Sherlock: Season 1 review

No sooner had it started than it ended. After three 90-minute episodes, the Steven Moffat/Mark Gatiss update of Sherlock Holmes has already reached the end of its initial run. With ratings and reviews confirming the series’ success with both viewers and critics, it was never a question of if the BBC would commission a second series, but when and how many. For now, here’s a look back on the modernisation of this most Victorian of characters.

A Study in Pink

Recently invalided army doctor John Watson is introduced to the enigmatic Sherlock Holmes, the world’s only consulting detective, just as Holmes is called in by the police to help solve a series of seemingly impossible suicides involving a poison pill. Holmes eventually tracks down the killer, a dying cabbie named Jeff, who engages him in a deadly game of chance. However, before the battle of wits is resolved, Watson shoots Jeff dead.

As I said in my review, this was a stylish and assured update of the Holmes origin story A Study in Scarlet, introducing us to the main characters while rolling along at a cracking pace, and setting a distinct visual story-telling template. It took several key elements of the original story and faithfully spun them into a 21st-century context, but without being hamstrung by it. (Thankfully, the second half of Scarlet, a painfully slow unravelling of the killer’s motivation, is compressed and reworked into the chilling and far more effective face-to-face confrontation between Sherlock and Jeff.) And Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson are both convincing individually and engaging as a pair.

The Blind Banker

Holmes is hired by an old friend to look into an unexplained break-in and spray-painted graffiti at a merchant bank. He deduces that the graffiti is a cipher intended for a specific trader at the bank, who is subsequently found murdered in his flat. A journalist is found dead in his apartment the next day, accompanied by the same coded message. Holmes and Watson soon uncover a ring smuggling valuable artefacts out of China for sale in the West, and that one of the two dead men had stolen a multi-million pound jade pin on their travels. Holmes cracks the cipher just in time to help rescue Watson (whom the smugglers have mistaken for Holmes) and his date Sarah.

Although this was a good, action-packed yarn, it was also the weakest of the three episodes, and the one occasion on which Sherlock veered towards a more formulaic detective drama – for long stretches it could just have easily been an episode of Lewis. There are flashes of Holmes’ deductive brilliance throughout, but these often feel secondary to the overall plot, serving to move the viewer from one setpiece to another, rather than being the core of the story itself. The trail of breadcrumbs that leads the smugglers to mistake Watson for Holmes was a clever device, but felt implausible – surely a ring that well organised who knew of the existence of Holmes would also know what he looked like?

Anyhow, this was a decent story by the standards of a procedural crime series, but it was no more than a workmanlike Sherlock for me.

The Great Game

Mycroft Holmes asks his brother Sherlock to investigate the mysterious death of an MI6 employee linked to the disappearance of top-secret military plans. But Sherlock is soon distracted by a series of crimes which he must solve in a prescribed time limit before innocent hostages strapped into bombers’ vests are blown up. Holmes’ successful deductions eventually lead him to his first face-to-face confrontation with nemesis Jim Moriarty, which ends with Sherlock pointing Watson’s gun at a bomber’s vest positioned between himself and Moriarty.

The closing instalment of the season was a welcome return to the form of the opening episode, with Sherlock dispensing his deductive skill in rapid-fire fashion as he solves case after case (many referencing a number of the original Holmes short stories, most explicitly The Bruce-Partington Plans). Cumberbatch plays Holmes’ self-confessed sociopathic tendencies perfectly as he tackles Moriarty’s conundrums with glee, treating the innocent pawns in the game with casual and coldly rational disdain. His reaction to the explosion which kills the blind old woman (and 11 others) – “but I solved the case!” – before immediately reeling off on another whirlwind of deductive reasoning reveals both the inner child within the man and the child-like excitement of returning to the game, and Cumberbatch’s performance is utterly believable without being unsympathetic.

In fact, as we discover, the lives of Moriarty and Holmes have been intertwined since childhood, with the former’s first murder being the case which ignited Sherlock’s boyhood interest in criminal investigation. Perhaps more explicitly than any of the books and adaptations have ever done, it is emphasised here that Moriarty is the yin to Holmes’ yang. Both are sociopathic geniuses disillusioned with the boredom of ordinary life, but whereas Holmes uses his particular skills to help solve crime, Moriarty has chosen to assist others to commit them as the world’s only consulting criminal. In the same way that Holmes fails to express concern for the potential or actual bomb victims (because to do so does nothing to help him solve the puzzles), Moriarty is equally dismissive about his victims having, as a boy, killed another “because he annoyed me” and blowing up the blind woman for simply ignoring her script.

Holmes and Moriarty are flip sides of the same coin: you can see how each could have easily become the other. It is a compelling theme which has frequently been addressed in the realms of science fiction, perhaps most thoroughly by Star Trek, through the original series episode The Enemy Within and subsequent forays into the mirror universe.

The Great Game was an excellent episode, packing an incredible amount of story and character development into 90 short minutes. Sherlock’s ongoing struggle to balance his sociopathy with his need to deal with people is explored more thoroughly here than previously, and he displays a clinical understanding of human emotion – or at least how to manipulate it at the flick of a switch, as in his tearful interrogation of the missing banker’s wife – which makes him even more chilling. Watson’s increasingly confident exchanges with Mycroft show how far he has progressed since A Study in Pink, and his willingness to sacrifice himself at the climax underlined the strength of his relationship with Holmes.

