Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sherlock: The Game's Afoot!

I was very interested by Season One of the BBC’s Sherlock. The concept was simple: transpose the Sherlock Holmes tales to modern day. Sherlock Holmes now uses not only his remarkable deductive prowess, but he also fall back on the Internet, texting, GPS technology, webcams, etc. Played with admirable gusto by Benedict Cumberbatch, the character of Sherlock felt authentic— if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had written the tales in modern day, this is the kind of character he’d come up with. He is a socially awkward genius who cannot understand why people around him see the same things but do not observe.

Martin Freeman played Dr. Watson, and in my opinion, he’s the best of them all. He blows Nigel Bruce out of the water. David Burke and Edward Hardwicke have nothing on him. He captures everything that made Watson great, and he manages never to look like an idiot. Holmes’ deductions are truly astounding, and Watson’s admiration feels very genuine without these moments feeling contrived. There is never a situation where Watson exclaims in surprise: “But Holmes, how on earth did you know that the only sinister-looking character with a collection of machetes was the one who decapitated Lord Bathtub?” Watson is an intelligent man—after all, he’s a doctor—but his intellect doesn’t come close to Holmes’. His life with Sherlock gives him stimulation in many ways and he develops a true friendship with the man.

That being said, Series One had a lot of problems with it. The first episode, A Study in Pink, was a very clever one written by Steven Moffat, with a lot of witty in-jokes for the Sherlockians. The plot was nicely retooled to make it fit into a modern-day setting. Moriarty was suitably hinted at. The episode was exciting. The only thing really wrong with it was the all-too easy ending, where Watson apparently learns (albeit briefly) how to read people’s minds.

It was all downhill from there. Episode Two, The Blind Banker, was penned by Steve Thompson, and was laughably silly. It took several pages from the Edgar Wallace playbook, most notably in the inclusion of Sinister Chinamen, as every Chinese character except one is part of an evil gang. It’s understandable, if not acceptable, to see such stereotypes in Edgar Wallace, but it felt shockingly out of place in modern day. But the episode was just barely fun enough, particularly in its finale with the unnecessarily-slow-moving-dipping-device-of-death.

Episode Three, penned by Mark Gatiss, was the worst of the lot. Entitled The Great Game, it saw Sherlock confronted with multiple puzzles, but the episode was frankly laughable. The plot never held water, and it is completely contrived from start to finish. You’re always aware of the plot’s flimsy artificiality, you’re never drawn into the story. I could go into detail about the plot's loopholes, but I will save that for a possible future review. But in the final scenes, we finally meet Moriarty, and it’s bad. Gatiss takes a very bad joke and streeeeeeeeeetches it out into what feels like infinity. The series basically wrote itself into a corner—it has the silliest, most laughable, and most unthreatening incarnation of Moriarty I’d ever seen. Its stories no longer held water. The only thing left in its favour was a fascinating premise and excellent acting from Cumberbatch and Freeman.

So I was sceptical for Series 2… Would the series continue its downwards spiral, or would it snap to attention and break the vicious cycle? Only time would tell… and that’s what I intend to do in the upcoming days by reviewing all three of the episodes from series 2. I hope you will all join me for this.


  1. Well, I mostly agree with you on episodes one and two, Patrick, but I think we'll have to agree to disagree on The Great Game, which I thought was a fantastic piece of television - Moriarty included.

  2. Episode Two reminded me of the old "Batman" TV series. It's less Edgar Wallace than Sax Rohmer actually. Chinese acrobats who are criminal masterminds and the oddball deathtrap as well as the weird ancient Chinese cipher -- straight out of the Fu Manchu series. It was all unintentionally campy, I thought. We can continue this come Saturday on Bill's podcast when we all discuss the influx of Holmes in the entertainment industry.

  3. Wallace had his evil "Chinamen" too though! I've gotten to like The Blind Banker. Great Game has so much great material, but the overall conception is kind of absurd, I think. And Moriarty just was all wrong I thought. He really seems to be a love-hate conception. I could have lived with such a young Moriarty (rather thana George Zucco/Lionel Atwill retread) if he hadn't been so goofy. I know he's supposed to be crazy-scary in a Heath Ledger Joker kind of way, but I just couldn't take this guy seriously as criminal mastermind.

