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Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 3. His Last Vow (2014)

February 16, 2014 Leave a comment

Sherlock DVD

The perennial question when coming to view any piece of drama, whether on the screen or stage, is what we expect to see. For those with visual imaginations, printed words are signals we internalise and use to create “pictures” in our minds. If the writer and director are doing their jobs properly, the images they display will approximate what we expect to see. For some this will mean the selection of props, the work of the costume designer, the set-dressing and the lighting combine to give us credible mis-en-scène. Such viewers can be outraged when anachronisms appear. That make and model of car did not roll off the assembly lines until six months after this action is supposed to be set, they rage. Others have a more flexible view so long as the emotional bones of the story are strong enough to carry the flesh of the action through to the end. That’s why, for example, we can accept stage productions of Shakespeare that relocate plays in time and country, or play with format, even converting a play into a musical that stays faithful to the original. In other words, reinterpreting classics gives us a chance to reappraise the worth of the original. If the story can be universalised, it can be just as good whether it’s acted by same-sex casts, or transferred from Rome to a more contemporary dictatorship, or played for laughs when the original might be thought a tragedy.

So we all know about Sherlock Holmes. He’s one of the most universalised of all characters. Indeed, so valuable are the intellectual property rights to the source stories that litigation still rumbles on in America to decide whether royalties continue payable using plot elements and character traits from later published stories. It’s a remarkable tribute to the creativity of Arthur Conan Doyle that people can still be fighting over commercial exploitation rights. Taking this three-episode season as a single story gives us a chance to reconsider who this Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) is, how he relates to his parents and brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss), and what would happen to his relationship with John Watson (Martin Freeman) when he marries and disappears into a life of domestic bliss. Pivotal characters must exist in a context. If there’s no explicit history, one must be invented. We tend to feel more comfortable if there’s some kind of explanation for the development of such traits and skills. So this season has seen us resurrect our hero, watch him reconstitute the bond with Watson, and act as best man in the wedding with Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington). Although that’s actually putting the cart before the horse. Watson was devastated and found consolation in a relationship. This is not a woman seeking out Watson as a means of contacting Sherlock, then thought dead. This is a couple in which each decides to marry other as they are. Watson has returned from the war and lived a life of adventure with Sherlock. What kind of woman would he choose to marry? What kind of man would appeal to Mary and why?

Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Lars Mikkelsen explore

Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Lars Mikkelsen explore

It was interesting we got to meet Sherlock’s parents early on, and Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 3. His Last Vow (2014) not only gives us the chance to see in Christmas chez Holmes, but also to visit scenes from his childhood with pet dog and older brother. It’s a comprehensive package deal to explain both why Watson should be a “pressure point”, a vulnerability a blackmailer or extortionist might be able to exploit, and why Sherlock’s response to the threat should be so clinical.

Lady Elizabeth Smallwood (Lindsay Duncan) is running a formal government inquiry into the influence of the press and we begin with our first look at Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), media mogul and blackmailer. Later when they meet in private, he indicates he has letters and photographs implicating her husband in an underage sex scandal. His implied demand to be exonerated in the inquiry is obvious. Unwilling to give into such threats, she goes to see Sherlock.

Mary (Amanda Abbington) showing off nifty headware

Mary (Amanda Abbington) showing off nifty headware

Watson’s life of domestic bliss is rather nicely caught by Billy Wiggins (Tom Brooke). Despite his sprained arm, he’s able to see Watson folds his shirts in a way suggesting he’s always ready to leave on an adventure at the drop of the proverbial hat and he cycles to work to keep in shape. Sherlock is apparently working undercover or, at least, that’s his excuse for being under the influence of drugs in a squat — the outrage shown by Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) is nicely played. Back at 221B, a young lady called Janine (Yasmine Akram) (there should be a limerick in there somewhere) is ready to help Sherlock wash those parts that are hard to reach (so much for the gay rumours). If there had been a fire in the flat, Magnussen would have extinguished it by the judicious application of a liquid.

Now here comes the plot. Magnussen is the Napoleon of blackmailers. A stop must be put to him but, without some guarantee that the information he has collected will be kept secret, direct action cannot be taken. So Sherlock has cultivated a relationship with Janine, the crook’s PA who can open doors and let him search her boss’s office. Fortunately, she’s as manipulative as he is so, when she discovers the proposal of marriage is a sham, she sells her kiss-and-tell stories of nightly sex romps to the newspapers and buys a cottage on the Sussex Downs. “There’s beehives but I’m getting rid of those!” shows she and Sherlock would be well matched in a slightly non-canonical way should Molly not be available.

