New Year’s Day saw the long-awaited return of the BBC’s Sherlock, and the return of Sherlock himself, following his supposed death at the end of the previous season two years ago.
This first episode didn’t really contain much in the way of crime or mysteries – there wasn’t time for them. The vast majority of the running time was dedicated to character development, re-establishment of the setting, and vignettes addressing Sherlock’s faking of his death. The few moments of sleuthing and excitement felt rushed and shoe-horned in – especially John’s run in with a Fireworks Night bonfire – but it’s to the show’s credit that it was still thoroughly entertaining.
What this episode proved is that these characters are still good enough to carry the show entirely on their own. Mysteries are good, action is good, but when push comes to shove, I would happily just watch this cast talk to each other for an hour and a half, and on New Year’s Day I did exactly that. That said, I hope things do heat up a bit in the second and third installments – it will be a shame if the show leans too heavily on its strengths and loses its momentum.
The elephant in the room was, of course, the question of how Sherlock faked his death. Handling this well was paramount – provide a clunky or inplausible explanation, and you make the previous events seem clunkier or more implausible retroactively. Ultimately, they took the cleverest route – provide enough details to allow the viewer to speculate plausible scenarios, but never actually explain it. Through the fan stand-in character Anderson they brilliantly presented three possibilities without confirming any, and in the process provided just enough possibility to make the reality essentially irrelevant. Given the two years fans have had to speculate and discuss the ‘death’, this was absolutely the right move – a simple explanation would have risked being disappointing or underwhelming.
I’m going to make a controversial statement here – I think Sherlock is science-fiction. I’m not sure it was when it first started, but by the end of this episode I was fully convinced that that is what it has become. The thing is that Sherlock himself is not just a Very Clever Man, he is super intelligent. As in, for all intents and purposes, he has a super power. He is infinitely more intelligent than anyone who actually exists.
He’s not the only one either – many of his allies and enemies have been shown to be as intelligent if not more so. At one point in this episode, Mycroft claimed to have learned a language fluently enough to masquerade as a native speaker in the space of two and a half hours – Sherlock retorts that he’s getting slow in his old age. Sherlock, Mycroft, Moriarty, Irene Adler…these characters are presented as though they are a different and superior species, practically a cast of superheroes and supervillains.
Sherlock is speculative science-fiction – it asks the question, ‘what would happen if super-intelligent humans walked among us?’. An extremely strange premise for a show to work its way around to, but given Sherlock‘s status as essentially ‘Doctor Who for adults (and not shit)’ perhaps it’s not surprising.
What is this show actually about?
By the same token, I find myself questioning what the actual focus of the show is at this point. Is it still about solving crimes and mysteries? The character seems to have escalated beyond such trivial matters as murders and thefts – indeed, over the course of this episode, he disdainfully solves a number of cases in a matter of seconds, as intervals between other scenes. The writers have written themselves into a position where the plots must be incredibly grand and elaborate in order to even challenge the god-like Holmes – to the point that in this episode, the central ‘case’ was a potentially devastating terrorist attack, planned by North Korea and executed by a man who spent 20 years undercover. And that was just a throwaway bit of fluff to fill 15 minutes when the characters weren’t talking about their feelings, solved easily by Sherlock, with tension created only by Sherlock himself deciding to create it. How insane are things going to have to get in episode 2 to put Sherlock out of his depth?
Thank God it’s not Doctor Who
Given how ludicrously awful Doctor Who has become under his guidance, I was worried about Steven Moffat’s continuing involvement in Sherlock – could he still remember what good writing looks like, after giving a thumbs up to the Doctor blowing up the Daleks by shooting a laser beam out of his head? The answer so far appears to be yes – though, notably, he didn’t write this episode, only produced it, so we’re yet to see whether he himself has still got the goods. At the very least, the pseudo-real world of Sherlock does seem to force a bare-minimum of logical storytelling – while Holmes may be capable of nonsensical feats of deduction, he at least can’t just save the day by invoking the power of love (or sucking time-gas through a Time Lord crack). Fingers crossed things don’t devolve here as they have in the once-great Doctor Who – signs, so far, are promising.
Overall I’m excited for episode 2. The BBC has embraced Sherlock as a flagship whole-heartedly, and the resources they’re pumping into it show. It’s a slick, energetic production, and the characters and performances are as strong as they’ve ever been. As long as they find good momentum again after this slow, relationship-driven episode, it looks like we’ll get another great season of television.