Sherlock s4 ep 3

imageWe open with a horribly frightening scenario, uncomfortably reminiscent of real-life events in the not too distant past that I’d rather not think about: a little girl wakes to find she’s the only person awake on a plane full of unconscious crew and passengers. A mobile phone suddenly starts ringing, breaking the silence around her, and she answers, panicked, only to find the voice on the line is….

Well, that would be telling. It turns out, however, that the little girl on the plane isn’t even the scariest situation this episode has to offer, as we move through a terrifying incident at Mycroft’s house, and on to a tense stand-off at Baker Street before finally ending up in what is a long waking nightmare at Sherrinford itself, courtesy of one Ms Eurus Holmes; a magnetically chilling portrayal by Sian Brooke of a woman who has an intellect “beyond Newton” and a capacity for endlessly imaginative and expansive cruelty beyond all of us.

imageAll this makes The Final Problem the darkest, most complicated Sherlock yet, weaving a deeply disturbing family history that has previously remained oblique and undiscovered to both us and Sherlock himself, into the show’s already established mythology and relationships, and giving us a villain who’s not only much cleverer than our heroes and all our previous villains, but seems, for most of the episode, utterly and solely devoted to the pursuit of the most appalling psychological torture and revenge.

This is not Sherlock as cheerful whodunnit or even meta buddy comedy then, but Sherlock as psychological horror film; for most of the ninety-minute running time, the only sounds coming from my sofa were gasps and whimpers – in fairness, they did find time for a little of the trademark Sherlock humour but, for the most part, this was black and uncompromising; the scene with the governor, the scene with Molly, the sudden realisation of who Redbeard really was – my God.

If the horror was a little too much at times, though, the chemistry between and consistently outstanding performances of Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Mark Gatiss helped keep the heart in there too, adding, as Eurus might say, “emotional context” to an episode which, without it, would just have been thoroughly unpleasant. As it was, The Final Problem may have been somewhat traumatic to watch, but it was also gripping, mesmerising viewing and a fine, fitting way to end the series, if end the series it does.

The fate of the show isn’t clear yet; although they all seem keen to return, Cumberbatch, Freeman and showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are all much more famous and in demand than they were when they started their “Holmes and Watson as young men in a modern setting” project, and it’s not as if it’s easy to make 3 feature-length movies with writers and a cast like that on a BBC Drama budget. It’s also subject to the law of diminishing returns – I still think that this version of Sherlock is, for the most part, brilliant, but it’s fair to say that the number of people who agree with me has decreased significantly over the past few years. There’s no denying any new series of Sherlock is an event, though; if we got a fifth one, I’d be far from the only one pleased and watching. Ups and downs and focus on Mary and Moriarty aside, I do still love this incarnation of the Baker Street Boys. For now, then, I’m not saying goodbye to them, just farewell. It’s been a blast.

Sherlock s4 ep 2

*SPOILERS*
imageIt’s been a few weeks since Mary’s death and neither Holmes nor Watson is coping.

Sherlock, gaunt, hollow-eyed and constantly frantic, is back on heroin, and his impeccable, preternatural instincts are working too fast for the rest of him to keep up. John, still, silent and angry to his very core, is still in therapy but talking to the spectre of a dead woman rather than the live one who’s actually being paid to listen. And a sociopath celebrity/philanthropist with money, keys and carte blanche to a hospital full of potential victims, may just be the world’s smartest, scariest serial killer.

Uh-oh.

Albeit serial predator Jimmy Savile wasn’t – as far as we know – a murderer, the parallels are clear and deliberate: as well as the fame, the influence and the access all areas pass to just about everywhere else, Toby Jones’s Culverton Smith has that same creepy, manic jocularity tinged with menace that makes us all wonder now how he got away with it for so long, and the hospital detail is far too obvious to be unintentional. As a result, the character is twice as repulsive and unsettling; it’s a lot harder to smile and shrug off tv villains as fantasy when they’re as close to reality as this one, so even when I found Smith a little too over the top, I remembered that the inspiration for his character was more than a little over the top, too.

