Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Time-bending Gothic Murder Mystery

Although some may emphasize the “abominable” in the controversial Sherlock special, “The Abominable Bride”, the marriage of the Victorian and the modern is a match made in heaven.

Steven Moffat is no stranger to controversy. His successful tenure as showrunner for Doctor Who has been laced with criticism about convoluted plots and poorly written female characters, so it’s not surprising that his other television series, Sherlock, co-created with Mark Gatiss, sometimes receives the same response. Following its 1 January 2016, debut, “The Abominable Bride” received complaints about the poor treatment of women in a plot intended to be more feminist than most, and a convoluted plot structure that takes Sherlock Holmes and his audience back and forth from the canon Victorian era to minutes after the conclusion of the previous episode, 2014’s “His Last Vow”.

In “The Abominable Bride”, a vengeful wife dons her wedding dress and commits suicide, only to return from the dead to murder her husband on their wedding anniversary. The haunting bride becomes a serial killer, going after men who, like her husband, have abused or abandoned women. This gothic ghost story provides an entertainingly eerie first half of this special episode. However, the problems arise with the second half, and critics’ quibbles vied kudos regarding plot and characterization.

The serial murderer, Holmes discovers, is really a group of female followers of the martyred bride, a robed band resembling hooded KKK members as they march in formation to their secret meeting place. These politically powerless women fight back violently against male oppression. Although the scriptwriters may have intended Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch), as well as his brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) and loyal friend John Watson (Martin Freeman), to become more aware of the women they have casually belittled or ignored, the script’s attempt at feminism put off part of the original viewing audience. Part of the perceived problem is that Sherlock “mansplains” women’s plight while the “brides” stand silent, listening to him.

Yet the way the “Abominable Bride” murder mystery is solved is typical of many Sherlock Holmes stories in canon or adaptation. Holmes explains to readers or viewers how he has solved the mystery and presents a monologue of deductions. Although the denouement of the “Abominable Bride” murder case is similar to the style in which many canon cases conclude — which should be a selling point for a Victorian-set adaptation — this scene strikes a discordant tone with some modern viewers.

The other complaint is that the episode is too modern and not Victorian enough. The canon setting is merely a backdrop for Sherlock’s real puzzle: How can Moriarty be alive? At the conclusion of “His Last Vow,” Moriarty (the delightfully malevolent Andrew Scott) appears on television to ask “Did you miss me?” Apparently fans did, because he has several confrontations with Sherlock in this special.

Flipping between past and present, tripping in and out of Sherlock’s mind palace, and, ultimately, providing 90 minutes of filler between Seasons Three and Four perplexed or angered part of Sherlock’s vast audience who first viewed the episode and then took to Twitter to vent.

However, for many fans worldwide, this “Bride” is far from abominable and instead illustrates a match made in heaven between the modern and Victorian. This episode broke television and cinema records, indicating that “The Abominable Bride” attracted a huge international following that, according to dozens of Tumblr fan sites, included long-time viewers who thoroughly enjoyed the episode. A Guardian article reported a one-day audience of 1.7 million watched the episode in a cinema in China, resulting in box office of $5.39 million. In Korea, “The Abominable Bride” outsold Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The BBC television audience was 8.4 million viewers, making “The Abominable Bride” the most-watched show of the holiday season. Such high viewing numbers and box office receipts worldwide indicate that Moffat and Gatiss are doing something right with their version of “fan fiction”.

Self-proclaimed “ultimate fanboys” Moffat and Gatiss are now making Sherlock for the established fans of their modernized adaptation, not for viewers who occasionally watch an episode. As Gatiss explains in bonus feature “A Study in Sherlock,” he and Moffat had “the opportunity to do something we hadn’t done with our Sherlock before. As avid fans of the original stories, we set this Sherlock special in the Victorian period, allowing us to re-engage with Arthur Conan Doyle’s works more than ever before.”

The Victorian setting sets up an engaging romp into canon but adds a meta vibe as characters comment on their roles in Watson’s stories published in Strand magazine. When, for example, Mrs. Hudson complains that Watson never lets her do anything in the stories, she protests that she is “not a plot device”. Watson, however, reminds her that, technically, that is her “function in the narrative.” Such dialogue plays with modern readers’ knowledge of canon and introduces the “feminist” theme running through the episode, with characters like Mrs. Hudson expecting to play a larger role.

