Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Sherlock Circle

The latest set of three episodes of the BBC/PBS series Sherlock--and probably the last--aired over the past three weekends in the US.  In an approach that might be termed metafiction or self-parody with equal justification, the series came full circle while completing the process of developing the characters of Sherlock and Watson to a contemporary equivalent of the characters that Arthur Conan Doyle presented.

All three--but especially the first and third--again concentrated on Sherlock's immediate circle, which contracted suddenly in the first story and expanded again in the third.  The middle story was the only one to introduce and dispatch a new villain.   What follows contains numerous references to the stories, otherwise known these days as spoilers.

The first of the three episodes was "The Three Thatchers," built for awhile at least on Conan Doyle's story "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons."  (Star Trek fans may be interested in the dramatization of the actual Conan Doyle story in the Jeremy Brett series for Granada TV--it features a pre-Next Gen appearance by Marina Sirtis, and was directed by David Carson, who directed Trek episodes as well as the feature Star Trek: Generations.)

As usual, there are bits of other stories--some lines from "The Red-Headed League," the fruitless search with a dog from The Sign of the Four and one or two others.  But the basic "Six Napoleons" story is a deliberate red herring, a joke on Sherlock who guesses the Conan Doyle solution but is wrong, at which point the story takes a different turn.

This turn involves Mary Watson's past as a member of an assassination team for hire coming back at her.  A series of implausible events (she dons elaborate disguises and throws dice to decide on increasingly arcane hiding places but fails to notice that she's carrying a tracking device; her pursuer jumps to the conclusion that she betrayed her close-knit team on the flimsiest of evidence, etc.) end up in a showdown in an aquarium.

There Sherlock confronts the actual betrayer--a secretary who'd been selling secrets--and goads her while she points a gun at him.  She fires and Mary jumps in front of him (ostensibly to push him away, but it looks more like she's taking the bullet--and by the way, her reaction time versus Sherlock's is superhuman.  Also the police are there but none do anything to disarm the secretary, perhaps to avoid disturbing the fish.)

It's a terrific death scene, leading to several reappearances on pre-taped, pre-death messages that together give Amanda Abbington opportunities for some fine acting. The episode does humble Sherlock, manic and arrogant, as he makes several errors of deduction and judgment that end up in Mary's death.

There's one more minor implausible, though it might be a joke: Sherlock professes he doesn't know who Margaret Thatcher is, but he knew enough to guess a password would be based on her name in the season two "The Hounds of Baskerville."

Oh, and Mary had a baby in the episode, the occasion for several comedic and emotional scenes.  But the two remaining stories do little to suggest that John Watson is much of a dad to his now motherless daughter.  We do know he is angry with Sherlock, and the two separate.

Though it had the best ratings of the three in the UK, this was apparently not a fan favorite.  Mary's motherhood followed immediately by her death did not sit well with some.  But contemporary TV series drama --especially the most praised--does tend these days towards soap opera.

The second story fared better: "The Lying Detective," which is a pun on the Conan Doyle story "The Adventure of the Dying Detective."  There are similarities, especially at a key moment towards the end.  For me it was the best of the three (I also liked the middle one in series 3.)

Sherlock has given into addiction to distance himself from emotions over Mary's death and Watson's anger.  But a visit from a prospective client, a young woman who is the daughter of a famous and dangerous man, starts him back on the road to detection.  He makes a series of brilliant deductions about the young woman that leads him to take the case.

It involves another super-slimy villain, a famous entertainer and pitchman who is also a serial killer with access to his own hospital (he's their biggest fundraiser), which offers everything a serial killer needs to capture, kill and dispose of his victims (an elegant idea.)  The villain bears resemblances to the famous UK entertainer and charity fundraiser Jimmy Saville, though some critiques also mention Donald Trump.

In addition to a well-conceived and highly Gothic mystery (with a few surprising moments for Mrs. Hudson, wish there were more), this episode advances the arc by expanding the Sherlock circle.  Various hints have been dropped that Sherlock and Mycroft have a sibling, that Watson guesses is another brother.  But it turns out it is a sister--and it was she who appeared as the villain's daughter, as well as Watson's new therapist and a young woman he semi-sexted with in "The Three Thatchers."  What she is able to do in this story justifies Mycroft's description of her in the next, as the most brilliant of the three.

Of course we're required to make certain leaps, like the villain's real daughter showing up and Sherlock immediately believing that she is the real one and not an imposter. Or the plausibility of this guy confessing his crimes to friends and family hooked up to IVs with a drug that erases chunks of their memory---people would sit still for that, seriously?   Otherwise this is the best combination of a tightly plotted story and one that advances character and the Sherlock circle arc.

Then comes "The Final Problem."  Again as in series 3 the final episode is the most extreme.  It rushes ahead with a Kafkaesque story centered on Eurus, the sister, and her seemingly superhuman abilities.  I won't even attempt to describe the plot.  I'm more interested in investigating the style of it, and what it may mean.

