Dear Steven Moffat: Sherlock – The Sign of Three/His Last Vow

Sherlock S3E3

Dear Steven,

I was going to send a separate letter for the second and third episode of this year’s Sherlock but I’m too lazy, and besides there is, as we discovered during a very strange final episode, some overlap between the two.

I know you’ve had a lot of criticism over this series. You’ve been told it’s little better than idiotic fan fiction with all the lapses in tone, character and sense you’d expect from authors far less capable than Arthur Conan Doyle, and that’s just been me! Imagine what the Great British Public are saying? They must be furious.

I’m a dye in the wool Sherlockian, Steven. I spent a fortune on cocaine, just so I could have a habit like my hero. I went to the Reichenbach Falls and threw myself in. Hell, I even abstained from relationships with women, just so I could taste the life of the perpetual bachelor. The latter wasn’t easy y’know, they’ve been hammering down the door at the rate of one every 15 years and counting – I’m having to have it reinforced! But despite my devotion to the great detective, in fact most Disney movies featuring mice, I’m actually on board with the fanfic approach.

Yeah, be surprised if you like, but my logic is simple. You’ve set the show in the twenty first century. Being a purist under these circumstances is a waste of time. Sure, you can rip off the original’s iconography, pun the story titles, but there’s something intrinsically late Victorian/early Edwardian about the adventures of Holmes and Watson, so the only way to enjoy Sherlock is to see it as a modern day valentine to the original; a show that celebrates intelligence and the exceptional outsider, just as Conan Doyle did.

It’s a good job I feel this way Steven because I think we can both agree that with every episode of your version the link between Doyle and yourself becomes ever more tenuous. Some would go as far as saying that the odd episode suggests you don’t even understand the original at all (A Scandal in Belgravia) but once you accept the show’s a pastiche, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, can at least be enjoyed on its own terms.

I had that sentence written out and attached to my TV as I watched last week’s The Sign of Three. I know some people hated this episode, in fact a snap poll conducted by me over curried chicken stuffed with cheese and spinach, found that one person marked it as “a load of bollocks”, while the other found it to be “twattish rubbish”. In contrast I thought it was the funniest and perhaps best structured episode you bastards have even done. The conceit of a mystery being outlined, thought through and solved during the best worst best man’s speech ever delivered, was a fine idea, Steven. Like Cumberbatch’s Sherlock I find the argument for marriage specious, sentimental and idiotic but the institution’s existence was validated via its inclusion in this story. I found it supremely satisfying that a character that existed on the fringes of society in Victorian Britain can still, with a little added autism, speak so vividly to twenty first century outsiders who find their friend’s rituals and rigid conformity both stifling and intellectually incomprehensible.

It struck me that you’d have to be humourless and curmudgeonly indeed not to enjoy Sherlock’s anti-oratory. I’ll credit you, Gatiss and the other one, Steven – it took skill to make this episode both touching and uproariously funny but you did it. In fact everything in this instalment worked for me, from the blood alcohol calibrated stag night to Sherlock’s murder Q and A. I especially liked the way that the wedding, normally a redundant and melodramatic device to wring a little conflict and pathos from a cast of characters, was reverse engineered to become the centrepiece of the plot. When I thought about why it worked, I realised that this was a scenario that played to your strengths. It was inherently ridiculous, it gave you the opportunity to have fun with a whole draw full of clichés and you got to be tangential, except this time you had the mighty wedding with its well known trajectory acting as a lighthouse, bringing you home every time. Yes, all was well Steven; then His Last Vow happened.

So why, when The Sign of Three, with all its silliness and Jonathan Creek style eccentricity, worked so well, did His Last Vow feel so stupid? Well this wasn’t the jocund Sherlock of last week, oh no, rather the ponderous and po-faced finale both fanboys and girls alike expected. After all, we wouldn’t want to believe you weren’t taking it seriously, yet it’s when you attempt serious plotting that the strain starts to show. Episodes like Vow vividly illustrate what many of us have long suspected, particularly those who’ve been watching a lot of Doctor Who; you’re a great ideas factory but you’re not a dramatist.

Your spin on The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton was a reminder that the word Sherlock, when studied closely with a magnifying glass, looks a lot like schlock. This is the kind of story where characters who spoke and acted like human beings, not excitable children or smug adolescents, really would have paid dividends; a story where plot logic would have been welcomed like an old friend; where plot could remain simple as you wouldn’t want the impulse to shock to upend your characters. Sadly you said fuck it to all that and did the opposite.

