written by Stephen Thompson, Steven Moffat & Mark Gatiss | directed by Colm McCarthy
Each series of Sherlock's low-point has been the middle episode, sandwiched between two better 90-minutes that work to distract from its shortcomings. Stephen Thompson has been responsible for one already (together with a handful of trifling Doctor Who episodes), so your first reaction is to wonder why he keeps being asked to write more. Of course, it could just be that Thompson does his best with an assignment from creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss that's always going to cause problems.
"The Sign of Three" is actually credited to Moffat and Gatiss, in addition to Thompson, and one assumes this means they stepped in to improve an early draft so extensively they became co-writers. Or maybe it really was a team effort because this was very different kind of episode than we're used to. It was less a compelling murder-mystery, more a character study of the Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) friendship, told mainly through flashbacks to a previous case Sherlock reminisced about during a knuckle-gnawing Best Man's Speech at the Watson's wedding... and ultimately talk his way into a solution that didn't occur to him beforehand.
It was a different way to present a story, but not one that was wholly successful. Like the confetti at Watson's ceremony, it was fleetingly entertaining but didn't coalesce into anything very dramatic or exciting. It was more an episode containing enjoyable moments and interesting, if implausible, ideas. I liked seeing Sherlock and Watson drunk together (with Sherlock's 'text-visual' deductions suitably warped when inebriated), although those scenes went on for far too long. Indeed, much of this episode felt indulgent, as the core mystery about a murderer assuming the identities of dead people could have been told in a swift half-hour. This was definitely an episode where the feature-length running time didn't justify the strength or depth of the story. In fact, I now seriously wonder why they don't just produce six episodes of a traditional 45-minute length.
The scene where Sherlock imagined himself in a court room surrounded by people, who were actually only messaging him online through a half-dozen separate laptops, was also quite fun. Until you stopped to realise that just isn't going to work (was he he typing the same thing to everyone separately?), and it makes no sense that Sherlock simply isn't doing a group chat. Or, well, just Skype? This modern Holmes is supposed to be au fait with new technology, and yet he somehow thinks you need a separate laptop to hold each chat? (Okay, this may come across as nerdy nitpicking, but I think it's worth mentioning because the character was never presented as having the IT skills of your mum... until now.)
I don't know, maybe others had a better reaction to this one. I just haven't bought into the idea of John even getting married, because we only met his fiancé last week (another flaw of the three-episode spurts in-between two-year gaps), so the whole wedding backdrop fell flat. It hasn't been enough of a big deal to get invested in on the show, and the actual ceremony in the church was completely avoided. Does Watson really love Mary? If so, why exactly? I'm none the wiser. She seems nice enough, but that's more Abby Abington's doing than the writing. (Was she cast partly because she's Freeman's real girlfriend, in the hope chemistry would be there without as much script work?) Then again, making Watson a married man's a big step for the show's long-term future, so perhaps there's a twist about Mary's motivation to come in the final episode next Sunday? Or Watson might become a widower, to suffer genuine grief this time?
Overall, this had its moments and was certainly better than its first series correlative, "The Blind Banker", but it didn't do much to shake popular belief Sherlock's second episodes are of lesser quality. And for a show that only has to produce three stories every two years, any instalment that isn't up to scratch feels considerably more disappointing than it might do as part of an 8, 10, or 12-episode run.
- Sherlock's characterised by a very nifty visual style, laid out by filmmaker Paul McGuigan in the first episode, but there are times when it's just needless showing off. Like that silly 'bullet-time' shot of Watson, Mary and Sherlock having confetti showered on them outside the church.
- Anyone else dislike the opening joke about Lestrade (Rupert Graves) wrongly prioritising Sherlock over his constantly-thwarted attempts to catch some robbers? I saw the punchline coming a mile off, and it's never a good sign when a teaser's villains prove to be more intriguing than the main episode's!
- Fun to see Lara Pulver back as 'The Woman', Irene Adler, even if it was only for a short and silent cameo in Sherlock's imagination. Moffat seems very adept at getting old actresses back for very minor roles, as Karen Gillan did something similar in Doctor Who's Christmas special last year.