Sherlock: Over twisty, but still the best thing on TV

Sherlock: Over twisty, but still the best thing on TV

Sherlock (TV series)

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It’s been a Steven Moffatt Christmas. Finally he managed to give us a Christmas Special which wasn’t mawkish (or worse), and then, on New Year’s Day, the first of the new series of Sherlock.


If you want proof that television can beat the movies, look no further. More specifically, BBC television versus Hollywood movies.

As post-Pirates of the Caribbean fodder, the two Sherlock Holmes films of the last few years have delivered the requisite mixture of comic relief, action and CGI-fueled formula to a new generation of teenagers. But anyone who has ever read a Sherlock Holmes story and actually enjoyed it knows that that particular pair of movies offers almost none of the passion and excitement of the original.

Moffatt’s Sherlock, by contrast, is riveting. For a start, Steven Moffatt proceeds on the assumption that the viewer is clever, and has read all the stories. References fly past at a rate of stories per second, each with their own little twist (the Speckled Blonde, anyone?) More importantly, Moffat’s mastery of the medium means he can overcome the problems that Conan Doyle never could when transferring his creation from printed page to stage: having Sherlock Holmes explain all of his observations to an audience is ponderous, but without it, Holmes is only clever because we’re told he’s clever, not because we see him at it.

Moffatt’s take on this is to use text labels on the things Holmes sees, as he sees them. In this way, a whole scene of explanation is compressed into one or two seconds — and we, the viewer, get the vicarious thrill of seeing the way Sherlock Holmes sees.

The really interesting thing about this is that anyone could have done it, even twenty years before. Sherlock doesn’t rely on the latest CGI, but simply on the ability to put labels onto the screen. This is another example of the brilliance that Moffatt showed in the Doctor Who episode Blink, where he used the vocabulary of television to deliver one of the most exciting bits of TV science-fiction ever, using only techniques which were older than Doctor Who itself.

Last night’s Sherlock was a feast of wonderfully reimagined details, with all kinds of things being brought up to date in a quirky, sparkly sort of way, rather than just being Holmes in modern dress (or, as the films have it, Holmes in Victorian dress saying and thinking modern things).

There were — I feel — just 30 minutes of twists too many in last night’s episode. When someone has been killed once, only to reappear not dead, you can’t really use the same trick again, no matter how well you dress it up. Likewise, the to-ing and fro-ing of sexual tension which can only happen with That Woman just went on a little bit long.

Nonetheless, this is by far the best thing I’ve seen on TV in a long time.

This all begs another question: have we somehow lost Moffatt’s unique take on Doctor Who to Sherlock? The characters are eerily similar. You don’t have to watch Sherlock very long to catch the same cadences that Moffatt gives to the Doctor. In terms of the speed, Sherlock may be Doctor Who on steroids, but it’s still the same type of reasoning. Moffatt’s Sherlock may be more sociopathic than Doctor Who is, but not a great deal more: and the Doctor is also moving in that direction.

It was certainly a lacklustre year for the Time Lord. Aside from The Doctor’s Wife, scripted by Neil Gaiman, and (on balance) the Christmas special, the season felt like it was marking time (pun intentional). Questions we had all figured out two seasons ago — is River Song the Doctor’s wife? is there something special about Amy? are we going to see more Time Lords? — were slowly drawn out. There were some fine moments (death by acid), but there were more (like Matt Smith playing football, and Rory out-facing the cyber-legions) which looked more as though they seemed like a good idea at the time.

We shall see what the rest of the year brings. What the next two weeks bring, though — two more episodes of Sherlock — promise to be scintillating. Which is more than can be said for any potential 3rd instalment of the current movie franchise.

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