Monday Musings: Restructuring The Empty Hearse

Unlike some fans, I loved season three. What I didn’t love though, was “The Empty Hearse”. In fact, it is now my least favourite Sherlock episode. My problems with this episode are very different from the usual points of critic.

The on-going commentary on fandom? I loved that! The three solutions? I think it was genius approach to what would have been a let-down in any case. The scene with the bomb? I totally dig the off-switch!

No, what I dislike about this episode mostly comes down to structure. Watching it I often get the feeling that Gatiss had a lot of ideas, but problems to connect them to a working narrative frame.

For example the prologue. It consists of three elements: The fake first theory, followed by John and Mary standing at Sherlock’s grave, followed by Sherlock in Serbia. And I admit, as much as I like the moment of John standing at the grave, it feels squeezed in (and don’t get me started on the cut from the coffee cups to his eyes), especially since we already see Sherlock’s grave stone at the very beginning. To me, it would have made much more sense if the grave scene had been the first of the episode…it would have been the perfect start since the last episode ended with John leaving there. They could have ended the scene with the close up to the grave stone and then shown the fake first theory. I actually think that it would have heightened the impact, because the scene at the grave is so calm, and the speed of this one would have been a great contrast. The audience would have no less believed that they now get the solution. Plus, the dialogue of Lestrade and Anderson ends with “And may God rest his soul” – is there anything more fitting to show Sherlock everything but restful in the next scene?

The next “scene of contention” is for me the various scenes of people encountering Sherlock again, leading up to the totally fannish second theory. I have two problems with those: One, John laying awake in the bed doesn’t really fit in. Two, where the hell are the reporters in the following scenes? A celebrity coming back to life, but Sherlock can go wherever he wants with no problem?

There are two prerogatives “fighting” with each other. Gatiss obviously wanted the “big press scene” at the end of the episode. Understandable, it’s a perfect closure. At the same time though, Sherlock coming back must be public, not just for the “Oh my god” scene, but mostly in order to explain clients turning up at his doorstep.

My solution would have been to give Sherlock coming back and his first reconciliation with more time…not more screen-time, just more time. For example, add a line in the scene between Sherlock and Mycroft that the press is now loosing interest and clients are now showing up again. Give it the appearance of at least a week long time-jump instead of just one or two days. End this scene with a shot of John laying awake in bed, thinking, followed by him shaving. This would also give John some time to come to terms with his feelings. After that back to the montage of Sherlock and Molly dealing with clients while John has a “normal” day – imho the high point of the episode, after the first fake theory.

Speaking of fake theories, the next and last big stumbling stone is for the placement of the third theory. Gatiss said that it felt right to place it in the middle of the bomb situation. From an audience pov it is more than a little bit confusing, because it first seems to be a leap forward, and then a random scene in the future. Or something which never happened. It certainly doesn’t work as pov from someone since it cuts away from John’s face and John isn’t present during the scene in question.

To me the perfect placing for this scene would have been when John asks Sherlock how he has done it and Sherlock looks thoughtful. Cutting to the recording in this moment would foul the audience into believing that this is from the interview first. Going then back to Sherlock’s “you know my methods” line would leave it open if Sherlock remembers something what happened or if he indulges in a nice little fantasy.

Naturally it is easy to criticise after the fact. Still…I think that a little bit tweaking of the structure would have made the whole episode better. As it is, it is a little bit disjointed.

Monday Musings: Beyond the Surface

Recently I was discussing Vikings with someone. To be precise, I discussed the claim that Vikings is some sort of Game of Throne rip-off. It really isn’t. In fact, I claimed that it wouldn’t even occur to me to compare the two, because they have an entirely different way of storytelling.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I then pondered which show I would compare Vikings to – and I ended up with Sherlock.

First I thought that it was mostly because both shows have a very distinctive style and both shows are an example of a network exploring new venues (Sherlock is the first show which basically consists of three mini-movies per season, Vikings is History Channel’s first scripted show). But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that both shows have a very similar approach to it’s characters.

In most TV shows, the characters are pretty much clear cut. We know their motivations, we know exactly what they are up to, we might even get lengthy explanations why they acted is a certain way. But there are a few which leave it to the audience to catch up. Sherlock is certainly one of them.

In Sherlock we can’t rely on what the characters say about themselves because (like in real life), their ability for self-reflection is limited. John isn’t aware that his real problem with adjusting to civilian life is the fact that he is missing the danger until Mycroft points it out to him, Sherlock uses words like “high-functioning sociopath” like a weapon to fight the accusation that he is a psychopath when in truth, he is neither, Mycroft keeps pretending that he is detached from everyone when in truth he would risk everything for his little brother. We can’t even trust the opinions the characters voice about each other, and I am not just talking about Sherlock overlooking all the clues which point to Mary’s past. Sherlock dismisses Molly until he finally notices that she might count after all, John thinks that Mycroft made a mistake which put Sherlock in danger when in truth they are both playing a long con on Moriarty, and who would have thought that Mrs. Hudson used to be an exotic dancer?

