Sunday 5 January 2014

Sherlock: The Sign of Three - BBC 1 TV review

Sherlock returned in double-quick time tonight with another nicely titled episode, The Sign of Three,which saw Watson (Martin Freeman) marry Mary Morstan (his real life partner, Amanda Abbington). Much as I've enjoyed previous episodes in the series, I think this is the one I've relished most. It was crammed with good things, and above all, it was great fun. That matters, because the central point about Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories is that they were great fun, and all the best detective fiction (whatever its other virtues may be) is highly entertaining..

I love the way the writers take aspects both of the Conan Doyle stories, and detective fiction from the Golden Age, and refresh them, cleverly and wittily. Tonight, for instance, we had a "locked room" mystery, countless neat deductions, an idea borrowed from Agatha Christie (a murder committed by way of rehearsal) and a plot line founded on Dorothy L. Sayers' theory that Watson's middle name was Hamish. Great stuff.

Mark Lawson wrote a fascinating piece in The Guardian the other day, ruminating on the festive season episodes of Doctor Who and Sherlock, from the prolific and talented Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, and the way that fan speculation (on blogs, for instance) seems to have influenced the writing. Like me, Lawson admires their achievements, but suggested that one risk of the writers' approach is that they cater increasingly for the more diehard series fans, rather than the typical viewer. His point is well-argued, but I think it is more persuasive in the case of Doctor Who than Sherlock. It seems to me that detective fiction tends to be more structured than sci-fi, and tends by its nature to impose rather more discipline on the writer.Much as I enjoy Doctor Who, I feel sometimes that the stories tip over into self-referential self-indulgence (and this was my feeling about the Christmas special), whereas in Sherlock, the self-indulgence which is undoubtedly present does not get in the way of the story.

Part of the cleverness of The Empty Hearse lay in the multiple solutions to the mystery of Sherlock's survival, and this device was not just a nod to fan obsessions but also, and more significantly, to the Golden Age tradition of multiple ingenious solutions to a given mystery. Anthony Berkeley was the master when it came to multiple solutions, but Agatha Christie, the excellent John Dickson Carr and others (including, in one wonderful post-modern take on the Golden Age story, "Cameron McCabe") also played games with their mysteries to great effect. Other than Jonathan Creek, I can think of no television show which has played games with the genre so often and so well as Sherlock.


Anonymous said...

Martin - I'm glad you enjoyed the episode. I'd heard that the 'mystery' part of that was especially good and I'm happy to hear it.

Elaine said...

lots of comments saying this episode was rubbish. I thought it was brilliant and BC tour de force acting display.

Dress rehearsal of a murder? Three Act Tragedy wasn't it?

Unknown said...

So many good lines, so many good/enjoyable moments.

I kept wondering what it must be like to marry in a television play when you are actually married in real life. How many times does that happen? Made me feel quite sentimental.

Such a good actor, Martin Freeman, whom I remember from way back in The Office. And his 'wife' fits in so well. In every way.

Act 3. Hmmm... I fear for the worst/for her.

Anonymous said...

I also thoroughly enjoyed both episodes of Sherlock so far (and Doctor Who, though I admit that's partly because as a die hard fan, I loved all the meta stuff!).

I think that one thing the writers must be given credit for, is an understanding of their audience: it's all too easy to fall into the trap of wild plot twists and darker and darker developments, but I think that once we've fallen in love with the characters, we're quite happy to spend time with them being themselves, and that's what The Sign of Three delivered, for me. Not that there wasn't clever plot, but it really was a character driven episode. Hats off to all involved!

Martin Edwards said...

Very grateful for these comments. Elaine, you are right!
Good to hear from you Wolfgang - I agree.
Thanks, Identiytheseries, good point.

Graham Powell said...

I've been watching the episodes as they appear here in the US, and while I was a bit underwhelmed with THE EMPTY HEARSE, I thought this one was very well done. About halfway through I unhappy as it appeared there was no big mystery to be solved. Then they went and pulled the rug on me.