Sunday, January 3, 2016

Sherlock: "The Abominable Bride"

Breaking up with the Joker.
An abominable episode of an abominable show, "The Abominable Bride" surprised me by not wholly falling into every prediction I'd outlined in my 2015 article disclosing my fears. That's not to say it wasn't pretty uneventful television, but it could have been worse. It could have been infinitely better, but it could have been worse. It's still pretty bad, like almost all Sherlock is, but in this case largely for different reasons.

Correct Holmes attire: the bow tie inexplicably tucked under the collar.
The overall premise of "The Abominable Bride", if you didn't know already, is that it takes the Sherlock characters and actors and places them in the setting of the original novels and short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who seems to get a rather begrudging credit at the end of the title sequence after the "Written and Created By Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss" credit has made its rather doubtful claim - it's not as if they created the most important elements). Thus Holmes is a pipe-smoking sleuth who wears dressing gowns at home and a deerstalker and Inverness cape abroad, Watson is a moustache and bowler hat sporting Second Afghan War Veteran, Mrs Hudson is a housekeeper as well as a landlady, Lestrade is, well, Lestrade still but with mutton chops (this special overlooks his penchant for peculiar and affectedly fashionable outfits which Watson remarks upon in the original stories) and Mycroft is a fat bastard (actually in the original stories he was just a tall man of large build, probably overweight but not obese). To add their own flavour, Mary Morstan actually has a role instead of disappearing after The Sign of the Four, and Sherlock-specific character Molly Hooper works as a coroner disguised as a man.

Having a flashback to the Crimea.
This all works reasonably well and the characters can take on Victorian roles, that mainstay of British television drama alongside Jane Austen's era, quite competently. It is a little jarring to the trained ear, however, to note when the characters switch between the precise Victorian English of Conan Doyle's own writing, which is referenced heavily in this, and a flippant modern idiom which writers tend to use these days for the sake of humorous juxtaposition, which is to say characters in a historical setting speaking like modern people. Thus Holmes and Watson tend to slip into modern vocabulary to crack jokes, which doesn't particularly appeal to me. Nonetheless it's all presented reasonably convincingly, but to be fair Victoriana is very safe territory for the BBC.
T-shirts with these outfits printed on them soon for the BBC online store.

The plot, as is typical with Sherlock, is quite perfunctory and rather secondary to the main interest of the piece. Essentially, Holmes is investigating a woman who apparently committed suicide before coming back to life and murdering her husband. The resolution to this is all fairly predictable: a fake body was used during the suicide, then the woman actually had a friend kill her because she was dying anyway (which seems rather implausible for the time) and then a secret cabal of suffragists teamed up to enact vengeance on the evil men in their lives using her spectral reputation as a cover. This is more or less all stuff we've seen before in Sherlock, and it's not very surprising, but it's also not really the point.

"'But Holmes!' I ejaculated."
Time and time again I've outlined the fact that Sherlock has been constipatedly straining over two endlessly repeated points of dramatic interest for its entire existence: what is Cumberbatch's Sherlock really like? Are Holmes and Watson really friends? And of course the answer is always "An eccentric man, but fundamentally a good one" and "Yes." You'd better believe that this is once again the area of interest of this special, with time spent dwelling on Holmes' asexuality, his drug use and his isolation from the world. One particularly bizarre point is an inexplicable conversation Holmes and Watson have while staking out the mysterious bride in which Watson insists that Holmes must have some kind of carnal urges and bugs him about it until he is forced to utter one of Moffat's meaningless fake aphorisms: "I made me," whatever that means. Furthermore, in the final confrontation with Moriarty, Holmes is not alone - despite everything (like drug abuse and so on) Watson is there to help him. Hurrah.

Stop right there criminal scum.
So really in terms of character drama it's just the same old song and dance, apart from maybe a bit more affirmation of Mycroft Holmes' genuine interest in his brother's welfare and Holmes having some kind of unnecessary realisation that he and Moriarty weren't really equal and opposite and bound to each other and so on because he has friends whereas Moriarty was just some weirdo who shot himself. But it really doesn't leave one with much. The plot's simplistic. The characterisation is repetitive and simplistic. As such, the whole thing has to rely on gimmickry in order to do something interesting. Thus we truly enter spoiler country, in case you weren't already there.

