Warning: This review contains spoilers
Any fan of the original Conan Doyle stories will tell you that the BBC programme currently purporting to be Sherlock Holmes on BBC1 is nothing of the sort. It would make a perfectly acceptable TV series in its own right but the connection with Sherlock Holmes is misleading. This is not the cerebral hero of The Red-Headed League or The Sign of Four. That Sherlock knows London’s streets better than a hansom cab driver. In a race against time to save Watson’s life he wouldn’t take an unnecessarily long route past London landmarks. Nor would he steal a motorbike as Benedict Cumberbatch’s creation does in The Empty Hearse.
Rather than a Sherlock reboot writer Mark Gatiss and co-creator Steven Moffat have created a programme influenced by Jack Bauer, with the far-fetched plot lines and torture scenes of 24. Taking little more than the names of the characters and their famous address the BBC production is riding on the public’s love of the original stories and Conan Doyle’s ingenuity. Sherlock’s quick reading of people is cleverly shown, but unfortunately in this episode his brilliance is only seen in his analysis of a client’s hat. And it’s not that brilliant.
In the last episode two years ago Sherlock jumped off a building, died, was buried – yet was alive and well in the final scene. This episode had to explain – in a way worthy of Conan Doyle – how he did it. It didn’t succeed. Instead it gave several absurd explanations, and it is likely that we still haven’t been given the full picture. If we believe the explanation spoken by Cumberbatch in this episode the writers have had to give Sherlock outside help. An awful lot of help, from lots of people. In the original story Holmes survives the Reichenbach Falls and only his brother Mycroft knows – in order to send him funds on which to live. In the book it is believable that Holmes might not tell Watson the truth for fear of exposure. But in The Empty Hearse so many people are supposedly in on the scam that it makes no sense for Sherlock not to inform Watson.
The programme nods towards the way that Holmes reappears to Watson in the original story by having the doctor attack a magazine-seller in his surgery thinking it is Sherlock. But the 21st century Holmes goes to no effort to disguise himself when reappearing to Watson – the master of disguise uses a bow-tie, glasses and a mascara moustache. Sherlock wasn’t a thief, but all of these items were stolen merely to indulge the character’s sense of humour.
Viewers should be able to expect a mystery at the centre of a Sherlock Holmes story. In The Empty Hearse there is hardly any mystery. The suspects are all already known to Holmes for reasons that are never explained. A London Underground nerd spots the evidence that points Sherlock in the right direction. The same nerd knows vital facts that help him further. All Sherlock really does is solve a simple code in a text message and defuse a bomb with a Hollywood countdown by the rather simple method of turning it off as though it was a radio. He even admits at the end that he has no idea why Watson was targeted. The sequence appears to have been inserted to fill time and allow a race through London. The baddie at the heart of the matter has so little character that he never even speaks. Mycroft and Sherlock are depicted as snobs rather than unfeasibly intelligent.
In what appears as an attempt to pre-empt criticism one character goes through possible conspiracy theories about Sherlock’s death, and says he is disappointed with Sherlock’s own explanation. If it was Sherlock’s explanation. Rather than brilliant logic this Holmes is more of a fellow with a good line in scams. Using the Sherlock name is just a means of getting more viewers than if the series starred a new detective. It shows the downside of expiring copyright law. Messing with characters cannot occur whilst books are under copyright. But once that time limit is up it is a free for all for companies like the BBC to appropriate the characters and use them in inappropriate situations. The public domain is a great resource, and parodies like this are the price at which it comes.
If it was a new TV series you could enjoy it as a fast-paced, slo-mo, fast-mo, camera-swivelling adventure that makes little sense but has cool graphics and clever dissolves, hipster beards and gunship camera videos. But it’s not Sherlock Holmes. There’s excitement but not the cleverness of Conan Doyle’s originals. For that try reading the original stories.