The BBC have had a bit of a killer year in 2011, and by golly 2012 is off to a winner with the first episode of the new series of Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch’s cheekbones and the bags under Martin Freeman’s eyes. Questions about the nature of the leads’ relationship and the watershed aside, Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss have produced what amounts to a small screen feature film, with some incredibly stylish storytelling and some of the best camerawork this side of the Atlantic.
The plot summary is a massive red herring: the compromising photographs of royalty held by high-society dominatrix Irene Adler (Lara Pulver, who doesn’t put a foot wrong throughout) are just the first thread in a story that defies belief but never quite slips into the ridiculous. Except when everyone refers to Adler’s maguffin as a ‘camera phone’, as if the Sherlock is set in 2004 or an episode of Flight of the Conchords. In any case, the similarities between this show and the Conan Doyle story begin and end with Adler’s name and the scandalous photos. Where it ends up is a small victory for imaginative adaptation.
It’s impossible to get too far into the plot without giving the game away, so let’s focus on the performances. Cumberbatch is given a far greater range of material to work with this time round, and with no little awareness of the change in Sherlock’s circumstances since last year. An early sequence in which Holmes and Watson become a blogging sensation that make the front pages of mock-ups of the Times and Guardian (probably the least believable part of the whole story) gets some nice pay off when they find themselves in Buckingham Palace, Holmes dressed only in his bedsheets. The scene is set up for Holmes to play his standard dogmatic oddball, but when they both burst out in giggles it’s a genuinely warming moment, two friends who have come a long way together.
This episode is all about relationships, and it pulls no punches. It makes clear that Watson’s love life is nearly non-existent due to his responsibilities to Sherlock, and that the great detective seems almost entirely uninterested on the matter. The lingering question of whether Adler is romantically interested in Sherlock or is using the appearance of romance to manipulate him is never conclusively answered, and only complicated by her assertion to Watson that she is gay after he asserts his relationship with Holmes is purely platonic. This is a show with complex characters that isn’t afraid to explore some intimate emotional territory.
That said, Adler is constantly in danger of being a male fantasy, eg turning up naked in her first scene with Holmes, but her power over the narrative, and Holmes himself, is almost always believeable, largely down to Pulver’s performance. Mark Gatiss also deserves praise for shouldering a large part of the dramatic weight in the episode, and his relationship with his ostensibly lazy and naive little brother is intense and convincing. Mycroft is no minor character in this year’s Sherlock, and the show is all the richer for him.
And how cool is the presentation of text in this episode!? Largely incidental to the plot but I can’t recall a more organic use of words on screen. Golf clap, Stephen Moffat, golf clap.
Anyway, this is a massive undertaking for the BBC team that pays off at every turn. And there are a lot of turns. If you haven’t got on board with Sherlock (which seems unlikely as ten million of you tuned in at some point on New Year’s Day, and many more on iPlayer), now’s the time. Next week is only the Hound of the Bleeding Baskervilles. Good gracious.
How have you found your return to 221B Baker Street? Let us know in the comments.