First, a couple of disclaimers.
I am aware that this blog has become quite critical, especially where TV is concerned, and I want to state from here that this is because I don’t tend to write long blog posts about the stuff I just outright adore, because eight hundred words of gushing praise is boring and, at any rate, pointless, because the excellence of a show speaks for itself. I am still recovering, for instance, from And Then There Were None, but given that I genuinely cannot find fault with it, I don’t imagine elaborating on this opinion would be of any use or interest to anyone.
Secondly, the two shows I am and have been most critical of, Doctor Who and Sherlock, are run by one man, Steven Moffat. And while I don’t feel as bad about that as I would if our positions were reversed- given that I’m a sixteen-year-old, relatively unknown novelist and he’s the showrunner of two of the most lucrative and successful television franchises in the world, so it’s not like anything I say is going to be in any way hurtful to his life or career- I am very wary of placing the burden of quality of two huge television shows on one person. Both Doctor Who and Sherlock are run by teams, there are multiple people responsible for everything that happens on them, and neither the credit nor the fault for how they turn out can be placed at Moffat’s feet alone. Arguably he has not done his utmost to reinforce this impression- I had never heard the term ‘showrunner’ before it was attached to his leadership of Doctor Who, and when I heard him speak about it at Hay a couple of years ago, he certainly made it seem as though Sherlock was something he and Mark Gatiss came up with together on a train- but that is beside the point.
I am also aware that, if the team who make Sherlock are in any way acquainted with Twitter, what they will have been saying over the past thirty-six hours in response to considerable criticism is: well, you try it then. Disparaging a show is very easy when you have not had to write, agonise over, cast, set up, fund and film a show yourself, and without having done that, you can’t really understand the process that goes into making Sherlock. To which I would say yes, that is true, but that is not the criterion that must be met in order to have an opinion about a piece of work or art; television shows especially are not made in a vacuum, they are made to produce a particular reaction in an audience, and that audience’s reaction is therefore a legitimate yardstick- not the only yardstick, but a significant one- for measuring a show’s quality. Sherlock‘s creators were proud, and they had every right to be proud, when the show was unquestioningly loved and adored, but that also means that now people are starting to criticise it, that criticism cannot simply be dismissed out of hand as ignorant.
Right. Now I’ve gotten all of that out of the way: The Abominable Bride.
I’ve established that this piece is going to be critical, but before I do: there were definitely good things about this episode, largely the humour. Molly Hooper as the world’s least convincing cross-dresser was funny; the repetition of the introduction sequence from the first episode was, initially, amusing; Watson interrogating Sherlock about his, er, feelings (‘you are a man. You must have… impulses‘) was hilarious. I suspect that more of it was meant to be funny- mostly seeing various characters in Victorian attire and circumstances- than actually was, because, and here comes the first big criticism: in bringing it back to the Victorian era, they knocked one of the legs off the premise. Sherlock is and always has been about bringing Victorian-era stories into the twenty-first century. A lot of the humour in its originates from the clever references it makes to the Conan Doyle stories- the Greenwich pips instead of the orange seeds in The Great Game, the ‘speckled blonde’, Baskerville as a military research station, et cetera. By simply making those references as they were originally imagined in the nineteenth century- Watson at one point referred to the case of the ‘hound of the Baskervilles’- the viewer gets the an uneasy impression that… these are the clever in-jokes now. These are the amusing nineteenth-century references to what are in Sherlock the ‘real’, twenty-first century stories. Conan Doyle’s universe is now assumed to be the secondary one, the fan-fiction ante-room to the- ahem- palace that is the modern update.
I have written before of the overconfidence that has stalked Doctor Who, of the impression it gives that it basically reckons it’s fine now, really: it’s been going for fifty-two years (apart from the sixteen-year ‘Dark Ages’ that nobody really mentions), it’s a really big money-spinner worldwide, it’s probably not going to get cancelled, and there are enough people who watch it- whether out of real enjoyment or habit- that it doesn’t need to pick up new viewers. And I have written before that this is a bad idea. Loyalty is a good quality in a fandom, but it shouldn’t be the only reason they are attached to a show, because loyalty has its limits. I have not yet reached the point, nor will I for a while, where I would be prepared to stop watching Sherlock and Doctor Who– to give up my Whovian and Sherlockian citizenship, and emigrate- but I can definitely imagine doing so. If enough people reach that point, and I don’t think it would take that many, then both shows will be in trouble.