Subtlety or lack thereof aside, though, the darkness and demented energy Jones brings is well-suited to this bleak, chilling but often blackly funny episode; Sherlock himself’s woozy jumps back and forth in time and place aren’t always easy to follow (we’re meant to be as confused as he is at various points, I think, and once he understands, so do we), and John’s determination to punish his friend for his own sins could be incredibly annoying in the hands of lesser actors, but Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are even more outstanding than usual this week, with more than able support from Una Stubbs as the delightfully dangerous Mrs Hudson and Amanda Abbington as Mary, who, sadly, is far better-written and much more interesting and moving in death than she ever was in life. (Albeit she’s just as manipulative.)

Steven Moffat’s script, meanwhile, is complicated and very clever, playing with memory, time, perception and observation, weaving in bone-deep pain and grief, and leavening the mix with humour and affection both for and between (however much they might pretend otherwise) all the main characters. After last week’s disappointment, I wasn’t much looking forward to this, but I thought The Lying Detective was excellent.

Sherlock s4 ep 1

imageSeason four opens with Sherlock back in Britain, free of any comeback for the Magnussen murder and full of beans about it. He’s so fixated, however, on seeking out whatever “posthumous game” he thinks Moriarty has stored up for him, that both he and the episode aren’t really invested in anything else for at least the first half.

Which isn’t to say there’s nothing going on in the first half, but that what is going on whizzes by very quickly, with Sherlock throwing solutions and insights at great speed at a variety of clients and mysteries, each of which I’m sure might have been fun if any time or story had been given to them at all. The only one that’s fleshed out to any extent is the Ghost Driver, which is great, but even that’s done and dusted in 10 minutes and serves more as a gateway to the titular Six Thatchers side of things than a mystery in its own right.

I suppose the point of all this jumping around is to keep both Sherlock and the audience distracted with filler, since the main mystery itself is not enough to fill a whole episode on its own; the main mystery actually revolving around Mary Morstan, now Mary Watson, mother of Rosamund Mary Watson and wife of Dr John.

The connection between The Six Thatchers and Mary’s past as a secret agent is a clever excuse, of course, to repeatedly smash the Iron Lady’s head in, but the problem for me at least is that I’m not remotely interested in Mary’s past as a secret agent. Truth be told, I’m not even that interested in Mary’s present, I never have been, which may well be the reason why I wasn’t even upset by her REDACTED but we’ll come to that.

Anyway, while Sherlock keeps insisting that he can protect this former “secret agent with a truly terrifying skill set” – although why he thinks she would need him to when she can quite clearly protect herself, is a mystery on its own – he’s not the only one acting out. John has apparently been dipping his toe in some kind of emotional affair/ flirtation/ something not remotely John-like with a random lady on a bus, presumably in order to fabricate some kind of equivalence between him keeping things from his wife and her keeping things from him. Which: NO. I understand why it might have seemed like a good idea to muddy Watson up a bit, but it doesn’t mean that this was the way to do it and it certainly doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Random ladies on buses aside, however, ultimately, The Six Thatchers becomes Something About Mary rather than Something About Margaret, the Something turning out to be a spy thriller-cum-whodunnit, which is terrifically-acted and beautifully-shot — the text on screen motif will never not delight me, and little visual flourishes like the stones crumbling from Sherlock’s face show the imagination and effort at work here – but just didn’t grab me at all. I did laugh a few times (the loudest being at the simplest gag – the baby throwing the rattle at Sherlock’s face), and I appreciated the work that had been put into the whole thing, but, for the most part, I kept waiting for it to excite, intrigue or really involve me, and it just didn’t. Even when REDACTED was REDACTING on the floor, and one lead character was cutting another out of his life (again? I feel like we’ve been here before), I was curiously unmoved, which is so unusual for unpopcult’s crier-in-chief I should probably make a doctor’s appointment and check everything’s ok. Assuming for now that my tear ducts are still working normally, however, the sum of it all is that I didn’t think The Six Thatchers was bad, more that it was lacking something. I’m not sure what exactly, but as a result, no matter how much jumping around the plot did, for me, it never really got off the ground.

