final scene meant to evoke the Third Doctor's departure from Jo at the end of "The Green Death"? Who knows. This episode feels a bit like a mash of a bunch of different things served up to Benedict Cumberbatch to make the most of when he's not playing the awkward "high functioning sociopath" bits that have been trotted out since the show began. I didn't mind his scenes with Mary's bridesmaid, although they veered into the blatantly contradictory when he was borderline flirty with her. Does he or does he not get people? Him getting along with the little kid was also kind of amusing, although the bit where his mum said Holmes had "promised him pictures as a treat" - I know the implication was gruesome crime scene images but like... well, never mind. "The Sign of Three" then. Oh, I suppose the little fellow with the blowpipe was a reference to the original novel. In any event, I had to take a break from this two thirds of the way through because I was so bored. Then again Alice Lowe was in it, so maybe it's the best episode of Sherlock ever? We need to put the heavy character focus to rest now and have a really, really good, interesting, perplexing crime. It's what Holmes would want, after all.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Sherlock: "The Empty Hearse"

"There's a Hollywood villain role going downstairs?
No time, get the bungee rope!"
Yeah, I never got around to finishing my review of "The Reichenbach Fall." One word summary? Shit. The point at which Sherlock, one of the most staggeringly overrated programmes of recent years on television, collapsed into nothing more than a hybrid of cheap thriller and psycho-drama with all pretence of being a detective story abandoned, it was a tedious and disappointing piece of television most objectionable for its overuse of the show's insufferable portrayal of Moriarty. Two years later and Sherlock is back for another series of three ninety-minute instalments. What does this episode have to do? Firstly, it needs to explain how Holmes faked his death. Secondly, it needs to explore the ramifications of this for Holmes' friends and colleagues, especially Watson. Thirdly, it preferably needs to tell an interesting story of its own. "The Empty Hearse" wastes time on the first, traverses cliché and predictable routes for the second and is entirely perfunctory on the third. It's not nearly as objectionable of content as "The Blind Banker" or "A Scandal in Belgravia" but it's rather routine and hasn't toned down the appalling smugness as much as is really necessary.
"David Burke? Never heard of him."
To summarise the plot, Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch have spent the last two years filming "The Hobbit" (italics reserved for the books, adaptations only get quotation marks) and other Hollywood projects like the godawful "Star Trek Into Darkness", while Moffat and Gatiss have been writing shit episodes of New Who, and as a result it has conveniently taken Holmes two years to disassemble what remains of Moriarty's international crime network. Despite the typical punning title, "The Empty Hearse" owes little to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original tale of the Great Detective's resurrection, being reminiscent only in the fact that it involves Holmes' return and that the antagonist is named Moran. Holmes must negotiate his reappearance to Watson and solve a terrorist plot, after being rescued from Serbia by Mycroft in another lame spy spoof scene. This second element is utterly humdrum, making the episode feel like a knockoff of, simultaneously, the lamentable Skyfall and the over-simplified film adaptation at least of "V for Vendetta", featuring an explosive-laden tube train intended to blow up Parliament, this time at the demands of a "Lord Moran." Rather than being Moriarty's second in command, Moran here is a character-less seditionist apparently in the pocket of Pyongyang whose only purpose is to be observed suspiciously disappearing on some security footage and pushing a button in a hotel room. Now that I think about it, all the imagery of Parliament getting blown up and MPs vulnerable in session actually rather strongly evokes nothing less than the first of the Guy Ritche-directed Holmes films, so it's hardly fresh stuff. But this episode cares little about the plot, being more interested in observing how Watson would react to his friend's return.
"So you wanna play Boggle, or Super Mario Bros.?"
And for what it's worth, "The Empty Hearse" doesn't do too badly in exploring how one might react if one's best friend was revealed to have faked their own death and apparently everyone knew but you. We do get some fairly predictable material featuring Watson repeatedly attacking Holmes as they get kicked out of more and more down-market eating establishments. The problem is that Holmes never gives a good enough account of himself for why Watson, Mrs Hudson and Lestrade were left in the dark - interestingly, the "canonical" characters. Gatiss/Moffat inventions Molly, Holmes' parents and the "homeless network" (replacing the Baker Street Irregulars) were all clued up. Of course, so was Mycroft, much like the original tales. Once again we get perhaps more scenes featuring Sherlock and Mycroft than are strictly necessary, and isn't it hilarious to see them playing Operation when we thought it was chess. Before the end I was sure it was going to turn out that Molly had gotten engaged to Mycroft. I did like them showing Mycroft's own powers of deduction, something the show has to this point omitted. Holmes saving Watson from the as yet unresolved bonfire scenario was a good enough way of reconciling the two, I suppose, but I still think Holmes should have emphasised that he faked his death to save Watson's life, not just because he thought he'd let something slip. We also get a ghastly "I'm not gay!" moment from Watson which is even lazier than the constant Holmes/Watson gay jokes of series gone by. Perhaps the most pleasant part of the episode, for some reason, was Holmes having Molly along as his substitute Watson, although that too got muddled up in all sorts of boring romantic tripe about how she's moved on by getting engaged to a man who looks a lot like and dresses identically to Sherlodict Cumberholmes. As a general rule there's a bit too much comedy in the episode, especially involving cutaways between Holmes and Watson where they appear, purely for the sake of jokes, to be finishing each other's sentences in silly ways. It's the same as New Who, really - this is what happens when you get comedy writers to do the job of writers actually experienced in the field.
