Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Blue Box; or, why The Abominable Bride Failed

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 24 January 2016. It’s a bit geeky, but I’m still proud of it, and of my genre television articles in general.

Steven Moffat once said of his notoriously convoluted plot-writing for Doctor Who: “It all makes perfect sense if you watch it in the wrong order.” The comment seems particularly relevant in the wake of the latest Sherlock episode, ‘The Abominable Bride’. Judged in isolation, it’s a messy, self-indulgent affair that feels like a step backwards for both Moffat and cowriter Mark Gatiss. But many of its flaws begin to make sense when the context of its production is taken into account. It is best understood as a missing link in its writers’ creative evolution; while this does not excuse its many problems, it does cast them in a different light.

The episode opens with a recreation of the opening of series one, transposed to the Victorian Britain of Conan Doyle’s original stories. We proceed to a plot involving an apparently resurrected and vengeful bride, an upper-class couple with a sordid secret, and a mysterious, all-pervading conspiracy. It’s a straightforward Gothic mystery of the kind that formed the bulk of Conan Doyle’s output, and it’s also typical of Gatiss, who gets top screenwriting billing here. A writer famous for his Victorian obsession, he helps to make the first hour of ‘The Abominable Bride’ an energetic period piece, even if it does start to lose momentum after those sixty minutes.

Here, the episode reveals the main trick that it has been hiding up its sleeve. The drug-addled Sherlock wakes up in the present day, revealing that the entire episode has been taking place inside his ‘mind-palace’. This is the moment at which the episode starts to go into decline, but it’s worth pausing to consider the nature of this reveal. This moment is typical of Moffat’s approach to Doctor Who, his other major BBC show, specifically his use of cliffhangers. In this model, tension is generated not by placing the characters in immediate danger – waking up is not a moment of peril for Sherlock – but on radically shifting the nature of the story being told.

The Inception-esque conceit of characters emerging from dreams within dreams is recycled from the Doctor Who episode ‘Last Christmas’, the script of which Moffat wrote immediately before ‘The Abominable Bride’, and the bevy of in-jokes prefigures the continuity-happy antics of his next Doctor Who script, ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’. Similarly, the idea of Sherlock escaping his own mind palace feels like a first draft of 2015 episode ‘Heaven Sent’, in which the Doctor had to escape from a similar psychological trap, and which also featured an extended grave-digging scene. ‘The Abominable Bride’ sees Moffat transitioning between two different modes of storytelling. In one model, the plot is something to which the characters respond; in the other, the plot is fundamentally an outgrowth of the characters. The thing is, it doesn’t quite work. This goes for Gatiss too: the about-face of ‘The Abominable Bride’ from romping genre pastiche to greater structural complexity is mirrored in his scripts for series eight and nine of Doctor Who, but the latter mode never sits comfortably.

HEAVEN SENT (By Steven Moffat)

The main problem of ‘The Abominable Bride’s script is that it doesn’t make a clean break between the two stories that it wants to juxtapose. Having wrenched us out of one story and into another, the writers realise that there is still a plot to resolve in the Victorian setting, and, more importantly, a cliffhanger that they pointedly don’t want to resolve in the present. So instead, the action flips noncommittally between past and present, climaxing in an ill-judged recreation of the Reichenbach Falls that leans too heavily on a few wry metafictional comments. Including a sudden shift in a story’s premise is a way of persuading an audience to tune in again next week, but the technique is less effective when the establishing of a new premise is followed by a switch back to the old one. Doing this two-thirds of the way through an episode leaves even less time to resolve a newly complicated plot.

These problems are exacerbated by unimaginative direction. Douglas Mackinnon lacks the stylistic panache that Nick Hurran or Toby Haynes brought to the programme. The scene transitions oscillate between bland and clunky, and the division between reality and fantasy is never made visually interesting. The cast is generally strong: Martin Freeman is a delight as a snootier, more uptight version of Watson; and Mark Gatiss excels as Mycroft Holmes, his calm despair in dealing with his brother’s addiction striking a chilling moment in an otherwise lightweight story. But Benedict Cumberbatch is surprisingly weak here; he is visibly lost in many of the Victorian scenes, and he struggles with the more over-the-top comedy.

‘The Abominable Bride’ is unlikely to be remembered as an enduring classic. Caught between two competing aesthetics, its writers not yet capable of achieving their goals, it idly entertains for sixty minutes, then flounders and frustrates for thirty. Had it been broadcast a year earlier, before Moffat began experimenting with such plot shifts, it might have been seen as an intriguing step forward. Instead, it’s an odd throwback by writers who have done much better.

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