Two years after the last Sherlock episode, the series returns with a feature length special, coinciding with a theatrical screening. Sherlock as a series has always had a cinematic quality to it – but unusually, there’s something distinctly uncinematic about seeing Sherlock on the big screen compared to The Day of the Doctor (2013) and Deep Breath (2014) which worked fantastically on the big screen. The cinematic moments were few and far between, with the odd scene of Sherlock theorising on how the murder was done; otherwise, it’s disappointingly a fairly typical close-up cut to close-up cut to close-up.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the special is its meta-narrative about who is the real Sherlock Holmes, and the episode never settles on a real answer. Is it the embellished Holmes of John Watson (or, in real life, Conan Doyle’s stories) that has become iconic to the whole of London (and by the extension the world) with certain iconography, such as the deerstalker hat, and characters like Mrs Hudson reduced down in roles to mere functions; the women are sidelined in fiction as ever in the ‘men’s world’ of the 19th century. Is it the Holmes of the 19th century, who goes on fanciful adventures solving cases about cultist Ku Klux Klan-esque zombie suffragist widows and duelling Moriarty on the Reichenbach Fall (which we finally see properly in this episode), complete with a gothic feel and references to Satan. Or is it the more realistic and logical Holmes of the 21st century?
It’s interesting to see some certain established moments subverted into a Victorian manner; John moved from 21st century Afghanistan back to the Afghan War of the 1890s, mirroring the PTSD sequences of the opening episode.
The idea of this episode revolving around Sherlock’s mind palace seems to bear some similarities to Heaven Sent (2015), set within the Doctor’s confession dial. One goes into this episode expecting a mere pastiche, and instead we get an interquel between Series 3 and 4 that, in some respects, becomes a more involving and curious narrative, but it is also entirely pointless because nothing is really resolved. Instead, it exists as a reminder that Sherlock still exists, even though we’ll need to wait another year until that narrative is concluded.
But until Moriarty shows up, the episode felt lackluster. Perhaps if it was just an independent pastiche of 19th century Sherlock, it could have been stronger, throwaway but a little more interesting. But something falls flat about applying the visual conventions of modern Sherlock to the 1890s, in the same way that something feels odd about the action aesthetic of the Robert Downey Jr films. To see telegrams copied on screen like text messages just doesn’t work; neither does seeing buildings spin round like a clock in the progression of time.
The point of Sherlock was to remove the idea of hammy, cliche costume drama, and reduce it down to the pureness of the characters. But this just doesn’t work.