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Sherlocked: going through the motions, or being too clever by half

(Note: contains spoilers. You probably wouldn’t want to read this if you have yet to see the first episode of the fourth series of Sherlock. You have been warned.)

Sherlock returned to our screens last Sunday, some seven years after Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman first appeared as the modern-day Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, and three years after the third series (although there was that rather disappointing one-off one last year which purported to be a reimagining of the original, late-Victorian setting of the Sherlock Holmes adventures but which turned out to be an extended dream-sequence). I watched it, because it’s Sherlock, and even though I will be watching the rest of the series I must say that it hasn’t been the most auspicious of starts.

Yes, there was an updating of one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. ‘The Adventure of the Six Napoleons’ – the one in which a criminal is going around smashing up plaster busts of Napoleon Bonaparte because he hid a stolen jewel in one of them, but he doesn’t know which one – became ‘The Six Thatchers’, the twist being that although Sherlock thought that the missing item was a jewel (with the same name as the one in the original story) it was in fact a memory-stick which led onto a bringing-up of Mary’s back-story which in turn set up the episode’s denouement.

 And yes, there were references to various other Holmes stories, such as The Sign of Four (Agra/A.G.R.A., the use of Toby the dog), ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’ (when Holmes got it wrong and asked Watson to mention the word ‘Norbury’ to him “if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers”, although in the original he was referring to the place in South London and not a disgruntled ex-MI6 secretary), ‘The Adventure of the Red-Headed League’ (the client who doesn’t think so much of Sherlock’s deduction after it’s been explained to him) and of course the never-written one about Sumatra (“a story for which the world is not yet prepared”), among others. The writers even managed to cram in a reference to John’s blog, just like Conan Doyle himself managed to have Holmes occasionally refer to Dr Watson’s write-ups of his cases (the conceit here being that although they put a lot of business his way, he didn’t care much for them).  

However, I cannot help but think that Sherlock has lost its way, and that the many references were there because they had to be, just like the bits where Sherlock acts like an arse because not only is he cleverer than everyone else, he knows he is. But these things which identify an episode of Sherlock as being an episode of Sherlock were mere window-dressing, for ‘The Six Thatchers’ seemed for the most part to be less Sherlock Holmes than some sort of James Bond pastiche. The solving of a mystery took second place to a tale of secret agents for hire, a fight in a swimming-pool, shady governmental goings-on, betrayal, a few overseas locations, much running around (including in the vicinity of the MI6 building, no less) and characters pointing guns at each other. By the time it got to Mary the former assassin being shot in the aquarium (I did warn you that this post contained spoilers) I was frankly past caring, aside from wondering how this compares with Tracy getting shot just after becoming Mrs Bond at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and considering that this might not be the last we’ve seen of Amanda Abbington, given how reluctant writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are when it comes to moving on from main characters after they’ve been killed off (witness the fact that Jim ‘Miss Me?’ Moriarty is still a major talking-point).

By the show’s own high standards, this wasn’t a good return. It’s not been well received and I cannot help but think that Gatiss put more thought into the poem he wrote as a repost to the critics; the writers have always been clever in the way they’ve adapted the old stories but it’s got to the point where they’re either going through the motions or being too clever by half. But hey, I’ll still be watching the rest of the series, which I hope will return to the old format of concentrating on solving crimes (I for one cannot wait to see what Toby Jones can do as a villain after his superlative performance in The Witness for the Prosecution, of which more perhaps in a future post), although there are hints at some more Holmes family business – as if Mycroft wasn’t being over-used already – with references to ‘Sherrinford’, the non-Canonical third brother. They do like to keep us guessing, don’t they?

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