Monday, 13 January 2014

Review: Sherlock - His Last Vow

'Sherlock Holmes has made one enormous mistake which will destroy the lives of everyone he loves and everything he holds dear.'

After two lighter-hearted episodes, the game was back on for the series three finale, 'His Last Vow', which turned out to be one of the strongest instalments the series has seen - and it's up against some stiff competition!

Set up perfectly by the deepened characterisation of the first two episodes of this series, ‘His Last Vow’ accepts that we care for the all the characters and hurtles us into an adventures with more twists and turns then Sherlock’s mind palace (I imagine, I haven’t actually been). Sherlock's ability to take its audience by the scruff of the neck has always been impressive but here Moffat has complete mastery over us, countermanding every expectation we have about what's coming next with a stonking great twist that's seemingly come out of nowhere but which was actually, as is one of his favourite phrases, hidden in plain sight.

Amongst the high drama, there is also the customary laughs - particular highlights being, as always, the Holmes boys sparring at at their parents' house on Christmas Day ('Are you two smoking?' 'It was Mycroft!') and also Sherlock's surprise venture into the human world of relationships. However, remember rule one about this episode: nothing is as it appears...

While also serving up the thrills and the rib-ticklers, this episode also finds time for character notes on all three mains. Mary’s character is significantly explored in ways that no one had foreseen and there is some wonderful material for John, who gets to do everything from showing his tough side by surgically beating up a drug addict to dealing with a terrible truth, very close to home. As it is called Sherlock, there is also considerable work done on the detective himself. In the fabulous scene in Sherlock's mind palace – featuring a gloriously insane Moriarty, chained up in a rubber cell – we get the revelation of Redbeard (with echoes of Citizen Kane) going some way to uncover why Sherlock is the way he is (incidentally, the young Sherlock seen throughout the episode is played by Steven Moffat's own son, Joshua). 

Intriguingly, there seems to be a reinvigorated sense of patriotism to the character that hasn’t been seen before. The Sherlock of Series One and Two, who turned down a knighthood and went to Buckingham Palace naked is now England's Greatest Hero. Hero, being the operative word. Just as Conan Doyle also understood, Moffat and Gatiss knew that their Sherlock could not stand still and had to develop as a character. Despite what he says, the three series of the show so far are really about the journey of a high-functioning sociopath growing into a hero.

And this review could not finish without a word to Lars Mikkelsen, pitch perfect as the detestable Charles Augustus Magnussen. While Moriarty was, as he put it, ‘a good old-fashioned villain’, Magnussen really is a nemesis for the modern age. A newspaper magnate with a hold over the western world, he is an absolutely chilling concept and an even better villain, every inch the ‘dead-eyed shark’ and thoroughly deserving of the vitriolic disgust Sherlock shows him. It is such a shame we won't see him again - although, who knows in the Sherlock world... 

Totally thrilling and unabashedly unpredictable, 'His Last Vow' was triumphant television, providing everything you could ask for from the show. Including the shocking reappearance of someone we all wanted to see again...

Sherlock, we will miss you.

Five Favourite Sherlockian References: 

  • Billy Wiggins, the drug addict that Sherlock takes under his wing, is a conflagration of two characters from the canon. The most obvious is Wiggins, the lead boy of the so-called Baker Street Irregulars (otherwise updated as Sherlock's homeless network). However, his first name is presumably a nod to Billy, 221B's page boy who helps out Mrs Hudson. Originally created for William Gillette's hit stage play,  he was consequently written by Conan Doyle into the later Holmes stories.
  • One of the first shocks we get in this episode is the revelation that Sherlock has a girlfriend! The fact that this is all an act to get into Magnussen's office is lifted straight from the canon, whereupon Holmes proposes to Milverton's maid for the same reason. Interestingly, the woman, Janine, moves to a Sussex cottage, which is home to a few beehives. In the story 'His Last Bow', Holmes retires to keep bees on the Sussex Downs. Maybe we haven't heard the last of her yet...
  • While the twist of Mary's true identity is completely Moffat's own creation, the memory stick containing information about her real life, scrawled with her actual initials, is a sly reference to the canon. In Mary's introductory story, The Sign of the Four, she recruits to Sherlock to investigate the disappearance of the Agra treasure. 
  • At one point, Mycroft casually hints at the fate of 'the other one', presumably referring to another Holmes brother. This is likely drawn from the Sherlockian notion that Sherlock and Mycroft have an elder, and even cleverer sibling, Sherrinford Holmes. Whether this tantalising remark is going to be drawn on remains to be seen.
  • The 'east wind' that Mycroft used to taunt the young Sherlock with is a clever inclusion of the famous patriotic closing speech of the original 'His Last Bow', published during the First World War: 'There is an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet... A cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared...' 

