Saturday, 8 February 2014

Mr Sherlock Holmes


An important quality of any adaptation of a book to films or TV is the presence of the original work within it. A truly great adaptation would not only be loyal to the ideas and spirit of the source material, but would take another step and plant the desire to discover or re-discover the work that it is based on. Simply retelling a story or replacing it can deem the book it is based on unnecessary. Of course reading books is never unnecessary in my view, but sadly not everyone think so. As good as an adaptation may be it will always be better if it makes you want to discover the source material. Judging by what I read about Sherlock’s influence as well as my own silly cravings to re-read Sherlock Holmes books every time a series of Sherlock ends, I think Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have already been gloriously triumphant. This is why when I say that Sherlock is an excellent TV series, but if you know the Arthur Conan Doyle books it becomes even better, it is not a fault, it is exactly what makes this adaptation shine and turns it from a good adaptation to a brilliant one. Don’t tell me the story, capture its spirit and inspire me to look for it.

Like the Moriarty arc that accompanied series one and two, series three of Sherlock had its own master criminal that shadowed each film, but series three was quite different from those that preceded it. This time there was another, more subtle, but intrinsic thread running gently through its films which added an extra layer that made each film, or an episode (I prefer to call them films) into three parts of a bigger whole, not just the The Adventure of Charles Augustus Magnussen (The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton is the original Doyle title), but also The Case of Mr Sherlock Holmes.

Things are never simple when it comes to the character of Sherlock Holmes or the character of Dr Watson, not in the canon and not outside it. While Sherlock Holmes is quite different in each story, Dr Watson seemingly stays the same, which some might mistake for stupidity. Watson may be a simpler man and possibly naive, but he is always curious and never stupid. More importantly, since most of the stories are narrated by Dr John Watson, perhaps what really changes is the way Watson sees and understands Sherlock Holmes and that's part of his development.

The first chapter of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the first book Arthur Conan Doyle wrote after but is set before The Final Problem, the story in which Holmes plunges into his death, is called Mr Sherlock Holmes, exactly like the first chapter of A Study in Scarlet, and yet these are very different opening chapters and quite different Sherlock Holmes (or Holmeses, what ever the plural of Sherlock Holmes my be). It is as if Dr Watson reintroduces Sherlock Holmes after living with him and sharing adventures with him for a while, before Mary probably, but it is also as if Arthur Conan Doyle reintroduces Sherlock Holmes after he has been presumed dead for three years.

Similarly and with great dexterity, Gatiss and Moffat develop and reintroduce Sherlock Holmes, and he seems different to the Sherlock Holmes of series one and two. Or perhaps what Moffat and Gatiss actually do is develop and reintroduce the viewers’ viewpoint of Sherlock Holmes and by doing quite beautifully and accurately conveying the changes in Dr Watson introductions of Mr Sherlock Holmes.

And so I write my individual reviews in one article, in an attempt to look at the bigger picture.

The Empty Hearse

Ahhh the Watson ‘tache, I love the Watson ‘tache! Just like canonical Watson would have had and like Arthur Conan Doyle actually had. I do subscribe to the school of thoughts that sees Arthur Conan Doyle in Watson. 

Like always with Moffat and Gatiss, The Empty Hearse is seething with references, recreations and general nods to the canon and outside it, forever propagating it with great ingenuity and love. Amongst my favourites in this film are, of course the deduction game between Sherlock and Mycroft (“Brilliant”, “Elementary” how can I not melt with joy?), which is a recreation of the beginning of The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, “Monkey glands!”, a reference to The Adventure of the Creeping Man, the scene in which Sherlock and Molly work together on a case of a stepfather posing as his stepdaughter’s boyfriend, a reference to A Case of Identity, a story which showcases Sherlock Holmes’ strong sense of justice and chivalry, and while modern day Sherlock’s empathy, holding the stepdaughter’s hand, was probably an act in order to get her to tell the story, his anger at the stepfather was genuine. Finally my favourite nod to the books was the old blind man selling DVDs in Watson’s clinic, who was NOT Sherlock Holmes! A reference to The Empty House, the story of Sherlock Holmes’ return from the dead. Even the DVDs had the same titles as the books Sherlock Holmes was pretending to sell Watson when he came into the clinic disguised as an old man selling books. Glorious! 