Often the audience is left guessing. How much of Sherlock’s behaviour in HoB was about apologizing to John and how much was about luring him into his experiment? At what point did who know what during TRF? How aware is Mycroft of Sherlock’s activities during HLV? But exactly this is half of the fun. Trying to figure the characters out without ever knowing how close to the truth one really is, is a large part of what makes them so much more real. After all, nobody gives us a handy little fact sheet of everyone we meet in real life either, right?

 

Monday Musings: Quality over Quantity

Looking back at the shows I loved in the past, the ones which stand-out and even on my list of remarkable Sherlock Holmes Adaptations, there is a common trend: I usually end up loving shows with short seasons and tight storytelling. That doesn’t mean that I don’t watch the usual 20-30 episodes every year show…but I have noticed that they tend to be much less watchable. They are prone to unnecessary drawn-out story telling (especially when it comes to relationships), useless padding in form of contrived drama and filler episodes (which can be good but are nearly always one level under the show’s standard). You are forced to just take the bad with the good and move on.

But I am starting to wonder: I realize that the networks have to fill their time-slots, but are long seasons really that desirable? Wouldn’t it make more sense to offer the audience a wider selection of shows? Not that I would recommend this for every kind of show. If the episodes are just loosely connected stand-alones either way and the show is designed in a way that you can easily turn in whenever you want, it certainly doesn’t matter so much. But currently the trend is to do shows with character development and story-arcs. So why not do it properly? Why not following the model of Babylon 5 and plot out four to five seasons in advance (you can always adjust the story along the way if necessary)? The closest we have currently to this concept are a couple of show based on books and, ironically, CW’s Arrow, for which the writer claim to have a general idea about where the story will go for the first five seasons. Maybe one can add History Channel’s Vikings to the list, mostly because the writers follow historical events and mostly have to decide what to disregard, what to reinterpret and how fast their story should process.

And naturally Sherlock. Partly on the virtue of having the shortest seasons of all TV shows, but also because the writers claim to have figured out the plot for the upcoming two seasons. When this was published, everyone was excited about the confirmation of further seasons. I was elated too, but season 4 in itself was something I pretty much expected to happen, knowing that the writers have a good idea about the direction in which they want to take the story was what made my day. After all, with only three episodes in every season, you want to get the best possible out of every single one of them, right?

Monday Musings: Invisible influences

Yesterday I was at a very special event. An event which, I guess, is very difficult to explain for non-fans, but I’ll try.

Once upon a time, there was an American children’s book series called “The Three Investigators”. It was reasonably successful and consisted of 46 books, in which three young boys solved mysteries. But that wasn’t seen as “cool” enough any longer. So the publisher decided to age the protagonists for a follow up series called “The Crimebusters”. Now teens the three investigators got more dangerous (but also less complex) cases. It didn’t work, the series was ended, end of story.

Well, not really. You see, said series was very popular in Germany. Partly because the German versions had really cool covers, but also because parallel to the book series, you could buy the stories as radio plays on tape. Back then, a lot of children owned a tape player, and kept hearing those plays – and everyone had The Three Investigators. So when the series ended in the US, the German publisher decided to hire German writers and the series was continued. And continued. The readers and hearer became older, a lot of them gave up on tapes and children’s books, but not on The Three Investigators. Partly because the series never really changed that much. German writers (sometimes fans themselves) added elements from the original series in the stories, repairing the damage the crime buster series did. The voice actors of the boys stayed the same. It’s like the series just grew up with the fans, but still has the element of nostalgia which is difficult to resist.

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Now, 34 years after the first radio play was published, the number of books is going towards 200, and the voice actors went on tour for the third time. Meaning, they go in front of a giant audience of fans and perform. Who would have thought back then that this would one day happen? As always it was a big event.

But why do I tell you that? Well, while I was waiting in the rain for more than an hour in order to get a decent seat, and then on my seat for two hours for the show to start, I kept thinking that this series was, though I didn’t know it back then, my first contact with Sherlock Holmes. Those who know the “classic” three investigator series might know what I am talking about. Looking back on it now, it is obvious where the original creator of the series, Robert Arthur, got his inspiration. Let’s summon it up:

There are three boys. Jupiter is the “Thinker” of the group, which does remind me of a certain other guy with an odd name. Like Sherlock Holmes he likes to experiment, and is tinkering with all kinds of stuff he finds on the junkyard of his aunt and uncle. Unlike Holmes he isn’t physically fit though, that is the “job” so to speak of Peter, the second one in the group. The third is Bob, responsible for research and archive. Or you could say he is Watson, the guy who writes down all the cases. When in danger, they tend to leave question marks written in chalk as messages for the others, because nobody, especially no adult would think much of some scribbles on a wall – a concept straight from the dancing man. There are also two cases which are nods to “The Six Napoleons”, a testament riddle which reminds me a little bit of “The Musgrave Ritual”, another case in which the fact that a dog didn’t react is an important clue (complete with nod to the original Sherlock Holmes case), and various quotes from the Sherlock Holmes stories. In short, the series is basically Sherlock Holmes for children. In the English original series, every case was even named “The Secret of” to mirror “The Adventure of….”.

It was more or less the first children books series I read, and it ruined me for pretty much all the others. The cases were often very complex, making the books way more challenging than other series of this kind in which one is usually able to identify the villain immediately because, well, he acts and looks like one. So even though I wasn’t aware of it, this series was the very beginning of me being a Sherlock Holmes fan. And I admit – even though there are still really good books in the series, it’s the classics I still like the most.

Monday Musings: Fandomism

It’s sometimes frustrating to read what other people claim about Sherlock fans. No, I am not a “fanatic fangirl who doesn’t allow any criticism of her favourite show” or “just interested in the actors good looks”. Neither am I a misogynist, racist and whatever else one might get called based on the opinion that the show itself is misogynist and racist.

To clarify where I stand in the fandom: I like the show, but that doesn’t mean that it is perfect. I really dig the actors, but I don’t think that any of them look particularly attractive or are swoon-worthy. They have a lot of charisma, I think they are the best actors we currently get in TV (in the shows I watch), but they are not my type at all. I have read the original Sherlock Holmes stories (obviously, if I hadn’t, I couldn’t create reference lists), and I really couldn’t care less who uses which tag on twitter.

For the record though: If someone swoons over an actor or actress, it’s their right to do so. Thinks like that are simply a matter of taste. One doesn’t have to agree, but they might not agree concerning your own taste.

I admit, that I am guilty of fast judgement myself. I think that the fans of CW’s Beauty and the Beast are a loud and annoying lot. That’s because some fans over at spoiler TV are very set on promoting a show which, imho, had one of the worst pilots I have ever seen. It was cheesy and badly acted, and I just want to scream at those fans that they should finally shut up about their stupid show, because I won’t give it a second chance.  But I should remind myself that not all fans are like that, and those who are act most likely out of desperation, looking at the ratings of this show.

I also have sometimes a low opinion of the Supernatural Fandom, partly because some fans display a superior attitude regarding Grimm (hey, you don’t have to like it, but I enjoy it), partly because there is a large number of RPF’s in this fandom, which makes me wonder if the writers are watching for the show or for an opportunity to ogle the actors. It’s hard to argue with a show which has as many seasons like this one. It was never for me (yes, I gave it a try), but it seems to do something right.

As a general rule the smaller a fandom is, the better its reputation. Less trolls, less fanatics, and if some turn up, they are easy to control. With large fandoms, though, the minority is VERY loud. It’s just the nature of things. And we shouldn’t judge a whole fandom based on the few fans we encounter. A fandom is simply a group of individuals, who share the love for something. Their reasons for liking it and the way they display their affection depends  on the person. And just because one encounters annoying members in one fandom, it doesn’t mean that all fans are the same.

Monday Musings: A Pack of Liars

Watching Sherlock, there are always odd parallels to discover. For example Sherlock not contacting John during his long absence is mirrored by John avoiding Mrs. Hudson and Baker Street, too. But what really stood out to me were all the lies told during “His Last Vow” – and how they crippled the characters.

The most obvious liar is naturally Mary. She lies to John about her past. She lies to Janine to get access. She might lie to Sherlock when she tries to convince him that she would kill him if he doesn’t keep her secret. But above all she lies to herself that keeping all those secrets is for John’s benefit.

Next on the list is Sherlock, who lies to everyone to keep his plans concerning Janine secret, and naturally lies to Janine, too. He then proceeds to lie on Mary’s behalf to the police. But the biggest lie is the one he tells himself – that he took drugs for a case. He is Sherlock Holmes. He would certainly be able to fake a drug habit, if he really wanted to. He could also staged multiple other scandals. But he picked drugs, marking it (presumably) the first time he didn’t take drugs in place of a case, but on a case.

John seems to be the most honest of all of them, but that’s mostly because Sherlock sees immediately through all his lies, starting with the claim that a random addict sprained Bill Wiggens wrist and ending with John’s supposedly desire for a quiet live. Like Mary and Sherlock, John lies to himself, too.

