“I’m your housekeeper, not a plot device!”
Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss
Sorry, Mrs Hudson: as it turns out, you are a plot device. You and ALL WOMEN EVER.
I just spent the last couple of hours trying to write a serious review of The Abominable Bride. It was quite good, actually. I was going to argue that the episode’s ridiculous metafictional reversals were part of an attempt on the writers’ part to discredit Conan Doyle’s body of work as no longer relevant and, of course, suggest their own as alternative.
But my heart wasn’t really in it. The Abominable Bride may be the worst thing I have ever seen on television, and if there is any coherent sense to be made out of it I don’t have the time or energy to tease it painstakingly out. I don’t think it deserves that kind of attention, much less rewards it.
The episode begins as a horribly campy Victorian tale featuring Our Heroes as they attempt to solve the case of a woman who apparently kills herself and then returns to murder her husband. This is a terrible idea. Cumberbatch and Freeman make a fantastic modern-day Holmes and Watson, but only indifferent Victorian ones, and you’re much better off watching Jeremy Brett in those interminable ITV episodes of Sherlock Holmes if Victoriana is what you’re after. The case itself is just awful, tedious watching: a Dr Hooper so transparently female that Sherlock must be blind not to see it, a not-very-scary ghost who we know from the word go is absolutely not going to be a ghost, which makes the transports of fear that Our Heroes indulge in over-the-top and ridiculous, a Mycroft who makes himself mordibly obese for a bet (because that’s funny, right?), a pointless conversation between Sherlock and Watson about whether Sherlock has ever you-knowed which fails to establish anything we didn’t know already.
That’s before we reach the frankly offensive denouement, when it transpires that the bride is actually a group of suffragists punishing abusive husbands by going out and murdering them. Moffat and Gatiss are clearly trying to prove their feminist credentials in the face of profound disagreement from many, many people, and it fails spectacularly when Sherlock proudly tells all the women that yes! the mighty Holmes agrees with their cause! go forth and multiply!
Thanks, Moffat/Gatiss/Holmes, but I don’t actually need you to validate my feminist rage, and nor does anyone else. That’s sort of the point.
Also, pro tip: it doesn’t really help your cause when you dress your feminists like members of the Klu Klux Klan.
But this is just not bad enough for Moffat and Gatiss; they have to go a step further:
“And he woke up and it was all a dream.”
Sherlock, it turns out, is working out a hundred-year-old case in his mind palace (which is swiftly becoming the most irritating way of representing abstract thought processes ever devised, and by the way real mind palaces do not work like that) in order to help him work out how Moriarty has come back from the dead to threaten England. The episode dips in and out of dream and reality for about half an hour, the net result of which is Sherlock realising that Moriarty is dead but has a lot of friends, which we already knew anyway. There’s also a dream-confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls which is probably supposed to reveal the deepest depths of Sherlock’s demons but actually just tells us that he really, really hates Moriarty, which, let’s see, oh, yes, we knew already.
There was more, but to be honest by this point I had given up the will to live.
My issue with all of this isn’t the dream-device per se, which can in the right hands be used to great effect; it’s that none of it feels very significant. It’s just showing off. It isn’t clever, or experimental, or bold; it’s a pair of showrunners who have created a very successful series not being accountable to anyone, and just writing whatever the hell they like because why not?
I sincerely hope the upcoming series won’t be more of this, because it’s just boring. Boring, and bad.