Sherlock: A Scandal in BelgraviaBookmark and Share

Sunday, 1 January 2012 - Written by Matt Hills
Written by Matt Hills

Sherlock - A Scandal in Belgravia
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Paul McGuigan
Broadcast on BBC One - 01 January 2012
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK preview of the episode.

If there isn't already a website or blog called 'The Geek Interpreter' then I expect there'll be one along asap. Any takers? May be I should just set the thing up myself. Because this is an episode of Sherlock which revels in playfulness – playing with the Internet reception and 'geek interpretation' of the first series (Sherlock himself is an online “phenomenon”); playing with fan readings of Sherlock and John as a couple (or not); and playing with the plot beats of 'A Scandal in Bohemia'. I'd argue that it's Steven Moffat's freshest and most joyous writing for quite some time. Where his 2011 Doctor Who Christmas Special felt like it was written to fit an increasingly rigid formula, here the reverse seems true: rather than feeling forced into a TV industry template, this is a free-wheeling development of Arthur Conan Doyle's work which delights in putting new spins on Holmesian lore. 'The Geek Interpreter' is just one of the many glorious shots fired across the Canon, and the fact that it's always 1895 on the visitor count of John's blog is another stand-out moment. Some references appear to be more Doctor Who-oriented rather than Sherlocked. “No. I said, no”... “when I say run, run”... surely these are in-jokes cast in the direction of Doctor Who fans in the audience.

And then there's the infamous headwear. Moffat frequently enjoys some hat-related business in his scripts these days, almost as much as he seems to draw on phone-focused shenanigans – a motif which is there right from the beginnings of Press Gang, through into Coupling and even Jekyll. Indeed, 'A Scandal in Belgravia' offers up some fine opportunities for characteristic Moffatisms – for example, the phone call (or here, the text alert) that opposes expectations by revealing its receiver's immediate proximity. It's a device used at least twice in this script alone. If a trick's worth playing, mind you, then it's surely worth re-playing.

There's a danger, I suppose, that this series two opener might feel like a mere replay or retread of series one's successes. It doesn't. From the astounding cliffhanger resolution onwards, there's a sense of Moffat and the entire team going all-out to top both 'The Great Game' and series one in sum total. The absurdist get-out to series one's cliffhanger is instantly destined to become a classic TV moment, playing against the established tone of intense drama, and encapsulating that most contemporary of experiences – the mobile that goes off with radically inopportune timing (not to mention the choice of ringtone that suddenly betrays its owner).

A very few ideas struck me as problematic – would Irene Adler's nakedness really render her impervious or cloaked to Sherlock's deductions??????? (Surely there are just as many clues to be read from an undressed body as a dressed one?). And elsewhere, how convincing was it that that boomerang could impact with sufficient force to kill a man, before then rebounding some distance into the water? The hiker puzzle required it, but this set-up felt a touch strained and ersatz, even for a B-plot or C-plot distraction.

There are many key changes in relation to the original tale (beyond the whole conceit of the series, obviously). For one thing, “the woman” is now Adler's professional title rather than Sherlock's own personal moniker for her – and although Cumberbatch is given dialogue where he stresses and savours and individuates the definite article, I can't help but feel that a dimension of Holmesian meaning is lost here, even while “the woman” emphasises Adler's status as dominatrix, and the power struggles she engages in. More successfully, it is our own royal family who are implicated rather than an obscure European lineage, a shift that helps bring home Adler's initial threat rather than it seeming more remote. (Moffat also thankfully avoids a certain ludicrousness encountered in the Jeremy Brett version, where a slightly wooden King arrives looking like a rejected 1960's Batman villain). The major concluding incident in the written tale – Irene being tricked into giving up her photograph's location – is repositioned early on in this riffing on the short story, along with Watson being given a far stronger, punchier role in the subterfuge that's needed to gain access to Adler's residence.

Most significantly of all, though, it is Sherlock who ends up triumphant rather than Irene – while she definitively bests him in the short story, here it is Holmes who ultimately gains the upper hand both in his powerplay with her, and in his tussle with Mycroft and the establishment. And whereas Irene marries another man in the original – Holmes being reduced to a marriage witness – here she remains free to act as an object of Sherlock's fascination, with her ambiguous sexuality also mirroring his indeterminate sex life.

Sentiment might be criticised as a weakness, and as the mark of a loser, but sentiment is threaded through this episode's ending nonetheless: it's a screenplay that aims to be crowd-pleasing in almost every way imaginable (even Molly is treated marginally less abominably by Sherlock as he begins to realise the need to show her some basic humanity). But at the same time as aiming to please, this episode shows a keen self-awareness of the codes and conventions that it draws on. This is most notable, I'd say, in the use of assorted “boring” cases at the very beginning. Typically, it'd be assumed by unwitting viewers that such cases would constitute mere background colour coming before the real plot kicks in. It's an assured piece of Moffatesque misdirection, playing expertly with audiences' expectations.

It is probably Lara Pulver who has the most difficult task here – while the rest of the lead actors can already draw on funds of audience goodwill, and on their well-established performances, it is Pulver who has to conjure up a new take on an old favourite. Her Adler combines delicate elegance with predatory toughness, resulting in a glassy, brittle rendering of damaged humanity. Her sexuality is sketched in though barely explored, giving a further sense that despite her exhibitionism and extreme self-confidence, this Irene keeps her true self as buried and as hidden as possible. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman again make their portrayals appear effortless, masking all the craft and thought that must underpin the seemingly just-so. And Mark Gatiss shines once more as Mycroft, with Moffat's script giving all of the leads some great material to work with (bar Rupert Graves, who is somewhat marginalised).

I hope to be proven wrong – and, after all, it's a capital offence to start theorizing before one has all the data – but I suspect two important things may already be true. First, this instalment might well end up being the high point of Sherlock series one and two. And secondly, this may be the TV drama high point of 2012, despite its broadcast falling on the very first day of the year. To be sure, it sets an incredibly strong precedent for Gatiss's pursuing hounds and Thompson's concluding fall to live up to. (Am I alone, I wonder, in feeling some fan anxiety about Steve Thompson's finale, given his track record with 'The Blind Banker' and 'The Curse of the Black Spot' on Who?). Paul McGuigan, like Steven Moffat, ups his game just when you thought that such a thing was pretty much impossible, and Toby Haynes surely risks being overshadowed across this run (as was Euros Lyn on series one).

Does this ninety minutes mark Sherlock's greatest of games? Perhaps. And although it would mean a greater-than-usual divergence from the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, I for one would favour a rapid Adler-Holmes rematch. Never mind the case of 'The Geek Interpreter', here's to the brilliant geek interpretations that I'm sure will rework, reshape and recode 'A Scandal in Belgravia'.