I’m not an avid viewer of the BBC series Sherlock. In fact, there are a lot of geeky series that I don’t follow, mainly due to time constraints. So I do feel a bit left out, especially when my mates are all talking about whatever episode had that controversial / exciting / conversation-starting plot device.
But on Boxing Day, I made an exception. Much like 2014’s Xmas Doctor Who special (the WWII themed-one), I allowed myself to just sit and absorb for a couple of hours, and it was wonderful. I really enjoyed the episode, for a lot of reasons (some of them outlined below), but I felt particularly compelled to write about it because of the inevitable Twitter furore. And I somehow managed to disagree with almost all of it, so maybe I should have joined in to shake it up a bit.
Overall, I thought it was a good story – as a non-viewer of said series, it really drew me in and was intriguing and fun. It was just complex enough to require 100% of the viewers attention, but not so complex as to exclude a large portion of the audience. But there seemed to be some issues that people had with it:
|1. That it co-opted feminism as a plot device
Well, ok, that is one way of looking at it. But we have often based period dramas in times of turmoil, and used the events of the day as a backdrop for a more in-depth or even tangential story. Did Lady Chatterley’s Lover co-opt the decline of the landed gentry? Did Atonement co-opt the plight of soldiers in WWII? Did Doctor Zhivago co-opt the Russian Revolution (actually, some people did claim that, but then I guess there is no limit to what people will get offended by)? I don’t see why the suffragist or feminist movements should be immune to use in TV dramas. And if we “protect” them by not using their historical context to set the scene, then they become invisible and their importance diminished.
The main reason I take issue with this point is that everyone’s perspective is different, and this argument is framed through the lens of someone who is really clued-up about current feminist topics, and ignores the fact that a large number of viewers will not be so involved with that particular movement. I actually see it as a very positive thing that it featured the suffragettes. Their time is one that I do feel is neglected by the history books and lessons, even though it was a mere 100 years ago. So many people will just see the suffragists in the programme and be reminded of that part of our history. Others may analyse it further, but in terms of what we can reasonably fit into a two-hour drama that isn’t really about that topic, I think they did a bloody good job.
|2. That the suffragists were the “bad guys”
Oh, good grief. Talk about missing the point. Sherlock clearly states that:
“Every great cause has martyrs. Every war has suicide missions and make no mistake, this is war. One half of the human race at war with the other. The invisible army hovering at our elbow, tending to our homes, raising our children. Ignored, patronised, disregarded. Not allowed so much as a vote. But an army nonetheless, ready to rise up in the best of causes. To put right an injustice as old as humanity itself. So you see, Watson, Mycroft was right. This is a war we must lose.”
On the one hand, this looks like an admission by a 19th-Century man that things need to change. He’s being honest about inequalities in that society, and accepting the violent acts committed by the suffragists as necessary and in pursuit of a noble and morally justified cause. Also, we need more female baddies. There’s no point getting more women on the screen if they’re inoffensive cardboard-cutouts. Give them agency, give them flaws.
And on the other hand, it looks like…
|3. Sherlock basically explained feminism to a room full of women.
When I saw this quote on Twitter, my immediate thought was “Haha, that is well funny! He actually did do that!”. But I didn’t feel that it was patronising, and like in my first point, many of the audience will not hold a degree in gender studies, and so wouldn’t pick up on this point. Whether or not that is a bad thing (yeah, it kind of is) is a topic for another post, but you have to work with what you’ve got. Unfortunately, a lot of TV is made with the lowest common denominator in mind. Bearing this in mind, I actually think the episode was quite progressive.
4. That the main villain fitted the cliché of the jilted woman out for revenge
Yeah, they did. But there are plenty of cliches in entertainment, some stand as they are, some are mocked, some are challenged, and some are twisted to tell a bizarre time-hopping dream-sequence story. I don’t think this was a problem at all, and it follows the pattern of cheesy mystery novels – if you were feeling a bit postmodern, you could say it was done ironically (I’m not going to do this because I’m not a hipster twat).
|5. That the suffragettes were wearing weird KKK-style hoods
Hmmm, yes. When I watched it I just interpreted it as them being a clandestine society revealing their true nature, to complete the story. But it is quite weird, I will admit that. One possible explanation, related to point 2; back then, the suffragists were seen as the bad guys by contemporary society. They were violent, unnatural, and an affront to decency, etc, etc, so portraying them as secretive and evil might be a good way of accurately representing their perceived threat to society. Still weird, though.
6. That it wasn’t feminist enough
Oh, come on. It might have been clumsy and controversial, but it was a very pro-feminist episode. Exemplified by Molly’s appearance as Dr. Hooper, disguised as a man. It’s the only way she would have been able to get “a man’s job” at that point in history. As Watson remarks, “Amazing… what one has to do to get ahead in a man’s world.”
|7. That it was confusing and difficult to follow
Well, it was something that you needed to invest in. There was a lot going on, and the viewer needed to not just figure out the solution to the mystery, but why everything was suddenly set in the wrong era, with the regular characters in equivalent, past roles. I noticed something was up with Sherlock’s “virus in the code” line – such an obvious anachronism – but because I don’t usually watch it I didn’t know it’s normally set in the present day. I like my stories to be complex and engaging, maybe some people don’t. Their loss.
8. That it didn’t follow the Sherlock “formula”
I actually don’t have a reference point for this, because as I said, this is the first Sherlock I’ve ever seen. I get the impression that a lot of the haters don’t like Stephen Moffat’s style generally. I know plenty of people are relieved that he’s leaving Doctor Who (another series I have very little knowledge of), but given that I also liked the WWII 2014 Xmas special, which he wrote, I guess I’d be inclined to disagree. But it’s a matter of taste,
On the whole, I felt the episode did a great job. Holmes was simultaneously likeable and repugnant, Watson was likeable and provided a lighter counterpart, Mycroft was peculiar and Moriarty was delightfully creepy. Attention to detail was so precise that the odd time-switching things were noticeable as “errors”. The link to the suffragettes was done in a sensitive and interesting way, while still remaining true to the characters personas (so I am told ). The format was pretty cool, and, well, I sat still for two hours to watch it, so they must have got something right.