The Moff Taunts His Fans, and Associated Divagations*

Steven Moffat, the evil genius behind Doctor Who and Sherlock, today revealed in a Guardian interview that we’ve all missed a vital clue showing how Sherlock escaped death in the fall from the roof of Barts. There’s a theory going round that it was Moriarty’s body in a Sherlock mask, and I have given some credence to the idea. I’ve yet to watch The Reichenbach Fall for a third time, and Moffat appears to knock the theory on the head. But who knows? He’s a cunning bastard who likes to mess with our minds, what little of them is left after trying to work out what just happened in his shows.

It takes at least a couple of viewings, usually three, to properly enjoy all the subtleties of a Moffat production. The first is to get the basic plot down and a general idea of the profligate whizzing-by of sharp dialogue and witty cultural references. Then, knowing whodunnit and why, I can watch the episode again to catch the clues and foreshadowings, while paying more attention to the dialogue. Third time is usually just for pure, unalloyed pleasure, but this time I need to work out how Sherlock dunnit.

The same goes for Doctor Who. All that time I could have been writing a novel.

The interview itself was very interesting. I didn’t know Moffat had written Joking ApartChalk, and Coupling, the first of which I haven’t seen. I spent the Nineties and Noughties in America, that televisual black hole, sporadically illuminated by BBC America. No, I’m being unfair – there’s a lot of good stuff on cable. But everything else is dire. It’s the equivalent of devaluing the currency to have so many television channels chasing too few good programmes. The crap is bound to swamp the airwaves and leak in through the television screen.

Anyway, to get back to the point, I saw the brilliant Chalk and Coupling on BBC America. I particularly enjoyed David Bamber as the headmaster in Chalk. He was also the best ever Mr Collins in the BBC’s 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice, kicking up the SQ (Smugness Quotient) dial to 11. Here he is proposing to Elizabeth Bennet.

Where was I? Yes, the Moffat interview. It was also illuminating to discover that, in order to write Sherlock, he broke a contract with Stephen Spielberg to write three scripts for the Tintin film franchise. No contest as far as I’m concerned. I saw The Adventures of Tintin, and while it has all the Hollywood production values, it doesn’t have a heart.

While we’re on the subject of Sherlock, I just discovered The Personal Blog of Dr. John H. Watson, a cleverly put together recreation of the character’s thoughts arising out of his experiences in the show. It has comments from his sister, Harry (Harriet), Mrs Hudson, Molly, and Sherlock, as well as a few others, one of whom is probably Moriarty. It starts just before meeting Sherlock in the first episode. There’s also a link to Molly’s blindingly pink blog, which has some back and forth with Jim Moriarty when he’s worming his way into her boyfriendhood.

I thoroughly recommend both the blog and the Moffat interview. Apparently the scenes that show how Sherlock escaped death have already been filmed, but there’s still plenty of scope for speculation while we wait for the 3rd series.

Or I could get a life.

My reviews on Series 2:
A Scandal in Belgravia
The Hounds of Baskerville
The Reichenbach Fall

* For divagation, see my definition here.

Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall

I may be on the side of the angels, but don’t think for one second that I am one.
– Sherlock

A fine, moving conclusion to the series that brings out the best in Sherlock, without laying a finger on his reputation for “being such an annoying dick all the time.” No mean   feat. I’m assuming everyone reading this has either seen the episode or doesn’t mind spoilers. So I’m not going to attempt a detailed summary (even if I could do it proper justice), and focus instead on the elements that interest me.

In The Reichenbach Fall, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ take on The Final Problem, Sherlock is utterly humbled and destroyed in the eyes of the world. Three major cases, and the success of John’s blog, have propelled him to celebrity status. The deerstalker has come back to haunt him. At this apotheosis of Sherlock’s fame, Moriarty begins to cut the ground out from under his feet, by staging three audacious crimes at Pentonville Prison, the Bank of England, and the Tower of London. Without releasing a single prisoner, or stealing any gold or Crown Jewels. It’s all done by iPhone (there’s an app for each one) as he breaks into the glass case containing the Crown Jewels, and sits down to wait for the guards, crowned, orbed, and sceptred.

Sherlock’s a witness at Moriarty’s trial, managing to get himself banged up for contempt of court, a predictable outcome despite John urging him not to be himself. The real surprise (well, perhaps not) is that Moriarty is acquitted, after sending death threats to all the jurors through their hotel televisions. All of which he cheerfully admits to Sherlock, when visiting Baker Street for tea afterwards. So it’s game on to solve “the final problem,” as he proceeds to cast doubt on Sherlock’s genius, honesty, and even whether there is such a person as Jim Moriarty. As opposed to Richard Brook, an actor hired for the occasion to stand trial in place of this character who Sherlock has invented. In short, he has both committed and solved the crimes written up by John, using “Moriarty” as a scapegoat.

