Monday, 9 January 2012

SHERLOCK, 2.2 - "The Hounds Of Baskerville"

Monday, 9 January 2012

"I don't have friends. I've just got one." – Sherlock to Watson

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most popular fictional characters on the planet, but I think it's safe to say the general public aren't as au fait with the plots to "A Study In Scarlet" or "A Scandal In Bohemia", which have been the basis of just two Sherlock episodes in this modern update. Sherlock as a character is better known than his adventures. However, "The Hound Of The Baskervilles" is arguably the one case most people know something about, or would single out as the iconic case for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's sleuth. It was actually the author's most popular tale, written years after he'd killed Holmes in 1893's "The Final Problem" (an inspiration for next week's finale), although chronologically it took place earlier. Regardless, this story's become a classic of its genre and, for most people, the one they have genuine familiarity with.

Co-creator Mark Gatiss adapts and updates the 1901 story, renaming it "The Hounds Of Baskerville", as the second episode of Sherlock, and it proves to be another rousing success in almost every respect. In the Venn diagram of Gatiss' interests, this story would sit somewhere in the middle, most notably because of its supernatural element and Hammer Horror affiliation (Christopher Lee played Sir Henry in the 1959 horror from that British studio, opposite Peter Cushing's Holmes). So it's no great surprise that Gatiss manages to craft an effective and enjoyable adventure here, cleverly updating the story to involve a secret chemical/biological army test centre in Dartmoor that may have created a genetic chimera known as "The Hound" (which has become a local legend, akin to the real-life Beast Of Bodmin).

It's less dense and complicated than last week's premiere, but that's to its credit. While Steven Moffat favours plot-flips and surprises round every corner, Gatiss is better at sustaining a chilling mood and telling a spooky story. The adventure begins with posh Henry Knight (Russell Tovey) asking for Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson's (Martin Freeman) help solving the mystery of his father's disappearance 20 years ago—the alleged result of an attack by a beast, or "Hound", with glowing red eyes, which has now returned and is haunting him on the moors. Initially incredulous of the tale, to put it mildly, Sherlock is nevertheless drawn to Devon to investigate this tall tale, and comes to realise there may be something to Henry's wild story—particularly after witnessing the fabled creature himself at the misty Jewer's Hollow, forcing the world's most rational mind to doubt the one thing that's never let him down: his own eyes.

"The Hounds Of Baskerville" was huge fun, and I particularly enjoyed seeing Sherlock and Watson taken out of their London stomping grounds to wander the bleak Devon countryside. It immediately gave the show a very different feel (Agatha Christie-meets-Brotherhood Of The Wolfand you could tell Gatiss was having great fun making the duo rub shoulders with eccentric country folk: the barman who mistakes them as a gay couple, the enthusiast who owns a plaster footprint of the Hound, or the various members of the Baskerville research centre who are prime suspects for releasing an abomination into the wilderness beyond their barbed wire fences and minefield. It was also the ideal story to take Sherlock out of his comfort zone in other ways—by tackling a seemingly preposterous story, clashing against the otherworldly. It's often claimed, accurately, that Doctor Who is a Sherlock Holmes update in many ways, so it's interesting to note that the two characters have very different belief systems. The Doctor would have no problem accepting something crazy was happening here, even if there was a semi-rational explanation for things. In fact, "Tooth & Claw" is in some ways Who's version of the Baskerville story.

However, there were problems with this episode. While it was a wise decision to ensure this update didn't follow the original story too closely, regarding the fact Watson is essentially alone on the case for a long time, there were still moments when the story had to keep its double-act apart... and it wasn't always successful. But perhaps more problematic was how Henry Knight was used throughout the story, as he slipped into the background too much and was left to have a mental breakdown in a subplot that felt too tangential to the Sherlock/Watson investigation. Tovey was probably cast because he's brilliant at evoking audience sympathy, but Henry was just too much of a weeping wreck to be all that interesting. I'd have preferred him to play a more substantial role in things, but I understand why that would also presented problems in other ways.

