Thursday, 23 January 2014

#SherlockLives and is a Little the Worse for Wear: The Faults of Series 3

All the right ideas are there, they are just not necessarily utilised in the right way. This is a review, a complaint and a 'what if?'

The Empty Episode 
“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

When Sherlock took his fall at the conclusion of series 2, the solution to how he survived it was not something that concerned me for too long. The solution was always going to be simple and, as the episode rightly establishes, it was always going to be a let-down. I was more interested in what he got up to in the Great Hiatus, as it is commonly referred to, the two year period (three years in the original stories) in which Sherlock traversed the globe dismantling Moriarty's international network. 

Aside from a few very brief mentions in the original stories, this is a period that Arthur Conan Doyle does not give us a lot of details to go on and this is precisely why this period is so tantalising. Some of the non-canonical Holmes fiction has provided their own takes on it and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution gives us an altogether different reason for the hiatus. However, Sherlock being as bold and brave in its storytelling as the first two series have already demonstrated, I was intrigued to see if the gap would be something the show would detail and demonstrate how this globetrotting adventure had transformed the Sherlock character.

While this period is briefly touched on in the mini episode prequel: Many Happy Returns, like Doyle's original stories, it was left largely untouched in the new series (for now). 

For me, this is the reason for why The Empty Hearse is ultimately a huge let-down, because it not only fails to tell us what Sherlock got up to, it fails to really elaborate on what happened to Sherlock's cult following in that two year absence. Again, this is ever so briefly touched upon in the episode with Anderson's little fan club 'The Empty Hearse', but I wanted to show to be very bold in its presentation of the reaction of Sherlock's cult following in regards to his apparent death and professional discredadation. 

In short, I wanted the episode to utilise what had happened, from our point of view, in the real world after the credits had rolled on The Reichenbach Fall. I wanted the episode to make use of the sherlock is real meme that had spread like wildfire across cyberspace, during our own two year wait for his return. 

Why does this matter?

The problem with this opening episode is it completely discredits the brilliance of series 2. I am not just talking about the fall (that was always going to be belittled in this opening episode), I am talking about how it discredits Moriarty's masterful plan to furthermore discredit Sherlock and his career. I could not believe it when the episode just offhandedly proclaimed Moriarty as the real fake and brushed the whole of series 2 under the carpet! 

With The Empty Hearse, the episode's writer (and Mycroft) Mark Gatiss had a prime opportunity to create a mystery that weaved together Sherlock's return, John's reaction, the introduction of Mary Morstan, touch upon what Sherlock got up to in his absence, what his following 'The Empty Hearse' got up to in his absence and weave this all together in a new mystery of how Sherlock, through utilising the help of 'The Empty Hearst', exposes the truth about Moriarty and then uses this revelation to re-introduce himself to the world in a blaze of glory - what a brilliant opening episode for a new series. 

Fair enough, we did get some of this: the trouble that John has with coming to turns with his dead friend's return, the introduction of Mary Morstan and the speculation of how Sherlock faked his death, that is all fine, it is everything else that is the problem. It is a problem because, instead of getting a mystery plot based around everything that was prevalant to the minds of the characters and our own, we got a terrorist plot (bored to death terrorist plots now) to blow up the Houses of Parliament on Bonfire Night using the underground system.

Wait a minute, haven't we seen that somewhere before?

Not even to mention Skyfall, Gatiss relentlessly 'borrows' from other stories! Borrowing ideas is okay, it is a part of the creative process. However, when you borrow ideas to the point where the accumlation of those borrowed ideas, just amounts to a complete imitation of something else - it's time to go back to the word processor.

Basically, what I am saying is that I wanted Gatiss to utilise everything that had been left hanging at the end of series 2, everything that had happened in hiatus from our and Sherlock's point of view as the material to build The Empty Hearse around, opposed to introducing new material which feels contrived and, ultimately, a huge waste of time.

There is a final problem with the episode and it is one that effects the third series as a whole - it takes forever to get started. That rip-roaring pace you need to ignite a new series, especially if it has been off our screens for two years is just not there. The episode stops, starts, stops, starts, stops, starts, stops and then when it REALLY does start with the imminent destruction of Parliament? The episode is over.

This creates a problem for the whole third series, because as the first two series have already demonstrated, and indeed any trilogy has shown, the middle part is always is always the slowest of the three and should be the slowest of the three. The middle part is when reflect on and further develop what has come before it. After the rip-roaring introduction, it allows us a bit of breather, before we are delved into the everything-at-stake third act. However, if the first part is too slow, it means we leave one slow part, go into another slow part and then like the opening episode itself, by the time the rip roaring action starts in the third act/third episode, when the stakes are at their highest... the series is over.

In short, The Empty Hearse is the result of lazy writing and a short-sighted pacing issue - this is Sherlock at its worst!