As to the resolution of the story, I’m not sure it makes sense. If there really are source documents, photographs and other physical evidence, it’s unlikely they would be destroyed once memorised. The fact Magnussen might not keep it all in one place does not mean it could not be recovered from storage as and when required. So even though there might not be actual evidence affecting Lady Smallwood and Mary, this would not deny the possibility of hundreds of other people finding evidence exposing their criminal or immoral activities suddenly emerging into the public domain. Perhaps that’s an acceptable price to pay to protect the two clients. And I’m still not absolutely sure why Mary has to shoot Sherlock. Despite these problems, this episode is something of a triumph. There’s genuine emotion on display in the performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington with more than adequate support from the usual cast plus the parents. Lars Mikkelsen is suitably creepy as the villain. Assuming Moriarty (Andrew Scott) is still dead, the video resurrection is intriguing and sets up the next season well. With Sherlock: His Last Vow now broadcast, let’s hope we don’t have to wait quite so long for the next slice of action.

For reviews of the earlier episodes, see:
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 1. A Study in Pink (2010)
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 2. The Blind Banker (2010)
Sherlock: Season 1, Episode 3. The Great Game (2010)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 1. A Scandal in Belgravia (2012)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 2. The Hounds of Baskerville (2012)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 3. The Reichenbach Fall (2012)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 1. The Empty Hearse (2014)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 2. The Sign of Three (2014)

Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 2. The Sign of Three (2014)

January 29, 2014 3 comments

SS3

Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 2. The Sign of Three (2014) is full of potential significance. If we take the first episode in the season as confirming Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) intentionally betrayed the friendship he had with John Watson (Martin Freeman), then this episode must be seen as an attempt to repair the damage. Agreeing to act as the best man at the wedding is both sides going above and beyond the call of duty. Like Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs), I can’t imagine anyone less appropriate to take the best man role. That Watson should ask him has two implications. First it shows some degree of exclusivity in the relationship they share. You would think, after a life spent in the army and then in civilian life, Watson would have made one or two friends. Yet that seems not to be the case. I remind myself he was going through counselling in the first season which suggests a difficulty in making and keeping friends. Trading on this relationship with Sherlock is therefore a cruel and unusual punishment for all involved. That Holmes agrees ought to suggest he also feels he should do something about the loneliness and isolation he experiences — but that would never happen.

Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington

Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington

The deductive interlude with Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) and the hat in the last episode was really a parable about loneliness. On that occasion, Holmes presumed to offer advice to Mycroft about the need for the latter to take some action to remedy the absence of social contacts. One interpretation of his decision to act as best man would perhaps be that he’s also evaluating the need to reconstitute the friendship with Watson and not completely alienate everyone else. No matter how maladroit he is, failing to relate to people around him eventually becomes a barrier to getting paid work through networking and word-of-mouth recommendation. Yet Mycroft is adamant in his advice that Sherlock should never get involved with other people. Indeed, this episode sees Mycroft repaying his brother’s advice, asserting that friendship makes Sherlock vulnerable, i.e. opens him to the risk of emotional pain when colleagues desert him to get married. This does leave us wondering what, if anything will happen on the Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) front. We’ve seen Sherlock give her a sample of what life with him would be like and we then have the rather curious physical similarity between her boyfriend and Sherlock. It’s obvious she still has feelings for Sherlock, but is currently expressing them through this replicant. Perhaps both in this series and all the other screen and literary incarnations, Holmes is forever doomed to be on his own — a kind of victim of his own genius — particularly when he shows his frustration at having no current puzzles to occupy his mind.

Una Stubbs, Rupert Graves and Louise Brealey

Una Stubbs, Rupert Graves and Louise Brealey

So we start off with Lestrade (Rupert Graves) deeply frustrated that the bank robbing Waters family yet again avoided conviction — this proves simply a time-wasting device to show the potential for Sherlock to produce chaos inadvertently. Having agreed to act as best man and as a high-functioning sociopath, Sherlock takes it on himself to police the people around Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington), seeking to filter out those who may still have dreams of a relationship with her or otherwise be a threat. This does not include Major Sholto (Alistair Petrie). Unlike Mycroft who refuses to take the part of the spectre at the feast, preferring solitary running on a machine in his country house, Sholto appears at the wedding with interesting consequences. The best man speech is, of course, embarrassingly hilarious. Yet the whole exercise is mandated because Watson asserted that Sherlock is his best friend. He wanted just two people to be beside him at the wedding feast (no matter what the cost). The pub crawl only lasting two hours should have sounded a warning bell. The nurse with the ghost client is an interesting diversion because it nicely continues the loneliness theme. The five women dated by the invisible man are romanced and left alone. Fortunately, no matter how lonely Major Sholto my be, he’s far too much the gentleman. He would never commit suicide at John’s wedding. So that leaves Holmes standing alone with the chance to be the first to go home after admitting to John and Mary that they have had significant experience in parenting through having to deal with his apparent childishness.

