‘he had a remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women’ – the Sherlock Christmas special

If you have not seen the Sherlock Christmas Special as yet, and are worried about finding out how it ends, I suggest you go and watch it before you read this. If you’re not worried, read on.

[Mrs Hudson] stood in the deepest awe of him and never dared to interfere with him, however outrageous his proceedings might seem. She was fond of him, too, for he had a remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women. He disliked and distrusted the sex, but he was always a chivalrous opponent.

Arthur Conan Doyle – The Adventure of the Dying Detective

‘What exactly is the point of you?’ Sherlock Holmes to Mrs Hudson

Steven Moffat – His Last Vow (Sherlock, Season 3)

I mostly abandoned Sherlock at the beginning of series 2, because I found it so irritating, and at the time I had too little patience with things that irritated me to set about finding out why they irritated me. I suspected back then it might have something to do with the shows being insufficiently canonical, which probably meant that I was actually being a bit too stuffy about the whole thing, and that was the kind of self-examination I wasn’t really prepared to deal with just then.

So, new year, better attitude: I decided to watch ‘The Abominable Bride’, the Sherlock Christmas special. The premise looked intriguing and, I admit it, I was curious about the fact the show would be set in Victorian London. Foolishly, I had assumed it was a genuine one-off show, an honest-to-god Christmas special, a return to the textual taproot, so to speak. You would think I would know better than that by now, but I apparently still have much to learn about the Way of Moffat.

The first thing to recognise, perhaps, is that anything I might know, he will know better: he will know anything better than me. I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool Sherlockian by any means – I don’t possess that obsessive character quirk that appears to mark the genuine fan of anything– but I’ve read, watched and listened to the stories in various adaptations enough times to have a decent working knowledge of the canon, even if I don’t have a minutely detailed recall of every actor who has so much as sneezed in one frame of film.

However, two things in particular I have learned over the years. One is that while Sherlock Holmes may not particularly like women, as a rule he behaves well towards them and listens sympathetically to their problems. Conan Doyle states this most clearly, through his mouthpiece, John H. Watson, in ‘The Adventure of the Dying Detective’, but one sees ample evidence of this elsewhere. One might cite, for example, ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’, in which Holmes several times praises the resourceful Miss Violet Hunter, who takes a post, aware that something is amiss, and takes the precaution of contacting Sherlock Holmes before leaving London. One might note his behaviour towards Mary Morstan in The Sign of the Four, or any number of other examples throughout the texts, up to and including the landlady in ‘The Adventure of the Red Circle’ or ‘The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger’. Holmes is canonically far more sympathetic than people realise.

The other thing I know is that Conan Doyle himself created the metafictional aspect of the Sherlock Holmes stories, with Holmes regularly making disparaging observations about Watson’s prowess as a writer. ‘The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier’ is recounted by Holmes himself in response to Watson’s urging.

For a long time he has worried me to write an experience of my own. Perhaps I have rather invited this persecution, since I have often had occasion to point out to him how superficial are his own accounts and to accuse him of pandering to popular taste instead of confining himself rigidily to facts and figures.

‘The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane’ seems to emerge from Holmes’ need to record a peculiar case at a point when Watson is not there to be his amanuensis. ‘Thus I must act as my own chronicler.’

Radio 4 took up the metafictional aspect of adapting Sherlock Holmes well before Steven Moffat came on the scene, and with much more subtlety. Those familiar with the Clive Merrison/Michael Williams Holmes and Watson productions will be aware that the fact of Watson writing about Holmes was a frequent topic of discussion in the narrative frame, and not just Holmes disparaging Watson’s flair for melodrama. Think of it more as an ongoing low-key examination of the nature of fictionality, to the point where the narrative raises some very interesting philosophical points about identity.

Cut then to ‘The Abominable Bride’, and to Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson, complaining to Watson about the paucity of lines for her in his stories. This is actually entirely true – in the canon, Mrs Hudson is mentioned a bare 13 times, yet somehow she seems to be more present than that, a fact that has seeped into tv and radio productions, where she often has more lines than she ever did in the originals.

But then, as we have been reminded constantly, what is the point of Mrs Hudson, of Mary Morstan, Molly Hooper, and the various other women who have drifted through three series of Sherlock, other having to put up with Sherlock’s petulance and rudeness? Unlike their counterparts in Conan Doyle’s stories these women are rarely accorded respect by Sherlock Holmes, whom we must, I fear, regard as Moffat’s mouthpiece.