The Best of Three 

"So... the big question... the best man?"

Sherlock is at its best when it is pushing its characters and basic format into new directions; indeed, this is the very premise that this modern day reinterpretation of Sherlock Holmes is built on. Therefore, the idea of taking the cold deductor of old and making him John Watson's best man is a story too irresistible to resist.

Like the subject matter of The Sign of Three, the episode is very much a unification of everything that makes the modern day re-interpretation of Sherlock such a winning formula. In a departure to previous episodes, The Sign of Three has been penned by the show's three writers: Gatiss, Steven Moffat and Stephen Thomas and this makes The Sign of Three both a charming amalgamation of everything that has gone before it and something that is very different to everything that has gone before it. 

Like the collaboration of the writers behind it, the episode is told very differently to previous ones - the story and mystery of the episode is presented to us as a narration as Sherlock weaves his way through his best man speech. This storytelling device is my biggest praise of the episode, because it allows us to get inside Sherlock's tantalising mental process like never before. Certainly, being able to see how Sherlock puts things together inside his head is one of the show's biggest innovations and sources of praise. 

However, this episode gave us a first-hand tour through it like never before, unlike previously where we would get the occasional glimpse, here, pretty much the whole episode is a step-by-step tour of how Sherlock's conscious and unconscious mind pieces together the solution to a case. It makes for a nice alternative and harks back to the stories in which Doyle had the character narrate the adventures from his logical and deductive manner.  

As I have already commented, the middle section of a trilogy is when things slow down for a bit of reflection and The Sign of Three does this admirably, I really can not fault this episode. I find the contents (drunk Sherlock - brilliant) of the episode to be spot on in regards to the story it is telling, the way in which it is further developing the characters and how it logically sets Sherlock up for another fall and what I hope will be...

His Last Cop-out

"High functioning sociopath."

A comparison is made between Saint George and the Dragon and Sherlock and his line of business. This comparison is made both as a proclamation of Sherlock Holmes' britishness and his status as the defender of the realm. Furthermore, considering Mycroft's close association with the establishment, it makes sense for his character to be the one who makes the comparison. However, there is a problem with this comparison, because it should have been present throughout the whole of His Last Vow.

Mycroft should have made this comparison when he confronted Sherlock about his supposed drug problem at 221b Baker Street. I say this for two reasons:

  1. Embedding that noble quality and reminding the audience of Sherlock's status as a hero early on in the episode makes his eventual sacrifice all the more shocking and heart-breaking.
  2. Ultimately, introducing this comparison three quarters of the way through the episode makes its inclusion feel forced, like it was quickly added at the last minute to make the already awkward ending run a little smoother. Well, I say awkward, I actually mean full blown cop-out!

Like John's addiction to danger and bloodshed, Sherlock's status as St. George should have been established right form the get go and these two plot points should have weaved around each other, throughout the episode, right up to the point where Sherlock executes Magnussen - the point at which the characters experience a significant shift with Sherlock's fall from grace.
High functioning sociopath indeed and this shocking murder makes complete sense for this modern interpretation of the character. This development was foreshadowed all the way back in A Study in Pink and I commend Moffat for going through with it! It superbly develops the murder of Magnussen, or Milverton, from the original story, The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton. Fair enough, Holmes does not actually murder him in the original story, but he does prevent Watson from stopping Lady Blackwell, whom Milverton was blackmailng, from murdering him. 

Lars Mikkelson as Charles Augustus Magnussen. A new type of vile and chilling villain - brilliantly played, but slightly underused.

As in His Last Vow, Holmes reasons that this is the best way to deal with the master blackmailer. Ultimately, this development now allows the writers to explore the character and how the other characters' relate to him in a number of tantalisingly different ways from here on out.

Likewise, the revelation of Mary Morstan as not being Mary Morstan, who is in fact an ex-hitwoman trying to retire from her past, was a brilliant addition As the episode demonstrates, it makes complete logical psychological sense that John Watson would fall in love with a killer and it makes Mary an even more intriguing addition to the Sherlock family. 

Die hard Sherlock Holmes fans and general traditionalists can sometimes find themselves getting a little threatened by the new additions and changes that the writers impllement in the modern-day Sherlock; sometimes, they also completely overreact, as the death threats level at Amanda Abbington's addition to the cast demonstrate! However, I applaud the writers and all the innovations they have implemented on what, after god knows how many re-tellings over the last one hundred years, has now become a very dusty character and format. I have no problem with Sherlock getting drunk, having a girlfriend and a best friend who is married to a cold hearted murder.
Indeed, this revelation of not one but two cold-hearted killers amongst the good guys will be a bit too hard for some to swallow, but I say that it was a necessary evil for the evolution of the show and the longevity of the Sherlock Holmes mythos. Like some of Mycroft's 'associates', Sherlock has shed his skin and revealed the necessary judge-jury-and-executioner that always lay at the heart of our Great Detective.

