Sherlock: The Abominable Bride
Sherlock was back on our TV screens this New Year's Day for a one-off special to keep us fans satisfied in the long gap between series three and four. And being a one off, series creators / writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss gave us something altogether different from the normal Sherlock fare in a story that was either going to delight or infuriate audiences. Because in the same way that the latest, delightful Doctor Who Christmas special The Husbands Of River Song was all about getting a chance to revisit the Doctor / River relationship with a twist, so to was The Abominable Bride an opportunity to have fun with Sherlock's main premise. Both specials were what you might call indulgent.
But for the most part that indulgence was well served. The brilliance of Sherlock is in its ability to translate the story and characters of Sherlock Holmes into a modern setting so this episode was a playful opportunity to see if the writing and the performances still worked when it was taken back to its Victorian roots. Fortunately it worked brilliantly and for the first two thirds it was still very much the Sherlock we have come to love.
The premise of the episode is surprisingly simple; faced with the return of Moriarty in the closing moments of series three's His Last Vow, Sherlock takes a load of drugs to enter his mind palace and solve the mystery of how Moriarty survived the self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, taking himself back to 1890's London to solve the case of the strikingly similar - and unsolved - abominable bride. And while he does crack that little mystery, he also determines that Moriarty is in fact dead and it must be someone else using his arch nemesis's identity.
So in essence The Abominable Bride does very little to progress the overall story but then the charm of this episode is that in how Moffat and Gatiss embrace the traditional setting. The whole episode is gorgeous to look at with director Douglas MacKinnon capturing the the gothic horror and grandeur of Victorian London. The episode nicely subverts some of the show's modern motifs such as the reflection of the night lights of London in Sherlock and Watson's carriage in the same way the city reflects on the windows of their many cab journeys.
I also loved the many opportunities to throw in classic lines such as "the game's afoot," and "elementary my dear Watson, in a way that would seem out of place in the show's standard modern setting. But for me the best motif had to be Watson's publication of Sherlock Holmes's cases in The Strand informing on how the characters played out, from Sherlock quoting the literary version of himself to poor Mrs Hudson complaining that all she did in the stories was stay silent and make tea.
But of course the best moments were seeing Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman on screen together again. Cumberbatch's Victorian Sherlock was channelling pure Basil Rathbone with his slicked backed look and Freeman's handlebar moustache was frankly magnificent. They slipped back into these roles effortlessly, though I liked the slight change in dynamic, Watson not quite so on the even keel as his modern counterpart.
And the mystery was a really good one too. The dead bride coming back from beyond the grave to kill again was a great foil for this setting; if anything my only gripe would be that I would have preferred it to have aired closer to Christmas as even without the festive trimmings it made for a chilling classic Victorian ghost story. From the off-putting design, costume and makeup of the bride to fog-lit mazes, stately homes and murder in the moonlight cobbles of London it was gripping throughout and a great chance for Sherlock and Watson to get their teeth into a proper mystery after series three moved away from traditional cases with more character driven pieces.
It was well paced mystery and worthy of Sherlock's engagement; the reveal that the bride faked her death to kill her husband, and her friends took up the mantle to avenge her and further their cause for women's rights was a satisfying reveal and perfectly set for the time setting which feared the 'Hysteria' of women and the shift in the balance of power. It also cleverly allowed Sherlock to determine that Moriarty was not still alive.
Talking of Moriarty, the dream-like nature of Sherlock's Victorian mind palace allowed for Andrew Scott to make a welcome return without undermining the climatic events of series two. The scene between Moriarty and Sherlock in Baker Street was electric. And while arguably the same talking points were raised - including the suggestion of homoerotic undertones - this was Moffat and Gatiss at their writing best. The literal interpretation of the Reinbach Falls was perhaps a bit unnecessary but then the episode had already retold the introduction of Watson to Sherlock from A Study In Pink in the historical setting so this could easily be forgiven.
The supporting cast all had fun too with their subverted roles; Rupert Graves' Lestrade had sideburns that were almost a character in themselves, while Louise Brearley's Molly was a far more interesting character. A woman in a man's world, she literally disguised herself as a male coroner, though I find it hard to believe Sherlock didn't deduce this like Watson. But far more fascinating was her role as one of the villains of the story, disguising herself as one of the Brides to be complicit in the latest murder. And Mark Gatiss was clearly having a lot of fun as the more intelligent, gluttonous Holmes brother.
If anything, the one distraction was the modern setting; while the 'it was all a sort of dream' worked, I would have preferred this to have been spared to the very end. Though the clues were there throughout, particularly when Mycroft referred to the virus in the data. As frightening as it was the digging up of the Scarletti bride in the modern day was completely unnecessary. Though Mary did come out better than ever, revealing herself to be a master hacker as well as an assassin. " What do you think of MI5's security?" asks Mycroft as she hacks into the archives. Amanda Abbington's delivery of "It would be nice." was perfect.
The Abominable was the perfect story for a one-off festive special. It had a great premise, an intriguing mystery, the ability to subvert everything we love about Sherlock and be just as entertaining even when events were taken place over a century before. If anything, it was the modern day scenes that felt out of place. It won't be everyone's cup of tea but it was a whole lot of fun; an indulgent piece of fun to round off the Christmas holidays. Now begins the long wait until series four...