I dithered about reviewing Sherlock, because it’s very much a show I have Very Strong Feelings about, and I was worried that I’d just produce a transcript of my Inner Angry Nerd battling out my Inner Squealing Fangirl instead of anything remotely resembling actual criticism. Then I watched it while at the family home, which has terrible wi-fi and is ten miles away from the nearest shop. There’s only so much time one can spend playing increasingly competitive family games of Monopoly, drinking alone and watching Top Gear re-runs, so I decided to commit my musings to print for the sake of my mental health. Overall, I felt that Gatiss produced a mixed bag- nothing close to the embarrassment of Thompson’s ‘The Blind Banker’, but far from the standard the show has proved it can reach.
The episode had its highlights.There is a positive feeling of all-round “newness”. Relationships are uncertain, no-one knows where they’re going. Martin Freeman’s performance as a seriously wound up Watson was a joy to watch, once again proving that he can act more with one facial muscle than many can with their whole body. And who can’t help but love the face that gave us this image: Cumberbatch is on form as always as a Holmes in flux. One of the best things about this series is how the writers handle the characters. Whatever happened during ‘the hiatus’ has left the detective a little bit jumpier, a bit more impulsive- but apparently no more clued in as to his partners emotions, a fact beautifully revealed by the restaurant scene. The transformation from cocky and eager to uncertain and terrified was comedy gold. When we first see Sherlock, he is being tortured. I’ve always been a fan of the creator’s subtle and well-researched dealings with mental health- any doubt about Watson’s PTSD diagnosis vanished when he unleashed on a chip and pin machine. What we see here is a Holmes in flux, disjointed, with Watson’s recriminations sneaking into his psyche. Even as he pulls on the famous deerstalker and waltzes into the crowd of baying reporters, we are not satisfied that he really knows how to “be Sherlock Holmes”. This certainly suggests that viewers have something to look forward to, in regards character development at least.
The flaws in ‘The Empty Hearse’ can be described in two words- lazy writing. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Gatiss- he’s got two years worth of expectations to live up to. Mostly, I didn’t have a problem with the way the whole fall question was handled- it was intended to be humorous and to build suspense, and it achieved that aim. The plot, however, was dull, predictable and lacking the eenail-biting tension viewers are familiar with, not least because half of it was lifted from V for Vendetta.
I suppose I should talk about the fanservice, just to get it out of the way. The BBC adaptation has always had a flirtatious relationship with both the fans and the canon. When this angle is played just right, it makes for perfect seasoning, showing the creators’ love for the original material and gently poking fun at the show’s cult following. While I did enjoy the new take on Anderson, some material just seemed like so much filler. Gatiss has always been a marketer on the side- see the thankfully short-lived Technicolour Daleks, clearly dreamed up as toys for Doctor Who’s younger audience. He may well be hoping for more free publicity from the fanbases’ Twitterati, but writing episodes solely for their squee-appeal is an easy way to lose the interest of critics and less engaged viewers. And though Sherlock swooping in, all black coat and frantic emotion to save John makes my little queer heart swell, one can’t help but think that Watson has to be an expert on being abducted by now.
Aesthetically beautiful as always, the editing on this episode was mostly fantastic, with razor sharp match-cuts keeping the audience on their tones and providing many giggle-worthy moments. However, Sherlock’s music video style London Underground deduction montage couldn’t have been more out of place if he’d swung in on a wrecking ball, and some sequences just seemed unnecessary- another indication that the script lacked the meat to keep ‘The Empty Hearse’ going for a whole ninety minutes.
Overall, there seemed to be a certain shallowness about the episode, a willingness to sacrifice content for cheap laughs- but there are certain whispers of hidden depths. Sherlock’s deduction of Mary, for example- was that the word liar?
If it is, we have hopes for an interesting female character in a show that has always been lacking in that regard. We also get a bunch of vague hints and unanswered questions- why would John’s abductor’s text her first? Exactly how changed is Sherlock? What exactly is Magnussen’s interest in the detective? So much now depends on the overall arc of the series, and how Moffat and Thompson handle the next two episodes. Ultimately, ‘The Empty Hearse’ on IOUs- promising much for the future, but delivering very little on its own.
John and Sherlock’s homoerotically charged fight in the restaurant
Mark Gatiss chewing the scenes as Mycroft.
The Underground montage. Seriously, I thought Cumberbatch was about to start crooning depressing indie lyrics about urban anonymity.
Excessive amounts of fanservice and episode filler
“I Don’t Shave For Sherlock Holmes”- the most obvious marketing ploy since the Technicolour Daleks. The worst part is, I’ll probably still buy the t-shirt.