Sherlock: Steven Moffat on the Ghost Story Aspects of the Special and More

Steven Moffat spills a few more details about this year's Victorian Sherlock special....

Sherlock co-creator Steven Moffat spoke to the press at the Television Critics Association summer press tour about the upcoming Sherlock special, which takes Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) back to Victorian England, where the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories were set.

There were no real spoilers to be had at the panel, and the clip showed off how our modern day Holmes and Watson acclimate quite nicely to Victorian London. But he also revealed that this one has a supernatural element we haven’t seen in Sherlock before. “Ghost stories work better in a Victorian setting,” Moffat said. “This off strand of Doyle original stories that are creepy and scary, and the chillers, we haven’t done much with in the modern show. But putting it back into Victorian times, you think it’s a chance to do a ghost story, really a creepy, a scary one. Other than that, it’s remarkably similar.”

The setting did present one notable problem, though. “Suddenly,” Moffat said, “we  realized…the women don’t speak. Mrs. Hudson, I think has got one line of direct speak in the whole bunch of stories. And we sort of got to the point where we thought she was always like Una Stubbs. She is nothing like that at all.”

They found a rather obvious solution, from the sound of it. “Mrs. Hudson doesn’t speak, so we brought the Una Stubbs version, as it were.” As for the other female characters? “Mary, after her first story really doesn’t say anything, except for in one story, where she gets her husband’s name wrong in one of the great continuity errors in history. And of course…there is no Molly Hooper in the original, a tragic omission on that part. One of our problems was to try and see what were going to do with these very important characters, who actually don’t really have a place in the original.”

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Afterwards, I joined a few reporters in approaching Moffat for follow-up questions…

When you deal with Sherlock stories, is the mystery the relatively easy part? Does that just come from Doyle?

Actually, the mystery isn’t usually what we start with. It’s usually what happens to them. It’s usually an emotional crisis disguised as a detective show.

I never really think of the originals as mystery stories. I think of them as adventures and that’s what Doyle got right. It’s not a puzzle that you unravel. It’s an adventure with creepy bits and hero moments. That’s what’s different about Sherlock Holmes.

And that’s what the American versions with Downey went for.

Yeah, I like those ones. I think they’re great. I think that was a really good way of remodeling Sherlock Holmes as a Hollywood blockbuster.

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Does a ghost story involve more special effects than your usual Sherlock does?

Not so much the ghost story aspect as making it Victorian. It was like doing Doctor Who in a way because we had to make a CGI London, really.

What big fanboy moments did you have as a Holmes-ian doing the period?

I can’t tell you. I can’t tell you! Are you a Sherlock Holmes fanboy? There are a few moments in this where if you are a Sherlock Holmes fanboy, you will follow them and you can work out from that what points Mark and I were dancing around the set.

I can’t tell you, but there are. Fan service is going on.

How did the actors like doing period costume?

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I think both really liked it. I think by the end, Martin was ready to go back to the more acerbic version, but I think Benedict really enjoyed being Victorian Holmes. He was saying halfway through, “Let’s always do this. I quite like it.”

The long wait was for scheduling, but how long do you see this going?

I don’t know. Mark [Gatiss] and I would keep going. I don’t think it will be us that switch it off. I imagine it’ll be down to Benedict and Martin. Obviously we couldn’t do the show without them and they’ve always said they’re happy to carry on so long as it’s good.

This happened to us too. We had a great hit. We were very happy about it. It’s five years old now. This was an exciting moment in all our lives so it’s nice to be able to revisit it.

Remember, for us it’s not like doing Doctor Who in a way that is like the day job. Every time we make a series of Sherlock it’s like we’re doing a reunion show because we haven’t seen each other for a while and we have a great time.

I could see it going on for a long while. I could see maybe there might be a longer gap sometime and then we all get together and say, “Let’s do it again.” I’d like to see them age. Not because I’m a sadist, just because it would be interesting to see them become in the more traditional age of those characters which is in their 50s. They’re much younger than the normal version.

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Watching those actors blow up, did you ever worry you’d never be able to get them again?

We all lived through it together in great excitement. We were just as excited as you’d expect people to be about how successful it was. Our immediate impulse was, “Let’s go and do it again immediately and have more of that fun.”

Because we make it in such concentrated bursts every so often, it’s never going to destroy anybody’s schedule. So we’ll always have time to do it.

The question is at some point will they just want to stop doing it? Benedict really likes being Sherlock Holmes though so I think he’ll be in it for a while.

Is there pressure to do more?

Always, but we can’t do more. We’re happy doing the show how we want to do it.

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Is everything Sherlock Holmes related public domain at this point?

That’s a good question to which I’m not absolutely sure of the answer. I think there are issues with the final collection of Sherlock stories still being in copyright in America, something like that, but don’t take my word for it. Go and look it up.

But anything you’ve wanted to do, characters like Irene Adler and Moriarty, have been?

We haven’t had a problem but I think there can be problems. I think there are some people who have taken the mick slightly in terms of their ownership of the original. I believe there are some, I don’t know, Sue probably knows better than I do, there can be issues. I think it should be public domain by now.

After reinventing Sherlock Holmes in the modern day, what made you decide you wanted to do one set in the original time period?

Well, we checked the books and discovered we got it wrong, and I said to Mark, “We should have read them first.” No. Just because we can, really.

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Mark and I were having a fun day on set because he was doing some second unit shooting with some evil monks. It was the [Doctor Who] prequel, and because I think we found an old prop that was on the original TARDIS so we were having a geek day. Gosh, what a surprise.

And then we just thought could we ever just do maybe one scene or some dream sequel or something? And then we just thought, you know, why don’t we just do it? Why don’t we just do a Victorian one? We never bothered to explain what we were doing in modern day London. So why do we have to bother explaining what they’re doing in Victorian London, when that’s where they’re supposed to be?

So, can we increase our normal massive run of three episodes to a record breaking four, and do the special, which is separate from the rest of the series, and done in the correct period? So it’s a mistake we’ve been a long time rectified.

Is that Martin Freeman’s moustache?

Normally he has to cover it up. We have a special, it’s out, which is great.

Are there any other beats or themes you got to explore in the special that you normally wouldn’t have in modern day?

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As I say, it’s remarkable how it was easy to update in the first place. It was easy. So putting it back, one of the things is trying not to go over the top with it because, actually, people spoke in Victorian times really quite like they speak now. If you read the dialogue in Doyle’s stories, it sounds more modern than a lot of the adaptations of those stories, because we have a slightly exaggerated notion of what people spoke like. It’s not that long ago.

Sherlock Holmes has the manners of the Victorian gentleman, which he doesn’t have in the modern version. So he is a lot less brattish when he’s back then and Dr. Watson is a bit more upright. They’re the same people, seen through the prism of a different time and fitting in to a different society. I would say this Sherlock is a little more polished, and he operates like a Victorian gentleman instead of a posh, rude man, which he does in the modern, too.

Did you co-write this one with Mark Gatiss?

Yeah. It’s the first time we’ve actually. I mean, we’ve sort of cowritten before on the fly.  I remember we actually wrote together the last scene of “The Reichenbach Fall” sitting at Moriarty’s trial. We sat in the corner and were writing the last scene. That’s deadline hell for you.

Were you and Mark physically together writing Sherlock?

Not very often. I mean, what we would do is we’d pass the draft backwards and forwards. We did different parts. I think Mark started, then I was overwriting him. Then, I got ahead of him and he overwrote me, and just that way.

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But what we’d do is first of all we’d sit and very carefully plan each beat of the show so we knew what we were going to do. I can’t honestly remember. I remember having frantically to write an extra scene on at some point.

There’s no premiere date yet announced for the Sherlock special, but we’ll let you know as soon as we hear anything. It’s safe to say you can probably expect it around Christmas…