Being at heart a Holmesian, and by education a Victorianist, I was looking forward to the Sherlock special with trepidation and delight. Here be SPOILERS GALORE but in short: I am generally happy with "The Abominable Bride". It is not a purist's Holmes; for that Gatiss and Moffat are too fond of the plethora of other adaptations. But that is one of its strengths. I read on the internet that people are confused. I find this claim somewhat baffling, as to me it seemed perfectly straight-forward: It seemed to begin as a retelling of Gatiss/Moffat Sherlock set back in the Victorian period. Throughout the first part, however, there were numerous indications that that was not the case, increasing in frequency as the episode progresses. The first, and probably least immediately obvious, is the beautiful Chekov's gun of Holmes' conversation with Watson early on,
Holmes: "The stage is set. The curtain rises. We are ready to begin. Sometimes, to solve a new case, one must first solve another." Watson: "We have a case then? A new one?" Holmes: "An old case. Very old. I shall have to go deep." Watson: "Into what?" Holmes: "Myself.",
which neatly summarises the basic structure of the episode: Everything but the scenes on the plane take place in Sherlock's drug-fuelled imagination, which draws on elements from the universe constructed by Gatiss & Moffat in order to construct an imaginary Victorian setting in which he can try to work out how Moriarty might have survived by solving the (somewhat similar) Ricoletti case. The majority of the action, then, takes place in his mind palace (with some chemical help), traversing a series of narrative levels: Sherlock dreams of being Holmes, who dreams of being Sherlock, who dreams of being Holmes (as the drugs drive him ever deeper). Sprinkle with a postmodern twist at the end. It is not much more complicated than Henry James' Turn of the Screw or, if your tastes run to a more modern bent, Inception. Though perhaps with a more dream-like mixing of the levels.
By the time Mycroft Holmes catches his brother using the (slightly) anachronistic "crime scene", and himself starts talking about "a virus in the data", as Turner's Reichenbach painting has somehow made it into the Diogenes club, it should be perfectly obvious that this is not a straight-forward Victorian adaptation. And shortly thereafter, the basic premise is explained fairly straightforwardly.
The other complaint which surprised me a little, was the claim that this was Moffat once again failing women by portraying the suffragettes as a villainous murder cult and having Sherlock "mansplain" feminism to feminists at the end. Quite the contrary, I was pleasantly surprised by this episode's take on women. It is not perfect, but so few things are. As close to perfection as you can get, however, is Mrs Hudson's comment that
I'm your landlady, not a plot device.,
which becomes all the more beautiful when it emerges that one
of the central themes running through the entire episode is the erasure of women. Be it Watson's maid, Molly Hooper crossdressing to practice her profession, Sir Eustace's dismissal of his wife as a "hysteric", Watson's own dismissal of Mary Watson, or his reduction of Mrs Hudson to a plot device (echoing the many criticisms of Moffat doing that to pretty much every female character that comes his way), it all comes together in a fairly concerted criticism of Victorian gender politics. But that in itself would not have been particularly exciting (it is so very easy to look back and criticise the past while ignoring the same structures in the present).
The Brides themselves, moreover, are not simply Suffragettes (if that were simple). They are a group of women fighting back against domestic violence ignored by the society that surrounds them (rather topical, I'd say, with two women a week killed by their partners in Britain alone). They are not presented as the villains of the story. Quite the contrary, the gothic horror attached to the woman of action is dispelled as the murders are revealed to be more along the lines of rational self-defence.
What really makes me excited about this episode's take on women, however, is the effect of the Brides when you consider that this is not a neo-Victorian adaptation: It is Sherlock's drugged mind, a glimpse into his subconscious, in which the the Brides are not a random selection, but include women from Sherlock's own history, with Janine and Molly prominent among them. Holmes is not explaining feminism to suffragettes: On the basic narrative level of the dream, he is explaining the problem of the erasure of women to Watson; on the higher diegetic level Sherlock is explaining to himself (we are shown a man learning feminism); and I like to think, on a level beyond that, it is Mark Gatiss explaining it to Steven Moffat (I have unbounded faith in Gatiss). This is Sherlock (the series) taking our criticisms and acknowledging them. I cannot but approve.
Do some things irk me? Yes. I can see why they put the Brides in clothing echoing the pointy hats of Ku Klux Klan (in order to create an echo, I assume, to the orange pips story), but it ignored the way in which that mode of dress, particularly to an American audience (I imagine), would have rather strong connotations. It is a bit like when they could not keep themselves from including an oblique reference to Rosenberg's Naked is the Best Disguise by taking off all Irene Adler's clothes. As a purely geeky reference, I applaud it, but it becomes a misstep because Sherlock does not appear in a social vacuum. I can forgive the occasional faux pas, however, because these geeky asides is precisely what I crave. And this episode abounded with them.
