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Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Sherlock S4E1: The Six Thatchers.

With a few weeks to fill until The Flash and Supergirl start airing again, this is the perfect time for me to do a short, three week ongoing and look at Sherlock. After all, I do Doctor Who every year, I may as well round out the set of Steven Moffat shows.

Series 4, Episode 1
The Six Thatchers.

My relationship with Sherlock isn't a complicated one: I dislike it, usually. I tend to like it more the first time I watch it, because while I don't rate Steven Moffat as a writer, the series has Fabian Wagner as its cinematographer, and not only is Wagner a masterful cinematographer (who can make anything he works on look beautiful and interesting) but Moffat as writer and executive producer knows exactly how to direct him and utilise him to create something that is often quite remarkable from a technical standpoint.

I've talked before about how I feel that Sherlock dazzles people, using cinematography and music (composer David Arnold is also pretty good) and a cast of generally very good actors to mask the fact that it's writing is a very long way below par, and this episode is -- well, actually, not the worst example of that we've had, if I'm being honest.

Picking up just after The Abominable Bride, The Six Thatchers sees Sherlock taking on a great many cases as he waits for Moriarty to spring his trap. When one case leads him to an unrelated shattered bust of Margaret Thatcher, he ends up investigating a series of bust-shattering incidents, eventually leading him to an assassin who claims to be from Mary's past, and is out to kill her. As Sherlock discovers the details of Mary's life as a secret agent, he must figure out who it was who sold her unit out.

Two very minor characters.

Okay, we may as well start with the elephant in the room: This episode kills off Mary, aka the show's most interesting character, by way of the ever-popular 'dove in front of a bullet' shenanigan. As the show makes it very clear not long afterwards that the sole purpose of her dying is to drive a wedge between Sherlock and John, this is a pretty textbook example of fridging, but there's something actually quite grotesque to it -- by having Mary give birth shortly before she dies, and having Watson (seemingly) start an affair a little beforehand as well, it creates the impression that Moffat is saying 'okay, she's filled her purpose, she's given birth to a child, now she can leave.'

(Possibly I wouldn't think that if Moffat hadn't rambled about how all women want to be mothers in the past, but he has, so here we are.)

There's also the arguably even more grotesque possibility that her death was there to kowtow to fan demands who hated her for reasons that are about eighty percent misogyny-based and twenty percent shipping-based, and given how Moffat, Gatiss, and the BBC have taken some pride in having their ear to the wall as far as what fans want with this show, it is almost depressingly plausible that that was a factor.

This episode also does a handy job of rendering John totally unlikable, as the audience is led to believe he's having an affair (of sorts, at least) with someone he met on a bus, only for him to then mildly grump about Mary lying to him.

Alas, poor Mary, the most interesting character in the show.

As far as the rest of the story goes, it's definitely not the worst Sherlock story, in fact it's one of the better ones, and that can be chalked up largely to how it's not a mystery story, it's a thriller, the literal antithesis of mysteries. Because here's the thing: Neither Mark Gatiss, who wrote this episode, nor Steven Moffat, still showrunner, are good at writing mysteries, especially not grounded murder mysteries.

That inability shows in the few touches of mystery we have in the story. The main conflict of the story kicks off when Sherlock happens to coincidentally come across one of the smashed Thatcher busts -- of which there are a limited number in the entire world, mind -- while on an entirely unrelated case, thus committing the cardinal sin of 'having a character stumble into the plot by sheer coincidence.'

Just as bad is that when the culprit of the story -- a secretary named Victoria Norbury -- is revealed, I was honestly bewildered for a moment as to who this person even was (and only realised when Sherlock mentioned her being a secretary), since the character had shown up in the opening scene and then never been seen, mentioned, or even alluded to again. There were no hints or foreshadowing that she was involved in the plot, and if anything, the conclusion that she was the culprit all along came down to the fact that she was one of only three women in the episode, and process of elimination meant it had to be her.

Sherlock, and a microscope.

As a thriller, though, the plot works okay, with a genuine sense of danger and a few fun fight scenes scattered throughout, and a tried and tested 'elite unit got betrayed and now one of them is out for vengeance' storyline. As a thriller, it works, somewhat, and while I've seen some news sites protesting that Sherlock is turning into James Bond, I would rather take a slightly muddled thriller plotline than an incoherent mystery story.

Once again, Wagner does some excellent work with the cinematography on this episode, including a few genuinely sinister turns when the flickering lights of a swimming pool appear on the side of Sherlock's face, calling back to his first case (and Moriarty's first murder). If you want to see more of Wagner's work, he'll be doing the cinematography for this year's Justice League film, and he's also done a few Game of Thrones episodes.

So, that's The Six Thatchers which, let's be honest, come across as essentially just a delivery method for Mary Watson's boring, fridge-y death. Not a brilliant start to the series, to say the least.

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