And it works. Everyone is convinced except for the only people Sherlock can call friends – John, Mrs Hudson, Lestrade, and Molly, who carries such a torch for him it could light up the sky at midnight. It would be nice to include Mycroft in this list of friends, but he is fatally compromised both by family history and a recent disclosure of Sherlock’s life story to Moriarty. Done with the best of intentions, to get information in return about the supposed computer key code Moriarty possesses, which can be used to break into any computer system. In so doing, Mycroft gives Moriarty all the genuine information he needs to buttress the Big Lie, and make it thoroughly convincing through Richard Brook’s tell-all story in (what else?) the scumbag Sun.

With Sherlock on the run from Scotland Yard, it comes down to a battle of will and intellect with Moriarty on the roof of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where Molly works. Knowing he is marked for death, Sherlock has already asked Molly for help. “What do you want?” “You.” Not only is Sherlock in danger, so are John, Mrs Hudson, and Lestrade, targeted by assassins in case Sherlock will not enact the punchline to Moriarty’s fiction of a disgraced, fraudulent detective who commits suicide.

The final problem, it turns out, is staying alive when only intellectual challenge can make life worth living. Hence the endless need for distraction, which has turned Moriarty to crime and Sherlock to detection. They are two sides of the same coin. As Moriarty says, “You’re me,” in an epiphany that still allows him to blow his brains out rather than allow Sherlock to win by finding out the recall code for the assassins aiming at his friends.

So Sherlock has to decide whether to jump from the roof or allow them to die. He chooses to jump and, when John appears in the street below, chooses to own the story constructed by Moriarty, rather than endanger them. This is above and beyond Conan Doyle’s Holmes, who dies a hero and saviour of his country. Sherlock demonstrates  extraordinary heroism in destroying his life’s work to protect his friends.

Of course he doesn’t die. Quite how, I don’t know. Obviously, John being knocked down by the bike was part of a plan to prevent him seeing the body with all his faculties intact. As a doctor, he might have spotted something wrong with the situation. We know Sherlock had arranged a contingency plan with Molly. Again, what it was we don’t know. Someone else certainly got buried in Sherlock’s place. But how would he survive the fall? No doubt we’ll find out in the next series.

We learned a lot about John and Sherlock in this episode. John’s affection for his friend is deep and heartfelt, as shown by the opening scene at the therapist’s office, and his inability to tell her at the end about “the stuff you wanted to say, but didn’t.” It does come out at the grave, when he gets a chance to talk to Sherlock alone. “I was so alone and I owe you so much…Don’t be dead.” That awkward pat of the gravestone, as if it were his friend’s shoulder, was incredibly moving. Then marching off, heartbroken.

As for Sherlock, he knows he has friends, and is prepared to sacrifice everything for their safety. Definitely a hero, as John called him earlier, as well as an annoying dick.

I’m really chuffed there’s going to a third series.

Sherlock: The Hounds of Baskerville

A very satisfying adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Mark Gatiss gives us two beasts for the price of one, only one which actually exists, while whittling down the Baskervilles to a singular MOD weapons research establishment on Dartmoor. The real Hound is H.O.U.N.D., a similar establishment in Liberty, Indiana, of which Dr Frankland is an alumni, specializing in induced fear, paranoia, and hallucinations. When it’s closed for politico-ethical reasons – turning their test subjects into killers rather defeats the object of the exercise, and it’s rotten publicity – Frankland brings his research back to the UK, where he can surreptitiously work on it.

All the familiar elements are in place, rearranged and transmuted for a modern audience. Sir Henry Baskerville becomes Henry Knight, an unassuming chap who rolls his own, someone you wouldn’t imagine was rich till you see his house. Dr Mortimer switches sex and specialization to become his therapist. Jack Stapleton swaps sex and amateur naturalist status to become a scientist at Baskerville. The Barrymores are now Gary and Billy, mine hosts at the Cross Keys, and owner of one the Hounds. Bought to drum up trade after watching the documentary in which Henry talks of seeing the beast.

No Selden, though. The escaped convict is replaced by doggers, their location given away by car headlights dipping up and down in response to the internal bouncing. Looking very much like morse code when parked just below the brow of a hill. An inspired touch.

Sherlock starts to unravel in this episode. When he first appears, covered in blood and carrying a harpoon, you think that might be an indication of something wrong. In fact, it’s the successful conclusion of a case, one that you wish John would write up for us. No, it’s the nicotine wot done it, or rather the craving, which can only be assuaged by another case. So the Baskerville problem is lucky for him, until he sees a huge Hound, glowing black with red eyes, in Dewer’s Hollow. At first he denies seeing it to Henry, then throws a wobbly in the pub when John presses him on the matter.

