Chances are that most people will have been to a party over the recent festive period (if I got an invite, anyone can). Have you ever been in that situation where your music-controlling friend asks you what you’d like to hear and your mind just goes blank? You listen to music every day, yet when asked to choose something all band names in your head seem to be replaced with, “urrrrrr... you know”. As much as we want the power to choose, the simple fact is that sometimes/most of the time, we actually don’t have a clue what the hell we want. This festive special episode of Sherlock arrives with clear surface intent and direction...... but underneath, it’s a different playlist altogether. It might not be what we think we want, but did we really know what we wanted in the first place? If you can use that thought to prop your mind ajar, there’s a very good chance that this Abominable Bride will give you an absolute scream.
In a Victorian setting, we follow the great detective Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch – The Intimidation Game, Black Mass) and his best friend companion, Dr Watson (Martin Freeman, The Office, The Hobbit) as they solve a series of grisly murders committed by the supposedly dead Emelia Ricoletti.
After a hiatus best measured in ice ages, the boys of Baker Street are finally back in this one off special against as a methadone-like fix until season 4 arrives in early 2017. It immediately becomes very clear why we’ve waited so impatiently for Cumberbatch and Freeman to return: because they’re worth it. The period recasting is seamless with Watson, now a veteran of the Crimean war and many events for the pilot episode recreated in brilliant alternative circumstances to bring Sherlock and Watson together. It allows the episode to quickly get down to business by letting our existing knowledge fill in the gaps of exposition without the need to overly repeat itself. What’s more, it’s an utter treat to see the pair more classical Conan-Doyle presentations of their characters with Freeman’s bushy moustache and his insistence on Sherlock wearing the deerstalker, “Look, you’re Sherlock Holmes, wear the bloody hat!”. There’s also a great series of running gags based upon Watson’s novelizations of their adventurers being common public knowledge. Various characters have actually come to resent their literary depiction (or lack of). This gifts some great material like Mrs. Hudson making a hilarious satirical protest over never saying anything in the books by doing just so in real life, “I am your land lady not a plot device”. Although it’s Watson’s young housemaid that really takes the plum pudding, from a single scene we understand that Watson omits her entirely because he dislikes the way she outwits him. Like any good out-of-character TV show, it takes great pleasure and draws superb entertainment from making mirroring or parodying portrayals of its known faces, the best of which by far is Mycroft Holmes and Mark Gatiss deserves full respect for his Monty Python level physical transformation and mannerisms.
The story itself still follows the welcome format we’ve come to expect from regular Sherlock episodes. It has a great central mystery with no shortage of intrigue and good teases over supernatural explanations like its previous Hounds of Baskerville episode. There’s no shortage of laughs as the investigation takes them from one place to the next, with highlights being a spot of silent communication and Sherlock’s adamant defence that, “it’s never twins”. The episode boasts some stunning visuals. None more so than Lestrand’s telling of Emelia’s public suicide before everything freezes and the camera spins round and show’s Sherlock’s study (including occupants) within the scene. For a moment, it’s almost like Inception set in the 19th century. The ideas of period “mind palace” based scenes continue to be a delightful frequent occurrence, such as a meditating Sherlock spinning newspaper clippings in a horizontal circle like an old school Tomb Raider inventory. The story does come a bit unstuck in the final act for the over complications. The central idea of the identity behind the murders is terrific but as it tries to incorporate the lingering questions of season 3, it overloads the platter of treats causing some to fall off. Obviously, such a fantasy setting would see Sherlock interacting with Andrew Scott’s Moriarty and that’s as welcome a happy ending to massage, with Scott delivering like the word “failure” has been ripped from his vocabulary. Yet in its earnest to lasso connections to where we left present day Sherlock, despite some considerable cleverness in the writing, its twists and turns will leave some viewers placing a knotted on their heads before groaning, “my brain hurts!”. If you like Sherlock (or TV in general) that mind-bending this could be your favourite ever episode, but if you prefer Sherlock as lighter entertainment this may leave you Sher-locked out of the enjoyment.
Although it could prove to be the most fan-divisive episode to date, The Abominable Bride is a wonderful viewing experience of gorgeous period settings, clever meta commentary, and all the usual Sherlock fun & games. Its technique of making Freeman’s Watson the storyteller is so effective that it should not be ruled out for future episodes. It has a lot joy to offer in the less expected directions it takes and it Moffat & Gatiss decide they ever fancy another trip back in time the BBC should definitely loan them a TARDIS (but no forward trips..... we’re not ready for Sherlock in space). The only thing left to do is what all Sherlock fans do best; start waiting for the next instalment.