I also found that the resolution to the mystery was perhaps too silly for this show. When it all boiled down to hazy childhood memories, a man in a red-eyed gas mask, a scary wolf T-shirt, a recognisable acronym, and the hallucinogenic gas from Batman Begins... well, it made enough sense to be largely satisfying, but it was also dafter than you expect from Sherlock. I think it's obvious why this story is a relatively rare instance of Sherlock tackling an X File. It can work, just about, but there's more pleasure to be gained from a compelling mystery that takes everyday things and gives them impossible twists that only Sherlock can unknot.

But despite its flaws, Mark Gatiss did probably the best job with pacing on the show since it began. These 90-minute episodes generally sag in the middle, but "The Hounds Of Baskerville" sustained itself like a genuine movie for once. It was still possible to lose 20-minutes from the story, if you gave it a good shake, but it didn't really hit the same "wall" after an hour—where you check your watch and wonder how they're going to keep the story going another 30-minutes. Maybe this is partly because Gatiss's adaptation was more of a direct update to the singular Conan Doyle story, instead of a mere starting point that's joined by elements from other plots, which has been true of the previous adventures.

Overall, "The Hounds Of Baskerville" wasn't as gripping as last week's premiere, but it held my attention better because it didn't feel so desperate to bamboozle the audience. In fact, there were quite a few moments when I was able to play "armchair detective" and managed to spot a few clues that proved relevant to Sherlock's deductions or methodology: like Dr Frankland using the Americanism of "cell number" instead of "mobile number", or the strangeness of him giving Watson sugar with his tea. Maybe this is because we, as an audience, are beginning to pay greater attention to the show's finer details, knowing how this show operates. I'm even starting to make mental notes about the seemingly trivial cases Sherlock dismisses early in episodes (like Bluebell the missing rabbit here) because they're more important than you realise...

Whatever gripes there were, this was highly enjoyable and stylish filmmaking with impressive performances and a real sense of mood, effective chills, and a few jumps along the way. The CGI "Hound" may not have been as convincing as we'd been led to believe it would be, and there were times when this adaptation didn't work perfectly, but overall I had a great time watching "The Hounds Of Baskerville" and it was nowhere close to being a disappointment for me.


  • For British audiences, the cast here was full of recognisable TV faces: Clive Mantle (Robin Of Sherwood, Casualty), Amelia Bullmore (Alan Partridge, Big Train), Sasha Behar ("Mad Maya" in Coronation Street), and Russell Tovey from Being Human, of course. Tovey was on the receiving end of a wolf-like creature here, which may have been an added meta-joke!
  • Don't play Cluedo with Sherlock! "The victim did it."
  • Mycroft's stolen ID card is essentially this show's version of The Doctor's "psychic paper"? Incidentally, why did the army soldier let Sherlock through after swiping that card, considering it clearly displayed a photo of Mycroft. Simple visual identification should surely have stopped Sherlock getting a foot beyond the check-in gate!
  • Great to see the embarrassing deerstalker has become a running joke on Sherlock!
  • I wonder if Sherlock's offer to tell Watson next week's lottery numbers was a nod to Derren Brown, the illusionist who did a famous lottery prediction trick on TV fairly recently. Brown's definitely a Holmesian character himself.
  • Dr Frankland's mention of the WHO convention obviously wasn't a Doctor Who reference, as it refers to the World Health Organisation, but perhaps it still works as one? Dr Frankland may have been a veiled reference to Dr Frankenstein, too?
  • The "Mind Palace" moment with Sherlock, as he mentally moves through his memories using hand gestures like Tom Cruise in Minority Report, felt too hokey to me. The idea appears to have been lifted from Thomas Harris' book Hannibal, which even made an appearance on a bookshelf in one scene. I suppose it gave director Paul McGuigan some more visual flourishes to indulge, in a more overtly humorous way.
written by Mark Gatiss / directed by Paul McGuigan / 8 January 2012 / BBC One