I deliberately refrained from writing a review of S4E1 and S4E2 immediately after they were broadcast, because it took me a rather long time, and several viewings, to decide what I thought of them. Now that Series 4 has finished, it is easier to write about all three episodes, taken together.
The main, as it were, transactions of Series 4 are that Mary Morstan got killed, and Sherlock was told by Mycroft that they had another sibling. The dramatic purpose of both of these was to enable the examination, more and more deeply, of the characters of Sherlock, Watson, and Mycroft, and the relationships between them.
Throughout this adaptation, the writers have thought big, and tried, not just to rectify the obvious shortcomings of the original characters, but to take the whole narrative in directions that Conan Doyle could not have imagined. This is only to be expected.
· Conan Doyle did not have a name for Sherlock’s weirdness. Sherlock refers to it as being ‘a high-functioning sociopath’. I call it hyperlexia (the addiction to symbol-based problem solving and a flow of coherent data). Mycroft, one of the new characters, and, possibly, Moriarty, are also hyperlexic. The differing degrees of this condition is one of the things at stake in S4E3.
· Making Moriarty an elderly mathematics professor was a non-starter.
· John Watson has to be his own man. This has been fixed in just about every modern adaptation. I don’t know which was the first. A sycophantic and bumbling Watson was certainly a defect in the Basil Rathbone adaptations, but it had been fixed by the time of the Jeremy Brett adaptations.
· Mary Morstan makes a lot more sense as a secret assassin than she did as the wife of a provincial GP. Val McDermid protested when she became narratively challenged. That protest happened to be before Mary Morstan continued to appear in the story.
· Mrs Hudson makes more sense when she is telling people who want a cup of tea, ‘The kettle’s over there,’ and, ‘I am not your housekeeper’.
· Conan Doyle was a fool to deal with Irene Adler in a single story. The best characters beat on the door and demand to be let in, or, better still, pick the lock and just appear on your sofa.
· Molly Hooper is a work of genius. The only material in the original stories that informs Molly’s character at all are the times when Watson censures Sherlock for taking drugs, and when Sherlock relies on Watson for medical expertise. Putting this, and many other things, into a character who is an intelligent and highly-qualified woman is brilliant.
· Mark Gatiss has allowed his own creative ego to speak through the character of Mycroft, which is all to the good. The more we get of Mycroft, the more we get of Sherlock. In this adaptation, it is also possible for Mycroft to interact with Watson without Sherlock’s presence. The more properly-developed characters there are, the more inter-relationships there are. This has vastly enriched the narrative.
From S1 to S4, Sherlock has progressively become less of a deduction machine, and more of a fallible human being. Fallibility has not merely been limited to addiction to hard drugs. Those Who Ask Those Sorts of questions have, during S4, asked when all the weird stuff was going to stop, and Sherlock was going to get back to solving the usual sort of case, based on a conversation with a client sitting in a chair in 221B.
This adaptation has made it quite clear that Sherlock regards the chair in 221B as a nuisance. He doesn’t want humanity: he just wants the facts, the full facts. Kurt Vonnegut said that every character must want something, even if it is only a glass of water. Wanting just the facts is a dramatically very productive thing for Sherlock to want, because there is no way he is ever going to get it. If you are as hyperlexic as Sherlock, you either do what Mycroft does, and live in an oak-panelled, insulated bubble at the heart of a hypothetical British government, or you do what Sherlock does, and collect blood samples and cigar ash and memorise the map of inner London. But, in Sherlock’s case, your data will be forever contaminated with mumbling, rambling, irrelevance, repetition, and lies.
Kurt Vonnegut also said that a writer must be cruel to his characters. That has certainly been tried in this adaptation. What we have found is that the Benedict Cumberbatch incarnation of Sherlock Holmes is a warmer, more empathetic character than we were first led to believe. Personally, I find that mildly disappointing. Nevertheless, I am compensated by the extraordinary development of the relationships between Sherlock and Mycroft, and Sherlock and Watson, and Sherlock and Molly Hooper.
These writers are stronger than I am. By now, I would have had Sherlock and Molly in bed together, naked, even if they didn’t do anything. Contriving reasons for why this would have to happen, other than because of love or sexual desire, is one of the things I think about when I go to sleep.
This adaptation is to Conan Doyle’s original what Sleaford Mods are to Lonnie Donegan. Conan Doyle’s genius created the concept of the consulting detective. It takes genius of equal magnitude to give that a life of its own in the digital age. My mother considered that Basil Rathbone was the finest piece of type-casting she had ever seen. I think Benedict Cumberbatch is better. He is my favourite Sherlock. Martin Freeman is my favourite Watson. Una Stubbs is my favourite Mrs Hudson. Mark Gatiss is my favourite Mycroft. Amanda Abbington is my favourite Mary Morstan. Andrew Scott is my favourite Moriarty. Rupert Graves is my favourite Lestrade. There has never been a Molly Hooper before, but Louise Brealey has to be the best Molly Hooper there will ever be.
A set of S4 awards may follow, once sufficient time has passed to permit plot spoilers.