"The two friends chatted...recalling once again the days of the past" [LAST]
[Editor's note: This is the first in a series of reviews we're publishing about ABOM today. Please be forewarned: there may be spoilers in each. And this entry marks the first contribution of Rachel Gosch, who joins our team.]
For readers of The Strand Magazine in the Victorian era, the ever-growing wave of unstoppable social, economic, and technological change made the prospect of returning to a world perpetually basking in the familiar trappings of 1895 a comforting release. In the many years since, it is ironic to note that modernization remains at the core of the BBC’s Sherlock, now arguably the most popular interpretation of Holmes in the twenty-first century so far.
One of the most consistently amusing aspects of the show is watching writers and series creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss alter the elements of the stories for modern times. By entering the new period, storytelling is both facilitated and challenged: Moriarty becomes an even more implacable threat with the assistance of anonymous texts and suicide bombs, but his nemesis has the Internet to back up his vast deductive skill.
For three seasons, viewers have ensconced themselves in this new reality, which made the possibility of returning to the old world in the lead-up to January’s Victorian-set The Abominable Bride seem more daunting than previously imagined. How would the writers react to the removal of today’s crime-solving technology? How would Sherlock and John sound calling each other Holmes and Watson? Could Sherlock adapt to the past as well as it had done to the future?
In this critic’s opinion, the answer to that last question is a resounding yes.
Watching this special is to witness the cast, crew, and especially the writers making merry with their original source material; you get the sense they’ve been aching to do this for years. With its ghostly titular antagonist and creepy, fog-filled sets, the show indulges its Gothic roots, a display which is welcomed after the somewhat lackluster attempt at horror in “The Hounds of Baskerville.” References both subtle and obvious are sprinkled throughout, and time-bound elements of canon get their chance to shine. Terrifically delivered performances bolster the sense of authenticity, especially in the case of Benedict Cumberbatch; toning down his Sherlock’s acerbic tendencies, he instead captures the twinkling eyes and calculated ego of Conan Doyle’s Holmes.
Yet The Abominable Bride is anything but a straight Victorian adaptation. Moffat and Gatiss’ story starts out as a typical Sherlockian whodunnit, but soon becomes a complex psychological battle, the details of which I won’t spoil here. The plot’s organization is the most difficult part of the experience; I didn’t have trouble understanding it on my first viewing, but I can definitely see how other viewers might become confused by the episode’s structure. But the idea itself is a compelling twist on the cliche that could’ve served as the impetus for the narrative’s setting.
The creators’ love and respect for the time period is evident, but the challenging of nineteenth-century stereotypes becomes the dominating motif of the episode, particularly in its characterization of our time-traveling cast. Mycroft’s girth is no longer an amusing character tidbit; it’s a genuine threat to his health. When Watson is asked to abandon his domestic breakfast table for Baker Street, he doesn’t just leave—he bolts. In the most welcome change from canon, the women and their personal struggles are a central focus. Amanda Abbington, Una Stubbs, and especially Louise Brealey all deliver series-best performances; as a female viewer, it was a joy to see Mary questioning John’s absences (about time, after 126 years!) and Molly strutting through her mortuary with a steely glint in her eyes.
And it is this willingness towards subversion in the midst of glorification which elevates ABOM beyond a fun one-off and transforms it into a unique statement on the benefits of adaptation. The Canon is unquestionably a landmark work, bringing the literary world wonderful characters and exciting stories as well as serving as an inspiration for a whole genre of writing. Yet there wouldn’t be hundreds of books, movies, and TV shows about Holmes if readers hadn’t thought there was more to know about their hero than what they were told by Conan Doyle. Yes, there was The Great Detective—but who was Sherlock Holmes? Why did he choose to devote himself to catching criminals? Why did he choose Watson as a companion? Can anyone answer these questions? Should anyone answer these questions?
One of the best scenes in the special has a setup familiar to readers of the stories. As nighttime falls upon an abandoned greenhouse on a country estate, Holmes and Watson lie in hiding, peering through the thick mist towards the quiet house and waiting for a mysterious specter to reveal itself. We expect that Holmes will be brimming with anticipation, ready to spring into action at the slightest disturbance. We expect that Watson is cautious yet determined, his trusty revolver in hand. We expect Holmes to whisper some small warning alongside a witticism. There’s suddenly a shadow, a movement, a scream. And the game is afoot.
But as the detective and the doctor anticipate the arrival of the bride, we are treated to another version of this scenario. Watson strikes up an unusual conversation. He interrogates Holmes about his past with women, bringing up the lingering effect of the woman on his friend. Holmes become visibly irritated, even mortified. They devolve into argument; as they question the influence Watson has on Holmes, the necessity of emotion, the existence of ghosts, and so on, they roll their eyes and grit their teeth. The duo is clearly frustrated by each other’s responses.
Of course, they’re eventually interrupted by the ghostly lady’s appearance; the spat is quickly left behind as they pursue her. But for one modern moment in the Victorian era, we finally hear one full, intimate conversation between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.