Ironically it is Sherlock who finally stages an intervention to blow all of those lies open. Not surprisingly, he is the only one who still manages to hold onto his secrets.

But the list doesn’t end there. Mycroft claims that Magnussen is not of importance because he never bothers anyone truly powerful. But in fact Magnussen is just attacking Lady Smallwood (who apparently is a high level official), planning a move on Mycroft himself and claims that Mycroft tried to nail him for something for years. It seems like Mycroft warning Sherlock away from the case is mostly based on a desire to protect Sherlock, not Magnussen.

And then there is Janine, the only liar who has success. At least she makes a lot of money with her story. Interestingly though she claims that there was no need for Sherlock to lie. Who knows, perhaps she would have helped him on her own if he had just asked….considering that Magnussen apparently had something on her and loved flickering her face, she certainly had enough reasons to hate him, too.

The one who doesn’t lie is Magnussen. He is the master of misdirection and misrepresenting facts, but he doesn’t directly lie. There is always a little bit of truth in everything he prints. In fact he is living from other people’s need to conceal. In a way though it is the last truth – that he doesn’t have a vault – which costs him his life. But then, Sherlock is lying when he calls himself a psychopath, too.

In the end though…if Mary hadn’t been too afraid that John would leave her and had asked Sherlock for help. If John had told her that he planed to take on Magnussen with Sherlock instead of pretending to be happy with a mundane life. If Sherlock had tried to convince Mycroft that Magnussen is a way bigger threat than Mycroft (presumably) perceived. Than Magnussen would have had a much harder time to seize control.

Monday Musings: The Making of a Hero

Something which strikes me as remarkable about “Sherlock” is how the show plays with the concept of a hero. We tend to expect anyone who fights crime to be one. But is Sherlock one? He himself certainly doesn’t think so. For him heroes don’t exist, and if they were, he wouldn’t be one of them. That’s the sentiment he utters during the finale of season one, which he affirms during the climax of season two “I might be on the side of the angels, but don’t believe for one second that I am one of them.”) and season three (“I am not a hero. I am a high functioning sociopath. Merry Christmas!”) just as he is about to fulfil a prediction Sally uttered during A Study in Pink.

“One day we’ll be standing around a body and Sherlock Holmes will be the one who put it there.”

Back then, nobody ever expected this to come true. In fact at the end of the episode the joke was on her, because the police was standing around a body and John was the one who put it there (not that she ever realized as far as we know). But now it did come true – kind of. Sally was naturally sure that Sherlock would become a crazy murderer, but when he finally did kill someone, his motivation was to protect someone else.

So why does Sherlock keep insisting that he is no hero? Are we supposed to disagree with him? Or are we invited to think about who the true hero in this show is? Is John a hero, being soldier and doctor in one person? Is Lestrade one for being an honest and underpaid detective? Molly for being there for Sherlock and pulling long shifts in the morgue? Or is there really no hero at all? And what exactly is a hero?

Hercules was considered a hero because he choose to be one. Because he rather wanted to be remembered for his deeds than having a happy life. He was a hero for the fame – a motivation we would nowadays consider beneath a true her. King Arthur was a hero because he fought for a just society, putting the needs of all above his personal needs. Superman is one because he is more than human, because he protects the ones in need, setting an example we all strive to follow (at least he did until the last movie, but that’s another topic). In the last years, though, we moved away from this impossible ideal. A hero no longer has to be uber-human. Our current heroes do struggle with what is right and wrong, and they are allowed to fail as long as they keep finding the way back to the right path. Being a hero is no longer just about succeeding, it is about the willingness to try. And in that, it doesn’t make a difference what the weapons of choice are – especially in the real world the right words speaking at the right time and the right place are often more effective than a messy fight.

This in mind Sherlock’s flawed personality is no argument against him being hero. And in fact, in His Last Vow he is framed like an hero from a Greek tragedy following the theories of Aristotle. According to him in an ideal tragedy the hero is set up to fail. Through no fault of his own he faces a situation in which he has the choice between ignoring the suffering of the ones around him or taking the fall in order to protect them. This is exactly what happens to Sherlock. He can either allow Magnussen to win, leaving everyone, including John, Mary and Mycroft to his mercy, or he can take the shot, looking to the world like a murderer. And like a true hero, he takes the fall.

Was Sherlock a hero during the first two seasons, when he was playing his game with Moriarty? I don’t think so. The first “fall” he took was a fake after all. And perhaps that’s the point. In the first episode Mycroft assesses that John Watson might be the making of his brother. Perhaps “Sherlock” is not a show about the deeds of a hero, but the making of one, about a selfish man on the brink to self-destruction becomes someone who does deserve our admiration.