Public Service Announcement 38 of 2016: Sherlock, The Witness for the Prosecution, To Walk Invisible

It’s our last PSA and last post of the year, so time for a quick look at some top-tier BBC drama of the kind that only ever appears over the holidays.

First up, two-part Agatha Christie adaptation The Witness For the Prosecution (which was on tv on 26th and 27th December) is currently available on iPlayer, should you wish to catch up. After the success of last year’s And Then There Were None, another Christie adaptation must have seemed like a great idea at the time but, despite an impressive cast headed by the always terrific Toby Jones, I’m not sure they picked the right one. Where Mammoth Screen’s take on ATTWN was thrilling and scary, their version of Witness is more depressing and gloomy, as well as – as we’re always saying about British tv – very, very slow. I sat through it more in determination than entertainment, but if you want a slice of miserabilia with your hot cocoa, carry on.

Also falling under the heading of “maybe not the cheeriest” is Sally Wainwright’s one-off feature-length drama about the Bronte family, To Walk Invisible. Anyone even remotely acquainted with the Bronte history knows it was hardly all jam and biscuits so, despite being Unpopcult’s Head of Dept for This Type of Thing, I’ve not exactly been in a hurry to watch it myself. 2016 has depressed me enough. The Guardian called it “bleak and brilliant” though, and who knows, it might well turn out to be empowering and inspiring, so if you’re up for it, iPlayer is the place to go once again.

Finally, though, something new to kick off 2017: a year after the last one-off special, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s Sherlock returns tomorrow (New Year’s Day!) at 8.30 pm on BBC1 for a new three-part run. My feelings on the show are well-documented: as I’ve said before, at its best, I think it’s one of the finest things on tv, and even at its worst, I think its ambition and intelligence are still evident. So while lots of people have fallen very vocally out of love with it in the years since the first episode, I’m still on board and I’ll be watching and reviewing each ep as soon as I can.

And that’s it for this year, folks. I’ll be back tomorrow with our Poll results so I’ll save my happy new years till then, but meantime, have a safe and happy Hogmanay and a rousing chorus of Auld Lang Syne on us. Health and happiness to you all!

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

image*Spoilers. Ish*

Full disclosure: before I sat down to watch The Abominable Bride, I really wasn’t on board with the idea of a Victorian-set Sherlock special.

Not only did the publicity photos look silly but, for me, the whole point of modern Sherlock – as well as Moffat, Gatiss, Cumberbatch and Freeman, obviously – is that it’s modern. If I really wanted to watch a Sherlock that was more in keeping with the original time period of the books, I’d, er, watch one of the many previous adaptations of Sherlock that are more in keeping with the original time period of the books.

But, whatever time period it’s set in and whatever experiment/ conceit (depending on your point of view) it’s trying out, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s version of Sherlock is, even on its weakest day – and this definitely was nowhere near that – worth watching for the superlative cast, the love lavished on it and the intelligence and ambition at its heart. So sit down to watch it, I did, and, even though it took a little while to do it, “The Abominable Bride” eventually won me over and then some.

There will be plenty of people for whom it didn’t work at all, though. Some will have found it too smug, too self-conscious, maybe too self-indulgent; I can understand all that but, for me, it was also smart, funny, bold and, after the initial, slightly annoying – but necessary to set things up, I suppose – first ten minutes or so, hugely entertaining.

At first, something about the characterisation and the dialogue, particularly for Sherlock himself, did seem jarring; “When Sherlock start talking in all these cheery one-liners?” I wondered. “Where is all his angst?” But, once we found out where, rather than when, it was set, all that actually made complete sense. After all – SPOILER – everyone is hilarious in their own head.