All of which leaves me somewhat frustrated. I think there’s a very good episode buried in there somewhere but, probably because it has to last 90 (or so) minutes, Sherlock: The Sign of Three is overextended and ends up being too knowingly clever for its own good.

For reviews of the earlier episodes, see:
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 1. A Study in Pink (2010)
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 2. The Blind Banker (2010)
Sherlock: Season 1, Episode 3. The Great Game (2010)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 1. A Scandal in Belgravia (2012)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 2. The Hounds of Baskerville (2012)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 3. The Reichenbach Fall (2012)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 1. The Empty Hearse (2014)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 3. His Last Vow (2014)

Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 1. The Empty Hearse (2014)

January 26, 2014 2 comments

Sherlock Season 3, Episode 1. The Empty Hearse (2014)

Sherlock: Season 3, episode 1. The Empty Hearse (2014) is the resolution of one of television’s greatest cliffhangers — how did Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) avoid death when he jumped off St Barts hospital roof? There are only a limited number of ways in which this could have been arranged. Endless hard copy and online articles, comments,and forum posts have speculated. So now we come to the big reveal as Mark Gatiss, the clever scriptwriter, explains how his version of the magic trick was performed. The opening minutes replay several of the possibilities: that someone took the body of Moriarty (Andrew Scott) and dressed it as Sherlock, while Sherlock did a bungee jump and crashed through a window where the testosterone rush could be channelled into constructive activity. The hypnotist arriving to implant suggestions in the mind of John Watson (Martin Freeman) has a fanciful air about it, but it’s all part-and-parcel of the enthusiasm with which fans have taken up the challenge of second-guessing the script and everyone is entitled to see some of the theories tested out on the small screen. Meanwhile, Sherlock remains “dead”, using the time to track down and dismantle Moriarty’s network.

Two years later, the news media are abuzz. The police have confirmed the nature of the set-up to destroy Sherlock’s reputation. This rehabilitation of the Sherlock name empowers Mycroft who, for once, goes undercover to track down his brother. They meet up in Serbia where Sherlock’s somehow having a bad hair day. It seems there’s a need for his skills back in London. You can tell how desperate the times have become because Watson has grown a mustache. Even Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) finds this exuberance of hair distressing. She thinks it makes him look old enough to be a Hobbit. So there’s this chatter: a terrorist cell is planning something spectacular. Only Sherlock can save the day. It’s time for the resurrection. Although I’m not at all clear why he has to come back to life to catch these dangerous people. Surely he could sneak up on them without them noticing?

John Watson (Martin Freeman)  is guided on his choice of wine by  Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch)

John Watson (Martin Freeman) is guided on his choice of wine by Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch)

There’s a nice piece of byplay over whether Watson is proposing to marry a woman. It’s so soon after Sherlock died, etc. The whole question of a gay relationship between our dynamic duo has been grist to the mill for fannish speculators, but coming from Mrs Hudson, it seems slightly unsavory. And, to complete the surprise of his return to the land of the living, Sherlock bursts into the restaurant where the oblivious Watson is waiting to propose to Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington), his intended (and Martin Freeman’s partner in the real world — it keeps all the plum roles in the family, as it were). The face-to-face discussion of why Sherlock never let even a hint of his survival come Watson’s way is meant to be entertaining. Lestrade (Rupert Graves) and Mrs Hudson are less confrontational. To get the investigation underway, the Irregulars are triggered — they never really thought he was dead anyway. As is required for a Sherlock Homes episode, we then have a deduction session. It’s padding out a few minutes as Sherlock and Mycroft consider a hat but it ends up revealing in that Sherlock uses the “game” to suggest Mycroft is lonely and should do something about it. Who knew he cared? As a reward for helping him fake his death, Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) is drafted in to replace John. Boring clients are intercut with boring patients as John stubbornly refuses to leave the practice.

The introduction of the man who disappears from the last car on the underground train is the first sign of possible terrorist action. The episode then catches fire with John’s elevation to the status of guy-about-town. It’s a nice touch but the date should have been better trailed. The only thing left to fill out a few more minutes is the arrival of Sherlock’s disgustingly normal parents. This is amusing for five seconds and then we’re looking for afoot to get the game in motion.

