Alternatively!

Remember when I used to write exhaustive reviews of Sherlock here in which I played spot-the-Doyle-story references? Yeah, me neither. Nevertheless, here is a badly belated review of The Abominable Bride. Spoilers, of course.

After the update by year (rubbing in just how long it takes to get seasons for this show, thanks a lot), “Alternatively” pops up and the year counts backwards, which doesn’t make sense since it seems to go back to 1884, before this episode is intended to take place. (Sherlock says on the plane that the Ricoletti case takes place in 1895, which is the quintessential Holmesian year, as exemplified by the famous poem, “Always 1895.”)

Anything earlier than 1895 wouldn’t make any sense anyway, since 1891-1894 is generally referred to as The Great Hiatus in Holmes literary criticism. I kid you not. Since that’s how we all feel about the immense gaps between seasons, we Sherlock fans can sympathize. Doyle often notes when his stories are meant to take place (he wrote many of them much later than the year given in the story), but this is intended to be the time during which Holmes disappeared after the Reichenbach Falls.

Then again, the writers clearly take liberties with the time frame; Watson mentions that “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” has just come out, which was published in the Strand in 1892. But I know I’m being picky.

The first five minutes of this episode look to be an experiment in cramming as much fan service as possible into 300 seconds, with countless parallels between the very first Sherlock episode and A Study in Scarlet by Doyle, and lots of fangirls/boys wigging out in front of their televisions/computers.

Most of Watson’s opening lines are lifted word for word from Scarlet: “The campaign brought honours and promotion to many, but for me it had nothing but misfortune and disaster.” “Under such circumstances I naturally gravitated to London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.” We see Watson shot in the shoulder, a reference to Scarlet’s “I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery.” The stories mention that he’s rescued by an orderly, and even this detail is included in the episode. Doyle’s Watson describes himself as “thin as a lath,” echoed in the episode’s line by Stamford that he’s “thin as a rake.” They meet at the Criterion, which is where Watson learns of Holmes in A Study in Scarlet. (The restaurant still exists today, and they even have a plaque commemorating the literary event.)

There are plenty of modern-Sherlock Easter eggs too. Speedy’s has now become Speedwell’s Restaurant and Tea Rooms. Billy is the same kid who played Archie from the Sign of Three. Sherlock plays a few seconds on the violin from the wedding waltz in the Sign of Three as well. 221 B’s décor has been redone; where there is typically the bison skull with headphones hanging off one horn, there is now a stag head with an ear trumpet hanging from one antler.

Many of the “changes” are really reversing the modern adaptations the series had initially made to Doyle’s stories. Instead of the smiley face in bullet holes, the “VR” (Victoria Regina) in bullet holes is back. The mail has stabbed to the mantel with a penknife. The pipe tobacco is in the toe of a Persian slipper. The unframed picture to the left of the fireplace is of Henry Ward Beecher, which Doyle mentions in “The Resident Patient.” If anyone knows the Holmesian significance of the framed painting “All is Vanity” by Charles Allen Gilbert, please let me know; the episode made a big deal of focusing on it, but I don’t know what Holmes story that might be referencing. There’s definitely something up with the mirror over the fireplace too, but darned if I could figure out what; they seemed to make a point of showing its reflection in many shots.

Poor Mrs. Hudson is miffed at her role in the stories. “Well, I never say anything, do I? According to you, I just show people up the stairs and serve you breakfasts.” “I’m your landlady, not a plot device.” Sadly, that is exactly what she is in the Doyle stories.  Holmes says, “Give her some lines, she’s perfectly capable of starving us.”

The running gag about the Strand’s illustrators was excellent. Sidney Paget’s illustrations of Doyle’s stories became the definitive image in our minds of the great detective; he was the one to come up with the deerstalker hat and inverness cape. Several shots in the episode were set up in obvious homage to the famous illustrations, like the one in the train car and the fight on the ledge at Reichenbach.

Holmes’ comment on identifying Lestrade’s footstep (“regulation tread, lighter than Gregson”) has been mentioned in others’ literary interpretations of Holmes, such as in The Adventure of the Plated Spoon: “The regulation tread is unmistakable; lighter than Jones, heavier than Gregson.” Perhaps Gregson has put on some weight by 1895.