I’m not entirely sure at what point exactly Doctor Who pulled up its ramps and decided it didn’t need to take any more passengers, but I can identify the point Sherlock did- see, there are benefits to it having only ten episodes- and it was, probably, the point at which it decided that nobody really needed to know how its hero threw himself off the top of St Bartholemew’s hospital. I mean, not really. It was fine. It was enough to know that he did.
When The Reichenbach Fall aired, in January 2012, I was twelve years old- young enough that, two weeks earlier, when Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) had walked half-naked through a cupboard, picking a dress, my parents had decided that it was ten o’clock, we could watch the rest tomorrow like they’d said, and sent us to bed to make sure there wasn’t anything scarring enough that they’d have to have awkward conversations with my then-nine-year-old sister about where babies come from.
I had never watched Sherlock before- I had been ten when the first series had aired- and I was spellbound by all of it. By the cleverness, the humour, the graphics swift as thought, and, yes, obviously by Benedict Cumberbatch as well. I was tied, as I had been with Doctor Who, to the idea of a character with a fascinating, unfathomable mind; I was rapt. I spent hours debating with my family about how he had survived- but what about the dummy hanging in the flat? His request of Molly Hooper? His ‘note’?- and counted the months until Sherlock returned.
By the time it did, in January 2014, I had changed quite a bit. I was fourteen. I had moved house, and had more or less clawed my way out of puberty. I had chosen my GCSEs, had made and lost friends. I had written a book, and been signed for two more; I was a proper actual writer (my own, distinctly professional and mature phrase) now. I had more or less learned to live with not knowing how Sherlock had survived the fall. But I counted the days till it aired, still, and turned on the TV with my foot drumming against the floor.
By the end of the show I was shocked.
‘But they ruined it,’ I said, numbly, over my family’s continued pleas for me to really shut up now. ‘They’ve ruined it. It was perfect and they ruined it.’
They had ‘ruined it’, as I ineloquently put it two years ago, because they had drawn up the ramps.
To the untrained viewer, that episode, and all subsequent ones, would have been all but incomprehensible. More than that, it would have been not worth trying to understand, because the way they sort-of-revealed how Sherlock had survived- drawing mystery over ambiguity- looked suspiciously like they knew perfectly well their explanation was not worth a two-year waiting period.
And they had ruined it, as well, because- and it hurts me deeply to say this- they had listened to the fandom. Sherlock, after its second series, had cemented its position as a worldwide franchise, an award-winning phenomenon, well-loved enough that CBS had carefully trod the line between homage and plagiarism in order to create their equivalent, Elementary. The team knew this; they had been at the awards ceremonies, met the crowds of fans cheering in rapturous delight. They knew what the fans loved about the series: the relationship between Holmes and Watson, the cleverness, the pace, the workings of Holmes’ mind. They had- and I can’t believe this- read the Holmes/Moriarty slashfic.
They took those dark, brilliant mysteries, those seamless black boxes, and they shone a light on them, to please the fans. And in doing so, they ruined it.
The Empty Hearse had Sherlock talking about his feelings. It had the screening of fan theories. It had Sherlock making Watson think he was going to die in order to get him to say he loved him. It took everything that had been brilliant when unsaid and said it aloud, and in doing so, it destroyed half its own appeal. It considered itself brilliant enough to analyse and discuss at length, where the first two series had been quietly brilliant, unselfconsciously unfathomable. Series one and two were spent simply being beautiful; series three, and now The Abominable Bride, were spent staring into a mirror, examining itself. It was the equivalent of those parades of doomed and unnamed aliens who make deep and sober remarks about how the Doctor is a hero, no a legend, no a god, in their galaxies.
