Sherlock: Since when have you had any kind of imagination?
John: Perhaps since I convinced the reading public that an unprincipled drug addict was some kind of gentleman hero.
Sherlock: Yes, now you come to mention it, that was quite impressive.
(From Sherlock: The Abominable Bride
It’s hardly the first time I’ve inspired a writer, Watson. I am actually the basis for several fictional characters across various media. It’s one of the by-products of my success as a detective.
(From Elementary, season 04, episode 07, “Miss Taken”)
Read more at: http://transcripts.foreverdreaming.org/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=24516
After two years, fans of BBC’s Sherlock have finally seen the long-anticipated special The Abominable Bride (you can watch it online here for the next week or so.
Now, as we wait at least another year for Season 4, I’m left wondering whether Sherlock has jumped the proverbial shark, presented a deconstructionist masterpiece, or both.
I included the quote from this past week’s Elementary because both series seem to be necessarily self-aware at times. Last year, it touched on it with the necessity of “One Watson, One Holmes,” where their roles are referred to as almost a thing of destiny. In an earlier episode, “End of Watch,” a member of Holmes’s Narcotics Anonymous group publishes a blog with quotations of Sherlock’s wisdom shared at meetings–thus resulting an in-universe explanation for popular Sherlock Holmes quotations like, “When we have eliminated the impossible, . . .”
One problem with such series, like Once Upon a Time, is the constant question of how these people attained such legendary status while being our contemporaries. Sherlock addresses the question overtly via Watson’s blog, the equivalent of Conan Doyle’s conceit of the stories being written by Watson.
The idea of Sherlock Holmes being contemporary is nothing new. Previous adaptations, most notably the mid-1940s Universal Studios/Basil Rathbone movies, have been set in whatever era they were made (the 2 1939 Fox-produced Rathbone films, and the Rathbone radio drama, were all set in the original era).
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories were really the first series in the modern sense. While therehad been serialized novels like Les Miserables that could have been made into multi-year TV series today, and many sequels, the 56 short stories and 4 novels Conan Doyle wrote about Holmes were unprecedented. Further, starting with the infamous ten-year letter-writing campaign that pressured Conan Doyle to bring the character back from the dead in 1903 when he’d intended 1894’s “The Final Problem” to be just that, to early commentaries that attempted to reconcile problems with the continuity, Conan Doyle inspired both the concept of the “series” and the concept of fandom.
Elementary may have been CBS’s attempt to capitalize on Sherlock’s popularity, but it also interestingly premiered the Fall after House, MD, ended, and Johnny Lee Miller’s approach to Holmes, more like Jeremy Brett than Cumberbatch has been to date (see below), also evokes Hugh Laurie’s Holmes-based doctor.
The first episode of Sherlock in 2010 seems to evoke elements of House (the ambiguity of Watson’s leg and cane usage, recalling both House and the original Watson; and Martin Freeman’s Watson reminds me more of Robert Sean Leonard’s James Wilson than any previous Watson) and Monk (inducing a police detective’s relationship status based upon similar clues).
Thus, like some movies like The Seven Per-Cent Solution and They Might Be Giants, both the current series, but Sherlock, in particular, have always played on the mythic status of the characters to explore questions of myth versus reality. Though it is overtly an attempt to pay homage to the original stories, and to the Jeremy Brett series (including a variation on the Brett Sherlock Holmes theme song, sets that recalled that interpretation of 221B Baker Street, and even a slight different in Benedict Cumberbatch’s acting style), “The Abominable Bride” definitely evokes both those films’ themes of paranoia and addiction, fantasy and reality.
In so doing, “The Abominable Bride” creates a conundrum. Like every episode of Sherlock, it packs a lot into one episode, and it seems designed for repeat viewing. However, while the first six episodes/movies do so by packing a lot of clues, Easter Eggs and humor, and cases that are resolved, this episode works more like an episode of Doctor Who.
The more I think about the special, the more it seems to “work,” but if it “works,” it undermines the whole series. It’s like the Tommy Westphall hypothesis. The theory, originally a satire of fans’ (myself included) obsession about “continuity,” meant to show how difficult it is to expect continuity of a single series (Ben Matlock lives in the same house for 9 seasons but three different houses are used for the outside), much less shows (or comic books) that cross-over. Thus, the originally joking theory (which eventually grew into being what it was mocking) holds that every show ever is the wrapped up in the hallucination of Tommy Westphall on St. Elsewhere, since so many shows crossed over with it during its run or after, in a variant of 6 Degrees of Separation. Any show that can be shown to “cross over” with a show that crossed over with St. Elsewhere is all part of the vast hallucination.
Thus, “The Abominable Bride” leaves the viewer with a similar dilemma. In the first two seasons, Sherlock had seemingly substituted the character’s classic addictions with caffeine and nicotine, yet opium and other drugs were shown in season 3, and now at last the “seven per-cent solution” of cocaine. We’re told that, shortly before boarding a plane to exile as a spy in “His Last Vow,” Sherlock took a cocktail of dangerous drugs. When the episode ends, we see Moriarty, seemingly alive and having taken over all the media in the UK. Mycroft calls for the plane to return. In this episode, we see the 1890s versions of the characters, and in the middle find out we’re in Sherlock’s “mind palace”: he has supposedly concocted an elaborate supposition of himself in a different era trying to solve an old case of someone who had died in a similar way to Moriarty to try and figure out how he survived. You may recall that even “The Great Game” had undermined our confidence in the character by Moriarty’s suggestion that he was just an actor, hired to make Sherlock Holmes look good.
Now, we see Holmes hallucinating the famous incident of the Reichenbach Falls, confronting Moriarty there as in Conan Doyle, with them engaging in a dialogue about how it “always ends here,” or some such. As “our” Sherlock keeps coming in and out of his “hallucination,” we are faced with a rift in the show’s “reality.” In the end, we see Holmes and Watson in the 1890s talking, and Holmes suggests that he is telling Watson a supposition about what life might be like in the 2010s!
It’s a worthy mystery: is the whole series just the fantasy of the “real” Sherlock Holmes in the 1890s? Is the whole series a drug-induced paranoid fantasy of the “real” Sherlock Holmes in the 2010s? Is most of it real, but the last few moments of Season 3 and all of “The Abominable Bride” a delusion?
Is the whole episode undermining us as fans and viewers and readers, trusting in the lie that an “unprincipled drug addict is a gentleman hero”?
Or has the show gone too far into the Fourth Wall? One of the most infamous examples of “shark jumping” besides the Happy Days episode that inspired the term is season 9 of Dallas, the “Dream Season.” Since Bobby Ewing had been visibly killed on screen at the end of season 8, when Patrick Duffy came back a year later, the producers made the entire year a dream Pam had about him being killed, and the show attempted to pick up where season 8 ended, with the storylines following different paths. Though there were 5 seasons after “the dream,” it undermined fan confidence.
The genius of “The Abominable Bride” is that it takes that whole questioning of “fictional reality” to a new level. The risk is it’s too obscure. What is the point of watching Season 4 or the alleged season 5 if the whole thing is potentially the drug induced fantasy of either Holmes?