The task for this episode is to balance three completely different elements. We have to be led over the resurrection hump so Sherlock can get back on to the immediate case. It doesn’t really matter whether any of the explanations tendered are convincing. All they have to do is be vaguely appropriate, make us smile, and give Holmes and Watson a chance to reach some kind of accommodation so they can work together again. Then there’s the terrorism case. This is not so original, rerunning the Guy Fawkes trope through V for Vendetta. But I suspect the intention was to produce a climax to give our two heroes a chance to clear the air even though the bomb is turned into a kind of joke at Watson’s expense.

Amanda Abbington accepts Watson's proposal

Amanda Abbington accepts Watson’s proposal

Although the first element starts well in the restaurant and the A&E department, I think the joke is milked just a little too much. Indeed, the script seeks to draw humour from Watson’s distress and grief during the two year period he believed Holmes to be dead. The current anger is entirely justified since Holmes offers absolutely no explanation of why Watson could not have been trusted with the truth. Indeed, I would go one step further. This seems to be the explanation of the fall. The whole street has to be closed off and the team of well-rehearsed people swing into action with Operation Lazarus (so none of Moriarty’s snipers could possibly have noticed this disruption to traffic in central London). It’s all to do with sight lines and what key people can see from where they are standing. In a way, I suppose, it doesn’t really matter whether this elaborately stage-managed trick could ever have been pulled off in the real world — evacuating all the buildings around the square and inside the hospital so no-one else could have seen it done through a window, stretches credibility. The whole point as a piece of television is to entertain. So does it succeed?

Well, here’s the problem. The only sight lines the script seems to care about are those from Watson’s point of view. This is reinforced by the arrival of the cyclist. Taking one step back, there would seem to be two key people here. We have Watson who should be trusted to keep the secret and the sniper who is about to shoot Watson. The sniper is the one who matters and, no matter how brilliant the mind planning the trick, it would not be possible to predict exactly where the sniper would take up position. If the sniper could see the trick performed from his high vantage point, he would shoot Watson (and Holmes). We’re therefore left with the paradox that Holmes primarily aimed the trick at Watson while Mycroft’s merry men may have intercepted one or more of the assassins.

Then there’s the third strand which is to provide the broader narrative drive for this three episode season. Watson is smitten by Mary but she’s obviously not what she seems, instantly recognising the code used in the SMS. The end of the episode is setting up a new villain who attacks Holmes through Watson (or attacks Mary through Watson). Which only leaves us with the curious incident of the body in the room. This seems to have been staged by Anderson (Jonathan Aris), one of the forensic team at New Scotland Yard, and it doesn’t really fit into the story at all. Or perhaps I misunderstood. . .

Putting all this together, I think the team of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat always had built up expectations to a point when they would disappoint more than they pleased when this episode aired. That said, with worries about the way Holmes and Watson are now relating to each other, I think The Empty Hearse was as entertaining as it could have been or we had any right to expect.

For reviews of the earlier episodes, see:
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 1. A Study in Pink (2010)
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 2. The Blind Banker (2010)
Sherlock: Season 1, Episode 3. The Great Game (2010)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 1. A Scandal in Belgravia (2012)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 2. The Hounds of Baskerville (2012)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 3. The Reichenbach Fall (2012)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 2. The Sign of Three (2014)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 3. His Last Vow (2014)

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

May 21, 2013 6 comments

Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) is, in part, an exercise in nostalgia for me since I watched the original run of the television show. To see the same space vehicle boldly going more than forty-five years later is somewhat remarkable given the obsolescence of culture. For the most part, what we found interesting and exciting back in the 1960s is dull and dreary today. Having a crew with the same names and adjacent accents still sitting on the bridge of a starship and commanding a worldwide audience puts the franchise into an elite group of long-life products. Only the comic book heroes like Batman and Superman who also had their television versions featuring Adam West and George Reeves respectively, have had longer runs. Indeed, Star Trek is one of a few original television shows to have maintained its reputation — matched by Doctor Who which was first screened in 1963.