“My Boswell is learning,” says Holmes, another reference to a quote in A Scandal in Bohemia. The episode’s title and the name Emilia Ricoletti are from a brief line in “The Musgrave Ritual,” in which Holmes mentions the case of “Ricoletti of the club foot and his abominable wife.” As Emilia is shooting up the street, one of the shops lists Jabez Wilson as owner, a reference to “The Red-Headed League.” The phrase “features of interest” really does show up quite a bit in Doyle’s stories: “The Adventure of the Crooked Man,” among others. Doyle’s version of Mycroft makes his appearance, looking particularly massive, and they discuss “the Manor House case” and that “Adams did it,” both from “The Greek Interpreter.” Mycroft intends to meet with a Mr. Melas afterwards, one of the characters from the same story. The painting on the wall of the Reichenbach Falls by Turner is the same that was stolen in season 2. And of course, the orange pips are straight from “The Five Orange Pips.” The villain in that story was the KKK, and the secret society in this episode wear similarly shaped outfits. (Sigh.)

The references go on and on. The 7% solution of cocaine? Straight from The Sign of Four. Holmes describes emotion as “the grit in a sensitive instrument,”  “the crack in the lens” in “A Scandal in Bohemia.” (Interestingly, Moriarty is later described in the episode as “the crack in the lens” as well.) Holmes’ idea to call the story “The Monstrous Regiment” refers to the tract by John Knox, but the title is also shared with a Holmes novel by Laurie King that also dealt with the suffrage movement.

All of these nods to the original stories are lovely, but what about the episode itself and what it means for the upcoming season? Even though I know I was being fan-serviced at the beginning, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Everyone has been looking forward to Sherlock in the Victorian period for ages, and the episode didn’t disappoint in that regard. The witty dialogue is as usual: Holmes: “Poetry or truth?” Lestrade: “Many would say they’re the same thing.” Holmes: “Yes, idiots.” Watson in 1895 is just as snarky as John in 2015. Holmes: “Since when have you had any kind of imagination?” Watson: “Perhaps since I convinced the reading public that an unprincipled drug addict is some kind of gentleman hero.”

Seeing reality crack around them and getting our first inklings that something was amiss was also fascinating. While they’re in the greenhouse, Holmes hears a dog bark and says, “Redbeard?” Anachronistic dialogue begins working its way in. Holmes turns to Watson in the carriage and briefly sees him in modern attire instead of Victorian garb. The creepy, creepy confrontation with Moriarty quickly establishes that this is no longer reality we’re dealing with, if we ever were.

I admit, the episode started to feel absurd when we reached the desanctified church, and Sherlock’s explanation only made it worse. Really, guys? Hoods and secret societies? Likening the suffrage movement to the KKK? Moriarty finally appears and says, “Is this silly enough for you yet? Gothic enough? Mad enough, even for you? It doesn’t make sense, Sherlock, because it’s not real. None of it.” Thank goodness! I was set to be terribly disappointed otherwise. I still think the writers could have done a better job with their little faux conclusion. It felt excessively clumsy, with Sherlock explaining to a silent roomful of women what crimes they had just committed in the name of a good cause. Never mind the fact that there was no suffragette movement in England until two years later…

Still, there was some useful information for the future. Holmes’ emphatic “It’s NEVER twins, Watson!” seems to put to death the theory that Moriarty’s twin was the one who killed himself on the roof (which I thought was kind of dumb anyway). There may have been some significance to Moriarty’s line, “It’s not the fall that kills you,” though if there is, I can’t decipher it. If this episode really was an excursion into Sherlock’s mind, then it seems he has some lingering guilt over “the women I…we have lied to, betrayed…the women we have disparaged and ignored.” Mycroft’s notebook at the end reveals Redbeard (Sherlock’s dog), Vernet (which could refer to Holmes’ grandmother, since I believe that was her surname), and scarlet roll m-something (which could be scarlet rollmops, a pickled herring dish, and thus literally a red herring). Sherlock is now convinced (or seems to be) that Moriarty is truly dead, yet he says, “and I know what he’s going to do next,” perhaps meaning that a. Moriarty set these events in motion before his death or b. he has an accomplice continuing his legacy or c. something I haven’t thought of yet. Probably c.

 

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