The New Year Special of Sherlock, long awaited and heralded by slightly confusing teaser trailers, has come … and gone in less than two hours. Was the wait worth it? Was the hype justified? Was it Sherlock as we know it?
Yes, maybe, no. In short – The Abominable Bride, which was watched live by 8.4 million viewers on BBC One, was a worthy follow-up to the ultra-modern Sherlock episodes we had before. Whether the hype was justified is a matter of discussion, as not everybody liked it. And it certainly was not Sherlock as we knew it … because the bulk of the action, so to say, happened in the late 19th century.
As a life-long Sherlockian I sat through the whole experience with a broad grin on my face … having written my Master’s theses on the problem of reality and fiction in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (also referred to as “the canon” by the more obsessive fans), I liked it even more. Because this was a Meta-Sherlock, picking and mixing the best of many worlds.
The Plot – Did They Lose It?
The main plot of The Abominable Bride was not canonical. Having said that, “Ricoletti and his abominable wife” are mentioned in The Musgrave Ritual, but without further details. So the writing team worked from a canonical reference, but then created their own case. Stuffed with references to other canonical cases, from The Hound of the Baskervilles to The Five Orange Pips, to name but two of the more obvious ones. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat did a sterling job here.
Then again, did they? Because the plot was meandering, changing pace every now and then, but broadly speaking going nowhere. So those waiting for the good old cosy mystery drama were maybe a bit disappointed. And those waiting for their usual dose of Sherlock were so too, because right at the start the clock was radically turned backwards, and Cumberbatch and Freeman plonked right into the Victorian age. Where things looked familiar, yet were totally out of context, time-wise.
And this was part of the genius of The Abominable Bride – as Sherlock was so popular (well, apart from Cumberbatch, but that’s a different kettle of fish) exactly because the BBC took the familiar, and brought it into a totally different context … this switch of period was putting the icing on the cake.
Actually, the switch of period was the most important plot device. It was not just some big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff thrown in by Moffat for fun and self-reference (though there where moments when I thought Peter Capaldi would make a cameo appearance). Instead, it was the starting point for the actual plot of The Abominable Bride, which had not a lot to do with suicidal wives.
In short, and without major spoilers … what this Sherlock was about was facing demons – from drug addiction to sibling rivalry, from the fear of not being number one to the fear of being emasculated, from the institutionalised oppression of parts of the population to the vices that lead to self-destruction, from love to fear, and hate. And, above all, The Abominable Bride was about the realisation that we create our own enemies, and that we keep them alive in our minds, whether they are real or not.
The Best of British
On the other hand, Sherlock always was a new riff on the old jingoistic Britishness that still is deeply ingrained in middle-class, white society in the United Kingdom. The type of mentality that has English football supporters singing (to the tune of Yellow Submarine) “Two world wars and one world cup, one world cup, one world cup …” when facing a German team on the pitch (without any major success, most of the time). Though it could be argued, and I tend to follow that line, that it is Dr Watson more than Sherlock Holmes, who portrays this stiff-upper-lipped Brit facing the natives for Queen and country (which he actually did, canonically speaking).
But The Abominable Bride took this strain to a new level, a benign sideline. Like the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Summer Olympics, in which Danny Boyle paraded all that was good and great of the Isles of Wonder, Moffat and Gatiss provided a smorgasbord of Sherlockian goodness, mixed with nods to all things British.
Already the first few minutes had the viewer wondering whether the BBC had accidentally screened a Doctor Who episode, the clock going backwards in (almost) signature fashion. Only to be suddenly landed in the London of about 1895, Sherlock boldly going where no Cumberbatch had gone before. A London (that actually was Bath and Bristol most of the time, but never mind that) which strongly evoked Guy Ritchie’s London (which actually was Manchester quite a lot) in Sherlock Holmes, the splendid Robert Downey Jr. one. Even Martin Freeman seemed to have borrowed Jude Law’s moustache …
But the ‘tache was explained by Watson right away: “Oh blame it on the illustrator, he is out of control. I had to grow this moustache just so that people would recognize me.” Which does not prevent The Abominable Bride to use exactly that illustration out-of-control Sidney Paget had made for a train ride in Silver Blaze … the be recreated faithfully. Which had been done before, in the long-running TV series featuring Jeremy Brett, the most faithful adaptation of the canon.
Aficionados of the Sherlock Holmes TV series would also have noticed, with a knowing smile, that the intro sequence of The Abominable Bride bore a similarity to the intro of the series, down to the music. Here the BBC actually gave a tip of the hat to ITV, that’s what I call gentlemanly behaviour. And Watson’s desire to be recognized somehow riffed on Ben Kingsley in Without a Clue, one of the cleverest Sherlock Holmes spoofs ever. Not to mention Watson’s insistence on Sherlock wearing the right hat, and the “cultists”, both brought Young Sherlock Holmes to mind (a sort of “Harry Potter meets Indiana Jones” prequel I love).
Oh, and I could not but help thinking that Mark Gatiss’ retro-Mycroft was (while being truer to the canon than the Sherlock-Mycroft we knew) somewhat channelling Mr Creosote. Best of British indeed.
The Sherlockian’s Verdict?
It was, all in all, a great episode … but it was that only if you abandoned all hope of seeing a Sherlock episode of the usual kind. This would have had the time-switch reversed, this is what I can say without giving too much away (I hope).
Instead what we got was a very fine Meta-Sherlock, which knowingly nodded to other Sherlock Holmes fare, to British classics, to the world of imagination that is able to create its own mind-palace, either as an outright fantasy, or as the ancient “Method of Loci” … which, again, was so successfully employed by Doctor Who in Heaven Sent. Written by Steven Moffat. We are going in circles, you see?
And it worked. It worked fine indeed. To me it was an instant classic (a verdict not shared by She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, I hasten to add), worthy of revisiting in future (get the DVD, I say). Also because it broke the mould a bit – while Sherlock Holmes still was the central figure of, well, Sherlock, more room was given to the Watsons, even to Mrs Hudson, the long-suffering landlady reduced to a plot device. Not centre stage, but pulling their weight nonetheless. And the return of Andrew Scott (“Dead is the new sexy.”), with all the renewed homoerotic, now even symbiotic, undertones was most welcome … though his final scene (or was it?) reversed the Paget image of the struggle.
Indeed, if The Abominable Bride has one lasting effect, it will have established Watson as Holmes’ necessary constant through time and space (brush up you Lost, and try to keep up). But even that was canonical. The Abominable Bride started with a paraphrase of the opening lines from A Study in Scarlet, and had nods to different stories in the canonical works, but what it most reflected were some of the very last words Holmes ever spoke, in His Last Bow:
“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age.”