The Sherlock Christmas Special: The Good, the Bad, the Abominable

Sherlock on the left, Watson on the right, Sherlock: The Abominable Bride center bottom. They're clearly in Victorian London

BBC Sherlock: The Abominable Bride promotional

If you’re a Sherlock fan, you probably noticed that a Christmas special was released on New Year’s Day. You may have watched it that day, or perhaps you caught it on the big screen as part of Fathom Events (like I did—and I highly recommend the experience), or maybe you have come across one of the multiple reruns that have aired the last few weeks on PBS.

Regardless of the many ways you could have seen it, I’ve collected my impressions of the episode, titled The Abominable Bride. It’s worth noting that “abominable” is really just a synonym for “bad,” so I essentially broke it down into the good, the bad, and the really bad; in the context of this piece, I’ve chosen to discuss the single most problematic aspect of the production under the heading of Abominable.

And it’s also necessary to point out that this is just one person’s opinion. Feel free to use the power of Google to hit the web and find out what others have to say about it, or leave a comment and let me know your own take!

The Good

“There are no ghosts in this world. Save those we make for ourselves.”
—Sherlock Holmes

There were many aspects of The Abominable Bride that were delightful—too many to list in the detail they deserve. To start, there were numerous references and acknowledgments to the contemporary world (for reasons that became obvious once the audience had seen the episode in its entirety, but which were unnecessary). My personal favorite was the artwork of a woman at her dressing table, an optical illusion that resembles a skull (an obvious homage to the skull art in Sherlock’s 21st-century flat).

There are other references to the contemporary Sherlock that are less physical and more intellectual. Very early in the episode, in an aside, Sherlock begins muttering to himself about an old case and the need to go deep within himself to solve it. This is an obvious reference to the fact that Sherlock is currently within his mind palace attempting to solve the mystery of Jim Moriarty’s apparent return, though of course the audience isn’t aware of that at this time.

In addition to the writing and the visual aids, storytelling via film is admirably employed during this Christmas special. The most striking example of this is during the exposition of the Bride’s first murder. As Lestrade is describing the scene, the camera does a quick spin from the events of the exposition to Sherlock’s living room standing on its own in the middle of the street, as its occupants watch events unfold. The juxtaposition of the London street with the warm Victorian sitting room is at once jarring and beautiful, effects that build on one another until you cannot tell which one is true because of the other.

Despite there being so many fun and rewarding aspects of this special, the one that stands out far and away above the others to me is simple and could have occurred in any episode, not just the theatrical Victorian Christmas special. This is the insight that the audience receives into Sherlock and Mycroft’s filial relationship during Sherlock’s overdose. In print and onscreen, the relationship between the two brothers is multi-layered—competition and annoyance and respect and any number of other conflicting attributes all woven together. But in this scene, at least on Mycroft’s side, the audience only sees one thing: love and concern for his brother. The moment that particularly takes me by surprise is the one in which, as the audience is prepared for him to utter some ultimatum about Sherlock straightening himself out, he instead promises that he will always be there for him. It’s characteristically blown off by Sherlock himself, but it’s enough to make you wonder—what could happen in the coming season to test that?

The Bad

“Maybe it was a secret twin!”
—John Watson

Though fun and full of clever references and jokes, The Abominable Bride certainly isn’t perfect. With Christmas specials so often filling in the entertainment void between seasons, they are rarely the well-crafted masterpieces that we can often expect from season finales, for example. And there were moments in the episode that were cringe worthy.

For one, I simply was not impressed with the scene-by-scene recreation of Sherlock and Watson’s contemporary meeting in the setting of Victorian London. I could certainly be accused of being a spoilsport, as it was obviously meant to be fun and informative and nose-tapping. (Do you get it? It’s the same thing that happened in the series premiere! We all get it.) I was just starting to shift in my seat and wonder if we were going to have an entire episode of it when it mercifully ended.

Another aspect I didn’t care for was Lestrade’s Victorian characterization. I should be extremely clear that in this case—the awkward and bumbling Lestrade is actually much more true to the spirit of the books than the slightly-less-awkward contemporary Lestrade. The 21st-century version of the Scotland Yard inspector has never struck me as particularly dimwitted, he’s just made the object of Sherlock’s derision. 19th-century Lestrade, conversely, is fumbling and almost painful to watch in a scene. Again—the biggest issue I have is that he’s too close to the original novels—which is not the worst issue to have.

The last thing I’ll mention that made me roll my eyes both times that I watched was the sign language in the Diogenes Club. I did some quick Googling before sitting down to write to determine if maybe I’m just not educated on the subject, and nowhere did I find any mention of using sign language in London clubs where silence was imposed on members. Perhaps I was silly or gullible for even looking, but I couldn’t think of another reason that they would possibly incorporate that scene (for surely they wouldn’t do it for cheap laughs?). In any case, I didn’t much care for it. I can be accused of taking it too seriously, and I wouldn’t discount that accusation, but I thought it was unnecessary and not charming enough to make it worthwhile.

The Abominable

“This is a war we must not win.”
—Mycroft Holmes

In my opinion, the aspect that keeps this episode from being anything more than just fun was the half-baked suffragette undertone. Having watched the episode twice I’m still not entirely certain what the point was. It seemed like almost every reference to the plight faced by women in Victorian times was stilted and awkward. The sight of Molly dressed like a man in the morgue, while delightful in the first instant, quickly devolves into audience confusion. The male characters are so unapologetically sexist that the audience thinks, surely they’re going somewhere with this, but no satisfying resolution is forthcoming. Sherlock Holmes prowling in a room of cult-like suffragettes, speaking gently about how supportive the womenfolk are, which in fact makes the situation even worse for some. All this even before he’s completely derailed by Moriarty reappearing (. . . in drag, no less).

I need to be clear—I’m not saying that this episode should have sported a fully articulated and prioritized stance on the suffragette movement. I don’t think that was the purpose of a Christmas special. But what I don’t understand is why they chose to make the suffragette movement part of the narrative at all if they weren’t going to commit to anything more than women who have to cross-dress to make it in the workplace and cheeky maids who want the vote, to say nothing of the cultish suffragette chanting and the gong sounding. As a long time Sherlock fan, I was left with the profound impression that I must have missed something. Much like the gullible internet searching that I did above for the history of sign language in Victorian clubs, I couldn’t believe that storytellers this talented could fall so short of the mark.

The Final Word

“It doesn’t make sense because it’s not real.”
—Jim Moriarty

In the end, the advice that I give myself is the same that I’d give to anyone picking apart a piece of entertainment: it’s best not to think too hard about it or take it too seriously. It was fun to see a large version of Mycroft compared to Mark Gatiss’ typical stork-like portrayal (lovely but that’s not Mycroft!). It was fun to see a nod to Sherlock’s Baker Street Irregulars in the young page at 221B Baker Street, and to witness Mrs. Hudson’s snit about not having more lines in Watson’s stories.
As a Christmas special, Sherlock delivered exactly what could be expected: it was a good time, it teased the new season, and by taking viewers back to Victorian England it gave us a “new” twist on the Sherlock we have fallen in love with in recent years. Now all there is to do is sit around and wait for the new season in 2017, and hope that Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are also having enough fun to continue into the foreseeable future. For all of its challenges, this series’s incarnation of Sherlock is one that I’d like to see go on for quite a while.

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