Monday, 6 January 2014

Review: Sherlock - The Sign of Three

'What's wrong? Why are they all doing that? John? Did I do it wrong?'

Sherlock continued its newly-found mystery-lite, character-heavy sensibility yesterday with ‘The Sign of Three’, that was a near all-out comedy outing for Sherlock and friends. Like 'The Lodger' did for Doctor Who, this episode takes a break from the normal puzzlebox murder mysteries to take a light-hearted approach to Sherlock Holmes' world. 

This can be summed up by the cold opening of the episode alone. Thanks to a lengthy scene, we find out that Lestrade and his team have been tracking down a gang of bank robbers for months. On the verge of catching them, Lestrade is called to Baker Street – to help Sherlock with his best man speech!

Full of frantic storytelling, ‘The Sign of Three’ at times felt more like a series of sketches than a congealed plot. However, you can forgive it that as this episode really was a party. Rather than the mystery of the gigantic hound or the problem of the demanding dominatrix, this was definitely the case of the worrisome wedding with the detectiving all but pushed into flashback sequences filtered through.

Though you might have expected an episode set on John and Mary’s wedding day to be dedicated to the love of the bride and groom, this adventure serves more as a testament to the friendship between Sherlock and John, being the first time John categorises the detective as his ‘best friend’ and even Sherlock waxes sentimental about ‘brave and courageous’ John. Something this series seems keen to show us is that, yes, even Sherlock has feelings!

Apart from the script from all three of the show’s writers, another element ensured this episode was strategically balanced between sweet and funny instead of mawkish; the cast, as always, were excellent. The acting genius of Benedict Cumberbatch can never be praised enough but here he has the hour and a half even more under his command than normal (particularly during his supersized yet poignant and funny best man speech). Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington are also brilliant, with Abbington continuing to fit perfectly in to the Sherlock family. And how wonderful to get more from Una Stubbs as she details what the elusive Mr Hudson was really like… 

The only big flaw is that there wasn't enough of the tight drama that has typified the show up until now, however that does seem crass when the episode so clearly does what it sets out to do. A comic highlight being the stag do in which Sherlock and John have to solve a case while drunk! A great example of the sitcom tone that this episode goes for. If this was done during Series 2, you can imagine Moriarty being booed off the stage, hissing. It turns out Sherlock is as good at doing belly laughs as it at drama.

Speaking of drama, there is a worry that with all this humour derived from sticking Sherlock in human situations it could lessen his character. Thankfully, the final moment was a necessary reminder of who our hero really is. Sherlock Holmes is not a man who dances at a social occasion, he is the man who walks away from one. He may be on the side of the angels, but don’t think for one second that he is one …

I imagine many fans will have a problem with this episode, however, I think it thoroughly deserves its place in Sherlock’s own canon. In previous series, we've had a hard-and-fast mystery in 'The Blind Banker', a horror story in 'The Hounds of Baskerville' and 'The Reichenbach Fall' gave us a thriller. We needed a love story, full of humour and heart. And that is exactly what 'The Sign of Three' gave us. 

Three favourite Sherlockian references:

  • John's middle name of Hamish, previously mentioned in 'A Scandal in Belgravia', is based on a long-held fan theory rather than Conan Doyle origin. The idea comes from the fact that, as mentioned in my previous post, Mary Morstan once called her husband James instead of John. Coupled with John's middle initial being given as H, Sherlockians put the two together and decided the H stood for Hamish (Scottish for James).
  • During Sherlock's speech, we see a brief glimpse of a unchronicled case, The Poison Giant, featuring a dwarf with a blowpipe. This is directly inspired by the story from which this episode is loosely based, 'The Sign of the Four' in which Jonathan Small hires his 'small companion', native to the Andaman Islands, to deal with his enemies. You can read John's own write-up of the case here.
  • Sherlock decrees his 'last vow' to John and Mary, to keep them safe. While such a vow is not found in the canon, there is a story titled 'His Last Bow', which sees Holmes retire from investigating. As this is the title of next week's episode could Sherlock really be about to hang up his deerstalker for good? We'll find out next Sunday...

P.S. Happy 160th birthday, Sherlock Holmes!

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Review: Sherlock - The Empty Hearse

And the new year is here! In other news, Sherlock came back from the dead and returned to our screens! How did he survive? Perhaps an empty hearse was involved...

'Like a gaze from a crowd of strangers, suddenly one is aware of staring into the face of an old friend...'

And there we have it. Sherlock faked his death by placing Moriarty's body on the ground with a face mask based on his own and then bungee-jumped down into St Bart's Hospital before snogging Molly and going on his merry way. Fantastic! Who thought of that?

Anderson, as a matter of fact. Because that isn't really how he did it.

