Thursday, February 06, 2014


After more than two years since the last ones, the latest three Sherlock movies have aired on the BBC and PBS (and here in the U.S. can still be seen for awhile on the PBS site.)  What follow contains many "spoilers."

  There are two aspects that interest me at the moment--the stories themselves and the status of the series as a contemporary media/pop culture phenomenon.

Though I loved the Jeremy Brett TV versions, I hadn't read the Conan Doyle stories thoroughly until recent years.  The Steven Moffat/ Mark Gatiss series takes bits and pieces from many stories for each of theirs, so there's an added pleasure in recognizing them.  There's this annotation of many in mostly the last of the new three, but there are more that I saw.  A text message says something about "Watson, John or James?" which refers to a mistake Conan Doyle made: after naming him John Watson, in a later story he referred to him as James.  He also moved his war wound around, which was slyly referenced in the first series.  In one of the new ones, Mycroft and Sherlock deduce a man's life from his hat.  Holmes does the same in "The Blue Carbuncle."  And so on.

In the first of the new series, "The Empty Hearse," the first order of business was to reveal how Sherlock survived what seemed like a fatal jump from a rooftop in the last series.  This has been a topic of conjecture for the two years plus since the previous episode aired, and that becomes a comedic plot point, as two scenarios are shown that turn out to be fan fantasies.  Then Sherlock presents the third: Mycroft and he had set Moriarty up, and a virtual army was ready to spring into action.  Sherlock texted them the code name for the suicide scenario, they readied a substitute corpse, a giant air bag for him to fall into, which Watson could not see from his vantage, as well as the cyclist who delays Watson etc.

When I saw this I thought it could well be yet another put on, but statements by Moffat afterwards suggest that this is supposed to be the true story.  It still doesn't make sense to me.  It seems to have been all rigged for one purpose: to fool John Watson (although knowing when and where Watson was going to arrive is a stretch.)  I thought Sherlock took the plunge to convince gunmen that M. had positioned not to shoot Watson, Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade.  But someone at a different vantage from Watson's would have seen the massive charade.  The answer Sherlock gave was that Mycroft had his own gunmen on Moriarty's gunmen.  Then what was the point of faking the suicide?

Sherlock disappears from London to track down and somehow destroy Moriarty's remaining network--perhaps fooling them was the reason, except that anyone looking out a window of the hospital or buildings opposite would have seen what really happened.  So it's not a very satisfying solution.  Along with not telling Watson for two years that he didn't die, it seems sadistic.

Still, the rest of "The Empty Hearse" is excellent, with a particularly fine performance by Martin Freeman as Watson.  We're also introduced to Watson's girl friend, who he marries in the second movie, "The Sign of Three."  Judging from comments on the PBS website, this was not a popular episode.  But it was my favorite.  I loved the long comic scenes, especially between Sherlock and Watson.

"His Last Vow" introduces a slimy villain, and Mary Watson's shocking secret.  (By the way, John's acceptance of Mary's past is similar to a situation and scene in Doyle's "The Dancing Men.")  The villain is yet another Sherlock mirror image--a man with an even more impressive "mind palace" who uses it for evil.  There is a good story by Doyle about a master blackmailer, and the Brett movie based on it is strange but powerful.  This however is well acted but mostly just flashy and clever.  Unmoored cleverness is in danger of becoming a Moffat habit.

The blackmailer in this story simply isn't credible.  It's revealed he has everything in his head, with no physical evidence.  But without such evidence, he can't make good on his threats.  Sure, he's a scandal sheet magnate, but the UK has strong libel laws--somebody with nothing left to lose could challenge him, and he'd be done.  And if he does have only the evidence in his head, and he tells someone that, it's an invitation to kill him, since there's no physical evidence that might still turn up. Most blackmailers know better.  All of this is in addition to the premise that a human being can have that much information so easily accessible in his brain, which is literally science fiction.

