When this ‘one-off’ Sherlock special was announced, taking us back in time to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original setting, my reaction was one of apprehension – the idea just seemed a bit too gimmicky, with too much potential for annoying in-references. Yet, as it turns out, a full-blown ‘one-off’ would have been preferable, in comparison to the disjointed mess that was presented on screen.
Now, this should be put in context. I like Sherlock, I really do. It’s like a pumped-up CSI in the best possible way. The first two series, and in particular the brilliant second series finale ‘The Reichenbach Fall’, were amazing bits of crime television – smart, snappy dialogue, well developed characters, and some superbly complex cases. While the third series wasn’t quite up to the same standard, it still delivered.
Yet that only makes this failure so frustrating. It’s not particularly surprising in hindsight, given Steven Moffatt’s propensity for cinematic self-harm, but, again, it’s just frustrating to see such an episode under the banner of this show.So what was wrong with it exactly? Perhaps it would be easier to just briefly note the better parts of the episode – given their sparsity. Above the narrative problems, the visual portrayal of the past world was impeccable. The sets and costumes did their job admirably and the way they were shot, too, was solid work, with the climactic recreation of the original ‘Reichenbach Fall’ scene by the waterfall given the necessary stylish presentation.
And, of course, the main duo slotted back into their familiar roles well, though it does feel slightly as though they’re just playing to type – ‘Martin Freeman stars as everyman audience proxy, alongside Benedict Cumberbatch as aloof clever guy’.
But that’s pretty much the good stuff gone, because everything else was all over the place. Chronologically, it was bad news from the first frame, as we got a ‘previously on’ montage of the whole show since the beginning, a great big warning bell given it came before a supposedly standalone episode. For anyone who’s watched Lost, Game of Thrones, 24, or any big US TV series, it’s never coincidental when we’re reminded of key events that have happened before.
Yet then we’re transported back in time to the original timeframe. Within five minutes, the attempts at era-appropriate dialogue wore thin, straddling the fence between transformation and the status quo. Either they should have anachronistically kept their usual style, or gone full-blown Victorian. As it was, it just sounded odd.
The titular case too, was peculiar. As were the meta appearances of old faces from the present day, like the Family Guy does Star Wars episodes. And the increasing references to Moriarty carried the subtlety of a Jack-in-the-box.But of course, it was all a fiction! None of it was real. Yes, the big reveal was that this was all Sherlock’s elaborate way to determine what really happened to Moriarty – having seemingly shot himself only to crash back onto the screen in ‘His Last Vow’ with all the ‘Miss Me?’ messages.
Or was it? Because then past-Sherlock wakes up. Then present Sherlock does. It wasn’t clear which was worse – the extent to which the script got lost in itself by the end, or the attempts to make the plot become so convoluted that the audience might blame themselves for not getting it, and not the show itself. Personally, I understood what was going on just fine – but this only exacerbated my annoyance at how stupid it all was. Apart from anything, the whole concept of the past-day scenario being fake just felt like cruelty against the production team, whose rendition of Victorian London was, as said above, superb.
What makes this even more disappointing is that of course, like any fan of the show, I want to see what happens next in the present day narrative. But if you announce a past-style one-off special, only to turn it into a continuation of the present, it begs the question: why bother getting the past involved at all? Especially given how infrequent episodes of the show are; why couldn’t we just get a normal new episode instead?
So, not the most enjoyable watching for this New Year’s Day. My viewing companions implored me to ‘just enjoy it’, but, try as I might, ‘The Abominable Bride’ was a stretch too far.