My reason for starting this review in this way is because one of the two essential questions at the heart of this film rehearses the same argument we had been having since the end of World War II. In the 1960s, we were just finishing rebuilding after the devastation caused by the German bombing and my generation was all for peace by bringing people together in co-operative ventures. It was therefore heartening to see the message of the original Star Trek as a united Earth going off to explore and, wherever possible, make friends. We’d seen only too clearly what happened when petty nationalism got out of hand and militarism prevailed. Although the Enterprise had weaponry such as phasers and photon torpedoes, these were not often used and, for the most part, only in self-defence, The hand-held weapons had the virtue of being able to stun rather than kill. So this film encapsulates the debate by having two key ships on display. There’s the USS Enterprise in its Constitution Class form and the USS Vengeance which is a Dreadnought Class vessel developed by Khan Noonien Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch): a straight military vessel designed to fight the Klingon Empire. So here comes the question. When people sign up as recruits into the Starfleet Academy, are they going to learn the words of Kumbaya (a song associated with the notion of spiritual unity) and put the Prime Directive into action wherever possible, or are they going to boldly go with photon torpedoes at the ready and shoot down anything that stands in their way of conquest? The answer, of course, is the Federation that emerges in the unfolding television series would be impossible if everyone operated on a shoot first and ask questions afterward basis. Although the Klingons and the Romulans have warrior-based cultures, they both fight for the Federation in the Dominion Wars although the Romulans are resistant to the end.

The Enterprise meets USS Vengeance

The Enterprise meets USS Vengeance

The point of this film is that if Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) gets his way, Earth will follow the Romulan path of expansion through conquest, starting with the Klingons. This is not an unreasonable perspective. It would be naive to assume the space-going races we might meet will all be welcoming. In a competition for planets on which to seed colonies, any races that share the same environmental needs could elect to fight over the prime real estate. Only if there’s a balance of power is there an incentive to negotiate. Thus, on a precautionary basis, Earth should always have a strong military capacity so that we can demonstrate fighting capacity if diplomacy fails. The dividing line between offensive and defensive power is a narrow one and I suspect this film rather oversimplifies the debate. Scotty (Simon Pegg) is very quick to object to the new torpedoes. He’s apparently been quite happy with the old torpedoes and for him to get all high-and-mighty is nothing more than a plot device to get him off the Enterprise. The views of the other characters who comment on the issue are also superficial. I think this an opportunity missed to explore the issue with our “modern” sensibilities.

The second essential question featured is hypocrisy. This is at the heart of the relationship between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), and between the do-gooders of the Enterprise and the political machinery of Earth. Starting with the one-to-one relationship, Spock is only half Vulcan and therefore has some understanding of human psychology. Even if this were not the case, his logic could predict how Kirk will react in different situations. So when Kirk defies the Prime Directive and rescues Spock, it’s entirely foreseeable that Kirk will cover up his infraction. Spock is therefore magnificently stupid to put in a complete report. To claim an inability to lie as the excuse is the height of hypocrisy. He’s perfectly capable of lying if the needs of the many require it. The film therefore charts the emotional arc as Spock resolves an internal debate on the nature of friendship and the need for accommodating emotions. After all, his own father married a human and, with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) very much in play, he has a similar decision to make about that relationship.

Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch and Chris Pine size each other up

Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch and Chris Pine size each other up

This version of Kirk is interestingly monomaniacal and phenomenally lucky. In other circumstances without Bones (Karl Urban) to protect him, he would probably be locked up as a danger to himself and others around him. He can’t even remember who he’s slept with let alone how many other people he’s dealt with over the years. All you can say about him is that he’s fixated by the needs of command and loyal, in the abstract sense, to the crew of whichever ship he happens to be on. So even though it puts everyone else at risk of being caught in the exploding volcano, he rescues Spock. This is the musketeer approach to command, “All for one, and one for all.” Similarly in the relationship with the political and military structure of Earth’s government, Admiral Marcus can’t be acting alone. This scale of investment could only be sanctioned by a powerful subset of Earth’s command. The ending where that same Earth government sends Kirk and the Enterprise out of the way on a five year mission is also preparing the ground for continuing its own militarism without anyone high-profile and inconvenient around. All Kirk has done is kick the can down the road and he should not be looking so pleased with himself as he warps away from Earth at the end. He’s actually giving up the political fight and running away. When he gets back, he’ll find a fleet of Dreadnought Class vessels and the Klingons beaten into submission.

So where does this leave us? At two hours and twelve minutes, this is too long. There are endless examples of scenes inserted or dragged out to add in extra minutes when what we have is a potentially brilliant script if we left not less than twenty minutes on the cutting-room floor, e.g. cutting down the chase on Kronus, the transfer between the starships, the gratuitous sex scenes, kicking the warp engine, and the fight in San Francisco at the end. So this looks great with some genuinely impressive CGI. The ideas are good albeit not properly developed. Benedict Cumberbatch lights up the screen as the villain of the piece. Zachary Quinto is also impressive. The result is the second-best blockbuster in what has been, to date, a lackluster 2013. J J Abrams is to be congratulated. He got enough right to justify a third in the series. Star Trek Into Darkness is worth seeing.

Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)

April 14, 2013 2 comments

Marple Julia McKenzie

Well the first in this new series of Golden Age detective fiction gave us our first view of Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple but she was kept rather in the background. This adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009) keeps the character front and centre, offering us a better chance to evaluate the performance. The experience here is somewhat like watching Doctor Who, a character played by many actors over the years. This was always faintly disconcerting because, as each regeneration came, we got major shifts in age and attitude. Miss Marple, on the other hand, must always be reasonably old although even this was slightly bent out of shape by Angela Lansbury in The Mirror Crack’d (1980). The perennial problem of how to portray her lies in understanding her methodology. Once people huddle together into villages, they get sucked into the communal life. One of the most consistent characters is the gossip. This person is usually female and she prides herself on being able to ferret out who’s doing what to whom and why just by sitting in small groups and listening. In many communities where privacy is more highly valued, village gossips are rather disliked and, in some cases, feared.

Hence, when it comes to presenting a gossip on the screen as the heroine of a long-running series, the temptation is always to make her more likeable. Yet to defang her is to reduce her capacity for investigation. As drawn by Agatha Christie, this is a woman of intelligence who has observed life. She’s usually full of anecdotes about what the butcher did with his thumb when weighing the meat, and how many others whom she has known engaged in different types of dishonesty. She can be a little fierce sometimes. And herein lies the problem with Julia McKenzie. I think she’s altogether to pallid. Yes, you have the sense she’s intelligent, but there’s a lack of steel in her. This is a more passive Miss Marple, lacking any kind of quirkiness or eccentricity. She’s not even bumbling. The very least she could do is drop her ball of wool while knitting except we’re yet to see her knit. How is she supposed to eavesdrop on people in conversations if she can’t disappear into the background by appearing to concentrate on knit one, pearl one? If she’s supposed to be able to wangle information out of people, she should be more quickly able to blend into a conversation. In the first two episodes, there are too many silences and moments of slight awkwardness as she meets and talks with new people. I’m not convinced this is a good version of Miss Marple. I still prefer Joan Hickson with Margaret Rutherford a close second.

Benedict Cumberbatch  and Julia McKenzie making short work of the mystery

Benedict Cumberbatch and Julia McKenzie making short work of the mystery

As originally written, this is not a Miss Marple mystery. It features a free-standing Luke Fitzwilliam (Benedict Cumberbatch) who’s returned from distant parts of the Empire where he was a police officer. After a casual meeting with a woman on the train, he’s the one who goes to the archetypal village to unmask the killer and fall in love. It’s one of these slightly wishy-washy stories in which mystery and romance go hand-in-hand through a serial killer case in a class-ridden village where there’s a faintly supernatural element in play — the local Lord is into sacrificing hens in pagan rituals. What we are presented with here is not simply a reworking of the story to introduce Miss Marple, but a wholesale revision of the story. This not only removes some characters and introduces new ones, but it also completely changes the motive for the murders — it even changes some of murder methods, e.g. from a hit-and-run car accident to pushing the victim down a long escalator on the London Underground.

I need to be clear on the basis for this review. I’m simply noting that this is nothing like the Christie original but judging the episode as presented on the screen. The first problem is in the number of men on display. If this is supposed to be just after the Second World War, most villages were predominantly female. Local land owners, being mostly Conservative in outlook and patriotic by disposition, had gone off the war. Many had failed to return. There were also not enough children in view. Babies were booming at this time as those men who had either avoided the call to duty or had managed to avoid death set out to repopulate the land. This version has Miss Marple, Luke Fitzwilliam and the local PC Terence Reed (Russell Tovey) combine to investigate. The presence of the PC gives a veneer of official approval for the investigation but, as written, there’s no consistency in the Constable who veers violently between being almost completely dim to being able to attribute a quote to Edmund Burke. As to the rest of the cast, it was pleasing in a good way to see Sylvia Syms and Tim Brooke-Taylor — I always fear old “friends” have died. Shirley Henderson does well as a younger version of Honoria Waynflete. Everyone else lurks in the background or keels over dead with the customary style. I was very surprised at the darkness of the motive for all the murders. It’s certainly not something that Agatha Christie would ever have introduced. I feel those adapting an old book for a modern audience have an obligation to keep motives consistent with the morality of the times shown. Although the biblical disposition of the child was not unreasonable, I’m not convinced the concealment of this set of circumstances would have led to so many deaths. In the original, the murderer was less than sane. The murderer in this version seems to have killed so many out of an excess of caution — something I find less than credible. So, overall, I find Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy disappointing.

