[Review] - Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

Courtesy of the BBC
As a consequence of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman unexpectedly (though quite deservedly) becoming two of the biggest movie stars in the world, their schedules have grown a bit tight. And despite the both of them remaining quite loyal and fond of the modern interpretations of Sherlock and John that they've created along with Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, nailing down a time for them to actually perform such things gets harder and harder with every trip to the Misty Mountains or the Sanctum Sanctorum. To illustrate this point, this special, a one-off hold-me-over until a full series can be arranged, was filmed exactly a year before broadcast. That was the opening for both these actors, in order to make a single episode to hold off the frothing hoards of fans who have waited two years since the end of the last series, and will likely have to wait at least another before series 4 hits.

To celebrate the isolation of the special, Moffat and Gatiss opted to give the fans something they've been hoping for since the first series ended: how would these actors fair in the more traditional, Victorian setting of Doyle's books? Of course, this being Moffat and Gatiss, we should have known it wouldn't be as simple as all that. And what was promised to be a compete "what if?" Elseworlds-style thought experiment taken to extremes turned out to be critical connective tissue between series 3 and 4, as well as a thought experiment taken to extremes. Also, in the continuing trend of the series thus far, a damned good time had by all.

Hit the jump for the brief review, which contains spoilers that had to grow this mustache just to be recognized.

The episode begins a with a recap of all salient points made in the series thus far. The introduction, the pool, the Woman, the hound, the fall, the return, the gunshot, and the message. Then, in an evaporating "alternatively" we are whisked back to 18mumblemumble and hit those major points again, this time in dapper hats and full bodied mustaches. 221B takes to the Victorian era quite naturally and briskly, which is befitting considering it is the era of it's birth, but there need be no fear. Holmes and Watson, as much as they are the Holmes and Watson of their time and place, are still very much the Sherlock and John we've come to know. Freeman puts a bit more Nigel Bruce into his performance, huffing and bulking becoming his standard reactions. And Cumberbatch injects significantly more emotion into this period's Holes than his usual "sociopathic" self. He is inclined to smile more, to laugh more, to bemuse himself at greater length. And the rest of the cast all find themselves well to do in their bits of levity and import. The first half of the episode leans on the fourth wall quite heavily, poking every available finger at Doyle's canon as possible, from Mrs. Hudson's frustration at being generally unimportant, to Hooper's cunning disguise, to Doyle's own notorious late of continuity.

Of course, in the second half, the jokes get played out and it is tie for business, and everything we were playfully joking at takes on a sinister purpose. Because as much as it would have been simple to jump in the WABAC machine and have a simple laugh whilst men with canes hunt after stolen geese at Christmas might have been appealing, Moffat and Gatiss instead opted for a far more complex, and ultimately fulfilling reason for this trip to the past. Unlike Moffat's other show, a journey into antiquity requires more than a convenient box to explain away, but they found one. And for those paying attention, the hints were all there in the first half. Before the big reveal, those paying attention could see the direction the episode was about to take. Instead of being a lark, the entire episode was a thought experiment conducted by Sherlock in the moments between the the end of the previous episode, when Moriarty seemingly returned from the grave, and the landing of his plane. Induced by a nonspecific drug overdose, Sherlock plumed deep into his memory palace to try to find an explanation for how Moriarty survived his unequivocal gun shot to the head. And did so by attempting to solve a century old series of murders, and place himself and John in the action.

As mechanisms go, that's a fairly decent one, to keep the story in line with the narrative direction of the series. More and more it is becoming obvious that everything on this show has a purpose, nothing is as random or "for the laugh" as it at first seems. But more than that, it meant that everything period in this episode was a reflection of Sherlock's mind. He actually spent the bulk of an episode inside his thought processes, and much was revealed. His opinions of those around him manifested in their past selves, John the bumbling fool only in reflection of Sherlock's own prowess, but masterful on his own. Mary every part the secretive but successful equal of Sherlock. Mycroft, lethargic and good only for entertainment. Molly, hidden in plain sight. Lestrade, tolerated but useful and reliable. Mrs. Hudson... provider of tea? And Moriarty, the eternal enigma. A ghost in Sherlock's own brain. The virus in his mainframe. The two foes only knew each other briefly, but Moriarty has infected Sherlock with doubt and resignation. At every turn, the concept of Moriarty causes Sherlock to balk, to turn away from a reasonable explanation, and search for something else. In reality, it is just Sherlock's own doubt manifesting as his enemy, but then again, Sherlock doubting his own absolute abilities would be a greater enemy than any man could every be.  But, if it means we are treated to more of Andrew Scott's magnificent performance, than have at it, I say.

As Mycroft points out in episode thought, the memory palace does not work like that. As described in Moonwalking with Einstein, the book which brought the concept to public attention, it is a memory technique. A way of associating memorable concepts with specific ideas so as to easily recall them, using the metaphor of a physical space to aid in the recall. Series like Sherlock and Hannibal have been guilty of expanding upon that idea, with characters existing within whole interactive worlds within their mind. That is little more than having a good imagination. A far better presentation of the idea of a memory recall device was Sherlock's plucking of news articles out of the air as they gusted by him. So long as those articles had a specific order, than that is what a memory palace could look like for a person. A complex reconstruction of a court room or the Victorian era... that is a far broad concept, called "good television."

The point of the episode though being, Sherlock needed to figure out how Moriarty had returned. And he opted to do so by solving a century old case to the best of his ability. The case, in the tradition of this show, was a combination of elements from various Doyle stories, most specifically the Five Orange Pips, a touch of the Speckled Band and something of The Noble Bachelor in the mix. It also meant we were treated to a guest turn from former Blackadder star Tim McInnerny as the focus of the eponymous Bride's wrath. And as an adventure in isolation, it was a good one, and also largely original, and concerned with the Suffragette movement, injecting a little period historiography and much needed female perspective into Doyle's environment. As a mechanism for the modern Sherlock to unlock the truth about Moriarty's return, it was a roundabout way of nailing down two facts. Fact 1) he is dead. Fact 2) someone is still working on his behalf. Now, those familiar with the canon would likely run directly to the notion of Sebastian Moran, sniper extraordinaire and Moriarty loyalist months after the Professor's death. If Sherlock is right, and that he had deduced what the phantom Moriarty's next step will be, Moffat and Gatiss have left that evidence clung tight to their chests. And it'll be deep into 2017 before we know what they know. In the mean time, this was a solid a hold-me-over as we could have asked for. Just so long as the next extended break doesn't take Sherlock and company into the 22nd Century.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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