Stephen Moffat’s newest creation, Sherlock, is a stroke of genius. No, really, it is. By taking those elements which we commonly associated with the eponymous hero of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works, and merging them with the giddy speed of mass communication and the fascination with modern killers and police dramas, the pairing of Moffat and Gatiss have created a masterpiece.
The pairing of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman is wonderful – they play off of each other with a magic that we rarely see these days in modern pairings. The scenes in which each thinks that the other is asking him out, and the confusion surrounding this, are extremely well-written – although they would seem a little more at home in a Russell T. Davies drama than in a reimagining of Sherlock Holmes. But that is probably picking holes because I need to – there are very few things to fault in this story.
The simple premise is that 4 people have committed suicide in identical ways, taking the same type of poison, in a place where they should never have been. Each of these victims was happy, and had shown no signs of suicidal tendencies. Sherlock believes each one is connected somehow, but is only allowed to assist in the investigation after a note is left by the fourth victim. Soon follows a game of cat and mouse with the killer that leads to Sherlock himself being caught.
The introductory sequence to the murders was very flashy, providing all of the set-up needed, showing the death of the first victim, a Lord, in an abandoned building. After this was a drunken lady, followed by a young man in the rain. Once we have seen each of these victims, we are introduced to Inspector LeStrade, at a press conference, as he relates the facts to the hungry media. Throughout these sequences, text messages are sent to every person in the room, simply reading ‘wrong!’ The humour is excellent, as LeStrade tries to pacify the press whilst being mocked by Holmes – indeed, when he makes a flippant statement to one member of the press, before being warned that she is ‘Daily Mail’, and having to back-pedal, I chuckled heartily aloud.
Martin Freeman’s performance as Dr. John Watson is outstanding – as a huge fan of The Office, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and his performance in Love, Actually, I had prepared myself for another of his usually dry comic turns. However, as Watson, he is understated, a man haunted by his memories of war, but desperate to return to action. In the opening sequence, reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, Freeman was tossing and turning in bed, with images of the war bursting out of his dreams and onto the screen. As he woke, and looked around his lonely 1 bed apartment, my heart bled for him.
Of course, Holmes is something of a difficult character to encapsulate – Basil Rathbone did it very well. Jeremy Brett, arguably, better. But what Cumberbatch does so effectively is to capture the essence of the man as a struggling genius, a self-proclaimed sociopath, who wonders what it must be like to be ‘boring’, and not to be intelligent like him. His first meeting with Watson was fantastic, both funny and enlightening, and the use of the intercut words appearing on the screen are an incredibly useful original tool to help the audience see things as Holmes himself does. As he analysed Watson’s character, from the broken relationship with his brother (sister!) to the psychosomatic leg injury, Freeman’s face was as shocked as mine – in fact, another lovely touch was his constant outbursts of “Incredible!” or “Brilliant!” every time he watched Holmes at work.
The scene with the lady in pink is equally brilliant, and again for the same reasons – as he analyses the body, words flickering in front of his eyes about how wet she is from the rain, the use of google maps to work out her place of origin, the status of her marriage and what luggage she was carrying, key words appear, asking us – daring us, in fact – to try and outsmart Holmes, to work out these details as quickly as possible.
And that brings us to another slight shortcoming of the show – I did manage to outthink him. Every portrayal of Holmes before now has been a genius, whose ability to work out the most complex of puzzles is what makes him such an iconic character. Here, though, whilst I was in awe of the speed and details he contracted from the corpse, I was able to work out who the killer was long before Sherlock did himself. And, again, that’s an issue. From the discovery of the pink lady’s body and the details that she had travelled from Cardiff, it was evident that the killer was a taxi driver – as such, the drawn out sequence in the restaurant where he talks about who ‘preys at night’ and ‘blends into a crowd’ and such like, I was essentially screaming at the TV. I cannot stress my irritation when he caught up with said taxi driver, but simply looked at the passenger in the back!
The thing that I hadn’t worked out was the how. The why was easy – the ignorance of the general public. Added to this the bomb shell of a brain tumour (which I didn’t see coming) and his sponsorship by Moriarty (again, I hadn’t seen that coming), and the purpose of the murders became quite justifiable, and added a welcome flair of surprise. But the how – how a taxi driver had managed to persuade so many people to commit suicide – still evaded me. And that’s brilliant. It wasn’t utterly unknowable, just really very clever.
Unlike shows like Jonathan Creek, where it was impossible to work anything out until the last five minutes (in particular the episode in the underground bunker with the toilet – you may know the one?), it could have been figured out – the murderer was using the basic premise of the entire show, and inverting it for his own needs. Our psychopathic taxi driver thought that he was the really clever one, and was using a game in which he dared people to work out the correct answer to kill them. The program suddenly took on a very different feel. This episode is knowingly clever, but was essentially warning of the dangers looking too hard at things, the dangers of trying to focus on details.
Mark Gatiss’ appearance as Mycroft was equally excellent, and again added to the elements of comedy in the show – when Watson has been kidnapped and taken to see him, he is elegant and charming, whilst being dangerous and intimidating. He proves himself the intellectual equal for Holmes, also focussing on specifics from Watson’s background. When he attempts to bribe Watson to spy on Holmes for him, and describes himself as the ‘best friend a person like Holmes can have – an enemy... an arch-enemy’, we are genuinely beginning to feel the sense of danger – and I actually suspected it was Moriarty. How pleasing, then, that the next time we met him, we were informed that he was Holmes’ brother, and the references to childish conflicts and enmity really were only references to their family connections. Having said that, Moriarty is due to feature in the third episode – I do hope it doesn’t turn out to be his brother! That’s so old hat!
The direction was slick, and very stylish – the show seemed to roll out so fluidly, I was totally absorbed. Similarly, the music was excellent, and ensured that I was fully engaged for the full 90 minutes. By updating the story, and utilising current technology to move the pace along, the end product is a surprisingly funny and incredibly current TV gem.
Much of the excitement around the show was from Moffat fan girls – excitement that the current producer of Doctor Who was making this new show, which in and of itself isn’t too far a shout from DW. Whilst I’m not the biggest fan of Moffat, and the way that the show has currently been heading, it was refreshing to see him flex his intellectual muscles on a show that requires this hard-thinking behind it. Whilst Doctor Who has become harder to follow, as we as viewers are asked to remember instances from whole series back, this format works well here. Following the BAFTA win for Cumberbatch, a large number of fans vowed never to watch it again, as Matt Smith hadn’t won the best actor gong. Similarly, in announcing that 2012 will be a year low on new Doctor Who, much was made, by fan sites in particular, of Moffat getting himself too bogged down in other projects and not focussing all of his attention on DW... As a huge fan of Doctor Who, having now seen Sherlock, I can officially say – bugger it. Make both. Share your attention, Moff, because this was brilliant.