For an excellent and thorough list of canonical references in The Empty Hearse check this article. 

Just like in the books Sherlock doesn’t waste time being dead and goes underground to infiltrate secret groups to dissolve Moriarty’s network all over the world. In The Empty House Holmes’ explanation of how he faked his own death, is swift, on the way to another adventure and perhaps quite unconvincing, though like modern day Sherlock’s attempted explanation of the second scenario, it involved a system of Japanese wrestling. However, like I wrote in my review for The ReichenbachFall, the how doesn’t really matter. That said of course I had my own theory and it was a fairly close to Anderson’s theory at the beginning of the episode, minus Darren Brown and Sherlock kissing Molly. 

Funnily enough no one, not even guilt-ridden, obsessive Anderson, has considered asking Molly, Mycroft or the homeless network how Sherlock did it. Maybe because the theories would always be better than reality (“Everyone’s a critic!”), or maybe Watson, Anderson and everyone else don’t really want to know, because the answer might not conform to the image they have of Sherlock Holmes. Then again, like Anderson, I too wonder why Sherlock would give him of all people a possible solution, in a bizarrely placed scene within the episode. Another mystery that will hopefully unfold in the future.

What really matters is that Sherlock is back! Also what matters are Sherlock’s efforts to give Watson an explanation, thirteen scenarios once he got on the roof he says both to Watson and Anderson which personally I would love to try and theorise about, and finally what matters is that Watson doesn’t let him explain and just beats him up! Wonderful!

But the Sherlock that returns is not the same Sherlock. He is a little bit naughty, full of pranks and humour, like he is often in the books, a little bit more emotional, he recruits Molly to replace Watson and work cases with him and is kind to her as a thank you, and so it would seem, he is a little bit more human. Or is he? I was never convinced that Sherlock has actually changed. He learned how to pretend better and behave in public better maybe, but did he really change? Then again I never actually thought he lacked humanity in the past. Recruiting Molly to help is as much for him as it is an act of kindness to her, because Sherlock needs Watson, he is lost without him. Eventually he lets Molly go because, as the excellent skeleton mystery scene in which Sherlock keep hearing Watson’s voice in his head shows, he needs THE Watson, not a replacement.

The changes are in both directions, Watson has someone new in his life, he is about to get engaged to Mary Morstan, the lovely Amanda Abbington, so when the dynamic eventually returns, surely it is going to be different. Furthermore, Watson isn’t easy to forgive and Sherlock must work on his own, or with a Watson replacement, for a short while at least.

Oh yes, there’s a mystery too, London’s terror alert goes up to critical doesn't it? A mystery in the London Underground and quite within the spirit of the Doyle stories, a bomb with an off switch! But when all is said and done, the mystery plot is there to serve the story of Sherlock’s return. He has to trick Watson into a life threatening situation so he can give Watson the heartfelt sincere apology Watson needs from him, and to get Watson, who repeats the emotional original Watson’s elegy from The Final Problem, “you are the best and the wisest man that I have ever known…” and truly forgive him. Mischievous Sherlock!
“You’d have to be an Idiot not to see it, you love it!” says Watson to Sherlock at the end of The Empty Hearse, similar to what Sherlock said earlier to his brother in the deduction game, “Love What?” Sherlock asks. “Being Sherlock Holmes” Watson answers to which Sherlock replies “I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean!”

The 'tache!

The Sign of Three 
Definitely my favourite film of series three and quite possibly my favourite of the whole series. For detailed canonical references in The Sign of Three check this article. 

In the Sherlock Holmes canon there are two stories, The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier and The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane, both referenced in The Sign of Three, which are narrated by Sherlock Holmes, who often blames Watson of romanticising the cases and not giving priority to his methods. These two stories are superb demonstrations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s incredible talent. In addition to these stories being completely different in tone, writing style and drama to the Watson narrated stories, and yet completely Sherlockian in nature, when these stories were written, Doyle was a different man (I know I say that a lot about people in this article, but people change nothing I can do about it). Following tragic deaths in his family, Arthur Conan Doyle got deeply involved in spiritualism and practically abandoned the Holmesian way. Not only was he already fed up with Sherlock Holmes after failing to get rid of him once, at this point he no longer saw eye to eye with him. Yet he not only continued writing Sherlock Holmes stories and remained loyal to both Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson’s characters, never forcing his views and opinion on either, he goes on to write two Sherlock Holmes narrated stories. I said that before and I will say it again, that kind of talent and discipline is awe inspiring and something I could only hope for.