I wanted to believe in this episode but I spent most of it muttering, “are you fucking kidding me?” or variants thereof. You instantly started to rub me up the wrong way with the wholly misjudged comic tone. This may be news to you but the kids will forgive you if you don’t undercut every scene with a joke; that takes the edge of it and edge is what we need, not characters that talk like glib ironicists.

You could say that Sherlock was more human in this episode, more fallible, but another way of looking at it is that he’d become docile, as though he was still hungover from the wedding. I wondered if this was an import from a draft where Holmes had spent most of the story licking a sugar coated iceberg. That made sense, not least when he was shot by, er, Mary and went on a long and self-indulgent journey around his mind palace. Had he been on drugs, perhaps crazed on Devil’s Foot, this overlong and soul achingly depressing sequence might have felt congruous with the action, but instead it just seemed silly. Come on Steven, be honest – did the BBC make you take all the cocaine stuff out? Most coke addicts are boorish, gabbling arseholes, I understand that, but few of them – well, none – have Sherlock’s marbles. Wasn’t this a chance to say to the young adults of Britain – wake up kids, Class A narcotics aren’t for you, they’re for the super intelligent, the geniuses, the people who can afford it because they have a professional occupation? Instead you left us with an episode that played suspiciously like the writer was on bentines.

Look, this isn’t Sherlock Holmes, I understand that – it’s a pseudo-comic variation on a theme; a version of the character defined by self-awareness, postmodern irony and psychobabble – so very much a man for our times, but can’t you close your eyes at night and try and infiltrate the lost mind palace of Arthur Conan Doyle? After all, he was a man who gave some thought to shit making sense – a lot more than you, anyway.

So Mary Watson, in probably the stupidest twist in TV history, is a former CIA assassin – a trained killer with numerous professional hits under her belt. Are we really supposed to believe that she wouldn’t kill Sherlock when he walked in on her and Magnussen? What’s that, she got sentimental? Well you better hope I get a similar pang when I visit you in the early hours of the morning.

John forgives Mary, without wanting to know her past, why exactly? Because he loves her? Well I loved her too, Steven, until I realised she was a killer and then I started to ask questions. The thing is, if you wanted to make Watson all gooey eyed about it, after months of conjugal abstinence, then it was a mistake to make Mary pregnant. Only a fuckwit would chuck away a file on his killer wife with a baby on the way. What if that file showed she’d murdered kids? Or that she already had some and had strangled her last ten husbands? What if the file revealed her nickname was “The Black Widow”? Would you really want that kind of woman raising your daughter? And don’t tell me The Long Kiss Goodnight shows that ex-female assassins can come good and get maternal because that was a Renny Harlin movie and thus by default a fucking lie.

While we’re on the subject doesn’t Mary being a multiple murderer make her the antithesis of everything Watson believes? I know he’s seen some action abroad but crucially he’s a military doctor, he’s sworn an oath to preserve life. I could understand Watson forgiving Mary on the spur of the moment but after three months of careful consideration? It looks like John’s made a few compromises with himself here; something you tried to cover with Sherlock’s “you chose her” speech; but what I saw and I suspect many millions of others, was a character altered to facilitate a decision you’d already made. Not because it preserves the integrity of the character, just because you liked the idea.

Oh yes, and you made Sherlock a murderer; a crime for which he was sentenced to four minutes on a plane. My hero. Alright, you created a situation where it turns out the world’s most dangerous man is an idiot who reveals that all that stands between Sherlock and freedom is his death because all the incriminating information only exists in his head, so killing the bastard is the only sensible thing to do, but Sherlock Holmes shoots a man in cold blood?! Watson didn’t seem to have an opinion on that either. I had one though; to me it looked suspiciously like Sherlock had killed the man out of wounded pride. I know your Holmes doesn’t handle defeat well, but murder? Well, this is fan fiction Steven, I know it – I’m okay, I just hope you realise this is like making Superman a killer, and I’m sure you’d agree that no one would be stupid enough to do that.

So that was the third series of Sherlock. It was mostly fun, I mean we learned that Holmes has had the same haircut since childhood, but can I ask, you know in my capacity as your ol’ mucker, that for series 4 you get some crime writers in? What about The Fall’s Allan Cubitt? He wrote Prime Suspect 2, you know. He could plot them and you, Gatiss and the other one could add the jokes and the pop culture stuff. He’d still write the big scenes you understand, you know, the ones you needed to sell, but it could work. It may even allow for the possibility that one day, maybe in 20 years time, we’ll rewatch the series and say, “man, it was good wasn’t it? It’s really held up to repeat viewings”.

Sincerely,

Ed

P.S: You may have brought back Moriarty. This, you know, is sacrilege. Still, as no one cares anymore, in for a penny…

It’s still wrong though.

Keep on sleuthing in the free world:

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