By Will Barber Taylor
In the depths of Victorian midwinter, a familiar figure, deerstalker at the ready, strides into sight. This is Sherlock Holmes; the Sherlock Holmes that first emerged from the grime of London in 1887 and has since captured the hearts and minds of generations of readers and later, viewers. Yet this isn’t the Sherlock Holmes that we are presented with in the Sherlock New Year’s Day Special; The Abominable Bride. The real Holmes, the master of deduction and scientific reasoning is not to be seen. No, the Holmes that is presented to us is the Holmes that Steven Moffat wanted to exist but never did. This is Holmes, framed in the majesty of a Victoriana set but with dialogue that Danny Dyer would turn down as being unrealistic and over the top. Welcome friends to the Holmes that inhabits the Eighth Ring of Dante’s Inferno – the fake Sherlock Holmes.
The story begins well enough with Holmes and Watson’s first meeting being re-encountered before we sweep through the Victorianised title sequence to Holmes and Watson returning to Baker Street. All goes well, with the stunning BBC set immersing us within that world. Then the characters begin to speak and everything slowly, softly like a breeze of decay, begins to fall apart. After showing off some “banter” between Holmes, Watson and Mary about the fact that Mary didn’t join the duo on their adventures (Moffat and Gatiss’ attempt to try and hold up the “We’re feminists” placard before then insulting the movement later on). Following this we are introduced to our main “mystery” – which isn’t in fact the main point of the story.
A murderous bride called Emalia Ricoletti who after apparently killing herself is seen murdering her husband. While Holmes seems stumped by the mystery, we get a COMEDY! (it has to be spelt as such because subtlety is foreign to this world) sequence in which Hooper twirls her comedy moustache as she is “obviously” A MAN! AND SHERLOCK DOESN’T GET THAT SHE ISN’T REALLY A MAN, THAT SHE’S A WOMAN! LAUGH! GO ON LAUGH! Because this is for simpletons! We don’t want to challenge our audience; we just want to make easy jokes that they can titter at while stuffing their faces with melted Christmas chocolate. And we all know that is the route to truly great drama.
Then, we descend even further into the chaotic uninspiring world created by Moffat and Gatiss. Months pass by and Sherlock is invited to see his elder brother Mycroft, who is pant splittingly – fat! While Mycroft was described as a large and portly man in the original canon, the extent to which both Moffat and Gattis go to make clear his grotesque, bulging frame is frankly childish. The carefully crafted dynamic between Holmes and his older brother is melted down to a game of betting on how long Mycroft will live before he eats himself to death; charming, fun viewing for all the family.
The dysplastic duo then set off to see Sir Eustace Carmichael and Lady Carmichael who are apparently being menaced by the ghost of The Abominable Bride. The pair decides to stake out the house in the hopes of catching the killer, which Holmes promptly fails to do. As he realizes that there could be only be one possible killer other than the “ghost”, Holmes sinks into a deep meditation in his Baker Street Rooms.
Here, ladies and gentlemen, we hit rock bottom. Moriarty, dressed in his Victorian self’s clothes decides to amuse us all by acting like a five year old. The greatest criminal genius of all time, the Napoleon of Crime, the equal of Sherlock Holmes is reduced to making pathetic innuendos and licking dust. Truly, Messers Moffat and Gatiss have surpassed themselves by taking one of literature’s greatest villains and turning him into a subpar Joker. It soon becomes clear that the whole Victorian setting is just a drug induced fantasy created by the “true” Sherlock when returning to England as his five minute exile. What was his purpose in creating such a fictionally bizarre world? So he can figure out how someone could shoot themselves in the head and return from the dead.
Spoilers, his conclusion is that it isn’t possible and that Moriarty is actually dead. Honestly. For realz. Why did they bother? Honestly, why did they create an episode in such detail other than to have it as a subplot to the main obsession that the show has about Moriarty. It isn’t even as if Moffat and Gatiss have to think up villains of their own to battle with Holmes, they can simply pilfer to their hearts content from the show’s canonical stories. Yet to the astonishment of no one they are obsessed with Moriarty; his death, his return, his “silly antics”. The reason is fairly straightforward – he is the equal of Holmes, the most intelligent man in his world. So by using him again and again and again it must demonstrate, loud and clear that they are themselves the great Dickensian writers of their time – masterful, intelligent and daring. Yet, it betrays something more troubling; an obsession with proving their cleverness rather than merely showing us how they can be clever by coming up with an intelligent but straightforward plot. Twists are essential to a tale, to keep the reader interested but when the twist becomes more important than the true story, then you do not have a story at all. You have mere air, frozen on a mirror.
Returning to what remains of the “main plot” – after a brief foray into the real world, Holmes is informed by Mary that the killers are in fact…. Suffragettes! Yes, the famous suffragette movement have now been painted red by the dab hand of Michelangelo’s successors, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. An organisation that fought for the rights of women, sometimes through semi violent means and who during the First World War eventually won their rights through helping Britain win the war are now no more than love sick, crestfallen women who want revenge on evil, violent men. Oh and they want equal representation too. That bit is rather glossed over. To call this a misjudged “twist” is at best to infer that there was some sort of judgement put into the sequence. That would be giving Gatiss and Moffat some sort of grace, some understanding for creating such an abomination as they have. They really don’t deserve any. Aside from the logical flaws in the suffragettes plan, to insult such an important and valid part of not only British history but also British democracy is not only to defame the women who strove to get their right to vote but also to everyone who benefited from the eventual beginning of equality between men and women. In essence, this must surely include the two gentlemen who “penned” the episode.
Yet, even taking away the historical connotations made let’s look at the logic of the situation. Firstly, the suffragettes are trying to convince men that they are not hysterical, mad or unthinking enough to be able to vote. How the flying heck could they do that if they spend their time KILLING MEN?!?! In the patriarchal and unforgiving world of Victorian London such an action is not only idiotic but would more than likely to put their cause back twenty years or more. Secondly, by the fact that they are committing murders, which would mean that they couldn’t own up to the crime, derails the entire “point” of their attack – to scare men into giving them the vote. Aside from Holmes, John, Mary and Mycroft, no one else knows what is going on. When Mycroft says that the “battle” is one that “they must lose,” the dynamic duo of Moffat and Gatiss are implying that these bizarre actions will eventually have some effect, even though such a small group of people know about them. Aside from encouraging murder to get what you want it also begs the question; how will these secret crimes have any effect on the general public seeing as they don’t know about them? Is the average chauvinist in the street going to change his mind because of these crimes? NO! Finally and most importantly, the whole scheme is so daft that no sane or even insane person would think it up.
To be fair to the actors, they all do the best with the tripe they are given. Benedict Cumberbatch gives a great turn as Holmes though again his performance is marred by the script. Martin Freeman’s Watson gets the odd funny line which is delivers with good fun. Rupert Graves’ Lestrade is given suitable Crimea style hair fluff and milks the melodrama of his part.
Ultimately, the episode comes to an end with nothing having been accomplished, neither the Moriarty arc nor the individual story satisfactorily resolved and only one consolation; some of it was quite nicely filmed.