sherlock
Image: BBC

The Sign of the Four series: what happened to ‘Sherlock’?

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is, according to Guinness World Records, the most portrayed literary human character in film and television. One of the most popular adaptations is the 2010 BBC television series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Dr John Watson, respectively. Yet while the first two series were met with acclaim, its third and fourth series were not so well received. How did a drama that started so well end up here? Four years on and with no new season announced, can the mystery of what happened to Sherlock be solved? 

I want to make it clear that I don’t think Sherlock is a bad show, and there’s plenty to like about it. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss got a lot right when adapting the stories. Both men have made some truly fantastic pieces of drama, so this isn’t going to be some clickbait-esque ‘MOFFAT IS AWFUL’ analysis. Nonetheless, I think there are areas where the show could have been improved, or indeed could still be improved if it ever does find its way back onto our screens. 

By the end of its fourth series, it was no longer about Sherlock as a detective

I think the most obvious of these issues is that by the end of its fourth series, it was no longer about Sherlock as a detective. The show was set in a different century to the one Conan Doyle described, and of course they had to make some changes for this to work, but ultimately Cumberbatch was playing the same man that the creator had described. He would observe things others would miss, look at the clues he had found, and then use logic to work out what had happened. By the fourth series though, Sherlock was not just a detective who solved mysteries, but a god-like figure who had numerous foes who wanted to destroy him, and a secret family member who was being kept hidden from him, and his best friend’s wife was a former spy who actually… etc. etc. Sherlock stopped being a show about two friends who solved mysteries together and instead something overly complicated and frankly less engaging. Viewers were no longer working out what happened as the protagonists did, but instead had to sit through increasingly ridiculous scenes that often told us nothing of value. 

The show would constantly tease more while never answering anything in a satisfying way

Moreover, the show became too self-aware. Sherlock always looked different from other shows but by the third and fourth series it just became silly, quite honestly. I remember watching ‘The Empty Hearse’ and seeing hashtags appear on screen almost screaming TWEET ME NOW! Moriarty constantly reappeared because the show knew he was popular, not because they could do new things with him. Sherlock apparently died then was brought back two years later with no explanation how, despite Sherlock Holmes being about solving seemingly impossible events. There were an increasing number of scenes that were visually impressive but did not add anything to the story. As Sherlock went on it unfortunately seemed to care more about whether a story looked good rather than the plot or the characters, and it would constantly tease more while never answering anything in a satisfying way. 

So many women in the show just exist to be obsessed with Sherlock, romantically or sexually, or in some other way

However, many of the problems that affected Sherlock began in the first half of the show. Women characters in particular were let down. In Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia Holmes is outsmarted by Irene Adler, who just wants to get on with her new life, and Holmes clearly respects her. But in Sherlock’s ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, Irene Adler is not only outsmarted by Sherlock, but she’s fallen in love with him and he beats her by knowing this. Adler, originally an intelligent character who outsmarted London’s best detective and a king, is transformed into a foolish, easily defeated woman who apparently has links to Moriarty. Put simply, she only exists to make Holmes look clever and tell him that a better male villain will return later in the series. Hmm, not exactly a great adaptation. So many women in the show just exist to be obsessed with Sherlock, romantically or sexually, or in some other way. And talking of relationships – oh my, the queerbaiting problem. I Googled queerbaiting and the first picture is of Cumberbatch’s Holmes. That says a lot, I think. Ha ha, they think John is gay for Sherlock, but he isn’t! Look, they think Sherlock kissed Moriarty, but he didn’t! Sherlock doesn’t have sex, but he’s not asexual! Oh dear. Please, Sherlock, if you ever come back, don’t do that again.

Overall, Sherlock is, or perhaps was, a decent enough programme. But it was also a flawed one from the beginning, and the problems got worse from the third series onwards. Would I like to see a fifth run of episodes? Perhaps, but only if it worked on its issues. After all, the great detective deserves more than mediocre mysteries. 

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