Monday, January 16, 2017

It Is What It Is

'There's an east wind coming, Watson.' 
- 'I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.'
"His Last Bow"
It was a deliberate choice on my part to not write individual posts on the episodes as they were airing, but I couldn't have imagined my enjoyment of the episodes could vary so much even within the same series.

Has it already been so many years since Sherlock first started? I remember I was living in Japan in 2010, and I had picked up some tidbit that some sort of 21st century take on the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson was about to start on BBC. I had very little expectations of it, but I managed to errr... somehow watch the first episode in Japan and was thorougly impressed by it. From the acting to the fast-paced script to the game-inspired visuals, it was all more than just a pleasant surprise, and while it was obviously not always (or seldomly) a faithful adaptation of the original material, the series was simply great entertainment. And as we now know, it became a hit, moving from some obscure summer TV slot to a prominent New Year's Day slot starting with the second series in 2012, followed by a third series in 2014 and a special in 2016. The fourth series of Sherlock started on New Year's Day 2017, bringing three new adventures with the consultant detective and the brave doctor.

The original first series ended on a cliffhanger ending (presumably to fish for a second series), but viewers might remember that this cliffhanger ending was resolved in the most laziest way possible when the series returned. Series 3's The Empty Hearse did a hilarious, internet generation-inspired, Berkeley-esque examination of the difficulties of having to come up with satisfying resolutions to cliffhangers which were obviously not planned out at all, but unfortunately, Series 4 too starts off by basically waving away the ending of the third series (as well as the 2016 special), which showed viewers a video message starring crime consultant Moriarty, who was presumed dead after the events of the second series, prompting Sherlock to return to British soil to deal with the apparent return of his nemesis. The Six Thachers proceeds by shrugging its shoulders at this, and continues with a completely different story. For Sherlock, things are the same old, same old as he continues his work as a consulting detective, but Watson been has busy juggling between his life as a loving husband to Mary, father to baby Rosie and ally to Sherlock. During one of their cases, Sherlock becomes aware of a figure who is enigmatically busy smashing busts of Margeret Thatcher.

I won't go as far as saying The Six Thatchers was a rough start of this new series, but it was definitely an uneven episode. The first half of this episode is obviously based on the classic story The Adventure of the Six Napoleons. What sets this apart most from the original story, besides the fact that the statues are now of Thatcher, are the many scenes with Watson and Mary as young parents, and the initial case that brings Sherlock on the trail of the Six Thatchers (which are basically unrelated events). There is an interesting-sounding impossible situation here, where the son of a Cabinet Minister is discovered dead inside a car parked in front of the house, even though he was presumed to be on a gap year in Tibet. The solution is a bit unpolished. I like the premise of how this impossibility came to be, but the way the story basically decides to handwave away the reason why the son died in the first place is at best sloppy.

As often happens in Sherlock, the second half then adds a twist to the original story it is based on. I've seen a lot of people describe this part of The Six Thatchers as James Bond. I am not sure whether I'll go along with that, but there is certainly a shift from problem-solving with the mind, to a much more action-packed formula. Of course, a good mystery story can still be full of action: many storylines in series like Detective Conan or Spiral are about detectives trying to outsmart each other in life-or-death situations. This is not the case in The Six Thatchers though. In the end, the story does come back to what I thought was a decent, even if not particularly original mystery plot about a traitor in the government, that at least had some similarities to the plots of Sherlock episodes in earlier series. The episode ends on a downer note however.

The Six Thatchers left Watson in a very dark place, so it is no surprise that The Lying Detective starts off with a seperated dynamic duo. Watson still hasn't recovered from the shock of the previous episode, while Sherlock has gone back to his drug habits. But then a new case presents itself to him. Based on information offered by the daughter, he has learned that famous entrepeneur and philantropist Culverton Smith is in fact a murderer. Sherlock becomes obsessed with the problem of Culverton Smith as his drug abuse worsens, much to the dismay of landlord Mrs. Hudson who tries to get Watson to look after his friend. As Sherlock's condition becomes worse, accusing Smith of being a serial killer, Watson and Sherlock's other friends start to wonder whether Sherlock has lost it all to drugs.

As the title suggests, this episode is based on The Dying Detective, and people who know that story can probably guess how this story will end. Like series 2's The Hounds of Baskerville, The Lying Detective is a modern adaptation that stays surprisingly faithful to the original story in spirit from start to finish (as opposed to the first half/second half set-up like seen in The Six Thatchers). So in broad terms, The Lying Detective should offer few surprises storywise, but this episode was in fact one of the trickiest, but also most satisfying episodes of the whole series. The Culverton Smith plot is neatly woven with the overarching storyline of the main characters, resulting in good character studies where we see the members of the cast cope with the events of The Six Thatchers, but not at the expense of an entertaining mystery plot. In terms of direction and visual effects, The Lying Detective is also the MVP of this series,  as it keeps the viewer on their toes with flashbacks, tricky directon and more of the videogame-like presentation we've learned to love (which was strangely subdued in this series, save for The Lying Detective). This is a perfect example of how to do a new take on a classic Sherlock Holmes story, but in its own new context (in this case, as a Sherlock episode). The episode with (once again) a cliffhanger ending involving Watson, featuring a reveal I find both neat, and badly done. The facts which are revealed are entertaining (if a bit farfetched), but it also presented as if Watson/the viewer should, or could have seen it coming, but there were definitely no precise, mathematical "1 + 1 = 2" hints to lead to that conclusion.