  4. Episode 2 was poor but this is a work of genius. And that's before Series 2 and THAT finale.

  5. I agree with Puzzle Doctor on this. THE GREAT GAME was a fantastic piece of television, as was A STUDY IN PINK. The second episode was not up to the level of the other two, but I didn't think that it was actually bad.

  6. I have to disagree with you both here. I liked the idea for THE GREAT GAME a lot, and THE REICHENBACH FALL perfected it. But the story never held water because there are logical loopholes everywhere. How does Holmes go from knowing no astronomy whatsoever to solving a crime with knowledge that comes from it? (I know the film plays in the theatre but really, he was focusing on the fight, not what was playing, which he wasn't interested in anyhow.) How is that that a supposedly-valuable painting managed to pass inspection with such a serious blunder? Why the devil was the old woman killed? The killer's plan there is *terrible*-- any one of his victims could have, in the safety of the police department, said the exact same thing. He should have killed them anyways if he wanted to avoid capture! And all that is just from vague memories. I couldn't enjoy the episode because the logical loopholes kept jumping out at me.

    Perhaps Sax Rohmer would have been better, but I was thinking of the tag line "It's impossible not to be thrilled by Edgar Wallace!". And as Curt points out, he had his Sinister Chinamen too.

    I would have liked Moriarty a lot more if it wasn't for the one scene in the lab earlier. If you're going to grasp that desperately at straws for a twist ending, you might as well not bother showing the villain beforehand. It was the most off-putting bit, and from then on, I coudn't take any of his Looney-Tunes expressions seriously.

    1. The old woman was killed because she was blind. The other individuals with whom he had used he had communicated with text. Not speech. She was the first one who could give an identifying characteristic about Moriarty.

      I've said this to your latest post but the Moriarty character is meant to be a contrast to the Sherlock's own character. He's not supposed to be intimidating or imposing. He's meant to be brilliant and he is. He's every bit Sherlock's equal.

      And the scene in the lab isn't a set up for a twist ending. It wasn't hard to recognize Moriarty for who he was. I missed it the first time I watched it but the second time I actually heard when he's introduced as "Jim"

    2. Thank you for pointing that out about the woman's being blind (like I said, it's been a while)-- but then, why choose her at all? It would mean Moriarty was planning to kill her anyways...

      I object to the scene in the lab because it just makes for a bad joke, to have "ol' Jim from the lab-- you-know-that-gay-guy-because-that-was-such-a-funny-joke-the-first-time-around" turn out to be the villain. It instantly turned me off the character because I didn't like the jokes from the first scene. Without that scene, I'd have been far more receptive to this Moriarty.

      But having said that, everything at last makes sense now that I've seen THE REICHENBACH FALL, and it's even reconciled me somewhat to this interpretation's original appearance!

    3. It's understandable. It's a minor plothole there. I happen to be watching the episode now, and he even states in the painting scene he had overheard the bit about the exploding star. But it took him a great deal of thought and searching to pick up that piece of information out of his mind to see the painting was a fake.

      I can see why Moriarty rubbed people the wrong way, but I knew where they were going with him from the begining. The "gay" bit I don't have a problem with as I think it's a very subtle hint at the tangled intimacy of Moriarity and Holmes (they're really the perfect pair when you think about it.) But that's context I added to it, rather than what they intended. But yes, he's very much a character you'll either like or hate at first sight. It also helps that the character reminds me alot of the last incarnation of the Master in Dr. Who. I haven't watched the third episode yet of the second season, but I probably will tonight.

  7. @Lyson Smith My annoyance with the planetarium/Vermeer plot is that

    1)it tips the balance from Sherlock being brilliant to being a superhero (aside from the fact that it's not actually enough information to solve the problem, because of parallax and all...) If he's basically magic then he's not interesting, as far as I'm concerned.

    2) More importantly, it directly contradicts what Sherlock said about how he retained information. The reason (he says) that he doesn't know about the solar system is because it's not useful. But then why on earth does he think that this particular snippet of an audio lecture that he overhears whilst fighting for his life is worth storing? He can't have it both ways. Either he was lying the first time or he's psychic the second time...

  8. Excellent review of the first season!

    I too liked the first episode. It gave an excellent introduction to the classic Victorian characters in a very modern setting.

    The second episode was OK, but the third one was just plain boring. I have blogged about the first season and the first 2 episodes, but just could not even sit through the third episode.

    Have you seen the Russian adaptation with Vasily Livanov as Sherlock Holmes..