Friday 28 October 2016

Is time-travelling Sherlock just one twist too many for fans?

IT’S an accepted reality that Christmas starts earlier every year.

Still, plugging Christmas television in the middle of July is a bit rich. But then this isn’t just any old Christmas television we’re talking about.

It’s the Sherlock Christmas special, which will go out on BBC1 on St Stephen’s Day, with a simultaneous screening in cinemas around the world, including a number in Dublin.

Sherlock, like its stablemate Doctor Who (Steven Moffat is the showrunner for both series), has become a byword for hype.

At last week’s Comic-Con in San Diego, Moffat, who was ostensibly there to talk about the next series of Who, beginning on September 19, threw hungry fan-boys and girls an extra bone in the shape of a two-minute teaser trailer for the Sherlock special, which transplants Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Dr Watson (Martin Freeman) to the Victorian setting of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories.

Suspicions that Moffat, who’s always been fond of a bit of mischievous misdirection, might be just playing with viewers’ expectations, and that the whole Victorian thing will turn out to be something other than what it appears to be — maybe Holmes and Watson idly speculating on what life might be like if they were living in a different era without recourse to modern technology — look to be wide of the mark.

It seems the special really will be a one-off period adventure with no connection to anything that happened in previous episodes.

Moffat recently told Entertainment Weekly: “The special is its own thing. It’s kind of in its own little bubble.”

Maybe the question we should be asking is if Moffat and Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss are living in their own little bubble, where the expectations of the audience play second fiddle to their personal whims.

Having brilliantly reimagined (at least in the first and second series) Conan Doyle’s stories and characters for the 21st century, this departure smacks of rampant self-indulgence.

It’s futile trying to judge a programme we won’t see for another five months purely from two minutes of out-of-context footage, but this first glimpse looks more like a Comic Relief sketch than a proper episode. It’s full of knowing, self-referential winks and meta gags.

Sherlock and Watson are greeted on the doorstep of 221B Baker Street by Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs), who complains to Watson about the way she’s depicted in his account of Sherlock’s exploits: “According to you, I just show people up the stairs and serve you breakfasts.”

“Well, within the narrative that is, broadly speaking, your function,” says Watson.

“I’m your landlady, not a plot device,” she tells him.

“Don’t feel singled out, Mrs Hudson,” Sherlock chips in. “I’m hardly in the dog one.”

When she complains that the stories make the flat look “drab and dingy”, Watson says: “Blame the illustrator, he’s out of control. I’ve had to grow this moustache just so people will recognise me.”

After a bright start, the third series of Sherlock suffered from an obsession with its own cleverness at the expense of coherence. The outlandish twists — Watson’s new wife being unmasked as an assassin, for instance, or Moriarty shooting himself in the head but then turning up alive in the finale — tested many viewers’ patience, including mine.

With the scripts for the fourth one not even written yet, throwing viewers the curve ball of a gimmicky one-off episode suggests Moffat and Gatiss might have written themselves into a corner, but forgotten to bring along an escape plan.

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