With a change in writer comes a change in both scenery and tone for episode 2.2 of Sherlock. Written by series co-creator Mark Gatiss, The Hounds Of Baskerville has Sherlock and Watson decamp from Baker Street to cream tea country as the duo investigates the famed case of the gigantic Devonshire hound.
Moving away from London tinges the episode with a touch of the Agatha Christies, as a brief pre-credits sequence gives way to the recognisable pattern of a client petitioning for their case to be taken, followed by the detective’s arrival at the fated rural home of the mystery.
The nods to tradition continue with a hint-dropping yokel innkeeper, an enigmatic cypher on the moors and a couple of folklore-ridden local landmarks. Here be hounds, Holmes and Watson are warned, beware.
Out of that familiar set-up unravels an inventive interpretation of the Conan Doyle novel which cleverly magpies elements from across horror and sci-fi genres.
Gatiss once again pulls off the trick of fidelity to his source whilst being extremely cheeky with its material. Extravagant trails are set which lead to little more than a punch line, while names, locations and plot points from The Hound Of The Baskervilles are recycled and co-opted to tell a new story about the psychology of fear.
Joining Cumberbatch and Freeman in the episode is Being Human’s Russell Tovey, playing posh for once, and holding his own in the acting stakes. As Henry Knight, Tovey is granted a much more substantial wardrobe than Lara Pulver’s Irene Adler, and much less of the spotlight (on the topic of Adler, those viewers enraged by what they saw as sexism in episode one will either be quelled or further riled by The Hounds Of Baskerville, as its story has been largely excised of women altogether).
What is in the spotlight, as ever, is Sherlock’s anti-social pathology and biting lack of feeling for anyone he encounters. Holmes’ irritability and insensitivity is cranked up to 11 at the beginning of the episode, which sees him bored and twitching for both a fag and a case.
While strung out, Sherlock performs his deductive tricks on those around him, exhibiting characteristic attention to detail and utter dunderheadedness as to human emotion or tact. TV critic and super-fan Caitlin Moran’s savvy summation of Watson’s relationship to Holmes as that of “dragon tamer, there to whack Sherlock with a stick when he starts monstering around, or climbing up on the furniture” has never been more applicable than in the opening of The Hounds Of Baskerville.
Watson is a damage controller, tempering Holmes’ crueller traits and tolerating his arrogance. Watson’s reasons for doing overlap with our own reasons for watching; for all his smugness, Holmes has a brilliant mind, and life’s simply more exciting with him around. Well, that and he does look spectacularly good in that coat.
Just how good Sherlock looks in that coat is something the show’s creators are keenly aware of, as evidenced by a couple of gratuitously lingering shots of Cumberbatch posing like Caspar David Freidrich’s Wanderer on a rocky outcrop. Screensavers will be reset post-broadcast, mark my words.
Sherlock’s feverish whingeing abates once a case drops into his lap, exciting the character’s bloodhound enthusiasm for the game. What follows is a highly competent, good old-fashioned horror mystery exchanging the comedy and sauce of A Scandal In Belgravia for misty moors, psychological probing, and well-timed scares.
Director Paul McGuigan proves himself able to rein in Sherlock’s now-trademark visual flourishes when the story requires. To suit an episode so well-soaked in Gatiss’ favourite genre, McGuigan dips into his own horror arsenal, losing the showy spins and serving up torch beams bobbing in the mist and tension-building pursuits from shadowy pursuers.
The Hounds Of Baskerville weaves in many more recognisable features of investigative drama than any previous instalment of the new Sherlock. Looks-wise, it’s reminiscent at times of The X-Files or – at a push- the CSI franchise as much as the Poirot stories mentioned earlier (of which, incidentally, Gatiss has also written two episodes). Of course, those shows in turn owe much of their genesis to Conan Doyle’s books, which takes things neatly full circle.
So, what can you expect from this week’s Sherlock? A new round of ‘spot the reference’ for fans of the original stories, more squabbling from the boys, a test of their friendship, and an unusually spooked Holmes.
On the whole, The Hounds Of Baskerville delivers less comedy but more well-crafted scares, less nudity and more things going bump in the night. Along the way you’ll hear the tale of the glow-in-the-dark rabbit, and find out why you should never play Cluedo with the world’s only consulting detective.
Marvellous as all that is – and it is marvellous entertainment – I hope that Mark Gatiss won’t mind if I say that the briefest of trails for next week’s finale sent more shivers down my spine than any other point in the episode. What can I say? Perhaps I’m just not a dog person…