Watson's narratorial voice, quoting the opening of A Study in Scarlet, and the reference to "London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the empire are irresistibly drained", quickly followed by the much anticipated
"You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.",
had me as near to giddy as makes no difference.
There was the nod to the Granada adaptation, at the end of the opening credits, The Strand Magazine, the acknowledgement that the Holmes stories are rather less bloody than the current adaptation might imply, Billy the page boy, and that continued reference to Arthur Conan Doyle's enthusiasm for "features of interest" (I did a quick search and found 13 variations of the phrase in the canon, 10 of which are in the first two collections).
The allusions were by no means all verbal. I could swear there was a play on the Granada theme to fit the visual, and Paget's illustrations are referenced beautifully throughout.
I could go on at length on quotes from the canon, in the meetings with Moriarty or the logician and "a drop of water", or the "grit in a sensitive instrument" and crack in the lens, for example; or the allusions to "Lady Frances Carfax", "The Orange Pips", "The Greek interpreter", "The Norwood Builder" or "The Veiled Lodger", amongst others, in minor comments or plot motifs; but I think it was also true to the stories in the mystery it presented. Much as they have been perceived as a paean to the rational, the gothic element is at the heart of the best Holmes stories (Hound of the Baskervilles being only the most obvious example), and Doyle was no stranger to secret societies, either. And I really want it to be the case that the "patriotic V.R." shot into the wall of Baker Street is missing because it does not appear until Memoirs, and therefore hasn't happened yet.
I mentioned that one of the strengths of the adaptation is that it does not limit itself to one source text, however. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes kept popping up, as Mrs Hudson welcomed them home, wishing they would let her know when they were planning to return and Holmes blaming the unschedulability of crime; or Watson's "blame the illustrator!"; or the adamant
It is never twins!,
which must be a rejection of the Silk Stocking adaptation with Rupert Everett.
And that is not even getting into the Rathbone feel of it all, despite the Victorian setting. But my favourite allusion may be all in my head. It consists of Mary opening the envelope and taking out the card signed only "M". I have rather been of the opinion that Mary Watson has ties to Moriarty, and this play on the initial letter confusing Mycroft with Moriarty brings to mind the twist of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Moffat and Gatiss are at their best when they geek out. It is that particular brand of faithfulness to the canon which distinguishes it from the Granada adaptations (much as I love them), and means they can step away from the canon without abandoning it. And it is what makes Sherlock more interesting to me than Elementary or the terrible Guy Richie stuff.
I am aware that I have long since lost the attention of the casual reader, so I hasten to my final point, namely the Victoriana. While the end (ah, the power of the ending: see my PhD) offers the possibility that Sherlock is dreamed up by Holmes as a future fancy, and I cannot help but like the way that destabilises the reality value of the Sherlock adaptation, the dominant tendency of events point towards this not being a straight-up neo-Victorian adaptation. Even so, there was an impressive array of Victoriana. The aberration of the "telephone contraption" as a wild fantasy (by 1892 I think we even had them in Norway) is easily forgiven when you get to see the Police News header and the Times font as Holmes' mind palace takes the form of clippings from the very newspapers that are so closely tied to him as a character.
Add to that the presence of sign language, or the immortal
"Holmes, just one thing: Tweeds in a morgue?" "Needs must when the Devil drives, Watson!"
And that is not even getting into the costumes! But my favourite bit of Victoriana was Pepper's Ghost, perhaps the most famous piece of Victorian stage magic. I loved it because with it, the explanation for the Brides so perfectly tied together the different aspects of this adaptation. One half, the ubiquity of the dead woman, was founded in the apparent interchangeability and anonymity of the women: Not being granted an identity by society or narratives, they could all fill the same role and use it to fight back; but in the disappearing Bride seen by Holmes and Watson, there is the false image as we are being tricked into seeing a projection of another reality, namely the inner life of Sherlock Holmes in a Victorian setting. I like this period reference because its function is not merely to signal Victoriana, but to provide an image of the adaptation itself: It is just a trick, a magic trick.
I do not think this adaptation is an explanation for how Moriarty survives (I hope fervently he didn't). I think it is a character study wrapped around a tour de force of references, dipped in an apology. It showed us (again) how much Sherlock relies on John (just as Holmes relies on Watson -- "Three Garridebs", anyone?), as the supremely awkward conversation is justified in Watson's appearance at the Reichenbach Falls, where it is revealed that Holmes is not alone, after all. I must say, I also enjoyed the study in Mycroft. Not so much the grotesque parody of Mycroft appearing in the dream vision, though that does make sense as Sherlock's mental idea of his brother (controlling, determined to be right at any cost, and overly fond of cake), but the glimpse in the plane of a Mycroft who really does care. I have said it before and I'll say it again: The cold-hearted calculating machine character is never as effective (and affecting) as when it is established, then shown to be false in some particular.
As I said, I approve. So long as this is not actually a way of bringing Moriarty back to life.