Moffat has been called out on this constantly over three series yet has pretty much stuck his fingers in his ears and gone la-la-la to indicate how he doesn’t mind, in between throwing tantrums whenever he feels a little too beleaguered by the fans’ failure to appreciate his ongoing wonderfulness in delivering up this amazing show. Like his creation, Moffat lacks respect; he lacks respect for a good percentage of his audience while being complicit with the other portion, who of course appreciate his laddish witticisms. But this has all been said before so I am hardly bringing anything new to the table.

I think, though, that ‘respect’, or the lack of it, is perhaps key to understanding what Moffat does, or doesn’t do, and almost the main reason why he gets up my nose so much. He may love Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation with an unreasoning nerdy joy, and that’s fine. There is a place for someone to hold all those little fragments of information in their head and trot them out for our edification as the circumstances allow. But Moffat does not respect the idea of ‘Sherlock Holmes’, and that’s a whole different thing.

And by ‘respect’, or lack of it, I don’t mean the playing fast and loose with the canon, but the manner of that playing fast and loose. It’s one thing to insert knowing references to ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ or ‘The Five Orange Pips’, and a slyer reference to ‘The Greek Interpreter’ (which I spotted immediately, so go me). It’s another thing to take the canonical figure, move it to contemporary times, and then effectively trash it simply because you can. Because it seems to me that this is what Moffat does every time he puts a woman into Sherlock and silences her or demeans her in some way.

While contemporary Sherlock Holmes has a range of skills available to him that are different to those of his nineteenth-century counterpart, he is nonetheless still Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle’s character. Except that Moffat has entirely stripped him of his humanity because he apparently doesn’t have the skill to read the deeper character. Or rather, he may think he does – because it’s all about Irene Adler, isn’t it? – but I don’t think he does. He might even argue – maybe he has and I missed it – that his Sherlock Holmes is intentionally the complete antithesis of the original – except that I don’t believe this either. Moffat’s Sherlock doesn’t seem to me to be a radical departure from the canonical figure so much as an excuse for a badly behaved Millennial to rampage around London with impunity. Or to put it another way, you don’t get to label yourself as a sociopath; that’s a job for others. And if you are going to be openly misogynistic, you’d better have a damn good reason for doing it – Irene made me do it doesn’t count.

To judge from the Christmas episode, however, it would seem that word has finally reached Moffat’s brain that women are not pleased with him. That, in fact, they are really displeased, and given they form a significant chunk of the fanbase, it has become clear to him that he must do something. The Abominable Bride could be read, therefore, as some sort of attempt to address past deficiencies, an attempt to ask oneself as writer how one could have let it get so bad. Mrs Hudson could indeed ask John H Watson why she had so few lines in his stories. Mary Morstan could find her way, heavily veiled, to 221b Baker Street to ask John Watson why the hell he hasn’t been home lately. His parlour maid could ask John Watson why he never mentions her in his stories. Poor John – everyone wants to know why he’s being so nasty to them, and of course he has no answer, because he can’t really say ‘the scriptwriter made me do it’.

Sherlock Holmes remains silent, because it is not his department. He’s got a dead body to worry about. The body of Emelia Ricoletti, who the previous afternoon blew out her brains before a large audience of bystanders, only to re-appear later the same day, armed with a shotgun, to blow two large holes through her husband. It was the Ricolettis’ wedding anniversary, Emelia was dressed in her wedding gown, and killed her husband outside a Limehouse opium den, again before witnesses, before vanishing into the fog. By the time Holmes and Watson reach the morgue, her body is lying chained down on a mortuary table, because, apparently, her fingers are smeared with blood, and someone has used that blood to write ‘You’ on the wall in rather shaky letters (see ‘rache’, in A Study in Scarlet), all of which suggests that the corpse of Emelia Ricoletti committed the murder of her husband.

Naturally, the highly rational Holmes will not have any of this. Nor will he accept any of Watson’s faintly ludicrous explanations, such as that Emelia Ricoletti has a secret twin. It is never twins, he says firmly, and indeed it never is. But as he surely knows himself, it doesn’t have to be a twin, just someone who looks similar. As in ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’, say, though canonically that hasn’t happened yet, as it’s five stories after ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, which provides the anchor for this story. Or, say, as in a story of a man who fakes his own suicide at the end of Series Two of a tv show at some point in the future.