In a stroke of genius, through the best man’s speech, The Sign of Three, written by the three Sherlock writers, becomes unique film that stands out, just like the Sherlock Holmes narrated stories were. This story has so many layers that tell several different stories, showing off writing skills and craftiness worthy of Doyle’s, and the result is so beautiful it took my breath away. Centred around the best man’s speech, The Sign of Three skips the wedding’s story of course, this is not a story Sherlock Holmes is likely to tell, and puts Sherlock on the centre stage and make him the storyteller, and amongst other things he tells the story of Watson “the best and bravest man I know and on top of that he actually knows how to do stuff […] I will solve your murder, but it takes John Watson to save your life”.

The story of The Sign of Three is in effect is the story surrounds the best man's speech. In addition to marvellous off screen stories in the best Doyle writing tradition, a combination of canon references, The Blog of DrJohn H Watson references and I think a Basil Rathbone New Adventures reference (that might be a stretch though I had to really look for it), there were two major mysteries turned out to be connected to each other and to the wedding of John and Mary. This film bravely takes a deep breath and steps back to look at the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson from Sherlock’s point of view. There are glimpses of Sherlock and Watson’s lives together before Mary, possibly before Sherlock’s fake death, glimpses of Mary becoming a part of both their lives and the preparations for the wedding and of course a look at drunk Sherlock and drunk Watson. Hurrah!

For the first time Sherlock is the storyteller and so for the first time we get an inside look into his mind palace. The mind palace is Gatiss’ re-imagining Sherlock’s description of the mind in A Study in Scarlet, as an attic where there’s only so much you can store before certain things get pushed out, which explains why Sherlock can be ignorant about things like the earth revolving around the sun and the current England monarch. Inside Sherlock’s mind palace we witness the process of elimination, an investigation and thought process and finally brain storming that leads to a conclusion. It is shown in this film for the first time because we finally get to see what Sherlock sees. A beautiful insight to the working of this brilliant mind, the thing that fascinates Doyle’s Watson the most and the reason why he never stops asking Sherlock to explain his methods.

Of course a story which Sherlock Holmes tells is going to be completely different in nature than all the stories before it, as was Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing in those stories, and it happens on the day after which everything, as Mrs Hudson say, is yet again going change completely, and while on TV John promises nothing will change and they will still be doing all this, in the books everything did change and Watson did not see Sherlock as much as he used to and lost track of his cases. One of the many reasons I loved Mary’s character development is that because of it she becomes an integral part of the series. She has a character arc and a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes, therefore it is easier to believe that Sherlock and Watson will continue solving crimes together, with the help of Mary. I will discuss Mary in more depth in my review of His Last Vow.

When the mystery is solved, the crisis is dealt with and after Sherlock’s love of dancing is revealed (I too live in hope a case would come that requires his dancing skills!) it is time for Sherlock to make his first and last vow, a vow he will keep in the next episode. When he finished his vow and made one final deduction, one more than he was expecting, his story comes to an end, and with a tribute to the farewell of the Jo Grant from the third Doctor, in the Classic Doctor Who series and painfully reflecting Mrs Hudson’s story at the beginning of the film, Sherlock leaves the party early. This is no longer his story to tell.

His Last Vow 

WIGGINS! HUZZAH FOR BILLY WIGGINS! Sorry, over excitement for it is the little things the delight me, like the combination of names, Billy the canonical page boy of Sherlock and Watson and Wiggins head of the Baker Street Irregular, to create Bill Wiggins (Tom Brook) the intelligent junkie. Nerdgazm! For a detailed canonical references of His Last Vow check out this very good article.

Although, like all other Sherlock films, His Last Vow is jam-packed with references from many stories, the main plot of this film is based on one story in particular, The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, “the king of blackmailers”, who evokes a strangely strong hatred in Sherlock Holmes. Like in the episode, Sherlock Holmes woos and gets engaged to Milverton housemaid in order to get information about him. ORIGINAL STORY SPOILER ALERT – Milverton is shot by a woman who he blackmailed and whose husband died as a result, and Sherlock Holmes stops Watson from interfering with and lets the woman kill Milverton. Furthermore, when Lastrade asks Sherlock to help in investigating who murdered Milverton, Sherlock refuses, saying his heart is with the criminals in this case.

