“The Abominable Bride” – the Christmas special of the BBC’s hit series Sherlock – first aired a week ago today.
I’m such a huge fan of showrunners Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective that for the last seven days I’ve been digesting this latest episode in much the same way Sherlock Holmes himself broods over a case (except, y’know, without resorting to cocaine).
So in the end, what have I deduced?
Well, my final conclusion was that this movie-length entry in the series was a bit like Sherlock himself: it certainly is brilliant, but it’s also almost too clever for it’s own good.
At the same time, its ambition should be praised, even if the result is an episode that’s ultimately less than the sum of its parts.
After a kicking off with a quick recap of the last three seasons of Sherlock, “The Abominable Bride” transports us from the show’s modern setting back to the original Victorian era time period of Conan Doyle’s original stories.
Here we encounter Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and John (Martin Freeman) – or Holmes and Watson, as these incarnations are known – on the trail of a murderous bride seemingly risen from the dead.
As the duo puzzle over how a woman who blew her own brains out could be stalking wealthy men on the streets of London, old enemies lurk in the shadows, and Holmes’ brother Mycroft (Gatiss) and Watson’s wife Mary (Amanda Abbington) work to uncover the wider conspiracy underpinning it all…
As I hinted at earlier, on balance, “The Abominable Bride” isn’t just another great episode of Sherlock, but a bold attempt to push the boundaries of mainstream TV as well.
It’s filled with plenty of fan service (The Stand Magazine! Plus-sized Mycroft!) as well as sly references and call backs to the canon of the show (the 19th Century equivalent of Speedy’s Cafe might well be my favourite), neither of which ever feel overdone.
Thanks to director Douglas Mackinnon everything we’ve come to love from the last three seasons of Sherlock is all present and accounted for, including Sherlock’s distinctive “detective vision” (smartly reimagined for the period) and the usual audacious visual flourishes – although Mackinnon does briefly take things one 360 degree spin too far.
The costume and set design are also top notch, the scope is more sweeping than it’s ever been, and Suzie Lavelle’s cinematography is as good as anything you’ll see in the cinema (those of you who actually did get the chance to see this on the big screen, know that I’m shaking my fist in your direction right now).
Hats off as well to composers David Arnold and Michael Price, who have taken the series’ familiar themes and re-worked them as needed to wonderful, period-appropriate effect.
As always with Sherlock though, it’s the exquisite blend of humour and drama – of silliness and sincerity – that makes this episode really sing.
There’s plenty of laugh out loud moments (a scene in the Diogenes Club is a side-splitting marriage of subtitles and physical comedy), even as there are those that will leave you moved (Holmes and Watson’s “heart to heart” conversation, which stands as a series highlight).
Yes, 1800s setting or not, the interplay between these characters as scripted by Moffat and Gatiss remains as captivating as ever, and their dialogue – some of it borrowed from Conan Doyle but most of it invented by the duo themselves – effortlessly transitions from witty repartee to lyrical reflection.
Speaking of duos, it’s worth noting that Sherlock is still home to the best double act going right now, in the form of Cumberbatch and Freeman.
The Holmes and Watson of “The Abominable Bride” should by no means be mistaken for their 21st Century selves; Moffat and Gatiss have tweaked their characterisations to fit the period, and both leads have adjusted their already-definitive portrayals of two of literature’s greatest icons accordingly.
And so Holmes is ever so slightly more polite than we’re used to, quite possibly a touch softer even. That said, he’s still a remarkably cold and calculating individual, and as shown late in the game, more than capable of showing some steel when needed.
Watson is different too, probably more so than Holmes. Like the modern day John, he’s just as frustrated with his best friend’s pretence of inhumanity, and just as afraid that it might not be a pretence at all.
He’s also sharper than he gets credit for, and cleverer than his genius mate in all the ways that are needed in order for their partnership to function.
Yet he’s also far more straight-laced than we’re used to, and considerably less forward thinking. Shocking as it might seem, Watson – as a product of his time – is something of an oblivious sexist, something not made light of by the writers.
“The Abominable Bride” may be set in Victorian London, but unlike one of Conan Doyle’s original tales, this is Victorian London seen through modern eyes and hip to contemporary concerns.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
Chief among these is the struggle for gender inequality still causing debate even now over 130 years on, and it’s a theme that is woven throughout the screenplay to varying levels of success, depending on your mileage.
Some online pundits have argued that Moffat and Gatiss deserve kudos for actually addressing this element of the setting – it must be said that Molly Hooper in drag was an inspired choice – and using it to comment on our world today (they’re right).
Others complained about the execution, which effectively sidelined the women involved whilst Holmes mansplained what their issues were and then “allowed” them to win once he concluded that the patriarchy must be overthrown (these people are also right).