Sherlock blasted back onto television on New Year's Day with a fabulous piece of misdirection which captures so well the intelligence, playfulness and unpredictability that make it such a must-see show for millions across the world. The running gag of the fake explanations is a welcome cheeky dig at the internet furore Sherlock's 'death' caused two years ago (while also feeding another one in the Sherlock/Moriarty kiss). In the end, the version that Sherlock gives Anderson is merely sufficient, ticking off some of the more obvious clues given in 'The Reichenbach Fall.' However, surely this is but another clue that the real answer is yet to be revealed...

In any case, that's enough about how Sherlock returned, as John himself, says the more important thing is why. Called back by his brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss is as reticently entertaining as ever), Sherlock needs to stop an underground terrorist network who are planning an attack on London. Making great use of the myriad mazes of the tube, this leads to as much intrigue, twists and inventive direction (from Sherlock newcomer Jeremy Lovering) as normal although, unusually for Sherlock, the mystery is not the focus of this adventure. As a sure sign the series is taking on its own life away from simply adapting Conan Doyle's stories, most of 'The Empty Hearse' is dedicated to its characters.

This is an episode that really revels in the fantastic cast it has to offer. While Gatiss' script is as witty and fast-paced as ever, each of Sherlock's friends is allowed their moment in the limelight. Lestrade's hugging of Sherlock upon his return, Molly showing off her Benedictine new boyfriend, even the previously repellent Anderson has been rehabilitated as a washed-up conspiracy theorist. This reviewer's favourite touches were Molly playing John for a day and the joyous joke of Mycroft being subjected to a night at Les Miserables with his and Sherlock's parents (who in a brilliant in-joke are played by Cumberbatch's real-life mum and dad, Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton)! In an episode written by one of them, it is perhaps expected that there is some great material on show here for the Holmes brothers. Echoing back to Mycroft's scolding of Sherlock's social inexperience in 'A Scandal in Belgravia', Sherlock gets the upper hand here by showing he is now the sibling with the social skills. 'I'm not lonely,' Mycroft says. 'How would you know?' Sherlock replies. The Great Detective has come a long way from his sociopathic status in 'A Study in Pink.'

However, the real content of 'The Empty Hearse' is the relationship between Sherlock and John and how it is not only strained by Sherlock's two-year long disappearance but also Watson's fiancée, Mary Morstan. Amanda Abbington is a excellent addition to the cast, as Martin Freeman's actual partner, she is utterly believable as the one person who might be more important to John than Sherlock. There is much fun to be had in Sherlock's reaction and relationship with Mary, while she seems to take a shine to him immediately, he has a begrudging respect for her, as if understanding he now has a rival for John's affections. Platonically speaking, of course. By the end, though, the detecting duo are back in business. Although both are changed men, the game is back on - although it seems someone else is laying down the rules...

Overall, 'The Empty Hearse' a triumphant return for Sherlock and his gang. With an increased sense of humour and dedication to its characters, the series now seems to have a bigger heart than before to run alongside the breathtaking mysteries. With an increased sense of duty to its characters as it develops its own life away from Doyle, Sherlock is back and has proven itself still at the top of television. That's the real revelation of this episode.

Five favourite Sherlockian references:

  • The villain of the piece, Lord Moran, is drawn from two Conan Doyle sources. He is named after Colonel Sebastian Moran, Moriarty's right-hand man who attempts to murder Sherlock in 'The Empty House.' Moran is called the biggest of Sherlock's markers or 'rats.' Coupled with the fact that his terrorist plot takes place in Sumatra Road tube station, this is a reference to the most-famous untold case in the canon, 'The Giant Rat of Sumatra.' 
  • It turns out that in the past two years, Sherlock has been travelling the world, breaking down Moriarty's criminal network. As Mycroft says, in Serbia Sherlock faced Baron Maupertius, a never-seen villain in Conan Doyle's stories who actually featured in Andrew Lang's Young Sherlock Holmes novel Death Cloud. 
  • The coded text that the villain who stuck John in a bonfire sends Mary, including the lines 'Saint or Sinner? James of John?', is also a sly nod to the original stories. In 'The Man with the Twisted Lip', Mary calls her husband 'James' rather than John. Bless, Conan Doyle - continuity was never his strong point. 
  • Hidden away in the story is actually a very short adaptation of the Doyle adventure 'A Case of Identity.' When a woman comes to Sherlock about the disappearance of her online boyfriend, he quickly deduces the boyfriend to in fact be her step-father - very much like the plot of the original.
  • The missing train that disappears during a tube journey is based on non-canon mystery 'The Lost Special' by Arthur Conan Doyle which sees a private train go missing on its way to London. The story does not categorically feature Sherlock but instead an unnamed 'expert' on such matters solves the case...

As Sherlock returns, Doctor Who bids farewell to its 50th anniversary year. Read my reflection on Who's golden birthday here!
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