Modern day Milverton, here called Charles Augustus Magnussen, an excellent performance from Lars Mikkelsen, is a menacing Rupert Murdoch type, who is so revolting that I was almost happy that a scene of him swimming in a speedos was cut from the aired episode, though I would have loved to see Watson and Sherlock’s expressions at that. Sherlock’s war against Magnussen turns personal when he realises he can hurt Mary, but what’s really frightening about Charles Augustus Magnussen is that he uses Sherlock’s methods for evil, thus resonating Doyle’s Watson’s observation in The Sign of Four that had Holmes not been working on the side of justice he would have made a great criminal.

This is the story that reveals Mary’s secret or some of it, and why Sherlock deduced she is a liar is revealed. The original Mary Morstan first appears in The Sign of Four, when she asks Sherlock to help her with a case. It is in this story that Watson falls in love with her and at the end of the story they get engage. Mary is a wonderful character, smart, assertive and confident. Alas, being Victorian and also probably because of Doyle’s notorious lack of continuity, Mary quickly disappears and rarely pops up and when she does it is mainly as an enabler to Watson’s adventures seeking. The Victorian Watsons never had children and Mary eventually dies in unclear circumstances. Fortunately, modern day Mary Morstan has a lot more to offer and apart from having her own story, she is smart enough to get to Magnussen before Sherlock, she surgically shoots him, which leads to an excellent mind palace scene and shows how Sherlock’s methods can save his life, then Mary saves his life (“mixed messages”, a bit like River in Doctor Who), but in the end Mary remains Watson’s wife and a part of the team.  The decision to bring Mary in during the the "Great Hiatus" and have Watson and her relationship already established, making Sherlock the "new comer" also helps the new dynamic.

Mycroft also has a delightfully different presence in His Last Vow and the abundantly talented Mark Gatiss is particularly magnificent as Mycroft in this story. In a moment of weakness Mycroft says so sincerely “also, your loss will break my heart” and reveals the soft spot, we always knew existed, he has for Sherlock. While Moffat and Gatiss deny a conscious Bond reference in The Empty Hearse, when Sherlock overlooks London, they insist that “blunt instrument” as Mycroft’s colleague says, is a deliberate Bond (Casino Royale) reference and this mysterious colleague Mycroft mentions is clearly M! Also in this scene Mycroft mentions another brother, could he be referring to Sigerson Holmes, Gene Wilder, in Wilder’s film The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother? The silly joy this possible reference give me is difficult to explain.   

Getting back to the thread of Sherlock Holmes’ character development/reintroduction, here, after allegedly being built as more human, Sherlock once again has no problem using Janine to get information about Magnussen and even propose just so she would let him in to his office. That Janine gets back at Sherlock (Sherl!) by going to the tabloids, doesn’t make the morality of his actions any less problematic. When Sherlock and Watson get into Magnussen’s office and see Janine of the floor Sherlock says “did she faint? Do they really do that?” he goes on to dismiss the security guard who’s lying face down on the floor, “ex-con, white supremacist by the tattoo so who cares”. He drugs his family and friend, getting a junkie (WIGGINS!) to mix the drugs and monitor them, and finally when he realises all the incriminating data Magnussen has is stored in his mind palace there's no other way, he shoots him in cold blood and without hesitation. Did Moffat and Gatiss build Sherlock’s humanity only to destroy it in the last episode? I don’t think so. Sherlock passionately despises Magnussen, “because he attacks people who are different and then preys on their secrets” he tells Mycroft and he is genuinely upset about it. Killing Magnussen was not only a way to rid the world of such terrible evil, but it was also the only way for Sherlock to keep his vow to protect Mary and John and he’s willing to take the punishment that comes with slaying that particular dragon.

Finally, to answer Moriarty’s question, yes, I totally missed you! And I always want to see Andrew Scott on television, but I’m also a little bit scared, which I guess one should be with Moriarty.

Another glorious series of Sherlock, truly the best thing on television any day, has been and gone and once again I am left with the desire to go back and re-read and re-discover Sherlock Holmes. Just for a moment it seems Gatiss and Moffat have built a different Sherlock Holmes, but in the end they just painted another picture of the same Mr Sherlock Holmes.