First of all, it gives Mark Gatiss as Mycroft a lot more to do, and there is some wonderful three-way repartee with Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as Watson. Throughout the three episodes Cumberbatch is more dashing as ever, and convincing in Sherlock's various emotional states.  With longer and blonder hair, Freeman gets to be more of an equal, especially in this third story.  Some of these scenes are exhilarating.

But so much of this story is implausible in ways that must be deliberate.  When Sherlock, Mycroft and Watson realize the room on Baker Street is about to explode, Mycroft runs for the door while Sherlock and Watson dive through the windows.  We are treated to a shot--a not very convincing one-- of Sherlock and Watson crashing through the windows with exploding debris and flames behind them.

And in the next scene they are all perfectly fine, with absolutely no explanation.  Perhaps the same giant bags that broke Sherlock's dive from the roof in "The Empty Hearse" were employed to save them from this dive from the second floor.  Or perhaps they landed on Mrs. Watson's garbage bins.

This sets the mood for the scenes in the easily pregnable impregnable prison that Eurus takes over.  She sets up a series of psychological tests involving no-win situations in which they have to decide who dies--which by the way real behavioral psychologists love to do, though not necessarily with the actual dying part.  The motivation is to save a little girl all alone on a passenger airliner.

So even though Erus is completely unreliable, they believe all her tricks, including the girl on the plane.  (The very first scene shows the girl as the only conscious passengers, all the others passed out but with the oxygen masks hanging down at every seat.  So our little girl is immune to loss of cabin pressure or whatever-- how likely is this?)

And when Sherlock believes that Eurus has boobytrapped Molly's apartment so he has to get her to say "I Love You," which he does with of course just two seconds left, Eurus tells him there never was a bomb, blowing up an apartment doesn't make sense.  And he gets very angry with himself, apparently for believing her, even though she had in fact blown up his own apartment.

There are a series of revelations about Sherlock's childhood (many of which pay off a throwaway line from the first series, in which Mycroft reveals that as a child Sherlock wanted to be a pirate--as does the best joke in this episode: Man on boat: "Sherlock Holmes, the detective?"  Sherlock: "No--Sherlock Holmes, the pirate.")

Eventually he figures out the key to his psychotic sister's distress (she of course is the little girl on the imaginary plane), saves Watson, recovers repressed memories and becomes more emotionally available, as they say.

And it turns out that the return of Moriarity, the cliffhanger of the last series, was also a red herring, or maybe a Mcguffin, although Andrew Scott gets another show-stopping scene in a flashback.

The final scenes show a newly humanized Sherlock (he even remembers Lestrade's first name) and Watson made whole (Sherlock referred to him as family) watching yet another pre-recorded pre-death message from Mary, who wishes them well as a crime-fighting duo and champion of the oppressed, her "Baker Street Boys."  But what really matters, she says, are the stories.

That is, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as mythological figures.  Or at least action figures--our last look is a fairly embarrassing shot of the dynamic duo running heroically out of a building.

There is not much here from Conan Doyle's story "The Final Problem," but the essence of that story was used in seasons 2 and 3.  Probably the final problem here is Sherlock Holmes himself.  In the first episode of season 1, Lestrade offers the opinion that Holmes is "a great man" but only potentially a good one.  At the end of series 4 he responds to someone calling Holmes a great man by saying that more importantly he is a good man.  I don't think the moment comes off very well, but it does sound like the point.

There are lots of good moments, dramatic, comedic, lyrical (I did find these scenes moving: of Sherlock playing violin for his once again imprisoned sister, then together with her, and then duets with her parents listening.) I don't quite know what to make of the idea that various scenes in the saga with water in them (swimming pool with Moriarity, the acquarium, etc.) all reflect Sherlock's childhood trauma (it would seem to indicate these stories all takes place in his head?)

 There was much more that seemed deliberately, let's say non-naturalistic.  And Mary's insistence on their importance as stories suggests a metafictional approach in general (and it was always postmodern.)  But scenes like the Baker Street explosion come off more as parody of the action genre as well, and perhaps of Sherlock itself.

Bringing all of this full circle suggests as well that this is the end of an era for the BBC Sherlock saga, and perhaps the end of it entirely, at least as it is currently constituted.  (That this final episode got the lowest UK ratings in Sherlock history won't help, even with the bizarre controversy of a Russian language version being leaked on the Internet the day before broadcast.)  

Conan Doyle's tales were considered Gothic for their day, and this version has been moving more into horror territory, especially this series.  At the same time it's gotten brisker and lighter (other have seen resemblances to James Bond and inevitably, Doctor Who) with alternating attitudes towards violence.  There are themes and layers, and games within games.  To me, the intricacies and multiple agendas may have caught up with them in the apparent implausibilities.  It seems with all the time between series, those would have been corrected.  I would have preferred more credible stories.  These days, though, that may just be a difference in taste.

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