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Saturday, 2 January 2016

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

The Abominable Bride.

Interestingly, 'ninety minute Sherlock New Year's Special' comes fourth in the index of 'Most Terrifying Phrases To See In A TV Guide', just above 'We know about October 2010, Murphy' and just below 'Last of the Summer Wine marathon.' I was not looking forward to this, and were I not compelled to review it as quickly as possible, I would have probably avoided watching it altogether.

Set (at least apparently) in Victorian London, The Abominable Bride follows Sherlock Holmes and John Watson as they attempt to unravel a mystery involving a woman who committed very public suicide, only to rise shortly afterwards and murder her husband. As more murders committed by the ghostly bride pile up, Sherlock's reality grows increasingly shaky, as the case reminds him more and more of another one in another time.

If that last is a spoiler, it probably shouldn't be, given that it becomes completely obvious what's going on about fifteen minutes into the ninety minute special. Gatiss and Moffat are co-writing this one, after all, and while Moffat's relative skill with obfuscating, dreamlike plots (it's true, it's just about the one thing that he's good at) serves them well here, neither of the two are especially subtle writers, especially when it comes to dropping in hints of foreshadowing.

The classic Sherlock Holmes outfit, I see.

If I'm being honest, though, I actually did enjoy myself watching this. Gatiss, the lead writer of the two, is a much stronger writer than Moffat, and you can tell where he's taking the reins away from his co-writer - and at the same time, Moffat's propensity for dazzle and flair in place of actual strong writing, when balanced out by a better writer than him attending to the mechanics of the plot, actually works quite well. As a writing team, the two do compliment each other - or, at least, they do when Gatiss is in charge.

It all kind of collapses in the last twenty and thirty minutes, which include among other things the revelation of a conspiracy of Evil Suffragettes: That's actually more weird than anything, as the show alternates between rather insultingly showing them as literal evil cultists in pointy hoods, trying to frame them as sympathetic martyrs for a cause of undeniable righteousness, and trying to frame them as some kind of metaphor for Sherlock's romantic woes (because, as we are all aware, the suffragette movement does exist as grist for the boring romantic plotlines of one of Bromblepear Cambrianbart's characters), which is actually also quite insulting. The whole sequence falls on the side of 'uncomfortable', but gives the impression that nobody on staff could actually agree what they wanted the point of it to be.

Other weird moments in that final third include a frankly painfully written confrontation between a hallucinatory Moriarty and Sherlock, interrupted by Watson arriving with even more painfully written sentimentality; a bizarre post-hallucination 'what if' segment where the show tries to pull a Buffy and briefly hint that the modern day sequences might all be in Holmes' head, which just comes off as more self-indulgent than anything else; and speeches. Lots of speeches.

Is that moustache fake? I think it's fake.

Before that last third, it's all right, actually. The dialogue is snappy and concise (with the Victorian setting meaning that the occasional tortured and unnatural turns of phrase don't sound quite as jarring as they do in a modern setting); the plot is well-paced and mechanically functional, building up an actual halfway decent murder mystery story; nobody was overly annoying, and the BBC's Victorian drama sets always look lovely, so that was nice as well. Blame it partly on low standards, perhaps, but I was enjoying this special for most of its run (and certainly, even in the last third, it never dipped quite into the lowest dregs that Sherlock has to offer, since the show has had some truly terrible episodes in its short run).

But while it would have been an okay standalone episode, the fact is that it's almost entirely build-up towards the new series, purportedly airing late this year, which just kind of kills it. By the end, nothing has really been gained, ninety minutes of time has just been filled with a novelty interlude to ease an audience into a fourth series. By the episode's close, it's all been revealed as just kind of pointless, a waste of time from which nothing is gained that couldn't have been gained from a five minute sequence near the start of another episode.

Short hair definitely works better for Cumberbatch.

Thus my praise is, as it often tends to be, lukewarm: This is a better episode than most Sherlock episodes, to be sure, but that's a tremendously low bar when you consider the poor quality of the series as a whole. It was nice seeing Andrew Scott back, I guess. I have endless patience for Andrew Scott, even if I don't always have patience for Sherlock's rather uninspired Moriarty. 

Incidentally, this episode did have a nice moment with sign language in it, bringing to mind that sign language also showed up in last year's Doctor Who. I'm not complaining, by any stretch of the imagination, but it's an interesting coincidence.

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