And then there is the show’s ‘woman problem’- an issue also very much present in Doctor Who since 2010, and which, for that reason, has frequently been blamed on Steven Moffat’s influence. This is a show which cannot get halfway to a female character as interesting and unfathomable as Sherlock himself without stripping her literally naked and parading her in front of the male protagonists- and then having him rescue her at the end, just for good measure, to make sure we knew how things stood. (I refer, of course, to Irene Adler in A Scandal in Belgravia.)
It has been four years since then, and arguably things have changed; arguably feminism wasn’t as high-profile then as it is now, arguably the horrendous ‘yeah she’s clever but anyway look at her boobs‘ attitude of A Scandal in Belgravia was worth it from the BBC’s perspective for the ratings figures, and arguably, therefore, it is excusable for Sherlock to have responded to feminist critique in The Abominable Bride with the iffy idea of portraying women as servants who will, of course, revolt if they’re not paid properly with adequate male attention- like what might happen if you fed gremlins after midnight.
This, I think, is the response of a team who have been told for years that the way they have designed their female characters is sexist, but are not entirely sure what that practically means; who think they really have been portraying strong women, realistic women, and can’t understand why the fans have been getting upset. So they set up a death cult of abused wives and had Sherlock walk through them and praise their actions- because they are women taking a stand against evil men, which is what feminism is, and Sherlock and Mycroft are therefore showing themselves to be feminist, which is what fans have been asking for.
That’s how I’m choosing to read it- as well-meaning but misguided- because the alternative is to put it down to outright malevolence. The alternative is to read it as a man walking through a row of mute women in blue Klan outfits and musing that men will really have to give in to women eventually because it is ‘a war we cannot win’, because if they do not, women will physically actually murder men they dislike. The alternative is that it was a deliberate attempt to portray feminists as one step away from a death cult and two from declaring war on men. And that is… disturbing.
But I’m choosing to read it as well-meaning, purely for the sake of my own faith in humanity and in the show, but it does not mean I can yet forgive Sherlock for how it has treated women, because I doubt anything will change. And that angers me and hurts me- because it would be so easy to do. Guys, this is Writing 101- this is what they tell you in Year 3 Literacy lessons: show not tell. Yes, you can stand all the female characters in your series in the Blue Robes of Feminism and have your male protagonist look them in the eye and tell them that what they are doing is good. But that is not what matters, in the same way that it wouldn’t have worked if you’d given Sherlock and Watson the same levels of intellect and just kept in the bits where all the other characters stand around and talk about how fearsomely clever Sherlock is. That in itself wouldn’t have made audiences believe in his intelligence.
If you tell us that Mary Watson is an assassin who can shoot a hole clean through an airborne fifty-pence piece, and then the only way it is talked about by the other characters is how it will affect the men in her life, of how she has betrayed them by lying, of how it will damage their trust in her, of their anguish and torment in the face of her past- if the culmination of their conversation about it is honest-to-God amateur psychoanalysis of her husband– then we will not believe you when you say that you consider women’s psyches as fascinating as men’s.
If you repeat that Mrs Hudson is ‘not the housekeeper’ of Sherlock and Watson, and then repeatedly use that as comic relief- if she does serve them and clean up after them, and her protests that this isn’t what she’s for are treated as merely an amusing side-note- then we will not believe you when you say you respect women.
If you bring Molly Hooper gently out of her character arc of two series- namely, unrequited and uncomplaining adoration of Sherlock- by saying that she is now over him and engaged, and then you make a joke out of the fact that she isn’t over him, really, that her fiance looks exactly like Sherlock, and then have her slap him across the face, angry that he doesn’t recognise how fantastic he is- ‘how dare you waste the beautiful gifts you were given!’- then we will not believe you when you say that your female characters are not treated as secondary and lesser than men.
Look. I love Sherlock. Not unquestioningly, not unconditionally, not uncritically, all of which are unwise kinds of love for things that cannot love back, but I love it. And I will continue to love it even if it keeps grinding its women under its heel, even if it keeps trying to push Conan Doyle out of its way, even if it suddenly becomes a period drama on an off day.
But you know what I can’t really stand about Sherlock?The thing which, I think, will be its downfall in the end, and which will eventually lose it enough followers that the fans and awards which have coalesced around it will dissipate like fog?
It loves Sherlock too.