2016 is Sherlock so far. The Abominable Bride washes the screen with its nostalgia-tinged festive venture into the Victorian archive. Going nineteenth century is nothing new for a Christmas television drama. But here writers Moffat and Gatiss reinvent and innovate upon their feted franchise.
Now, The Abominable Bride goes nowhere. In terms of narrative, the story starts and ends where we left the characters in Series Three. So it comes with some surprise that there can be so little development in the story arc, but a total departure from the series’ predecessors. This comes through the ‘relocation’ or return to Sherlock’s original setting.
In and around Baker Street, Mrs Hudson, Lestrade and Molly all find themselves with an ever so slightly transformed alter ego, especially in aesthetic. Whiskers for Lestrade, a rather dubious matching tache and burns for Molly and a new silence for Mrs Hudson (though the tea remains). Meanwhile, a morbidly obese Mycroft is eating himself to the grave. The characters transform as our perspective slides into the version of Watson’s short retellings in Strand Magazine.
The fact that such a shift feels completely alien is testament to the twenty first century update so stylishly and successfully realised by Moffat and Gatiss. Let us not forget that the bygone years of Empire, the deerstalker, opium dens and dark lit back alleys are the natural abode for our eponymous detective. Yet, Conan Doyle’s world feels strange. Texts become telegrams, taxis are carriages, tartan tweed rolls over the screen like a vertical wallpaper carpet. Pipes are definitely a thing…
But the essence of Sherlock’s reboot, the cutthroat razor blade dialogue between the sensational Cumberbatch and Freeman keeps the drama on a familiar footing. The only change being the insertion of the odd longer adjective and Victorian intonation to make things authentic. The writers are used to time travel, working on Doctor Who too. So they find no problems transporting us in their Sherlock Tardis.
Now, this Tardis is independent of some wishy-washy-wobbly nothingness, otherwise known as the space time continuum, but is a product of Sherlock’s mind palace. We live in a time where deliverance from the daily turmoils of strife and stress find alleviation in the secular sanctity of Mindfulness. Dialling M For Mindfulness would be Hitchcock’s response. But this is no Psycho. Well, apart from Sherlock’s infamous sociopathic tendencies. It is a televisual rendering of the powers of a fully harnessed mind, a completely present ego.
Don’t worry. Sherlock has not taken a turn for the happy hippy. Benedict Cumberbatch is not a cross legged character on the California coast, catching the rays in some Don Draper haze. He is still firmly Baker Street bound. But what the writers have now spectacularly liberated is Sherlock’s individual ingenue. His mind palace. Previously, this has been a notion too large to deal with effectively in the short, sharp series of the past five years. A recurrent motif, but one that was basically Benedict screwing up his eyes and gimmicky equations popping across the screen.
The Abominable Bride does not go anywhere. But it now enables Sherlock to go everywhere. It is a pause, but one that comes with the expansion of possibility. The series is now free from the standard norms of narrative form. Delving deep into the psyche, the mind palace of our protagonist, two worlds can now exist in parallel. The ‘reality’ of the twenty first century series and the embedded, dual narrative of Sherlock’s cerebral cells. He can now hand duel Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls and solve crimes in modern Shoreditch simultaneously.
Whether the writers choose to welcome this potentiality or run away, petrified by the previously unlocked range available, will be existential for the series. The Abominable Bride is the key. It is a pivot which may either spell the slow and steady demise of Sherlock’s success from an abominable apogee or spell the beginning of a new dawn of true television innovation. Something we too often lack in the comfort zone of major, popular programmes.
But Moffat and Gatiss are nothing if not risk takers. Paradoxically, this makes them safe hands to fashion and formulate this new focus. Moreover, in the continued presence of Cumberbatch and Freeman, two of the rarest actors whose success is actually commensurate with their ability, they have the cast clout and support of popular opinion to do anything they want.
Now this is not a carte blanche to categorically erode democracy because of a tiny majority. Or release that fabled creative atrocity known as the prog-inspired third album. No. Consistency is still called for. National treasures are not to be dismantled and eroded. But consistency and risk taking are unsteady stablemates. There could be a Hound of the Baskervilles howler. But when you have years, not mere months to develop and perfect plot, style and direction, we can surely anticipate only new heights for Britain’s best.