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Sherlock - series two (2012)
Writers: Stephen Moffat, Mark Gatiss, and Steve Thompson

review by J.C. Hartley

The problem, the final problem in fact, of Sherlock Holmes' duel with Moriarty, is that we all know that Holmes survives. The trick then is to pile on the pathos, so we momentarily forget that he's coming back, or to intrigue us as to how he defied death. Yes, we know he let the Prof's own momentum carry the villain over the Reichenbach Falls, then he climbed up leaving no footprints, but now we expect something more. Apparently, some worthy at the BBC told Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss that only old people would be interested in a remake of Sherlock Holmes and their proposed series would crash and burn. Did anyone say the same to Guy Ritchie?

Viewing figures for series two of Sherlock look likely to settle around the ten million per episode mark, while although the second Holmes movie did a bit less box-office than the first, it was healthy enough for them to consider a third outing. And of course the TV series will get its third outing as well, after which its stars will be too stratospheric for the BBC to entice. Martin Freeman is Peter Jackson's new Bilbo Baggins, while Benedict Cumberbatch is voicing Smaug, riding Spielberg's War Horse, minding Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and then defying the Federation in J.J. Abrams' forthcoming Star Trek sequel, although if he has to do that under Klingon makeup he'll lose his huge girly fan-base.

Twitter went crazy after the final episode of Sherlock, as fans tried to work out what happened. The crash 'n' burn anecdote just goes to prove that one thing holding back creativity is cowards with no imagination. I know I grind on about this but great British telly should be a bit 'out there', not safe: Downton Abbey scores at the Golden Globes and sets back the cause about 40 years. Gosford Park was a terrific film, multi-layered, wonderfully written, superbly acted, and directed by a giant, I should know, my wife has made me watch it about a dozen times, and I still find new stuff to enjoy. I didn't anticipate its writer foisting a parody drama/ soap on the British public on the back of it.

I wasn't always convinced by Sherlock series one, partly because I'm so bloody critical of everything, and partly through my habit of sitting down to watch stuff half-cut. I enjoyed it more watching the repeats. No problems with the first episode of the new series which I loved although I couldn't always follow what was going on. Moffat's mcguffins are just that, necessary plot devices to explain why his characters are doing what they are doing, while the real art and pleasure lies in watching and listening to them do it.

This series, like Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes film, hinges on the central relationship of Holmes and Watson, played here by Cumberbatch and Freeman. Sherlock, of course, needs Watson, if only to have a constant reminder of how clever he is. In the film, Watson does not need Holmes, he wants to draw a line under his adventures and enjoy his wife, Holmes needs his sidekick as someone he trusts who can shoot stuff up (see what I did there), and mix it with the bad guys. On TV, Watson loves and wishes to protect Sherlock, like the faithful dog he is.

The first episode of the new series extricated Sherlock from the Mexican standoff with Moriarty, cleverly staged by a swimming-pool which I saw as a sly reference to the Reichenbach Falls of the books. Sherlock is hired by the Palace to find compromising photographs of a Royal Princess taken by a dominatrix who advertises her services as The Woman. This is of course the brilliant Irene Adler who out-foxed Holmes in the story A Scandal In Belgravia. Adler does not want to engage in blackmail, she simply acquires secrets as insurance against those in high places who might wish to dispose of her.

Sherlock and Adler's first interview sees her attempt to distract him by receiving him naked except for her high heels; Lara Pulver's brave decision to play the scene for real brought the usual hundred complaints to the BBC. Some nonsense about a code on a laptop provided the plot for a story driven by the sexual power-play between Adler and the detective. When I was a kid I saw the 1967 remake of The Perils Of Pauline, and I loved the way that every time the story seemed to have ended some other incident drove the action on, this 90-minute episode proceeded with some of the same verve.

Episode two brings an update of The Hound Of The Baskervilles written by Mark Gatiss, who finds modern horror in conspiracy theories and ghastly things being done in our name. Russell Tovey, the werewolf in Being Human, is sort-of typecast as a young man haunted by a childhood memory of his father being killed by an enormous hound. The plot centres on goings-on at the Baskerville research facility, and figuring it out didn't really spoil it for me, although the story was inevitably a bit light after the series opener. The episode ends with images of Moriarty being taken into custody and interrogated and then being released, to set up the series finale.

Moriarty breaks into the Crown Jewel room at the Tower while simultaneously opening the vault at the Bank of England and the gate at Pentonville. He offers no defence at his trial but gets off after nobbling the jury. Sherlock is called as a prosecution witness but this is all part of Moriarty's plan. Sherlock has become famous after a series of high profile cases including the retrieval of one of Turner's paintings of the Reichenbach Fall. Watson warns him that whomsoever the press loves one day, they will ultimately seek to destroy, and Sherlock arrogantly ignores the advice flaunting his cleverness and rather cruelly making an enemy of a tabloid journalist.

I realised at some point that this was going to be like Frank Miller's Daredevil story Born Again, where the Kingpin of crime gets inside information on Matt Murdock and uses it to destroy him and his alter-ego Daredevil. I don't much like stories built on mistaken identity, false accusations, or just plain crossed-wires, unless they're done by Hitchcock of course, and there was a bit of a sense of grinding inevitability about this story as it proceeded.

It began with Watson visiting his psychiatrist again, trying to come to terms with Sherlock's death, so even people who don't know the story would have been up to speed and have realised that Sherlock's demise wasn't the point. The psychiatrist tries to get Watson to say what he couldn't say to Sherlock when he was alive, that he loves him, but Watson the stoical Brit can't do that. The denouement comes about on a rooftop, Moriarty urges Sherlock to commit suicide after he has been supposedly revealed as a fake, if he doesn't a team of assassins will kill Watson, Mrs Hudson and Lestrade.

Moriarty shoots himself after he realises that despite Sherlock being on the side of the angels they are alike, he does this out of satisfaction that Sherlock isn't boring, the psychology is a bit much to take here. Sherlock jumps and smashes on the pavement. Watson is concussed after a collision with a cyclist. Sherlock has asked Molly the forensic scientist who loves him for help. Distraction, was the body Watson sees falling from the roof Moriarty's? Did Sherlock use an IMF face mask like Ethan Hunt? Twitter melts down. Watson is seen sobbing at Sherlock's grave while Sherlock observes him from behind a tree.

Moriarty, in the Sherlock TV series, clearly has a vast network of helpers who we hardly see so perhaps a new series will acknowledge this organisation. One delightful touch in the final TV episode had Moriarty masquerading as an actor, a kids' TV presenter in fact, hired by Sherlock to play the part of his nemesis. This is an acknowledgement that many scholars point out that we only have the fictional Holmes' word that the master criminal exists. Watson glimpses a furious countenance in a speeding train, but beyond that no one else sees the mastermind, as if a finally unhinged Holmes has invented him. The psychological depth to Arthur Conan Doyle's enigmatic creation continues to generate new creative after-lives.

At the end of the last series of Moffat's Doctor Who, the Doctor faked his own death declaring that he had become 'too big'. Under Russell T. Davies the Doctor had become too big, everyone in the Universe knew who he was; all he had to do to scatter enemy aliens was to tell them to look him up in the data-banks. Moffat carried on the trend but then with that ending to the last series he seemed to want to reverse things, return perhaps to the days of the Doctor as the stranger arriving unbidden to right wrongs. This story of Sherlock seems to have compressed that sort of notoriety and redemption into 90 minutes, with the hero brought low and having to fade into the shadows. Quite how he will re-emerge with the next series, and which stories from the oeuvre will be chosen to do it, remains to be seen.

Sherlock series 2



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