It was not a complete let-down, but the ending could have been better handled.

There is one major problem with revelation - it was made public, or it was made public to the British government. The law makers should quite rightly prosecute Sherlock for this crime and, while Mycroft does convince them to exile him to a certain death in six months or so, now that Sherlock has returned to the UK (not that he ever left), it creates a problem for how the government and the writers will sweep this under the carpet in a believable and satisfying way (I bet it has something to do with house arrest; confining Sherlock to London), without it seeming ridiculous and avoiding  that inevitable, "but, hold on...?"

If anything, as with Sherlock's faked death and following two years absence, I do not want the writers to sweep it under the carpet and this is where making the execution private would have enabled an easier handover for series 4 and a broader spectrum through which to explore the characters.

If the murder had been kept a secret we would have avoid the pointless cop-out cliffhanger ending of: let's prosecute Sherlock; no, wait, let's put him on a plane and exile him; hold on, isn't that Moriarty; right, bring Sherlock back - what?

How it should have ended:

What if the security services had never come or arrived too late at Appledore and John had been the only witness to Sherlock's death deed, we would have avoided this cop-out ending. You could have had Sherlock and John agree to keep the deed a secret and sew a seed of guilt beneath the surface. For the successive series, it would become the thing Sherlock did that John and Sherlock never discuss, but which is creating a slowing growing tension and which we all know Mycroft has deduced, but never discusses to protect his brother whose loss would break his heart. Ultimately, the deed becomes a growing anxiety and if the secret ever came out, if would destroy Sherlock and all the people that he cares about. You close the episode hinting at the tension and intrigue this secret is creating beneath the surface... and then you re-introduce Moriarty for the cliff-hanger.

However, instead, we are lumbered with a contrived, "Damn it. Turn around, I left my Moriarty at home!"

The Dying Dragon Slayer

"A Dragon Slayer - is that what you think of me?"

Moriarty's return did not come as a huge surprise; in our age of multimedia it was highly probable that Moriarty would eventually be resurrected as some form of viral meme and it will be interesting to see how the three writers handle this. Up until this point, the show has had a very grounded feel and it needs to be careful not to stray into the ridiculous, as it has already started to do with Sherlock's exile and convenient return.

A Study in Pink and A Scandal in Belgravia I still rate as some of the best television I have ever seen; while I rate these two as being superior, The Blind Banker, The Great Game, The Hounds of Baskerville, The Reichenbach Fall and The Sign of Three follow very close behind. The reason why they work so well is because they present the characters and the stories in a grounded and relatable context. 

Whenever people moan about the fact that there are only three episodes to a series and, so far, there been two year waits between series, I always point out the advantages of such a long wait - it gives the show's makers a great deal of time to really put something good together. Unfortunately, the third series is where I was partially proven wrong, but this does not mean this will be the same for series 4.

Like Doctor Who: The Angels Take Manhattan, another Moffat-misfire, that I have no great love for and which I refer to as an unfortunate glitch in space, time and basic common sense, the third series of Sherlock will hopefully be the only series where they got it wrong. Due to a lack of foresight of the show creators, series 3 of Sherlock has proven to be the weakest Sherlock trilogy to date. As Sherlock himself laments in The Sign of Three you don't always get it right.

However, Sherlock is not going anywhere anytime soon, the show has hit upon a winning formula and Moffat and Gatiss have already expressed their desire to present the entire career of Sherlock Holmes. Being event television, this is another advantage of having such a long wait between new instalments, because it means the public and/or the makers will not tire of it. 

I very much want to see the show reach its final conclusion many years down the line with an aged Cumberbatch playing the retired sleuth, as he tends to his bees on the Sussex Downs, in what I am sure will be The Dying Detective or, as the show does, flip it around and present Watson's last bow in The Dying Doctor. There is still huge potential for this show; in the kinds of stories it tells and the experiences it enables.

If anything, I want to see the show develop beyond television. As with the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary episode, the idea to screen each episode of Sherlock in cinemas simultaneous to the television broadcast, I think is an excellent, logistacal and profitable idea. Each instalment being an hour and half long already qualifies them as films and the two lead characters are played by two mega-huge film stars. Basically, if the BBC does not go through with this, they are going to make themselves look really stupid!

The Final Conclusion

On the whole, aside from The Empty Hearse, the contents of the series I do not have a problem with, it is the way in which they have been orchestrated! As Sherlock himself deletes redundant information from his memory palace, I will probably just have to do the same with some parts of series 3... what was I moaning about again?

Come on Moffat, Gatiss and Thomson, you have got two (and probably more) years to re-think your approach. No excuses, here there be dragons to be slain, some of them your own, the game is on...

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