And here I have to say that whatever else I feel about ‘The Abominable Bride’ the little nugget of actual story was gorgeously done, one of those moments when you think to yourself, ‘thank god, they do actually know what they’re doing’, even though you know you’ll inevitably be disabused of that notion a few scenes later. I assumed the sensationalism and melodrama of it all, complete with an outing for one of my favorite stage effects, Pepper’s Ghost, was a nod to the original Holmes’s regular complaint that Watson dressed up his stories with flagrant disregard for the actual facts. If so, this was, I think, far further over the top than anything Conan Doyle’s Watson could have dreamed of. I was really quite excited about it.

A string of murders follows – Holmes not unreasonably dismisses them as copycat murders – and then Mycroft directs Holmes and Watson to take on a case from one Lady Carmichael, concerned for her husband, Lord Eustace, who has received five orange pips in an envelope in the post, which apparently signifies his death. Later, he sees the Bride in the grounds of his house. Lady Carmichael has come to Holmes, asking him to protect Lord Eustace.

In directing the case to Holmes, Mycroft comments ominously that they will be battling an enemy who lurks constantly at their elbow: Watson rattles off a shopping list of nineteenth-century concerns (read Conrad’s The Secret Agent if you want a sense of London at this time), all of which Mycroft dismisses. Watching a second time, you get a very clear sense of what Mycroft is hinting at, something that both Holmes and Watson have so far failed to grasp in their various ways. Holmes has apparently failed to notice that Hooper, the surgeon at the mortuary, is in fact a woman. Watson has spotted this, and kindly lets Hooper know that he is aware, making a snide comment about the things people do to get on in the world. Our first view of the doomed Sir Eustace includes him making snide remarks about his wife’s plans for the day, assuming she will either do embroidery or visit her milliner, when clearly she has two children, a husband and a house to take care of, at the very least.

To protect Sir Eustace, Holmes and Watson stake out the house, waiting in a convenient conservatory until something happens. This is the stuff of so many of Conan Doyle’s stories – waiting under cover of dark for something to happen – but here Moffat decides to fill in the gaps by having Watson try to persuade Holmes to open up about his past. It is, of course, painful bromance stuff, and this viewer at least shared Holmes’s relief when the ‘ghost’ showed up and they could do some running around.

Perhaps the most spectacular moment comes when, as Holmes is in the house, Watson stands guard by the window they have smashed to gain entrance, and the ‘ghost’ appears behind him. We know, of course, that the ghost must be corporeal, but we might feel a certain sympathy for Watson when he legs it in search of Holmes. There was a genuine frisson of fear at that moment. I savoured it, little realising that things were about to go seriously off the rails.

Or maybe I had noticed already. Because, at this point in the proceedings, I couldn’t help noticing that, with half the show still to run, we didn’t exactly seem to be going anywhere. There was the odd detail of Holmes, Watson and Lestrade suddenly finding a note on the corpse of Sir Eustace where there had been none before. And had I seen all of Series Two and Three it might have made more sense to begin with. And what about Mycroft?

Conan Doyle’s Mycroft is described thus by Watson, when he meets him for the first time in ‘The Greek Interpreter’:

‘Mycroft Holmes was a much larger and stouter man than Sherlock. His body was absolutely corpulent, but his face, though massive, had preserved something of the sharpness of expression which was so remarkable in that of his brother. His eyes, which were of a peculiarly light, watery gray, seemed to always retain that far-away, introspective look which I had only observed in Sherlock’s when he was exerting his full powers.

‘I am glad to meet you, sir,’ said he, putting out a broad, fat hand like the flipper of a seal

Fat, yes, but not a glutton, so far as we can tell. Conan Doyle’s Holmes notes that Mycroft leads a very sedentary life, moving between his home, his work and the Diogenes Club, whereas MoffatMycroft seems to owe more to the Pythons’ Mr Creosote, revelling in his gourmandising. And Mycroft draws attention to his increasing girth when Holmes visits him again the next day, and to something else when he describes Holmes as the virus in the data, words that simply don’t belong in Victorian London. Something is not right here.