Personally, if there is a problem I have with the suffragette plotline in “The Abominable Bride”, it’s that its feels a bit rushed, as does the resolution of the secret surrounding the bride herself.
This is mostly down to the fact that Moffat and Gatiss aren’t actually all that interested in what is ostensibly the main concern of the special itself, and this becomes apparent pretty soon after things go all Inception around the hour mark.
It’s a genuine shock when the narrative crashes back to the 2014 setting of the last regular episode in the series (even if that shock was partly based on the special being emphatically marketed as a standalone story, but let’s not dwell), which is a real thrill in today’s world of instant spoilers.
And the twist plays well (at least at first, more on that later), except that it means the main mystery is quickly bumped in order for an increasingly convoluted (although nonetheless compelling) exploration of Sherlock’s psyche, and his relationships not only with John and Mycroft, but – just as importantly – with archenemy Moriarty, last seen sans back of skull after committing suicide in Season 2.
For it was all a dream, this flashback to yesteryear; an attempt by Sherlock to utilise his vaunted “mind palace” memory technique (along with a generous helping of drugs) to solve a cold case from 1885, which he hopes will allow him to discover how his deadliest foe has apparently managed to cheat death in similar circumstances.
If Moffat and Gatiss didn’t play fair when answering pre-release questions regarding how integrated “The Abominable Bride” would be with the series proper in order to protect this big twist, they more or less keep things honest when it comes to the special itself.
Clues big and small the first 60 minutes of screentime, and Holmes himself obliquely signposts where we’re headed less than 10 minutes in, so at least it doesn’t feel too random when it lands.
It’s also to their credit that they manage to pull off the much-derided “It was all a dream” plot device skilfully enough to escape any real outcry from either fans or critics, and this was in large part due to their crafty use of the pre-existing “mind palace” concept, which somehow made it feel like less of con.
Nevertheless, the end result of this (drug) trip into Sherlock’s mind taking precedence over his Victorian era self’s case is a mystery that intentionally doesn’t totally add up, which is a bit of a bummer given that part of the appeal of any whodunnit is finding out all the answers.
Things also soon become more disorienting than necessary, and the jumps back and forth between the present and past cause one’s sense of what is and isn’t happening, or is and isn’t worth worrying about, to rapidly erode away.
Fortunately, the sheer brazenness of what Moffat and Gatiss have done in trying to transcend the tropes of the well-worn detective story in favour of something more character-driven helps get “The Abominable Bride” over the line.
Like I said earlier, the episode shifts gears to become an exploration of Sherlock’s conscious and subconscious mind, and this is made all the more fascinating because our investigation is taking place inside his “mind palace”.
Indeed, just as Sherlock is trying to suss out how Moriarty has apparently evaded the reaper, through the world our man has built in his head, we’re given the chance to learn more about his mind and soul, and what stands revealed is a surprisingly haunted and vulnerable creature, only teased at previously.
It’s important to remember that most of what occurs during “The Abominable Bride” does so in Sherlock’s head, meaning that the majority of what transpires should be taken metaphorically, and that goes doubly for the finale at the Reichenbach Falls.
Curiosities such as Moriarty’s improbably strong showing over an uncharacteristically weak Holmes during their climatic brawl make sense when interpreted as a reflection of Sherlock’s deepest fear, and that fear is that he is his own worst enemy (“Nothing made me – I made me”).
In this instance, Moriarty is merely a manifestation of that terror, representing as he does the embodiment of Sherlock’s dark mirror self.
That’s what makes him “the virus” in the detective’s brain, able to cloud his judgement even from beyond the grave and perpetually taunting him with the promise he’ll one day break bad.
To quote Sherlock himself:
“Once the idea persists, it cannot be killed”.
Similarly, when Watson arrives to save the day, it’s suggestive of the way Sherlock sees John: ever present, ever faithful and ever reliable. It’s an acknowledge by Sherlock (on some level) of the many ways John saves him, and also of his unwavering trust and regard for his friend.
If the final leap of faith that follows works better on a symbolic level (Holmes and Moriarty as eternal equals AND opposites) than it does in practice, it’s easily overlooked in favour of the insight into Sherlock’s soul we’ve gleaned in the moments before.
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
All in all, “The Abominable Bride” is a flawed yet worthy addition to the Sherlock canon.
It could have existed as merely a fun and well-executed standalone project, and instead dared to be something utterly unexpected – on that score alone, all involved are to be applauded.
However the best compliment I can pay this episode is that even as it left me more excited than ever for the modern day adventures of Sherlock Season 4 (What’s Moriarty’s plan? Is there any further significance to Redbeard?!), a big part of me would also have enjoyed spending more time with Holmes and Watson too.
That’s it for this review – now it’s your turn! What are your thoughts on the Sherlock Christmas Special? What are your theories for Season 4? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook!