This review contains spoilers.
“It’s called The Adventure of Having Your Cake and Eating It!” Mark Gatiss joked on the set of the Victorian-era Sherlock special, displaying the kind of self-aware humour that the episode—now going by the catchier title of The Abominable Bride—was fat with.
It’s a great line of course, but also an admission. Having poured their Doyle super-fandom into creating a staggeringly successful modern Holmes and Watson, Gatiss and Steven Moffat were now going back in time to, in their own words, do it properly. Bowler hats, hansom cabs and gaslight properly. The prospect clearly filled them with glee, and the result was gleeful. For about an hour.
Having settled its audience comfortably into what seemed like perfect New Year’s Day television—entertaining, handsome, not too taxing—The Abominable Bride detonated itself. Bits of story went everywhere, timelines were blown apart and the resulting smoking crater was filled with shards of meta-commentary on the nature of fiction and the psychology of mind. Downton Abbey: The Finale, this wasn’t.
It’s no wonder the BBC held off on press previews of The Abominable Bride. Firstly, it was packed tight with surprises (Mycroft’s expansion, Molly’s moustache, Moriarty’s return…). Secondly, it was bound to divide opinion. For everyone delighted with the mind games and time slips, there’d be someone else calling it too clever for its own good. For everyone clapping the return of Andrew Scott’s languid yet maniacal Moriarty, there’d be others complaining that Sherlock was still flogging the same dead corpse.
Divisive doesn’t equal failure, however. Quite the contrary; it’s all part of this show’s game.
Sherlock has a healthy history of shock. From right at the start, when it risked upsetting purists by putting a smartphone in the hands of Sherlock Holmes, to the resurrection cliff-hanger(s), the Mary revelation and more. Letting us think we were in for a cosy, straightforward Victorian-set Holmes adventure and then challenging expectations by delivering something unanticipated is entirely its style.
That’s not to say The Abominable Bride didn’t also deliver on the traditional adventure. Putting aside the odd dilated pupil and deliberate anachronism (data viruses, jets…) suggesting there was more to this trip back in time than advertised, that first hour was glorious fun. The way director Douglas Mackinnon translated Sherlock’s visual tricks to the Victorian era worked a treat, and the pairing of a never-more-suave Benedict Cumberbatch with Martin Freeman’s precise comic timing was as good as ever.
Better even, as Watson’s role as a literary storyteller in The Strand added a new layer to their friendship and allowed for some enjoyably self-aware gags. Watson asking Holmes on that stake-out if he’d ever… you know was only topped by Una Stubbs’ entertainingly dissatisfied Mrs Hudson. Not forgetting the joys of Molly pulling an Albert Nobbs, and Mycroft, increased.
And if the episode’s proto-Feminist strand came over, as some have suggested, as patronising, that obviously wasn’t the spirit in which it was intended.
No doubt The Abominable Bride would have won universal, uncritical applause had it stuck to the advertised programme. Ultimately though, isn’t it much more pleasing that it didn’t? Stuffed like turkeys and soused in New Year celebrations, us lot are no judge of what’s good for us at this time of year. We thought we wanted soft comfort, and we were shaken awake with something a bit trickier. Drama is always better surprising than predictable. Always better ambitious than safe.
We’d started the evening watching a traditional, Gothic ghost story and ended it watching Inception meets Adaptation. The Abominable Bride showed Sherlock’s creators gleefully having their cake, eating it, and sharing with us a delicious, nutty, nourishing slice.
Come back later this week for a geeky look at The Abominable Bride’s details.