It's this or the Guy Ritchie ones. Choose your poison.
As for how Holmes faked his death, we get three explanations: one from Anderson involving masks, bungee cords and action heroics, one from a fangirl involving a deliberate and appropriately amusing pastiche of the homoerotic dreams of the fan-fiction brigade, and one from Holmes himself which Anderson doesn't believe. I suppose it's nice to see Anderson get his comeuppance for being so disagreeable in earlier series, as well as the explanation for why that girl screamed in "The Reichenbach Fall" but I can't help but feel that it's too much. I get the impression that Gatiss and Moffat are trying to poke fun at how no explanation they gave would ever satisfy all comers, but maybe because I'm such an utter contrarian (among other things featuring the letters C N and T in that order) I actually thought that Holmes' explanation was fine. Well, I had one quibble. Watson needed to see a body, but did they need an actual corpse? Couldn't anyone in a wig and overcoat have done? Anyway, it was fine with me, but I think it was overdone. As for performances, they're all fine, and I actually liked the way Holmes seemed to have abandoned some of the overemphasised traits from the last series. With the Watson moustache I actually found Martin Freeman very convincing. Put him in a bowler hat and Victorian clothes and he'd probably be spot on as a canonical Watson. Speaking of, it's somewhat disconcerting to see from the titles alone how steeped this show is in the atmosphere of British Imperialism which was so vital to Conan Doyle. If British culture from Thatcher's time has become increasingly steeped in imperialist nostalgia perhaps this modern update of Holmes isn't so surprising. Sherlock is still, essentially, a battler for Britain, who in this goes even further in interfering in the business of other countries, most of which are fetishised in a very Victorian way. In this, Holmes is involved in defending Parliament during a rather simplistically-described debate of an anti-terrorism bill which is only given the most offhand scrutiny in a background voiceover. I would argue that Moffat and Gatiss try to make Holmes seem relevant, which he inevitably cannot be outside the context of late nineteenth century Britain, by immersing the programme in generic post 9-11 Western xenophobic paranoia, emphasised by the utter banality and effortlessness of the "terrorist threat" potentially sponsored in this narrative by the current cliché bogeyman of North Korea - I suppose Iran would have been the only other possibility. As an equivalent of the atmosphere in Conan Doyle's time of British power being threatened by the United States ascendant in the West and Germany similarly in the East it's probably appropriate, but as such comes across to my mind as rather small-minded, politically conservative and borderline jingoistic - but the show's been like that since "The Blind Banker" at the very least.
"Get a good angle, these need to be splashed all
over tumblr by midnight tonight!"
"The Adventure of the Empty House" always had the benefit of being set in the age of Victorian values when overt emotions were reserved and private, so there was no great need to explore the ramifications of Holmes' apparent death and subsequent reappearance upon Watson in extravagant detail. Indeed having simply escaped Moriarty's clutches, rather than deliberately staging his own demise, the real Holmes was to a certain extent off the hook, having never really misled Watson in the first place. The good Doctor faints, Holmes apologises, and we get on with things. I would have been interested to see a Sherlock interpretation of Colonel Moran but sadly it was not to be. "The Empty Hearse," perhaps without choice, bites off a bit more than it can plausibly chew even within the relatively relaxed constraints of ninety minutes of television. The plot isn't interesting enough to keep the narrative in momentum and the whole "how did he do it" aspect is over embellished, especially since, as Watson himself points out, the more important question within the framework of this show, and the part that doesn't really get satisfactorily dealt with, is why. It's arguably one of the stronger of the show's amusingly small number of episodes, but given that "A Study in Pink" is really the only good one that's not exactly difficult. A bit less smugness would be appreciated too; the show is frustratingly tiresome in its enthusiasm for being ironic, post-modern and self aware to the extent that it becomes impossible to take seriously, as emphasised by the moment of Holmes putting on the deerstalker, a piece of inaccurate shorthand for the original Great Detective. I'm sure die hard fans of this show could convince themselves that anything was worth the wait but for my part more of an emphasis on a new plot would have been welcome. By all means resolve what came before, but it's not necessary to spend so much time on it just for the sake of humour and deflecting criticism. In fact it comes across as a tad insecure and defensive on the part of Gatiss and Moffat, although that's not really surprising behaviour. Setting up a new villain arc, seemingly featuring some adaptation of Charles Augustus Milverton, isn't quite enough to sell me on an episode that spends too much time resolving the one that came before.