Monday, 2 January 2012

Review: SHERLOCK, 2.1 – "A Scandal In Belgravia"

Monday, 2 January 2012

"Look at those cheekbones. I could cut myself slapping that face. Would you like me to try?" -- Irene Adler

It's been an agonising 18-months since the BBC's internationally successful Sherlock Holmes update ended on a tense cliffhanger, but that's given everyone more than enough time to catch the repeats, buy/rent the DVD, and tell their friends about a show that may have escaped their notice during the summer of 2010. Thankfully, the wait is now over, and we have another trio of feature-length episodes to enjoy—and each one this year's based on arguably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most popular stories.

Things begin on a worrying note, to be frank, with a resolution of series 1's climax that's a big anticlimax—with Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Dr Watson (Martin Freeman) saved from Moriarty's (Andrew Scott) laser-sighted snipers at a public bath by a sudden change of heart from Sherlock's arch-nemesis after a phone call. Writer Steven Moffat just about gets away with it, because the moment is played for laughs (the Napoleon of Crime has a BeeGees ringtone?) and it's revealed that this episode's literary update, Irene Adler (the excellent Lara Pulver), is ultimately behind the last-second reprieve. But it's nevertheless a little deflating after such a long wait, where we've been expecting a spectacularly clever escape. And despite having negligible screen time here, Moriarty's still an unfortunately discordant modernization—with his sing-song voice like a psychotic Irish version of Paul McCartney, later blowing a raspberry to the London sky. Say what you like about Guy Ritchie's parallel movie franchise, but he at least got Jared Harris aboard.

Thankfully, this marks an early moment of uncertainty, because "A Scandal In Belgravia" is otherwise another powerhouse 90-minutes from Moffat and director Paul McGuigan—who has an even bigger bag of visual tricks this year, including having Sherlock "mentally" walk around his recollection of a crime scene at a later date, as if he's travelled back in time and is witnessing the events in slow-motion. The show's signature subtitles are also back, allowing us see into Sherlock's array of quick observations, but in even more visually creative ways.

"Brainy's the new sexy."

Any attempt to describe the plot is almost a folly, as it bends and twists in all manner of directions, often intentionally confusing viewers who are left to hope Baker Street's finest will provide just enough deductions to have them follow the basics. If I'm honest, there are times when that doesn't happen as regularly as hoped (especially after the first hour's passed) and you find yourself scrambling to keep up with the script. How did we get from chase the mobile phone to a jumbo jet full of corpses? It's a show that demands a few repeat viewings until everything becomes as clear in your mind as it is in Sherlock's, but that's no bad thing. At least here, unlike in the equivalently knotty episodes of Moffat-penned Doctor Who, there's a feeling of internal logic at work that can't rely on the whims of silly imagination to solve impossible problems. In fact, watching Sherlock again made me wonder why Moffat can't reproduce this style of writing for younger audiences of Who, without taking things too far. My theory is that Moffat works better when there's constraints, and Sherlock takes place in an ordinary world with an extraordinary hero. When it comes to Doctor Who, where anything and everything is possible, Moffat is given too much rope as showrunner and hangs himself too often.

The big takeaway with "A Scandal In Belgravia" is the delicious dialogue, fizzing character moments, rousing set-pieces, ingenious deductions (okay the "riverside boomerang" one was silly), and a sense of breathless pace and bravado that's very infectious and makes other TV shows look doddery in comparison. Since we last saw him, Sherlock's become an internet sensation (amusingly evading the press while wearing the disguise of the character's iconic deerstalker), taking on clients who read Watson's blog on the great detective's exploits (the only part of this update that feels stupid to me). Naturally, Sherlock only agrees to tackle the most fiendish of mysteries, and one tantalising case lands in his lap courtesy of brother Myrcroft (Mark Gatiss) at Buckingham Palace: retrieve compromising material in the possession of a high-class "dominatrix" called Irene Adler (aka "The Woman"), who is also being chased by CIA agents, as it could lead to the embarrassment of the British government.

Irene Adler is unfortunately another example of Moffat's tendency to write women in sexually clichéd roles, after Who companion Amy Pond (the kissogram turned perfume model)—here transformed from Victorian opera singer to a high-class prostitute with a penchant for riding crops and whips. It would be more frustrating were it not for the fact Adler's still a very powerful woman and, similarly to Who's River Song, a character able to use sex to bamboozle and confuse the show's asexual lead. A standout moment when Adler first meets Sherlock, turning the tables by arriving completely nude—which turns her into a puzzling blank canvas for the sharp-eyed sleuth who primarily relies on shoes to figure people out. That whole scene is the episode's best, watching Sherlock and Adler try to work each other out, leading to a brilliant sequence involving a fire alarm, a safe, an American hitman, and an unspoken access code.

"You're a great boyfriend. Sherlock's a very lucky man."

Similarly to 2010's episodes, "A Scandal In Belgravia" starts to flag after the first hour, with a clear sense that 20-minutes could have been trimmed from the flabbier middle. I'm not sure why each story isn't being split into two halves, aired on consecutive nights, which would certainly help. At this breakneck pace, with Moffat's desire to play non-stop mind-games with the audience, it can becomes wearisome after awhile. Fortunately it all ended brilliantly, with a fist-pumping moment of triumph for Sherlock and a fun denouement that revealed the extent of Sherlock's fascination and "love" for The Woman who in many ways is his equal. The whole challenge of this episode was for Sherlock to crack a case that's entwined with aspects of the human condition he has little personal experience of: sex and love. Irene Adler used her femininity against "The Virgin" (as Moriarty apparently refers to him), and watching Sherlock do battle against a woman who clearly finds him a fascinating, psychologically erotic challenge, was huge fun.

The compliments of series 1 are again true, most notably in Cumberbatch's career-defining role as the "high-functioning sociopath". A man who's occasionally rather terrifying (repeatedly throwing a man out of a window because he dared to scare housekeeper Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs)), and is otherwise a strange yet fascinating presence. The way he surveys the world like a super-intelligent Siamese cat can send a shiver of excitement down your spine. Ultimately, you feel in very safe hands watching Sherlock, even if you come away not totally understanding a good 30% of what just happened. Steven Moffat may have broken into the big-time with Doctor Who, but it's his second favourite childhood obsession that's getting the best material right now.


  • John Watson's Blog is real (, as it Irene Adler's Twitter account (@thewhiphand), and Watson's friend Molly Hooper's website (
  • I loved the scene where Sherlock's whisked to Buckingham Palace, where he could quite possibly have been meeting The Queen, wearing only a bed sheet to cover his dignity.
  • Great use of the impressive Battersea Power Station as a location, which has been used many times on Doctor Who. It's perhaps most famous for appearing on the cover of Pink Floyd's 1977 album "Animals".
  • You should recognize Lara Pulver from the BBC's Robin Hood (where I once tipped her for great things), and in the wasted role of a fairy on True Blood.
written by Steven Moffat / directed by Paul McGuigan / 1 January 2012 / BBC One