The BBC television series Sherlock has always reveled in the anachronistic tension that underlies its premise. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are characters that are synonymous with Victorian London, yet the show’s modern setting allows writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat to explore these characters through a contemporary lens. And it works. The tension between old and new is one of the highlights of the series. Sherlock’s methods and his deductive reasoning are straight out of the old Arthur Conan Doyle stories, but the challenges he faces are unique to the modern world. It’s enjoyable to watch how Gatiss and Moffat translate Doyle’s stories into a modern crime drama. They somehow maintain the flair and charm of the original adventures, even against the backdrop of the cynical sensibilities of the twenty-first century.
When it was announced that the 2016 special episode, “The Abominable Bride,” was going to be set in the nineteenth century, it promised to be a great opportunity for the series to return to its Victorian roots, to put the beloved actors into a rousing period piece. However, as much as the episode rejoiced in its setting, some poor narrative choices left the whole story feeling dull and incomplete.
Spoilers ahead! Don’t read past this point if you haven’t seen the episode!
There were some real highlights in “The Abominable Bride,” where Gatiss and Moffat took advantage of the opportunity to craft a story that felt like an Arthur Conan Doyle original. The story has a strong supernatural element: a dead woman dressed as a bride has been killing men all over London. Like the best Doyle stories, there’s a wonderful tension between a supernatural explanation (represented by an incredulous and terrified Watson) and an entirely rational explanation (Sherlock, of course). The bride’s suicide – a gun in her mouth – has obvious parallels to Moriarty’s suicide at the end of season two. The Victorian aesthetics are wonderful, as are the playful twists on familiar devices (Sherlock’s mind palace featuring newspaper clippings rather than computerized data). Actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman look resplendent in their Victorian costumes. As usual, the chemistry between these two actors successfully drives the episode. Their dialogue is full of tongue-in-cheek critiques of Doyle’s stories. And the climactic scene at the Reichenbach Falls gives every fan of Sherlock something they’d always wanted to see – the famous confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty.
As much as I wanted to enjoy this episode, I was ultimately disappointed. The twist in the episode – the revelation that the entire adventure is happening in the imagination of our modern Sherlock, as he sits on the same jet in which he ended season three – felt like an unnecessary and unwanted link to the rest of the series. One of the first lessons I learnt as a writer was to never use the old “it was all a dream” twist – it’s hackneyed and cliché and doesn’t respect the audience. It’s lazy storytelling. The Victorian setting is revealed to be a figment of Sherlock’s mind palace, constructed for the purpose of helping him to figure out how Moriarty could survive his apparent suicide. It’s as if Gatiss and Moffat decided that a straight Victorian episode wasn’t enough to satisfy the fans and they felt the need to construct a feeble link back to the modern world of the series.
I understand that they wanted to address the big revelation at the end of season three – how did Moriarty survive? – but the episode didn’t need to be so obvious in its constant shifting back and forth between the modern world and the dream world of Victorian England. There was simply no need to feature the modern world in this episode; it added nothing to the ongoing plot that couldn’t be explored through metaphor. It also robs the story of its significance – why should I care about these events if they are just figments of Sherlock’s imagination? They become simply a means to an end. The episode could have just been a straight Victorian story and the audience would’ve understood the obvious parallels between the case of the Abominable Bride and the suicide of Moriarty. The lack of subtlety insulted the audience’s intelligence, as if Gatiss and Moffat didn’t trust us to make the connections all by ourselves.
The resolution to the case of the Abominable Bride similarly felt heavy-handed. The episode has a strong focus on Sherlock and Watson’s problematic relationships with women, and the overall second-class status of women in the Victorian era. At times, it almost feels like a playful apology for Arthur Conan Doyle’s antiquated representation of women. Mrs. Hudson complains that her role in the series is reduced to a mere narrative device, Sherlock sees through Molly Hooper and Mrs. Hudson as if they don’t exist, and even Watson has a strained relationship with his wife. (Mary Watson goes on to prove that she’s entirely capable of solving the case by herself.) But to have the solution of the case to be a conspiracy of vengeful women seems to be a rather dated and strange concept. The whole female conspiracy plotline clashes and confuses with the deeper mystery of how Moriarty survived his suicide. It feels like Gatiss and Moffat stuffed the episode with unnecessary twists, hoping to make a story about female empowerment, but forgetting to return to their core theme. The icing on the cake is at the end, when it is our male detective who stands surrounded by mostly silent and faceless women, explaining their plight to the audience. The women are just window-dressing to his ongoing obsession with Moriarty. It’s handled poorly, and this certainly isn’t the first time that Moffat has come under fire for poor representations of women.
I did enjoy the ambiguous ending of the episode, where it’s not entirely clear whether the “real” Sherlock is living in Victorian London and just imagining our future world through his powers of deduction, or whether our modern Sherlock is simply imagining a Victorian alternative. He’s a man who bridges the nineteenth century with our own, a foot in both worlds.
Sadly, this isn’t the first time that Sherlock has disappointed me. The episode strengthened my belief that they shouldn’t have been so quick to kill off Moriarty at the end of season two, or the series should have ended at that point. Given that Sherlock is a ratings powerhouse for the BBC, it was inevitable that the show would continue. Now the writers have the laborious task of inventing new ways to explore Holmes and Moriarty’s relationship when one of them is already dead. It’s a shame, considering the Holmes/Moriarty dichotomy was one of the strengths of the first two seasons, as well as the fact that actor Andrew Scott is brilliant in the role of Moriarty. I’m hoping they’ll find some way to bring him back, without constantly resorting to the idea in “The Abominable Bride” that he exists now as a virus in Sherlock’s mental hard-drive. Moriarty is better as a living person, not a psychosis.
I shall be interested to see what lies ahead the fourth season of Sherlock. However, it will be a long wait, with the series projected to broadcast in 2017.