There are two dismaying shocks in this movie: Mary Watson turns out to have been a CIA hit man in her past.  Really?  That's the best you can do?  And Sherlock shoots the blackmailer in cold blood and kills him.  There's a through-line in this movie of reminding us that Sherlock is not "normal"--he pretends to be in love, drugs his own parents etc. but the blackmailer still believes he can safely tell him that if he dies everybody else is safe.  That's his miscalculation--Sherlock is a sociopath, with no qualms about killing him to keep his "last vow" of protecting John and Mary and their unborn child.

So Sherlock is not normal, and neither are John and Mary, according to this episode.  They are the New Normal of the age of terrorism: kill to protect.  It's the post 9/11 morality, a good deal more Dick Cheney than Conan Doyle. And Mary turns out to be the great cliche of the era, the CIA/freelance assassin. Sure, Doyle's Sherlock let bad people die, and he let criminals--even killers--escape if he thought they were justified.  But this was cold-blooded calculated murder.

So we end with sweet Mary and our hero Sherlock as people who solve problems by assassinating people.  Tune in for their next exciting adventure, in two or four or five years.  Oh yeah, and Moriarty appears to be alive.  As television, this was a terrific moment, and it may turn out to be fascinating in the two or four or five years that Moffat suggests it might take to make some new ones.  Maybe they have a great idea for doing it, but at the moment it seems like pandering, especially to the fanbase.  So a polished and at times elegant movie, but verging on soulless manipulation.

Which all feeds back into my feelings about the franchise.  These are all talented and attractive people, and it doesn't really bother me that the actors who play John and Mary are "together" in real life, or that Sherlock's parents are Benedict Cumberbatch's parents, or that the boy who plays young Sherlock is the son of Moffat and producer Sue Vertue.  Cumberbatch and Freeman are huge international stars now, and not just for Sherlock.  Cumberbatch seems to have been in a dozen recent major movies, and Freeman is the Hobbit.  With two international hits in Sherlock and Doctor Who, Moffat is riding high as well.  So sharing what little wealth there is from a BBC/PBS show with family and friends is little enough to ask.  (Still, in interviews does almost everybody have to wear scarfs knotted exactly as Sherlock's?)

But there is the aroma of keeping a big hit going, feeding its fandom with ever more sensational twists. On the one hand, there are the the pitfalls of  too much self-conscious cleverness and manipulation in the contemporary feeding frenzy of fandom.  On the other side, there seems to be an ethos developing that it is the right of fans to influence actual stories, not because they made really good suggestions, but because they are fans.  It was a different time, but that didn't happen with the GR-era Star Trek, though it may well have with the JJA movies, and not to their benefit.

The after-hype adds to my disenchantment.  Either some of Moffat's statements about the Moriarty ending etc. are being distorted or he's carelessly contradicting himself and being disingenuous.  If he is teasing fans about how long it might take to make new Sherlocks, it's unseemly and even a bit repulsive.  He might be in danger of becoming like his Third Series villain--licking and flicking faces out of boredom and arrogance.

As for me, I don't care if it takes five years.  As much fun as these films have been,  I'm just not holding my breath anymore.  

Upon further review: I think I've clarified something of how I feel about this series.  The original Sherlock Holmes stories dealt most often with ordinary people, and usually a single crime.  The process of solving the mystery was one part of the story, and another had to do with the motivations of the criminal, or supposed criminal in some cases.  There was a specific human dimension to them.
These stories were told quite well by the Jeremy Brett series: the short stories translated fairly easily into a series of one hour television presentations (plus the novels, which were given feature-length treatment.)

Sherlock however is so far a series of 90 minute to two hour movies, shown in sets of 3.  They are more like feature films are today--everything very big, spectacular crimes and criminals, heroes who are more like (flawed) superheroes (Batman, Robin and now Batgirl), and what are called larger than life characters --although these often turn out to be exaggerations of one or two qualities, and in some ways lesser than life.  I suppose at this point I miss the human scale and am put off by the inflated Hollywood tentpole movie approach.  And by the third movie in the latest series, it's clear that this approach is going to continue.  I'm out of sympathy with this direction.

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