Last night (Wednesday 1st January 2014), one of the biggest television ‘events’ of the entire festive season occurred when the first episode of the new series of Sherlock, the ‘brought up to date’ version of the Conan Doyle detective created by Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss – starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr John Watson – was aired.
The ‘cause celebre’ of the moment was, of course, the much-trailed ‘reveal’ as to how – at the end of the previous series – Sherlock had faked his own death. The theories, ranging from the well-thought out by crime-writing professionals to those of fans tending towards the fanciful and/or ridiculous, were legion.
I was fully signed up as a Sherlock fan from an early stage, having fallen in love with the stylised directing, clever scripts and the performances of the main actors, including Gatiss himself as Holmes’s brother Mycroft, Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson, Andrew Scott as villain Jim Moriarty and Rupert Graves as DI Lestrade. All these combined to successfully overcome the fundamental ‘issue’ of bringing Holmes and Watson forward about 125 years and setting them in the 21st Century.
For me, proof of the growing Sherlock phenomenon lay in my own family’s reactions. At our Christmas Day lunch in 2010, as the first series was drawing to a close, I had extolled its many virtues to those assembled at the table, only to have one of my sisters-in-law summarily dismiss it as rubbish. Two years later, I was inwardly pleased to note that, presumably having forgotten her verdict, she was testifying – unprompted – as to how her entire family had been arranging their weekly television viewing around the second series.
Like half the nation, I suspect, I had cleared my diary last night to join the communal Sherlock love-in last night.
All the familiar ‘Pavlov’s Dog’ boxes were duly ticked.
The storyline was thick with plots, red herrings and non-sequitors; the script was smart; Cumberbatch’s Holmes was enigmatic to the point of frustrating; Watson’s character had been fleshed out – he’d grown a moustache and a fiancée for starters; and the direction was stereotypically fast and inventive.
This morning I’ve been on my daily voyage around the UK newspaper websites and, so far as I can tell, the reviews have been universally ‘thumbs-up’, particularly in saluting the solution to Holmes’s faking of his death, including the occasional teasing of the viewer.
However, this reviewer would like to register what appears to be a dissenting voice amidst the snowstorm of praise.
For me, despite the many Sherlock plusses, last night’s episode was a disappointment. I thought the main plot – about a terrorist group on the verge of carrying out a major outrage – was a bit facile. The back-story, i.e. what Holmes had been up to in the intervening two years since he disappeared, was paper-thin. In my view, the reactions of Watson, Mrs Hudson and DI Lestrade to his return were also stereotypical and much less complicated than those characters would have had if they had been real instead of fictional.
In short, I think the problems lay in the set-up and script.
Clearly, Holmes’ return represented a major hurdle to be overcome. One absurdity is that Holmes is a ‘celebrity’ detective and therefore attracts the attention of the world’s media. And yet, whenever he travels around London, with or without Watson, nobody takes any notice of him. His reunions with the major characters, already mentioned above, were necessarily dealt with in seconds – presumably simply to be able to get on with the plot of this new episode – and, in Watson’s case, by an almost slapstick section in which, from time to time, Watson gets sufficiently agitated by the development to attack Holmes physically, and blood his eyebrow and nose. This was, depending upon your viewpoint, absurd and amusing – or alternatively, crass and wholly out of character.
Had the writers done proper justice to these ‘reunions’, they would probably have taken up a 90 minute episode on their own. As it was, instead we had a version of ‘With one bound, he was free …’ and Holmes was off, doing his thing once again.
Perhaps the problem was that, beginning at 9.00pm (almost past my bedtime), I was not in as receptive a mood as I should have been, half-struggling to stay awake. By midway through, even the flashing, clever, direction of Jeremy Lovering was beginning to irritate.
Finally, the denoument – in which Holmes tricked Watson into believing that they were about to die in an underground carriage that had been turned into a bomb, whereupon the latter made a ‘final speech’ declaring his heartfelt devotion to the detective – was unsatisfactory. It made Martin Freeman look more like his admin-clerk-like Tim Canterbury character in Ricky Gervais’ The Office than Conan Doyle’s Dr John Watson, a Afghanistan military veteran.
Room for improvement, I feel.