Sense or not, though, I wasn’t able to resist the Bride’s charms for too long: as well as the running comedy commentary from Sherlock himself, Mrs Hudson having “branched into literary criticism by means of satire” was hilarious, the past and present bleeding into each other masterfully done, and the whole thing so ingeniously, adroitly plotted that even if the resolution to the mystery of the Abominable Bride was completely ridiculous, it not only didn’t matter, it was also the whole point. Yes, the mansplaining aspect of it was misguided, if well-meaning but, in context, I can give it a pass. Especially since Sherlock is always Watsonsplaining anyway…

Anyway, as I said, there will be plenty of people who didn’t like it and that’s fair enough. There will also be plenty of people who will think it’s a cop-out because it didn’t really advance the modern narrative of the show and, yes – SPOILER – Sherlock did essentially wake up at the end to find Bobby in the shower┬áit was all a dream. (I’d say the BBC screening what seems like a thousand episodes of the dreadful Mrs Brown’s Boys BBC1 over the festive period is much more of a cop-out, but that’s just me.) I didn’t mind any of that, though, because the things The Abominable Bride did accomplish were much more impressive than the things it didn’t; not only did it make a Victorian-set Christmas special fit perfectly with both the original novels and the 21st century story, but it did so with confidence, flair, wit and obvious affection for both the characters and Conan Doyle’s source material. And it made me laugh. Season 4 may still be a while away but, in the meantime, I thought this little taster was a whole lot of fun.

Public Service Announcement 60 of 2015: Sherlock

Last PSA of the year goes to a programme which doesn’t really need one: two years after its third season ended, Sherlock returns tomorrow (New Year’s Day! Big kisses to everyone!) for a one-off, Victorian-set special, accompanied by much fanfare, cinema screenings across the country and tv broadcast in the US just hours later. In short, you already know it’s on and you don’t need me to tell you but, just in case you wake up tomorrow with tattoos all over your body and amnesia, this is a quick reminder that “The Abominable Bride” will be on BBC1 at 9pm in the UK. Review to follow in due course but, meantime, Happy Hogmanay to everyone still waiting on the bells and Happy New Year to everyone already in 2016 – see you on the other side!

Sherlock s3 ep 3

image“Oh, Sherlock. What have you done?”

Gone out in style, that’s what.

After the more character-oriented Empty Hearse (which I loved) and the more sitcom-mish Sign of Three (which I really didn’t), His Last Vow makes clear from the start it’s going to be a much darker affair. From the opening scene where we finally meet Charles Augustus Magnusson, the sinister and deeply creepy newspaper magnate played by Lars Mikkelsen – yes, that is TROELS FREAKING HARTMANN – as a cross between Rupert Murdoch and Hannibal Lecter, the stakes are high, the tension is palpable and the game is, as they say, on.

That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom, though, because it definitely isn’t. The drug den, Billy Wiggins, the business with the bridesmaid – it’s all very, very funny, albeit most of the humour is definitely on the black side, which is the best kind as far as Sherlock is concerned. The twists and surprises are great too, even if I’m not entirely persuaded John would really have come to terms with REDACTED the way he did but then, as Sherlock pointed out, John does seem to gravitate towards that sort of thing in a big way.

The coda at the end is a little bit of a cop-out too: I mean, we all know Sherlock’s coming back, but could they not at least have pretended otherwise till next season, instead of indulging everybody with a bizarrely quick fix that robbed REDACTED of any real consequences? Hmmm. But I’m not going to protest about that too much. There has been a lot of criticism of this season, some of it I agree with, some not, but this is still a fantastic show. In Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch, it has the two best British actors on tv (and probably film, too), and in Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, it has writers and executive producers capable of brilliance. Sometimes they achieve it, sometimes they don’t, but in a British tv landscape currently dominated by cosy, easy, period drama and cookery competitions, I’m glad they at least keep trying. I thought His Last Vow was terrific, some viewers might disagree, but I doubt it will stop most of them coming back for season 4. See you then.