Sherlock: The Hounds of BaskervilleBookmark and Share

Sunday, 8 January 2012 - Written by Matt Hills
Written by Matt Hills

Sherlock - The Hounds of Baskerville
Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Paul McGuigan
Broadcast on BBC One - 08 January 2012
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK preview of the episode.

Boasting an extremely sharp script by Mark Gatiss, this is a textbook modernisation of an iconic Holmes tale, one which seizes hold of its best-known images (fogbanks twisting upon the moor; a howling, mysterious hound) and twists them into radical new narrative shapes. Where last week's episode faltered via its transformation of Irene Adler – a strong, intelligent woman reimagined as a damsel in distress undone by her emotions – this week's updating hardly puts a foot wrong. It constantly plays with audience expectations, shuffling narrative roles between characters who largely carry the same or similar names as those in the original story. The naturalist Stapleton is converted into a gene-manipulating scientist Dr Stapleton (Amelia Bullmore), immediately raising the question as to whether she will be the villain of the piece. And eccentric Frankland is also rendered as a Doctor (Clive Mantle), being given some of the narrative business displayed by Stapleton in the original when he recognises Holmes and Watson and professes to follow their exploits. This version of Frankland is introduced as something of a fanboy, poring over John's blog and joking about not recognising Sherlock without his hat. But in the end, it seems that fandom doesn't pay.

As events unfold, Gatiss's take on 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' reveals its transformative contours. This time round there's no Baskerville family, meaning that Sir Henry needs a new surname and so punningly becomes Henry Knight, portrayed effectively by Russell Tovey. This isn't the last of Gatiss's puns, though, since his work here is dominated by word play.

Signalling on the moor, for instance, is given a new and unexpected twenty-first century explanation. And though the term itself is never used (presumably in the interests of not falling foul of the BBC's watershed), audiences are nevertheless left to join the dots and complete the gag: Watson has uncovered an instance of moorland “dogging”. This playful use of language is, in fact, curiously in keeping with the spirit of the original story, since Conan Doyle has Holmes describe Sir Henry as “being dogged [i.e. pursued] in London”, while Watson later reiterates “it is he who dogged us in London?”. Whether via “dogged” pursuit, or “dogging” as a pursuit, appropriately doggy language playfully proliferates in both the original and Gatiss's reworking.

Keeping phrases from a 1901/2 tale relevant in the twenty-first century is a further problem that Gatiss confronts head-on. As such, the act of adaptation becomes part of the narrative itself, with Henry's use of the word “hound” becoming a key component in the mystery that attracts Holmes' attention. Henry is even made to “repeat exactly” his phrase, “they were the footprints of a gigantic hound”, emphasising that Gatiss is exactly repeating Arthur Conan Doyle, with Henry's “archaic” language becoming a puzzle in need of explanation rather than mere fidelity to the original. In essence, Gatiss makes the very problem of modernisation – how can a menacing “hound” be seriously spoken of in the present day? – a mystery and a question of the case itself.

Even the iconic visuals of previous film and TV incarnations of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' are played with and given a new narrative focus. The fogbanks that roll in imposingly at the original story's denouement, becoming almost another character in the final resolution, are given a fresh starring role. Like the hound, overly familiar images of dangerous moorland mist are made new by being brought into the narrative's structure in an unusual way. Both familiar language (the hound) and foggy imagery are hence drawn directly into the back-story of the “brilliant” case that Sherlock has to solve. Gatiss's solution to updating 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' thus has an elegance and a satisfying coherence. Even Sherlock's deception of John, revealed in a closing twist, relocates a deception played by Holmes in the original, again feeling true to the spirit of the tale.

Revelling in the visual style that he has pioneered for the show, director Paul McGuigan clearly enjoys several sequences in particular: the flow of information regarding Sherlock's infiltration of the Baskerville military installation is extremely well incorporated into his movements through the place, heightening tension in this entire sequence. And Sherlock's “mind palace”, as he explores all possible meanings of “Liberty In” is also uber-stylishly depicted, adding to the sense of Baskerville's labs as a techno-fetish akin to the rebooted bridge of the starship Enterprise, all gleaming white and excessive lens flare. For a moment or two, it seems as if Benedict Cumberbatch has already wandered onto the Star Trek set.

Viewed in isolation, the narrative trick played with Bluebell the luminous bunny would be a good one: what seems like a comedy case to be dismissed by Holmes ends up being crucially related to the matter at hand. But this is the exact same sleight-of-hand utilised in Moffat's script last week, meaning that as a device it instead becomes a touch clunky and repetitive here. A strong-willed script editor would, I think, have given some pointed notes on this unintended repetition, but since both scripts are from the show's co-creators then perhaps they were (literally) left to their own devices. Fingers crossed that Steve Thompson doesn't do the same thing again next time and try for a hat trick of 'background cases that end up being foreground cases'.

If this episode does perhaps put one other foot wrong, then for me this lies is in its eventual depiction of the terrifying hound. Glimpsed as a CGI creation, the red-eyed canine ends up as a proficient but nonetheless rather generic SFX depiction – it looks just how you'd imagine it would in a contemporary TV drama worked on by The Mill. As an audience, we therefore see exactly what we expect to see, rather than something truly threatening or out of the ordinary. Instead of giving into conventional thinking that special effects wizardry should cap the narrative, I think this particular hound would have been far more effective if it had been left off-screen altogether, never clearly seen by viewers. Left to imagine what had so terrorised Henry, John and even Sherlock himself, this tale could have possessed far more lingering power. It is, after all, a visual logic of absence and implication that marks most of the rest of the story's direction and editing with regards to the hound; the shiny CGI version seems out of place with the majority of Paul McGuigan and Charlie Phillips' work in this case, as well as with the episode's outstanding use of sound design.

Leaving aside this arguable misstep, we do get to see something genuinely unexpected: Sherlock's faith in reason and detachment are threatened, if only temporarily, when he sees the shaggy dog at the heart of the story. Benedict Cumberbatch relishes the chance to explore a more unhinged Holmes, and this is a striking scene showing that there may be further new territory for Sherlock to mine in future.

Losing Grimpen Mire as a feature means that the episode necessarily evades getting bogged down in a standard ending, but the presence of a Grimpen Minefield is instead clearly telegraphed to viewers. And so once the villain is unmasked then the storyline's development is fairly transparent. But even this most predictable of plot beats is well executed, and substituting a big explosion for a muddy demise does at least have the virtue of being more visually spectacular as well as more televisually convincing (perhaps it's just me, but filmed versions of death-by-marshland tend to look very hackneyed, if not mildly absurd).

Exceptionally clever from start to finish, this episode pretty much outdoes 'A Scandal in Belgravia' as an updating. I may have enjoyed last week's cut-and-thrust a little more overall, but this is by far the more inventive, coherent piece of Holmesian modernisation. Mark my words, you'll never think of mist-wreathed moors or the “hound” in quite the same way again, given acronymic thrills in Sherlock's storytelling.