Indeed, a lot of things are not right. And I don’t just mean in terms of Moffat’s Sherlock Holmes being his usual obnoxious self, rather than being on his best Victorian behaviour. Back at the beginning, Mary Morstan receives a note which is signed ‘M’. There are two possibilities – Moriarty, who is dead, to begin with, or Mycroft, who most certainly is not (nor likely to be as he is played by Mark Gatiss, and it seems unlikely that Moffat and Gatiss will be writing out Gatiss’s character any time soon). At this stage, I can’t tell if this is Moffat attempting to misdirect us – oh my god, Mary’s conniving with Moriarty, who is not dead after all (or has Colonel Sebastian Moran been brought into play) – or whether he’s assuming we’ll assume the obvious, because, well, it’s obvious. Is he playing mind games with his audience, or is he just being an incredibly clumsy storyteller? Could it be, could it actually be that …

Given Moffat can never resist throwing the entire rack of seasonings into almost any story he writes, it’s reasonable to surmise that both Moriarty and Mycroft are involved (and for Sebastian Moran to be there too, for all I know).

And that is the last we see of Mary Morstan for over half the show. Her absence is marked chez Watson, when Watson is having trouble keeping the maid in order (it is, after all, Mary’s job to supervise the household staff, not Watson’s), but Watson himself is irritated rather than puzzled by this. It is an inconvenience rather than a cause for concern. Does this happen all the time? What a remarkably modern marriage, we might think.

So it’s hardly surprising when Moriarty, still dead, at this point, appears in Holmes’ rooms as he tries to puzzle out the business of the Abominable Bride. Hold on, let’s run that past me again. Moriarty is dead and yet here he is, large as life, not quite twice as natural as he seems to have a large hole in the back of his head …

At which point we come to realise that we are not in Victorian London, in a one-off Christmas special, as we thought, and never were, but are in fact in MoffatSherlock’s memory palace, which is of course set up to look like Conan Doyle’s Holmes’s world. And we have just been summoned back to the twenty-first century to appreciate the cleverness of all this. The sense of disappointment I felt at this moment is difficult to convey. Primarily, I felt cheated of the entertainment I had been promised, because yet again Steven Moffat had felt the inexorable desire to disappear up his own fundament and get ludicrously metafictional on his own arse, and that will always, always, always trump any instance where he might have done some good storytelling.

The clues pointing to the fact that Moffat and his creation are locked in some sort of battle to the death within an infinite regress are all there if you remember that Moffat has, essentially, only one subject, and that’s Sherlock. Or rather, as the estimable Abigail Nussbaum pointed out this afternoon on Twitter, insofar as Sherlock is a show about making a show, it is really all about Moffat’s efforts to turn Sherlock into Doctor Who. So, actually, it’s really all about Steven. Again.

We’ll come back to why Sherlock is in his dolls house, sorry, memory palace, in a moment. First, we need to go back to Victorian London and those murders, and luckily Sherlock is able to take us there. By this time we have probably accepted that we are not going to get a straightforward solution to the murders, except … wait, Sherlock surmises how it was done – with the use of a substitute dead body (never a twin), enabling Emelia to murder her husband later that night. Then Emelia herself must die, but that’s ok, because she is making a sacrifice for the cause, and has consumption so is going to die soon anyway. So that’s alright. I guess

This is me giving Moffat the side-eye for that one.

It’s at this point that Holmes and Watson receive word from Mary Morstan – remember her? She has been absent for almost the entire drama so far – who has apparently tracked down the people responsible for the murders and asks for their help. She is, according to Holmes, now in mortal danger. Which is how we find ourselves in the crypt of a (very badly CGI’d) half-ruined church, witnessing a peculiar ceremony with a lot of flaming torches, Latin chant and people parading in hooded costumes. Either they’re penitentes or a hitherto unknown English branch of the Ku Klux Klan (I assume Moffat drew this from ‘The Five Orange Pips’, where the Klan was involved). Maybe Moffat has been reading up on the English folk-horror movement lately.

At which point Holmes reveals he knows exactly what is going on (and doubtless has done all along) and breaks into an impassioned explanation of how these mysterious costumed people are women who have been wronged in various ways by their menfolk and who have decided to act for themselves, murdering the men who have treated them badly. So Emelia Ricoletti, the Abominable Bride, is a symbol they can utilise. Anyone can be Emelia (I’m Emelia; no, I am) as and when needed.

So this is it. This is the culmination of all the odd comments about silent women, powerless women, Watson worrying about suffragists and overly perky housemaids. Mrs Hudson feeling overlooked, Lady Carmichael being slighted by her husband, Emelia Ricoletti murdering her no-good man, Molly Hooper having to conceal her gender in order to get the job she wants. I mean, look, it was Mary who practically solved the case by finding out where the ceremony was happening. But not to worry. Sherlock is here now, to mansplain how badly women are being treated. There, everything’s better, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Well, what do you think?

