Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Return of Sherlock Holmes

"Holmes!" I cried. "Is it really you? Can it indeed be that you are alive? Is it possible that you succeeded in climbing out of that awful abyss?"  
"The Adventure of the Empty House"

A bit later than I had planned at first, but I finally finished this review! But with the new Trick TV special and all, I'm still not sure whether I'll be able to review a novel this month...

When Sherlock first aired in 2010, I was really pleasantly surprised. I had only heard about the series just before the show started, but I was absolutely overwhelmed by what a great series it was. The show oozed atmosphere and while it might not have been a very conventional Sherlock Holmes adaptation, or maybe because it was not a very conventional Sherlock Holmes adaptation, managed to make a lasting impresssion on me. The second season was as least as impressive, and I had eagerly been awaiting the third season. And I wasn't the only one. Many, many people had been waiting these two years to see the continuation of Sherlock and there was much rejoicing when it finally aired this year. In fact, the whole world was eager to see more of the series it seems. I was quite surprised when a friend told me that the third season would air in South Korea just one week after the BBC's broadcast. We have all waited a long time, and we were not going to wait any longer.

The first episode, The Empty Hearse, deals with the direct aftermath of the second season's finale; Sherlock has been thought dead for two years now, but circumstances force him to return to London, to good old Baker Street 221B. And Sherlock wouldn't be complete without his trusty partner Watson, so after not really tactfully informing his friend of the fact that he had been faking his death for several years, and the not really tactful reaction of Watson on the news, the crime-fighting duo is back to stop a grand conspiracy against the British parliament.

Like the second season pilot A Scandal in Belgravia, The Empty Hearse had a big job of cleaning up after a crucial cliffhanger of the previous episode. And let's be honest, A Scandal in Belgravia did that in the very cheap way. People had to wait quite a while for the second season, and they used that time to think about how Sherlock and John were going to get out of that mess. A Scandal in Belgravia might have disappointed in that respect and apparently the showrunners realized that, because The Empty Hearse is first of all almost a parody or a meta-critique on that. The writers realized that people would think of all kinds of theories of how Sherlock faked his death, that people would pick on every detail available to figure out the trick behind Sherlock's fall. So they decided to put all of those theories in the episode.

There is a small plot about stopping terrorists in The Empty Hearse somewhere, but the best parts of the episode is when it shows you one of the many theories people have about how Sherlock faked his death. The episode starts with a James Bond-like explanation, but we are also presented with a fangirl's dream and other strange ideas, theories you would expect to find, and will probably find on the many, many Sherlock fansites. The episode works out like an Anthony Berkeley story, with theory upon theory being thrown at the viewer, and it's fun! It definitely wasn't what I had expected of it, and I have to admit that I am a bit disappointed the main plot of the episode suffered because of it (this Sebastian Moran character was definitely not nearly as interesting as the one in A Game of Shadows), but a fun start of the season.

The second episode, The Sign of Three, is all about John H. Watson and Mary Morstan's wedding. Most of the episode consists of Sherlock, as John's best man, telling the guests about some of the adventures he has shared with the groom. We are shown a very human Sherlock here and there is actually quite a gap between the Sherlock in the previous and this episode, in my opinion, and that fact, together with a plot that seems a bit chaotic at first, were reason for me to kinda complain about it during the broadcast. But it worked all out really well actually, and I consider The Sign of Three the best of the third season. Sure, the locked room murder might not be very original and the end-game uses a overly familiar trope that the show has used already in an earlier episode, but the sum of its parts, the way hints are placed throughout the episode, the storytelling, the way Sherlock has grown as a person, as an episode that places Watson in the center, I really liked it. The middle part might a bit boring, but I think that as a 'different' kind of Sherlock episode it worked really, just like The Hounds of Baskerville before it.

His Last Vow is based on The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton and similarly deals with a master blackmailer (Charles Augustus Magnussen). Sherlock is asked to deal with him on behalf of a high-ranking government official, but gaining access to Magnussen and retrieving the crucial documents isn't as easy as it seems. Well, of course, not considering that this is the final episode of the season, so like Moriarty in the previous season finales, we are now presented with a very visible, yet hard to reach antagonist for Sherlock and John (Magnussen starts out as a magnificent bastard, but kinda overdoes it as a despicable person after a visit to Baker Street, in my opinion though). The first half of the episode is pretty close to the original story, but the story takes another turn in the second half, with little bits and pieces of plot from previous episodes resurfacing, resulting in a well, finale-esque finale. It was a fun episode, but I liked the previous two episodes better, I think. One thing I have to say though, the 'cliffhanger ending' of this episode is not nearly as frustrating as that of the previous two season finales!

And just a little bit about the visual aspect of the series. I have mentioned earlier that for me, Sherlock, made an impression on me because it makes so much use of videogame linguistics to convey information to the viewer. I have always had an interest in the (visual) depiction of the deduction processes of other to a third party (see this post on Game Center CX for example), and have always found Sherlock to be a great example of how to do it right. The "Sherlock Scan" is depicted as literally descriptive markers floating around the object. Text and mail messages are shown as floating textboxes, instead of shots of a monitor or a phone. This season was visually quite more elaborate though, and felt quite different. The Empty Hearse showed (visually) all the theories people proposed to Sherlock's faked death and did that quite well (though it's a pretty normal practice in visual detective fiction), but the rest of the season also used much more 'grand' visual depictions of ideas. The Sign of Three visualizes an interview with a large number of women through the internet, as a gathering of all people in a grand hall, with Sherlock in the center picking the people that fit his profile. His Last Vow has a very lengthy visual depiction of Sherlock looking for useful information in his mind to deal with a rather life-threatening situation. They look great, I admit, but I miss a little of the simple elegance of the visual depictions in the previous seasons (though they are not gone completely, luckily).

I liked season three overall a lot though and I think it's the most consistent season until now. Well, the team has quite some experience now, so maybe not very surprising. And now, to wait for season four...

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