Sherlock was great when it was first launched – a cleverly written, modern and well-acted adaption of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation. The first series in particular did a brilliant job of transporting the ever-popular characters to the present day, while the second lost its way at times but was still generally a cut above the majority of dramas shown on television. The problem was that at some point between the second and third series (or perhaps during the second), the programme – at least in the minds of those involved with creating it – ceased to be a Sherlock Holmes adaption and became simply Sherlock, something which stood alone. Instead of mining Conan Doyle’s material, they mined their own. Each episode of series three turned into a tortuous exercise in self-reference, with weak and often nonsensical plots based increasingly around in-jokes that assumed a deeply-felt connection to characters who had, after all, only appeared on our screens a mere six times to that point. It had become a show that felt deliberately aimed not at a general audience, but at the superfans who run Tumblr sites devoted to Sherlock’s quirkiest facial expressions, or write fan-fiction in which he pilots the TARDIS alongside Matt Smith.
Despite my varied and major frustrations with the third series, there was still no question that I would watch this year’s Christmas special episode, titled The Abominable Bride. The fast-paced dialogue and standard of the two leads remained good, I reasoned, and I drew hope that the much publicised setting of the story in the Victorian age of the originals would make it more true to them and remove some of the temptation for self-indulgence. What transpired over the next half an hour was an unintentionally accurate representation of the arc described in the previous paragraph. It started strongly – I liked the 19th Century setting, the introduction of the two protagonists was done quickly but effectively and the on-screen chemistry between Cumberbatch and Freeman remains fundamentally enjoyable. They even quickly settled into what felt a potentially interesting mystery for the sleuth to solve. There were one or two references to the present day series that grated a bit, but I could deal with that as the fundamentals of it seemed a lot better than they had been. And then around the halfway point it started to unravel. Let’s start with the solution to the case mentioned in the title (the fact this became a secondary issue to the end of the programme is a problem in itself): the murders in question were carried out by an underground sisterhood of women; those forgotten, maligned, disenfranchised members of Victorian society. I’m all for pointing out that women had it bad (and indeed still do, particularly on TV): that’s a sentiment I’m on board with, as is the idea of people fighting against this. However, this conclusion felt so contrived, so forced, it was impossible not to treat it with a groan and an eye-roll. I mean really, is that the only way you felt you could make this point? With all the deftness and subtlety of somebody attempting to eat their lunch with a sledgehammer and a chainsaw? A damning indictment. And, of course, Moriarty showed up.
Ah yes, Moriarty. Comfortably the worst thing about the excellent first series; and who continued to be singularly irritating as the antagonist in the finale of the second. I like programmes that invest in giving characters depth, which show that morality is not always definitive, that the shades of grey between good and bad are frequently explored by people viewed as being on opposite sides of that divide. But you know what? Sometimes it’s still okay for a bad guy to just be a bad guy. Not every evil-doer has to be a pantomime villain acting out clear psychological conditions (my temptation is to blame Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight for starting this trend, but it may go back further). A lot of this is obviously subjective – I know people who enjoy Andrew Scott’s portrayal of Moriarty – but the fact is he just annoys me. The Moriarty of Conan Doyle’s work is the spider in the middle of an immense web, the genius silently directing crime traffic whilst hidden beyond protection – not a lunatic constantly laughing and shouting and forcing himself into the foreground. I can only hope kicking him into a dream waterfall proves more effective as a means of his disposal than him shooting himself in the head was.
A dream waterfall, of course, because the big reveal of The Abominable Bride, after about an hour, was that the whole Victorian experience was a drug induced dream. Yes, one of the BBC’s flagship original dramas decided that, in 2015, “it was all a dream” was a suitably stunning plot-twist. Why? Perhaps to link the special to the series (an understandable, but entirely unnecessary requirement, after all it was a ‘special’; the clue is in the name). Yet if this was simply the case, then Sherlock could have woken up right at the end of the episode, rather than with about half an hour left. No, it was done because the present day series is what it is of most importance, it’s what we all care so much about – that must be the case, because the show itself keeps telling us that it is. The smug self-indulgence strikes again, leaving a trail of exasperation in its wake. Sherlock is not about solving complex crimes; it is not about Holmes and Watson’s partnership; it is not about modernising Conan Doyle’s creation; it is not even about Sherlock Holmes himself. The programme could explore any or all of these things to great effect. However, its writers seem convinced that the true purpose of Sherlock, as they understand it, is to constantly remind everyone how great Sherlock is and how much they love it. The problem is, writing things solely for yourselves will quickly leave you with a pretty small audience.