As might be expected, in “The Abominable Bride” a deerstalker is worn, pipes are smoked, and Watson’s mustache is back. Yet the episode also employs modern technology to make two particular scenes highly memorable.

During one of Victorian Sherlock’s drug-fueled trips into his mind palace, words float in the air before him as he sits cross-legged on the floor in meditation. He reaches out to grasp one idea and gently waves others away. The image is beautiful and highly appropriate for a text-based Victorian version of modern Sherlock’s computer-like thought processes.

The set piece, however, is the Reichenbach Falls scene, one of the most famous in the Conan Doyle canon. (Several bonus features take fans behind the scenes to see how a waterfall was created in studio and how the scene was filmed.) “The Abominable Bride” finally allows Sherlock to film the final confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty, as originally described in “The Final Problem”. In the Sherlock version, Sherlock not only confronts Moriarty one final time but decides to take a leap of faith that his friends will always be there to catch him when he takes a fall (or falls off the sobriety wagon). Sherlock’s Superman pose as he soars beside the falls may seem a bit over the top, but seeing Moriarty and Sherlock embattled at the falls is dramatically satisfying and canonical.

As Gatiss reminds fans viewing the bonus features, Sherlock will always be “a series about a detective, rather than a detective series”. Thus, the highlight of “The Abominable Bride” is not its time-bending plot or gothic scares but the Sherlock Holmes-John Watson relationship, which keeps fans coming back after increasingly long hiatuses between new episodes.

“The Abominable Bride” illustrates Sherlock’s perception of his close friendship with John, regardless of time period. When mind palace Moriarty needs his ass kicked because he’s torturing Sherlock, Victorian John arrives to boot him into the Reichenbach Falls. When Victorian (and modern) Sherlock experiments with drug cocktails, John’s righteous anger and persistent care see him through a binge. Whether tracking a murderer in Victorian England or being reunited and embarking on a new case (presumably in Season Four), Sherlock and John are best when they work together. As Moffat rightly notes, “there is genuine magic in Benedict and Martin together, brilliant as they are individually.” Although Cumberbatch and Freeman excel in their many non-Sherlock roles, they seem born to play Sherlock and John for a modern audience.

The beloved Sherlock family of characters — Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey), Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves), Mycroft (Mark Gatiss), Mary Watson (Amanda Abbington), and Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) — as well as recurring characters Anderson (Jonathan Aris) and Stamford (David Nellist) enhance this fan-friendly special. The familiar characters tweak their modern counterparts in surprising ways. As an example, Louise Brealey’s Victorian morgue manager steals a scene that both makes a point about women in the workplace and is a lot of fun to watch.

Just as the special episode is primarily a treat for hardcore fans rather than casual viewers, so is the collection of DVD extras that equals the length of the feature episode. The “Writers Interview” with Moffat and Gatiss discussing Conan Doyle’s writing and their own is the shortest segment (nearly four minutes). Similarly, the “Production Diary” is a brief five-minute behind-the-scenes look at the Reichenbach Falls scene. The longest DVD extra is “Creating the Look”, a 30-minute series of eight brief films about the making of specific scenes. Location filming, costuming, set design, and cinematography all are covered through brief interviews with the experts who bring Sherlock’s Victorian world to life.

The bonus features conclude with the “Sherlockology Q & A”, in which actors Amanda Abbington, David Nellist, Una Stubbs, producer Sue Vertue, and showrunner/writer Steven Moffat answer questions submitted to premier fan site Sherlockology. Although fan access to the Sherlock cast and crew is carefully controlled through this Q & A — questions are posed to cast members without the fans asking in person — “The Abominable Bride” DVD indicates how Moffat and Gatiss attempt to reach out to heavily invested fans. Clips within the many bonus features capture Moffat signing autographs or #Setlock fans watching on-location filming around the UK. The DVD extras, just like the episode, show that Sherlock, for better or worse, ‘til ratings death do they part, is a fan-written and -produced series made as a treat for other fans.

RATING 7 / 10