Dear Steven Moffat: Sherlock – The Empty Hearse


Dear Steven,

Normally I wouldn’t spend time discussing your other child, you know the one you only see for a few weeks every year, but I have downtime and I thought you’d welcome the feedback, you know, like you haven’t previously.

So how successful was The Empty Hearse as an update of The Empty House? Well as ever with this series it was a patty made of allusions, word association and modernica. I like the way Mark Gatiss thinks, not as a dramatist perhaps, and certainly not as a purist, but like Holmes himself.

He’s a lateral writer, going to his mind palace with a few prompts and from there extrapolating the shape and content of the episode using whatever images suggest themselves. So the empty house conjured an association with an empty Houses of Parliament, perhaps vacant because everyone therein had been killed, a plot to murder our elected and archaically unelected representatives suggests the gunpowder plot, which gives our newly resurrected hero a suitably substantial reason to come out of hiding. But how to deliver the bomb in modern times? Well Westminster suggests the nearby tube as well as the palace, from empty hearse, perhaps the first thing the production agreed on as you have to start with a pun these days, you get the image of an empty car. The production’s obsessed with America, because that’s the only foreign market the BBC cares about these days, so car, as an Americanism, suggests carriage, an empty carriage coupled with the tube running under parliament gives you your delivery system and add all of that to the original story’s plot, in which Holmes lies low to flush out the last of Moriarty’s underground network, and you’ve got the underground. Underground + Westminster + empty house + empty car = episode.

Sure the elements may have occurred to Gatiss in a different order or they may have been part suggested by you – perhaps added to a tombola after a team brainstorm, and picked at random, but I’m guessing that’s how it went down. So this, Steven, is the first show in history to be effectively written “in character”, aping the cognitive techniques of the titular ‘tech. I’m not knocking it you understand, my only worry is that it could lead to Doctor Who syndrome – a show that puts conceits and textual irony up front but neglects to strengthen its all important backbone, i.e. Character and plot.

Still, I’m not going to tell you I didn’t enjoy the character work in TEH because there was much to like. Conan Doyle’s Holmes wasn’t so insensitive that he wouldn’t have anticipated a backlash from his long absence when revealing himself to Watson, in fact he was quite apologetic, but Cumberbatch’s insensitivity was right for this iteration. Interrupting Watson’s marriage proposal with his French waiter routine then being graceless about his moustache, felt spot on. I was a little worried that Watson had chosen to marry during a prolonged period of depression but I’m glad you didn’t stoke the homoerotic undercurrent that’s sometimes threatened to trivialise the friendship between the two men by turning Mary into an adversary for Holmes. “I like him” was fine and meant no tiresome retread of the territory soiled in Guy Richie’s last Holmes flick. I was also pleased that Mrs Hudson had maintained a shrine for the fallen detective and didn’t think to charge him for back rent when he returned; both decisions felt well judged.

So what about a satisfying explanation for Holmes surviving the rooftop fall? Well I was glad Gatiss made a running gag out of this. I nearly choked on the idea that Derren Brown, a bungee rope and a face mask might have had something to do it, so the relief when that turned out to be armchair bullshit was palpable. That meant I could enjoy Holmes and Moriarty’s moment of sexual tension on the rooftop as well the final suggestion, nicely handled, that the Jonathan Creek version, simple and not too exciting when you know how, just might be a bluff. I’ll be damned if I can see how else might have happened but I accept that you probably couldn’t think of a better solution either. Fluffing the part of the audience that wouldn’t accept any on screen explanation, was therefore a smart move. I’m just grateful that Holmes didn’t jump inside a large scale tessellating man suit.

So ultimately, despite having a plot instead of, er, a plot if you know what I mean, this was an enjoyable return marked by exciting cinematic direction from Jeremy Lovering. I think when it was reported that Paul McGuigan was off to make movies fewer people would see, there was a worry that these feature length episodes would lose some of their visual wit; the fate that befell the episodes in the first two series he didn’t lens; but not a bit of it. Lovering has his own style and it’s very rich indeed. Speaking of visual gloss, my compliments to the FX house charged with blowing up the Palace of Westminster. We’ve seen it done many times with rushed CGI in terrible Hollywood blockbusters but here, at last, was a bang you could believe in. It was a great moment in a fun episode. “There’s always an off switch” noted Sherlock, but thanks to some good gags and smart pacing, we never had cause to consider using ours. With that in mind I await your contribution to series 3 with interest.



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Published in: on January 1, 2014 at 23:49  Leave a Comment  
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