What I did think was that this might be Moffat’s attempt to try to make amends for his past cock-ups in the feminism department. He’s acknowledged how women are so often demeaned and silenced in his stories by having everyone comment on how they are demeaned and silenced. And then, like a deus ex machina, Sherlock makes a speech – during which he demeans and silences women all over again by reminding them of how they are demeaned and silenced. That is, he speaks for them rather than letting them speak for themselves. And yes, I did notice that Mary’s investigation is conducted entirely off-screen, and we only see it at the end, when Sherlock arrives to take over. I have no idea whether or not that was intentional, but if it wasn’t, and even if it was – you begin to understand why the women are assuming the identity of the Bride and offing their annoying spousal units. (And were I Sherlock Holmes I’d lock my bedroom door at night, just in case Mrs Hudson got an idea or two.)

Nor has it escaped my attention that this is supposedly all Sherlock’s rancid drug-addled imagining anyway, so it would be very easy to dismiss the entire thing out of hand if necessary. Except that I think Moffat really believes he is using Sherlock as a feminist force for good as the laydeez get a decent crack of the whip in this show. Which is, of course, to miss the point entirely, as Moffat so very often does.

And anyway, in case we haven’t realised, all this is a distraction; a grand guignol hammer with which to crack the considerable nut of Sherlock’s ongoing affair with his beloved nemesis, Gentleman Jim Moriarty – how did he kill himself and live to fight another day. This is why Sherlock is sitting in his mental wendy house. For this he has reached back into time to exploit the death of a woman, who shot herself in order to provide other women with a way of dealing with the men who oppressed them, to scratch his unrequited urge to figure out how Moriarty did it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you feminism the Moffat Way. Because everything must always be about Sherlock Holmes; that is, everything must always be about Steven Moffat. This is not an apology for ignoring women, mistreating them, exploiting them. Perhaps Moffat thinks he is acknowledging those concerns with his oh-so-amusing metafictional criticism, having Mrs Hudson go on strike in the name of satire, or having Mary Morstan vanish to solve the case. Perhaps he thinks he’s done a good thing by having Sherlock speak up on behalf of downtrodden women. He may think that but let’s not forget the pay-off. Mary, it turns out, was indeed summoned by Mycroft, and asked to keep an eye on Sherlock, because Mycroft worries about him. Yes, thoroughly modern Mary Morstan is effectively working as a superior sort of nursemaid. Either that or someone got hold of a box set of Elementary and knew a good idea when they saw it.

And as if this weren’t enough, at the very end we are led to believe that it was indeed all a dream. Again. Except this time it was VictorianSherlock speculating on what a future Sherlock might be like. Self-referentiality taken to its furthest extreme and all done up with a red ribbon. Plus an added side of further disrespect as he suggests calling the story the Adventure of the Monstrous Regiment. Oh, how I did not laugh.

I’ve said a couple of times recently that it seems to me that Gatiss and Moffat, despite being almost my age, continue to behave like a couple of rather clever sixth-formers, showing off their cleverness. Which is cute and excusable in sixth-formers, but rather less desirable in almost fifty-somethings. I don’t deny for a moment that they love Sherlock Holmes, and all the hopelessly geeky stuff (and yes, guys, I did notice the name Vernet written in Mycroft’s diary, below Redbeard – I know, Vernet is the name of Sherlock’s French grandmother.) but I contend again that they don’t really ‘get’ Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. That is, they cannot take the character and make something of it in the way that Brett, Merrison, Rathbone, and the writers of Elementary have done. They keep referring back to the original perhaps because they lack the confidence to make it their own, or because they simply don’t have the ideas. I mean, what is all this Moriarty/Redbeard stuff but Bad Wolf all over again? (And to be honest, the way I feel about Sherlock right now, nothing would delight me more than to discover that Moriarty has godlike powers.)

The thing is, you can only do so much standing around being amazed that you get to work on these characters you’ve loved ever since you were old enough to be aware they existed, and showing off how powerful you are because you are now in charge of their stories. Sooner or later, if the stories you are telling are shit – and they are – and you are incapable of acknowledging the existence of half the human race except as a useful peg on which to hang your half-arsed attempt to pretend you hadn’t fucked up on that point in all the other episodes – and you did fuck up, royally – you will be found out. Be you doctor, consulting detective or script-emperor, sooner or later enough people will notice you have got no clothes on. And in fact, lots of us have been noticing this for a long time.

Don’t you think Steven Moffat looks cold?

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