There were two niggles for me. Firstly, the implausibility of the first two bomb hostages – surely someone would notice a woman crying in a busy car park for nine hours, or a man doing the same in Piccadilly Circus for eight? Secondly, and more importantly, the casting of Andrew Scott as Moriarty jarred. It is not so much Scott himself (although his physical similarity to Ant had me wondering whether Dec would come around the corner at any moment), but more the fact that he was unveiled at all – although I appreciate that doing so significantly upped the tension for the cliffhanger. (Anyway, more on that later.)

Quibbles aside, this was a strong end to what has been an excellent retelling of the Holmes legend, and I cannot wait for the second season which must surely follow.

Overall impressions

Producer Sue Vertue (Moffat’s wife) confirmed Sherlock‘s renewal on BBC Breakfast this morning, although this was effectively already a formality given the positive critical and audience reaction to the series, coupled with international rights sales:

There will be more. We’re having a meeting to talk about how many and when.

Steven and Mark are very busy. Steven is obviously doing Doctor Who as well, so it’s just when we’re going to do them.

According to BARBA Study in Pink garnered 8.70m viewers, making it the fifth-most watched show on any channel during that week (beaten only by Eastenders and Coronation Street), and the most-watched show overall on Sunday. The Blind Banker saw a slight dip to 7.74m, still dominating Sunday and the 11th-most watched show overall, and the overnight number for The Great Game (which does not include time-shifted viewing) was an impressive 7.33m (which compares well against a figure of  7.53m for the opening episode).

To put these numbers into context, they are slightly higher than the average viewing figures for the most recent season of Doctor Who. Add to that the BBC’s puzzling scheduling of the series during the school holidays – traditionally a ratings graveyard – and this represents an incredibly strong performance, with the high degree of retention of Pink‘s initial audience being of particular note.

For me, the decision to go with a 90-minute format was a wise one. The hour-long length of, say, Hustle, would have forced an oversimplification of the stories, and part of the joy of Holmes is the intricate complexity of his deductions. And to split each story into two 45-minute episodes would break the rhythm of the investigation, forcing the need for a cliffhanger ending mid-story rather than the more gradual unfolding of the plot.

There are downsides to this approach, though. With only three stories in this introductory season, it is over in a flash and leaves the audience (well, this member of it, at least) starving for more – although it must be said that this is a format which has sometimes worked well for the BBC, as with Sea of Souls.

Holmes and Moriarty fight over the Reichenbach Falls (illustration by Sidney Paget)

Dramatically, the biggest negative for me has been that the introduction of Moriarty in just the third episode has felt rushed. In the books, Professor Moriarty is a shadowy, never-seen figure whose organisation represents a gathering but nebulous threat to Holmes. It is not until The Final Problem – the 26th Holmes tale – that the pair finally come face to face, with Holmes’ solution being to throw both himself and Moriarty into the Reichenbach Falls (a scenario which, of course, is neatly alluded to with the final showdown taking place at a swimming pool). In this series, there has been insufficient time to spin Moriarty’s menace out until this final episode suddenly fires a chain of events at us that rapidly establishes him as a combination of Osama Bin-Laden and Jimmy Saville (and what a wonderful gag Sherlock’s Jim’ll Fix It comment was, even though it belies his earlier ignorance of popular culture). Maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned, but I would have preferred the grand unveiling to have taken a little longer than it did, to give time to fully establish Moriarty as a ‘big bad’ genuinely worthy of Holmes.

What else? I have liked the gentle repositioning of Watson, who in the books is often little more than a sounding board and diarist. Here Watson, though very much the junior member of the partnership, has proven his worth repeatedly: it is John who stops Jeff in A Study in Pink, who saves Sarah in The Blind Banker and who unselfishly offers to sacrifice himself to save Sherlock in The Great Game. Without Watson, Sherlock is just a great mind; with him, they form a great team.

I have also appreciated the seamless use of 21st-century substitutes for their original Holmesian counterparts. Holmes communicates by text message rather than telegram; his use of the homeless community for intelligence on the Golem in the finale echoes the original’s network of urchins, the Baker Street Irregulars; and Holmes and Watson still travel all over London in cabs, albeit now four-wheeled, diesel-powered ones rather than the horse-drawn variety.

Above all, there has been more humour in this version of Holmes than in previous incarnations. From pithy one-liners and moments of near-slapstick to the self-knowing references to Watson’s blog, the series’ readiness to lighten the moment adds to the feel that we are joining Holmes and Watson on an Indiana Jones-style adventure rather than a methodical procedural investigation.

Sherlock has leapt right up to the top of my list of must-watch TV, and I will eagerly anticipate its (hopefully swift) return. In the interim, I will have to content myself by re-reading the entire Sherlock Holmes canon. A great adaptation makes you want to re-read the originals – and this has been a great adaptation. Congratulations to Messrs Moffat and Gatiss on a job very well done.

Sherlock: season 1 ratings

1.01 – A Study in Pink (4.5/5)

1.02 – The Blind Banker (3.5/5)

1.03 – The Great Game (4.5/5)

Overall: 4.5/5


Official BBC Sherlock home page

Sherlock Holmes’ website – The Science of Deduction (BBC)

Dr John Watson’s personal blog (BBC)

The Sherlock Holmes Museum