For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:

Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Big Four (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)

Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 3. The Reichenbach Fall (2012)

November 1, 2012 2 comments

It is, of course, impossible to produce anything perfect. No really. Someone, somewhere, will always be perverse and assert dislike, or have the kind of mind that can see ways in which the “thing” could have been made better. Being wise after the event is the easy way to find fault. But when you’re the creator, you can only rely on your own sense of what works and what does not, what can be shown and what cannot. It’s a tightrope and, given the pressures of modern life, it’s very difficult to make a success. Although in some situations, it’s possible to leave an audience in a state of rapture. Some performances in live theatre and the food that emerges from some professional kitchens on to your table come to mind. Here everyone is in the moment with the freshness of the experience leading to a willing suspension of the normal cynicism and disbelief. For a brief moment, we all become believers in perfection and then, such is the embarrassment at the prospect of having to find fault, we all choose to remember it for all time as the greatest. In part, we’re allowed to do this because no-one else can go back to re-experience that moment when [insert name of celebrity actor or chef] outdid him/herself and produced the perfect [insert name of favourite role or dish]. In the case of the television programmes, I can tell you without fear of contradiction that the second live-action Quatermass which I watched in 1955 was an outstanding set of episodes and only rarely have they been topped. Far better, in my opinion, than the first and later Quatermass series although The Stone Tape runs it a close second. Curiously for a live-action series of that era, Quatermass II was recorded and still exists in the BBC archives. One day, perhaps, the powers-that-be will permit it to be shown again. But it wouldn’t be the same. We’ve moved on culturally. The acting styles would seem dated and mannered. The story would seem less original because it’s been copied so often.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman think about their predicament

Today, of course, we have everything recorded and made available for anyone to buy or watch whenever they want. This makes the experience more emotionally disposable. Since we can watch and rewatch if we think we missed anything, there’s far less attention paid. When you think this may be your only chance to see something, you focus your concentration. You don’t want anything to get by you. All of which brings me to Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall (2012) which, in these ephemeral days, is as close to a perfect episode as we’re likely to see. So kudos to the team: director Toby Haynes, writers Steve Thompson and Mark Gatiss, and the cast. It was a memorable ninety minutes.

Andrew Scott hoping to avoid anyone noticing him in the Tower of London

So why is it so good? The answer lies in the inversion of expectation. The five previous episodes have maintained Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) as the proactive hero, stalking around the landscape being insufferable and being right about most things. Watson (Martin Freeman) has trailed in his wake, doing his best to steer the Holmes ship in the right social direction, but finding it difficult to plot a course into a safe port when a storm looms on the horizon. The arrogance of the man in believing there’s no need to court public approval is squarely in the mould created by Arthur Conan Doyle. In a way, we’re seduced into believing the man is invincible. And now a special word of praise for Andrew Scott as Jim Moriarty. We’ve seen him in passing as the nemesis-in-waiting, but he now steps up to the plate to throw a curve ball at our hero. To match the brilliant mind of Sherlock, Moriarty has to come from an oblique angle. It would be pointless to try routine tactics and too boring just to have Sherlock shot. It’s the old Batman syndrome best captured in the Adam West days. The villains line up with ever more eccentric ways of trying to kill our hero (and Robin), each doomed to fail as being overcomplicated. Here Moriarty really does come up with a devious plan to discredit the hero. It would require too many spoilers to explain and, in any event, you should enjoy without preconceptions. Simply wait for the wonderful moment on the roof when Moriarty considers the future prospect of only having ordinary people to contend with. I will only offer the following few thoughts.

The strength of the episode lies in the apparent passivity of Sherlock. He has to endure to discover the nature of the game being played. The fact he does care for others is also a welcome relief. The acceptance of guilt admitted by Mycroft is revealing. The frustration of Watson, Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) and Lestrade (Rupert Graves) is touching. And the probable role of Molly Hooper (Loo Brealey) is worth speculating on. Overall, Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall is a remarkably sustained piece of intelligently-focused malevolence on a small screen. It will live in my memory for a long time.

For reviews of the earlier episodes, see:
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 1. A Study in Pink (2010)
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 2. The Blind Banker (2010)
Sherlock: Season 1, Episode 3. The Great Game (2010)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 1. A Scandal in Belgravia (2012)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 2. The Hounds of Baskerville (2012)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 1. The Empty Hearse (2014)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 2. The Sign of Three (2014)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 3. His Last Vow (2014)

Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 2. The Hounds of Baskerville (2012)

October 22, 2012 1 comment

Well, I know what I think of this episode which as the title suggests, Sherlock: The Hounds of Baskerville (2012), is an adaptation/modernisation of the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, but I’ll delay announcing the conclusion a little. This time around, we’ve lost the spooky old manorial hall, home of the Baskerville family, and we’ve substituted a “secret” military base where potentially dangerous research is being undertaken (in secret). You know it’s a secret base that no-one should ever go near because a part of the off-road approach is protected by a mine field. Yes, that’s right! It’s so damn secret that anyone trying to sneak up on it from the rear (or side, for that matter), should be blown to bits in one of those explosions so beloved of the SFX people who work for the BBC. So goodbye Great Grimpen Mire which can suck a body down into oblivion, and welcome to a fantasy version of England in which we have live mines plus an entire area kitted out with pressure switches that will release all kinds of interesting stuff in aerosol form. It was never like this when I went walking across Dartmoor as a young’un.

Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch avoiding the Mire

So where are we with this story? Well, it all starts when Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) gets this email from a young lady who reports that her bunny glowed green in the dark and then disappeared. This curious message is closely followed by the arrival of Henry Knight (Russell Tovey) who looks the same colour throughout. He’s recently featured in a television documentary which retells his horrific experience as a small boy when his father disappeared. Now he’s affected by dreams and a therapist is trying to help him remember what actually happened. Naturally, he remembers a “hound” killed his father. And, of course, before you can say anything to stop them, Sherlock and John Watson (Martin Freeman) have jumped into a train taking them into the deep south-west. Our heroes book into a pub run by a gay couple and, of course, are themselves assumed to be gay. Neither seem particularly put out by having to share a room so it’s official. It then turns out that Sherlock has borrowed the go-anywhere swipe card belonging to Mycroft (Mark Gatiss). Using this, the couple drive into the secret research base and bluff their way into a quick guided tour where they meet Dr Stapleton (Amelia Bullmore) and Dr Frankland (Clive Mantle).

It’s at this point the story stepped off the path followed in all the previous updatings of past works by Arthur Conan Doyle. The consistent virtue of the original stories and, to some extent, these modern recreations, is that they are rooted in their own times. There’s a reasonable level of credibility from the context in which the action is to take place. Yes, we’re dealing with a human mind that works in a unique way, but there’s a rational explanation for almost everything that happens. So the guards at the gates of this secret installation should be able to see that the photograph on the swipe card looks nothing like Sherlock. The fact someone is carrying a token that permits entry does not prove the carrier to be entitled to enter. If our nation’s security depended solely on people carrying the right card, our nation would have no secrets left. Second, even if the guards decide to let in the one carrying the card on an unannounced inspection, there’s no reason to admit the sidekick who has no card authorising entry. Imagine that these are two foreign agents. They have kidnapped or killed the real cardholder and now seek entry. Are there any guards who will just let them walk in? It’s completely nuts! Even Sherlock is counting down the minutes before someone makes the key telephone call to establish the real Mycroft is sitting in his club and not making a snap inspection. Worse, when they leave, we’re not shown Sherlock and Mycroft discussing this abuse of his card.

Russell Tovey thinking there may be a hound nearby

For once, I’m not going to engage in a detailed spoiler review to demonstrate just why the episode sinks without trace in the Great Scriptwriter’s Mire. Let’s just say that what happens shows Sherlock in a bad light, performing an experiment on John Watson with the approval of the officer in charge of the base. In fact, there’s not enough time for the experiment to be set up in real time, e.g. removing the animals and bending the bars of the cage. Worse, it’s outrageous the plot failed to react to events in any way. If I was that officer and saw the outcome of the experiment, I would be shutting everything down until the matter was resolved. Formal reports would be made. Investigators would be crawling over everything. But what we actually see is the base commander disappears, leaving Sherlock to guess his password so he can access a Top Secret database on research projects. Ludicrous! I could go on but you will understand that this episode is insultingly bad with even Sherlock’s manic analyses coming across as annoying. Fortunately Martin Freeman keeps his dignity and Lestrade (Rupert Graves) is slightly more than a token presence, coming out of it looking modestly competent.

Perhaps I feel so aggrieved because the first episode in this new season was outstanding. If this had been the pilot episode I might not have felt so frustrated. But, as it is, Sherlock: The Hounds of Baskerville goes way beyond silly and into territory usually reserved for canned American shows (sorry to admit my prejudice but there are so many really bad shows from US networks, they have become my yardstick of plot idiocy).

For reviews of the earlier episodes, see:
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 1. A Study in Pink (2010)
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 2. The Blind Banker (2010)
Sherlock: Season 1, Episode 3. The Great Game (2010)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 1. A Scandal in Belgravia (2012)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 3. The Reichenbach Fall (2012)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 1. The Empty Hearse (2014)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 2. The Sign of Three (2014)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 3. His Last Vow (2014)

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