Sherlock: Complete Series 1-4 – Review
By David Schuster
Has there ever been a better opening episode to a TV drama than Sherlock? I think not. I’ve always been a big fan of Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Holmes in the 1984 ITV programmes, and so I approached this BBC reincarnation with some misgivings. Within ten minutes though, I was hooked by the combination of clever, funny scripting, cinematographic style visuals and the genuine chemistry between the two leading actors: Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous hero, and Martin Freeman as his chronicler and friend Doctor Watson.
The series transports the action from Victorian era London to the present-day city, and one of its real joys is the adroit incorporation of current technology into the storylines: Phone texts are shown on screen as people send and receive them, characters talk to each other on web-chat and a bomb is flown into a room by drone (a very real security threat these days, I would have thought). This update was the brainchild of co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. The pair realised that, whilst modern adaptations tended to stick with the Victorian setting of the original stories, earlier ones often relocated the action to the then current times, such as the films made in the inter-war years.
Moffat and Gatiss are something of a dream team. Moffat wrote, and was executive producer of, Doctor Who from 2009 right through until 2017, whilst Gatiss has written and acted in a treasure trove of productions; The League of Gentlemen, ‘The Tractate Middoth’ an adaptation of the MR James ghost story and Wolf Hall. He also worked on Doctor Who, both as a writer and occasionally as an actor. Indeed, it was whilst the two were travelling together by train to the Cardiff based studios of Doctor Who that they conceived of the idea. In Sherlock, he gives a virtuoso performance as the sleuth’s even more socially awkward brother, Mycroft, who describes himself as ‘the cleverer brother’.
It’s this social and emotional inability to fit in, which gives the series much of its tongue in cheek humour. In one scene of ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’, the detective enters the flat on 221B Baker Street covered in blood and holding a harpoon. “You went on the tube like that!”, exclaims a shocked Watson. “None of the cabs would take me”, explains Holmes. In another, a female admirer tries unsuccessfully to ask him out. “I was wondering if you’d like to have coffee?” She asks coquettishly. “Black, two sugars”. He replies without looking up, oblivious to the real intent of the question.
My favourite episode, ‘The Empty Hearse’, shows the central plotline from a number of character’s viewpoints, each increasingly unlikely. This has all the hallmarks of the programmes as a whole; poignancy in Watson’s emotional vulnerability, humour in Holmes’ complete inability to read people’s emotions and a cracking premise concerning a planned terrorist attack on London. Having broken the mould with a modern-day setting for the series, the New Year’s Day 2016 special, ‘The Abominable Bride’, places the characters back in the time of Victoria, and skilfully juxtaposes this with a current storyline.
Whilst all of seasons one to three maintain the standard set by the opening episode, somehow season four lost the magic. Having given John Watson a life outside the Baker Street flat, the writers felt it necessary to develop this, producing some cliched moments unworthy of the rest of the set.
It’s not necessary to have read, watched or listened to any Holmes books, films, TV programmes or radio plays to enjoy this, though there can’t be too many people who haven’t. However, it adds another dimension of enjoyment if you have, as the series is filled with references to the original: Smoking and nicotine patches take the place of cocaine, show names echo the original books (The ironic ‘A Study in Pink’ for example, rather than the original A Study in Scarlet), even the famous deerstalker hat is there, albeit with great reluctance on the part of the consulting detective himself.
The multi-award-winning Sherlock stories are great fun. If you haven’t watched them, they are must-see viewing. If you watched them first time around, they are definitely worth another look, as I for one had forgotten just how good they are.
‘Sherlock: Complete Series 1-4’ from the BBC is out now from Amazon and major supermarkets