August 06, 2010

On Sherlock

I’ve been trying to pick apart why that first episode of the new BBC drama Sherlock was a lot better than the second. The obvious answer of course: the writer of the first episode was better. The more sophisticated answer… well let’s see.

The truth is I found the first hour of the second episode of Sherlock rather enjoyable. But then it all went a bit wrong. Let’s start at the end. The big finale to the first episode was a battle of wits between Holmes and the villain of the piece. Holmes has been introduced to us as this master observer, and so he gets tested a psychological game of bluff and double bluff with the killer. It’s all nonsense of course. If he was that desperate to know if he’d chosen correctly he could have just taken the pill to the lab after. More to the point, you’d think with all that knowledge in his head he’d have seen The Princess Bride too. Still, it’s tense while it lasts and while it’s easy to take it for granted on first viewing, it’s not until you see that second episode that you realise how rare that sort of thing is: a high budget crime drama where the finale is two people matching wits, rather than some big action scene. It’s Pemberton getting a confession from someone in the box, rather than the killer being shot dead in a raid. In fact, in that first episode, the one action scene stood out like a sore thumb: the chase through London was a bit silly and utterly at odds with the tone of the rest of the episode. But even then, it managed to incorporate something new (Holmes’ head-GPS) and serve the development of the characters (Watson dumping the stick) if not the plot.

The second episode is back to more familiar territory. It ends with Holmes saving the day by winning a gunfight and rescuing the girl at the last second. Really? Oh sure, they try to dress it up with a bit of talking to show that Holmes is using his brains “the bullet’s will ricochet” but when it comes down to it he may as well have said “let the girl go, you’re surrounded by armed bastards”.
It’s a shame as that first hour was great. Okay, the killer being a gymnast was a bit far fetched but still, the mystery was interesting. But then out of nowhere “oh it’s an evil circus troop what done it”. Of course it is. I don’t know how closely this episode was based on the original Conan Doyle story, but “evil Chinese circus group” is one of those elements that really needed updating. Assuming of course, that we want to keep the series grounded in reality, and not veer off in to the slightly dodgy latter-day Holmes stories and the very dodgy spin offs that throw in supernatural stuff. Who knows, maybe this week’s episode will see Watson hit a zombie with an urn. As he faded in to old age, Conan Doyle believed in faeries.:

They could have gone a lot more gritty. Make them drug dealers, make the lost heirloom some blood diamonds, get Naomi Campbell to guest star… okay maybe not… but still the episode really needed updating. And the possibilities could have been really interesting. Say they were human traffickers. And the one smuggler let a girl escape on purpose. The treasure is the girl. The cover is that they’re a Facebook game development group doing market research. Okay maybe not that last bit. Although.

Instead we got that interminably long scene where we just watch a circus trick. Except it’s not even impressive as it’s in a piece of fiction so it’s not real. I thought she was going to ask for a volunteer from the audience so there was at least a mild bit of peril for a character we’ve met before but no, the scene just ends. They may as well have flashed up a big sign saying “did you get that? we’re going to be using that weight-based harpoon thing later!” Because what we really needed was to basically seen that scene twice. Everything from that point onwards is just a bit silly. Remember at the point last week where Holmes considers risking suicide just to prove himself right? Well at that point this week he’s in a gunfight with an evil Chinese circus. Oh dear.

Let’s hope the final episode gets it right.

- 2 comments by 0 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Heather

    I actually thought the chase through London worked; yes, it was a convenient point for Watson to lose his stick, but it also served as a physical manifestation of the frantic nature of Holmes’ brain; I got the sense from the beginning that he was dying to get up and run around – the man can’t keep still! Plus, what could be more reminiscent of Victorian melodrama than a good old fashioned hot-footing it through the streets of London Town?

    The point of the “evil Chinese Circus” was that they weren’t really a circus; it’s very difficult to gain an exit visa from China, and that’s one of the few things that enabled them to travel as a group with relatively dangerous equipment. That seems fairly grounded in reality to me, and in any case; this episode was based on several stories, none of which actually featured a circus.

    Admittedly, yes, that scene was incredibly long, and I’ll freely admit my attention wandered. However to say we “just” watch a circus trick is a bit short sighted. Did you not see the curtain moving around as Holmes fought backstage? None of the circus audience did! What does that tell you about their observational powers? Like the man says; observe and deduce. If the power of the circus can hide that, what else is thinly hidden behind it?

    And if anything, I felt the tension more at the end of this week’s episode. Yes, the psychological aspect of last week was a refreshing change, but by that point Holmes’ powers had been so firmly shoved down my throat I felt confident he’d triumph. This week, things were taken out of his hands, and I wasn’t actually sure what would happen.

    Horses for courses, eh?

    06 Aug 2010, 13:35

  2. Mark

    I would just pop in and mention that really only one thing completely mucked up the 2nd episode for me, and that’s the line “it’s very difficult to gain an exit visa from China”.

    This is a complete and utter load of rubbish, and seems based on the persistent myth that “Communist” China is somehow a godforsaken gulag. The Chinese are free to leave their country at any time at all. The only hard trick is getting permission from other countries to go there.

    26 Aug 2010, 05:08

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