With the existence of a certain character unveiled in the previous episode, series finale The Final Problem has Sherlock, Watson and brother Mycroft make their way to a maximum security institution in an attempt to make sense of the events that happened of late. They are lured into a trap though, and the three are forced to play in a series of games that play with the very essence of Sherlock as a person.

The Final Problem is a problem case. In a way, it represents exactly the things I don't like about Sherlock. I like the characters of the show, but that does not mean I want to see a series solely about those characters. Sherlock of course always had this tendency, and it became more apparent starting with series 3, but more often than not, Sherlock and Watson were the focal point of the stories. Not just as the main cast, but I mean that they had personal stakes in the episodes. Backstory this, character development that. They are fictional characters and of course the world is built around them, but that doesn't also need to be the focus of the series, I think. Not every story has to be personal, not every story has to be related to about character development. Using the "Now it's personal" card every time weakens things. Just let me see the characters interact as they are working on something else. But The Final Problem is this problem in extremis. Sherlock is at the center of the universe, everything revolves around Sherlock, everything only has meaning because of Sherlock. The whole plot of this episode is about a character so obsessed with Sherlock they come up with the most convoluted plan? bullying? scheme ever and then organize a small scale Batman: Arkham Asylum and Saw crossover to show to the viewer what kind of character Sherlock is. Seriously, most of the Saw challenges involved don't even ask much of Sherlock's brain, but are just there to show off sides of his personality. It is the ultimate example of having a story revolve around the main character in such an absurd and exaggerated manner possible (one could argue that a character like Moriarty did the same; however he had other motives besides just messing with Sherlock). I have seen people being very positive about this episode precisely because it's all about Sherlock and it's emotional investing and stuff, but to me, this was going way too far into this character-moe territory.

To me, episodes like The Sign of Three and the aforementioned The Lying Detective were good examples of still doing character-focused stories, without sacrificing a mystery plot that could also stand strongly on its own merit. Ideally, these episodes should be the standard for 'character-focused' stories in this series I think, with the 'normal' episodes obviously less involved, focusing more on the mystery plots. The Final Problem in comparison is a story with Sherlock, about Sherlock, for Sherlock. It's a development I also see in for example the Ace Attorney game series, which started out as basically a courtroom mystery short story collection featuring a defense attorney as its protagonist, but has slowly become a courtroom mystery game about the main cast.

The one thing I did like about this episode, was when Featured Character showed how they managed to escape from their holding cell, as that was a great visual trick played on both the characters and the viewers at home. And on a sidenote, why do they keep saying Mycroft is the smart one, if EVERYBODY always gets the better of him and he's made to carry the idiot ball in basically every episode he appears in? Seriously, is there anything he has done that has not backfired in the most obvious of ways possible?

On the whole, I'd say series 4 of Sherlock was the most uneven one until now. While acting was on a high point, I thought overall direction and presentation was a bit subdued compared to previous series, with The Lying Detective being the fantastic exception. The pronounced focus on the main cast is something that I at least don't like as a trend, with The Final Problem being the embodiment of what I didn't want to see from this series. Unlike previous series finales, The Final Problem does not feature any real set-ups for a future series, leading to speculation that this might be the last we'll see from Sherlock and Watson. I'm still not sure how I feel about that. Series 4 is to me both a high and low point, so at one hand I'd love to see more of the quality of The Lying Detective, and on the other hand I dread more Final Problems. Series 4 is what it is, but I have no idea what future Sherlock could be.


  1. this season was the worst, and the last problem was definetly the most disapointing episode of all

    also Mycroft is the only one saying he is the smartest, I think it's just a case of self hubris

    1. I think that even in-universe, Sherlock admits his brother is smarter than him, as seen by the constant rehash of the deduction duels they have/Mycroft correcting Sherlock, but Mycroft's alleged superiority certainly doesn't show itself outside of those duels.

  2. I hate this new sherlock series.Its a complete disgrace to conan doyle's character.The Granada series was better than this.I just finished watching the jeremy brett series.The later episodes in which some stories were altered or merged were very poor.Any ideas why the standard dropped or why the producers decide to change the premise of the show (i.e inventing substandard plotlines when they could have stuck to the book )But overall the first 30 episodes or so were quite brilliant.Wont you review the granada series some day?

    1. I suspect Wikipedia will know more than I do, but I think that Jeremey Brett's failing health was a major factor in his diminishing appearances in the later episodes, which also asked for some rewriting of the stories. And nah, I'm not really planning to write anything about the Granada series for now.