"There are now parking spaces reserved for Spider-Man,
Doctor Bollocks and Rosemary West."
It turns out in the course of events that the entire Victorian scenario is just a sort of vision in the drug-addled Holmes' head as he returns on the plane from the end of Series 3, because he needed to re enact a cold case about a woman shooting herself and apparently surviving to see if Moriarty too could have survived. Surprise surprise: he can't. Moriarty's dead, but there's some postmortem plan or some other party is using his image or something. In any event, the entire thing takes place while Holmes is having some kind of hallucinogenic dream experience in a plane seat while Watson, Mary and Mycroft sit around berating him for his bad habits. Did you know that in the original stories, Holmes only ever used drugs when he wasn't on a case? The idea that they would assist him in a case is pretty ludicrous.

"Can I be shipped with someone other than Mycroft please?"
Thus, much like the 2014 Doctor Who Christmas Special, there are dreams within dreams, such that Victorian Holmes is in a dream of Modern Holmes in a dream of Victorian Holmes in a dream of Modern Holmes, before the ending establishes that there's also a Victorian Holmes imagining the modern day just as the Modern Holmes is imagining the Victorian era. Not only does this make the whole thing feel rather pointless - it's all in Holmes' head and conveniently for Moffat and Gatiss any plot holes or mistakes can be waved away with "it wasn't real" it only emphasises the absurdity of the ending of Series 3, in which Holmes was sent on a suicide mission after killing Magnussen, only to be immediately recalled moments later with no consequences whatsoever, an utterly ludicrous ending which Moffat and Gatiss presented to the audience with a straight face as if daring them to object.

Now with 30% more hot air.
Moriarty's presence in this episode is extremely unwelcome. I have nothing against Andrew Scott as an actor but I can't stand this portrayal of Moriarty, which is essentially just Christopher Nolan's version of the Joker with an Irish accent. Victorian Mycroft even describes him as a maths professor, but in the episode he's the same old creepy Moriarty, making gay jokes about Holmes and Watson, fellating his revolver barrel and acting like he and Holmes are in some kind of codependent relationship. There's that "cheekiness" I feared in my "concerns" article. Typical rubbish. Moriarty should never be more than a plot device to kill off Holmes, nothing more. Scott's version of the character has well and truly had his day and I sincerely hope that when Holmes says that he's really dead at the end that he means it.

"I'm as English as Queen Victoria!"
I also pointed out in my concerns article that Holmes shouldn't wear his deerstalker and cape in the city yet he does, despite Watson voicing concern about wearing the country tweeds he's still wearing from a rural adventure to the city morgue. On the other hand, Cumberbatch's Holmes does look quite snappy in the sequence at the estate of Sir Eustace (a desperate-for-any-work Tim McInnerny) in which he is wearing the deerstalker and cape with a snazzy tartan country get-up. That's probably the highest compliment I can offer it, however. The use of the Victorian setting just made me want to see these actors getting to do classic-style Holmes stories, perhaps with a touch of extra darkness in the vein of those tales Watson considers to be too sensitive for public release. To touch upon the cinematography for a moment, this special also features some dreadful spinning transitions which have been described as a homage but look totally out of place and jarring here.

Care for some crack?
Other than that, "The Abominable Bride" doesn't really even get away with being a sort of whimsical New Years' romp. It's the typical Moffat bag of tricks with some feeble efforts to bring in a gender theme in order to swat away accusations of sexism or misogyny. The women are nonetheless still heavily undermined, sidelined and used as shallow stereotypes and plot devices, however, so it hardly scores any points there. While this outing wasn't as bothersome as I expected, I nonetheless think that Sherlock has well and truly lost its way from the early days when there was some competence involved in balancing the mysteries with the exploration of character. These days it just seems to be narrative trickery intended to seem clever (without being clever) and a bunch of references for the sake of Holmes fans and, indeed, pure Sherlock fans, with the Victorian Holmes having confusing reminisces of the experiences of his modern-day counterpart. All the other stuff, like postmodern jokes about the illustrator and Holmes trying to use Watson's presentation of himself against him, fat Mycroft, the Reichenbach Falls and all the rest of it would be completely meaningless to the majority of the audience who apparently (to my horror) have never read any Sherlock Holmes, although to be fair, no one reads anything anymore. Much like Moffat's Doctor Who and its ongoing obsession with pointless references to bits and pieces of the old series, this is really just an exercise in self-indulgence, not written for a mainstream audience and not even really written for Sherlock's own diehard fanbase, but rather written purely for Moffat and Gatiss themselves, emphasising to a greater extent than ever the sheer irrelevance of this abominable production.

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