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TV Waffle - SHERLOCK: THE ABOMINABLE BRIDE

sherlock abominable bride review
Standalone special transfers the action from contemporary to Victorian London.


Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Sherlock the abominable bride retro poster

"If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it." Those are the words of George Lucas, in reference to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special of Thanksgiving 1978. Lucas was perturbed that his vision of Star Wars had been warped, but he was clearly unfamiliar with the role of TV holiday specials. These one-off, standalone episodes are generally designed to break away from the format of the parent show, often positing a 'what if?' scenario. If you watched the promos for Sherlock's holiday special, The Abominable Bride, you would be forgiven for thinking the show was set to follow this tradition, one far more common in UK TV than its trans-Atlantic counterpart. Thanks to these promos, we knew we were in for something different - an episode set in the original Victorian era, but that's not quite what we ultimately received.
When it was first announced that BBC was set to reboot Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous creation in contemporary times, the expected cries of "blasphemy" rang out from the Holmes community. They were quickly silenced by the quality of the resulting show, which managed to feel unique while at the same time being thoroughly respectful of the source material. Of course, transferring Holmes to a contemporary setting was nothing new - most of the great Basil Rathbone Holmes films took place in a then contemporary WWII setting. Sherlock pleased the fans without pandering to them, but then the show became a victim of its own success, and that of its leading man. Benedict Cumberbatch's casting had played a huge role in sating Holmes devotees, and in this writer's eyes only Jeremy Brett, the aforementioned Rathbone and Peter Cushing have him topped when it comes to screen Sherlocks. Along with a fanbase for the show, a Cumberbatch cult quickly developed. After two fantastic seasons, Sherlock jumped the shark in its third season by pandering to Sherlock and Cumberbatch fans, and large chunks of the season played out like fan fiction. The season also ended on a cliffhanger, which posed the question of whether The Abominable Bride would be a straight continuation or, like most holiday specials, a standalone segment that exists outside the show's canon.
The answer is a little of column A, a little of column B. For roughly two thirds of TAB we're presented with a largely straightforward Victorian era Holmes mystery. Just as with the show's pilot, we open with Watson (Martin Freeman) arriving home after serving in Afghanistan; however in this case it's the Anglo-Afghan war of the 1880s. And just as in the pilot, he ends up rooming with Holmes in 221B Baker Street. We then forward a few years and Holmes and Watson have just solved the case of the Blue Carbuncle, a story set appropriately during the holiday season. It's at this point it becomes clear the show is paying explicit homage to the 1980s ITV rendition of Holmes. As Holmes and Watson arrive at Baker Street, that show's theme tune makes an appearance on the soundtrack, and the hairstyles and grooming of Cumberbatch and Freeman echo those of Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke.
Just as previous episodes riffed on original Conan Doyle stories, this one takes 'The Five Orange Pips' as its basis, with a dead woman seemingly coming back from the grave to kill a series of men, heralding their demise with the delivery of five orange pips. It's an inspired choice, as it affords the episode an atmospheric, quasi-supernatural vibe. Save for some misjudged comedy - Mark Gatiss in a Big Momma's House style fat suit, a groan inducing scene involving a sing language misunderstanding - the episode is a lot of fun, and thanks to a mix of great locations, costumes and cinematography, it looks better than any previous installment. And frankly how could it not? When it comes to fog-shrouded atmosphere, the modern metropolis of Britain's capital is no match for its Victorian predecessor.
[Here be spoilers] Then, in the final act, it's revealed that the episode is essentially Sherlock's version of those Star Trek: The Next Generation holodeck Holmes episodes, taking place inside Holmes's mind, or to be specific, his 'mind palace'. At this point the episode becomes a convoluted mess, attempting to be complex when simple would have done just fine. Holmes is still on the plane he boarded at the end of the season three climax, and using the Five Pips case as a means of determining how someone can return from the grave, as it seems Moriarty has. Flashing back to the Victorian timeline, Holmes solves the case - it's the suffragettes! - and confronts Moriarty in a sequence that plays out like the worst sort of fan fiction, interjected purely to bring back Andrew Scott's cult Moriarty figure, who this writer has found incredibly annoying since his first appearance back in the show's debut season.
Speaking of fans, if ever there were a case for justifying a 'fan edit', it's The Abominable Bride. Cut the episode down to its Victorian elements and you'll have a mostly satisfying, and visually gorgeous, one-off special. As it is, TAB ultimately serves as a reminder of how an innovative and highly entertaining show has lost its way. A fourth season is set to air later this year (remarkably so, given Cumberbatch's schedule, not to mention Hollywood pay-checks that dwarf anything the BBC can offer), but if the show is set to continue on this path, I can't say I'm too excited.

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