The crux of course is that Sherlock is so supremely rational, yet what he saw with his own eyes was impossible, and that is shaking him to pieces. He repeats the famous Holmesian axiom, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth, as a sign of his distress. A perfect plot mechanism to dig deeper into Sherlock’s psyche, and come up with the admission that he has no friends, but he does have a friend. Definitely a bromance, given the shit John puts up with.

The solution to Sherlock’s conundrum is fairly obvious to a modern audience – the Hound is a drug-induced hallucination – and I’m sure it wasn’t just me who twigged what was happening quite early on. Any mention of a top secret government weapons research establishment has to set the alarm bells ringing. The MOD was testing LSD back in the 1960s. I blogged about it here. Never mind. It was a pleasure to watch the plot unfold.

It’s interesting that Arthur Conan Doyle always went for the rational solution to a probem in the Sherlock Holmes stories, yet he was a supernaturalist at heart. He supported Spiritualism and was completely taken in by the Cottingley Fairies hoax. His creation would have gone through that claim like a hot knife through butter.

All this, with admirable pacing and the usual witty self-references and grace notes, made it a worthy successor to A Scandal in Belgravia.

The final scene is quite intriguing. Jim Moriarty, banged up by Mycroft, is freed from a cell. To reveal the word, “SHERLOCK,” written all over the walls, a prelude to The Reichenbach Fall. Whatever happens in that, I think we’ll all be clamouring for Sherlock’s return in a new series.

Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia

When I think of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, I now think of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.  That these two actors have so thoroughly eclipsed their predecessors obviously has a lot to do with the medium of television, but it’s mostly due to Steven Moffat  and Mark Gatiss’s brilliant reinvention of a Holmes and Watson for the 21st century.  They set the tone in the first episode of the first series (2010) with  A Study in Pink, and carried it through to A Scandal in Belgravia.  As with Moffat’s other project, Doctor Who, I have to watch each episode twice to get catch everything the writing and acting has to offer.

In A Scandal in Belgravia, Sherlock meets his match in the supremely intelligent and beautiful dominatrix, Irene Adler, played by Lara Pulver.  Her clients from the upper reaches of the British establishment tell her everything, and she has it all stashed away in her cameraphone, protected by a passcode that takes Sherlock almost the whole episode to discover.

This duel of minds and sexual attraction (“Brain is the new sexy”) is the core that runs through A Scandal in Belgravia, relegating the serious business of why these secrets are so important to the subplots that weave around it.  Irene’s first meeting with Sherlock, when she walks into the room naked, was stunning.  It set the agenda for her plan to seduce him into complicity, something she seems to have accomplished until he confesses to feeling her pulse at that opportune and tender moment.  So deducing that she was in fact aroused, and extrapolating from it the passcode for the cameraphone.  What else but SHER?

But Sherlock is also smitten enough to rescue Irene from terrorists about to cut off her head.  “The Woman.  The Woman” says it all.

There is so much to enjoy.  A jumbo jet filled with dead people, so terrorists don’t realize that their plot to blow it up has been discovered, is wonderfully Gothic.  The kicking the CIA agents get is thoroughly satisfying – couldn’t happen to more deserving characters.  I particularly like the way their leader falls out of a window several times after brutally interrogating Mrs Hudson.  And it’s heartwarming to see how Sherlock reacts to her being in danger.  He’s a good boy, and he protects the people who care for him, despite his offhand manner.

That said, he’s also cruel in his honesty.  Poor Molly is humiliated at the Christmas party when she turns up dressed to seduce, armed with the knowledge that she’ll have Sherlock to herself when everyone leaves.  Sherlock’s dissection of her behaviour, and discovery that the present was meant for him, is painful to watch.  His apology is even more surprising.

Then there’s the assumption that Sherlock and John are a couple.  Even Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) accepts that John is now part of the family and can be trusted with emotional secrets.  Irene thinks they are, and so does John’s date at the Christmas party when he stays behind to keep an eye on Sherlock after Irene’s purported death.  At Mycroft’s insistence, no less.  Only John is convinced he’s not gay, and they’re not a couple.  Yet there’s a whisper of jealousy in the way he asks Sherlock if he’ll see Irene again, when she’s revealed as still alive.

John’s blog is a great joke, and making it the reason for Sherlock’s runaway success as a consulting detective is inspired.  Leading as it does to them fleeing the paparazzi in a hasty disguise, which of course means Sherlock grabbing a deerstalker.  What else would he wear?

Terrific stuff.  Can’t wait to see what Mark Gatiss makes of the Hound of the Baskervilles next week.  Robert Downey, Jr. can take his action/adventure, CGI-enhanced Hollywood Sherlock and stick it where the sun don’t shine.