This review contains spoilers.
It’s been said before but it bears repeating: the BBC’s Sherlock is a master class in the art of the update. It selects from its source material with discrimination, carefully restages some parts in workable modern contexts and wittily disposes of other elements with a flourish. What emerges is something new yet old, something pleasingly recognisable yet still capable of surprise.
Tackling The Hound of the Baskervilles, Mark Gatiss faced a toughie. How do you make a functional modern mystery thriller from a story so familiar to so many? How do you thrill an audience who already knows whodunit?
With adroit plotting, sneaky inversions, excellent grounding in source and genre, and a delicious sense of mischief comes Gatiss’ answer in the form of The Hounds of Baskerville. Episode 2.2 serves up a psychological horror that gives good scare before revealing its supernatural hound to have a very real-world provenance.
Gatiss’ Baskerville script takes a hammer to Conan Doyle’s story, sending shards of character and plot flying, then reassembling them into a neatly constructed mosaic.
Former red herrings become villains, former villains become red herrings, and a whole subplot leads only to a saucy punch line that must have proved irresistible to a writer with canines on their mind. It’s a belter of a job, and a worthy follow-up to A Scandal in Belgravia.
The wonderful Russell Tovey joins the cast in the Sir Henry role (or Henry Knight in this version), a man who’d already lost his father and who arrives at Sherlock’s door on the brink of losing his mind.
Tovey’s so recognisable for his role as Being Human’s George that some may have feared his presence would prove a distraction in Sherlock, but seconds into Henry’s meeting with Holmes and Watson, any apprehension vanishes.
Another recognisable property was transformed in the episode, as Baskerville Hall was reinvented as the mysterious Baskerville chemical and biological weapons research facility. The military compound was the setting for some well-crafted and tense scenes as Sherlock exploited both his family connections and his friendship with Watson in the name of investigation.
The Hounds of Baskerville once again proved that Martin Freeman’s Watson is there to do more than just sigh exasperatedly at his flatmate and apologise to others on Sherlock’s behalf.
Watson may have been led down the garden path by the dogging signals – a great gag, that – and by Holmes’ own unethical experiment on him, but he proves his worth pulling rank in the improvised spot-check at Baskerville, and playing good cop to Holmes’ strung out bad cop in the opening scene with Knight.
Watson hasn’t just been given more agency in the new Sherlock, but a wicked tongue and some of the best lines to boot. His barbed remark about Sherlock posing with his coat collar turned up was delicious, as was the Spock reference, the show’s first actual utterance of the word Asperger’s, and Watson’s insistence – uttered to Sherlock Holmes remember – that “we have to be rational about this.” Joyful stuff.
Other joyful moments for Conan Doyle fans came, as ever, from tracing elements of the original story. Familiar character names all showed up in different guises from Frankland [Clive Mantle] to Stapleton [Amelia Bullmore] and Dr Mortimer. Even escaped convict Selden, chopped from this version of the tale, gets a cheeky namesake spotted briefly by Watson through a car window…
This may be pushing it, but could the barman’s description of Dartmoor’s legendary hound as being like “having our own Loch Ness monster” be a continuation of episode 2.1’s run of nods to Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes? Yes or no, that the show is the work of true fans of the Holmes canon was never more evident.
You don’t need to know a thing about the source material though, to enjoy a spot of deduction and puzzling. The hints, as they are in any decent mystery, were planted from the get-go. The tour guide exclaims early on “God knows what they’ve been spraying on us all these years”, while Dr Frankland is first seen wearing a gas mask and given the very apt line that he’d love to tell Sherlock about his experiments, but if he did, he’d have to kill him.
Just as you’d expect from horror aficionado Mark Gatiss, the episode was well-schooled in the genre, with plenty of freaking out and jumping at shadows. Arnold and Price’s elegant music came to the fore wonderfully in the largely wordless scenes of Watson and Henry’s fearful hallucinations.
The stylish hand of director Paul McGuigan was in evidence once again, with beautiful establishing shots of Dartmoor and fast-edit glimpses into Holmes’s deductive process. The “mind palace” sequence was like a calling card for the series’ now-characteristic floating text and gymnastic camerawork.
All that, and I haven’t even had time to mention the nodding dogs, the harpoon, the polygamist café owner, the Cluedo gag, the tantalising Moriarty cell scenes, or just how good Benedict Cumberbatch is with those mile-a-minute monologues. Simply too much fun was had.
To sum it up I can only echo Sherlock’s own closing words to Henry: “This case, thank you, it’s been brilliant”.
Read our review of episode 2.1 A Scandal in Belgravia here.