Sherlock: The Hounds of Baskerville review

It’s a field trip with a difference in this week’s Sherlock, as Mark Gatiss takes on perhaps the best known Holmes story of them all: The Hound of the Baskervilles. Our heroes decamp to the bleakness of Dartmoor to deal with an apparently supernatural hound. Is it somehow linked to a nearby top-secret research facility named Baskerville? And can Holmes continue to function at his deductive best if he can’t fully rely on the evidence of his own senses?

Spoilers below …

The story

If I wanted poetry I’d read John’s emails to his girlfriend.

Sherlock and John are engaged by Henry Knight (Russell Tovey), who has returned to Dartmoor to face his personal demons surrounding the killing of his father by a gigantic hound when he was still a child. On arriving at Dartmoor the pair sneak into the Baskerville chemical and biological research facility. Here they encounter two researchers: the stern Dr Stapleton (Amelia Bullmore) and the affable Dr Frankland (Clive Mantle). The latter recognises Sherlock and professes to be a fan of Watson’s blog.

Henry reveals to his therapist Dr Mortimer (Sasha Behar) that he keeps seeing the same two words flashing through his mind: ‘liberty’ and ‘in’. He accompanies Sherlock and John on a night-time reconnaissance of Dewer’s Hollow, the scene of his father’s death. John is distracted by a flashing light in the distance which spells out the letters U-M-Q-R-A in Morse code. Meanwhile Sherlock and Henry both see the hound, although the former initially denies it. Later a trembling Sherlock reveals the truth and his fear that he cannot trust what his senses are telling him, uttering the inimitable line:

Once you rule out the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be true.

Using Mycroft’s influence, Sherlock gains 24-hour unlimited access to Baskerville to allow him to test out a theory he has. He sends John out to search the labs but he becomes trapped in one and ends up cowering inside a cage while he sees and hears the hound prowling outside. Sherlock eventually arrives to retrieve him. Digging deep into his own mind, he pieces together the disparate strands to recall a long-terminated Project HOUND, which was based in Liberty, Indiana. After deducing the ranking officer’s password and hacking into the system, Sherlock discovers the truth behind HOUND: the project name is an acronym of the initials of the principal scientists’ surnames, it involved the development of an anti-personnel chemical weapon which produced conditioned terror and paranoia in anyone exposed to it, and a young Dr Frankland was part of the team.

Dr Mortimer phones John to tell him that a delusional Henry just tried to shoot her, and they race to Dewer’s Hollow just in time to stop him from shooting himself, as instructed by Frankland. The hound appears – actually an ordinary dog made to appear that way by the effect of the hallucinogenic gas which is contained in the fog and triggered by a chemical minefield rigged in the Hollow. John and Lestrade shoot the dog. Frankland, now revealed as Henry’s father’s killer, is unmasked (literally) by Sherlock, who momentarily sees Moriarty’s face instead of Frankland’s. The scientist attempts to escape but steps into a real minefield and is blown up.

Looking mean and moody – and that’s just the Moor (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Bringing the 19th century into the 21st

The task facing Gatiss in reworking the original Baskervilles story – the third of Conan Doyle’s four full-length Holmes novels – was an immense one. Not only is it probably the best-known Holmes tale, but it is one which is distinctly different in tone to most of the others. It takes place almost entirely away from the comfortable familiarity of London and 221b Baker Street, and it is as much a gothic horror tale as it is a whodunnit. In addition, in its original form it is a yarn even more firmly rooted in the Victorian era than the standard Holmes story, and one which does not easily translate into a 21st century setting.

More than that, the original Baskervilles story is, in my opinion, actually one of the weaker tales in the canon. Holmes is absent from the action for the early part of it (although he is actually present in disguise in the background). His deductive prowess takes a back-seat to emphasising the possible supernatural nature of the hound. And the case itself is padded out by the inclusion of a number of supporting characters who add little to the central plot other than obfuscating the truth and adding to the cast of suspects.

To his credit, Gatiss’ script sheds all of the unnecessary baggage and drives straight to the heart of the story: an innocent man who is being manipulated into his own death. Indeed, while retaining certain key elements of the original story – some of the original characters are retained but rewritten (the butler Barrymore becomes Major Barrymore, Sir Henry becomes Henry Knight, Frankland himself was originally a minor character) – he makes several significant changes which, on the whole, update the story in an improved way.

Most significantly of all, he confounds readers of the original by changing the identity of the killer: here it is Frankland, in the book it is Stapleton (a man, not a woman). Converting Baskerville from a gothic mansion into an ethically dubious research facility provides a relevant modern twist. There’s no cloak-and-dagger with Holmes being out of the picture first – here he is straight into the thick of it, and we get an interesting examination of his psyche and his absolute reliance on his enhanced senses. And, most pleasingly, Gatiss pulls a masterful trick by making the Dartmoor fog central to the plot. In the book, it adds to the foreboding and terrifying atmosphere. Here it appears to be little more than window dressing at first, but turns out to be the delivery mechanism by which Frankland manipulates Henry. It’s a simple twist, but a clever and satisfying one.

Things I liked

  • The stripped-down central plot affords space to gently build the looming sense of doom throughout the episode. Sometimes less is more, and the lack of multiple plot elements and action is a departure from the norm for Sherlock, but an important one in what is effectively a psychological horror tale.
  • For fans of Holmes’ deductive methods, there are two wonderful setpieces: the first up front as Sherlock deconstructs the events of Henry’s journey from Devon to London, the second a whirlwind deduction of the unemployed fisherman and his widowed mother which is delivered at such breakneck speed that Holmes can’t even be bothered to wait for Watson to insert the questions – he simply asks and answers himself.
  • The continuing internal references. The deerstalker photo makes a second appearance. Frankland mentions a case with an aluminium crutch which he read on John’s blog – it is actually on the blog if you want to read it (and the hit counter is still stuck on 1,895, as mentioned in A Scandal in Belgravia). And of course Holmes utters his famous impossible/improbable line, which is actually from The Sign of the Four and not Baskervilles, trivia fans.
  • While I’m indifferent about the running joke where everyone Sherlock and John meet assumes they’re a couple, there is a lovely touching moment where Sherlock tells him: “I don’t have ‘friends’. I’ve got just one.”
  • Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are at their very best in this episode, with Freeman in particular conveying with simple expressions both his deep loyalty to and equally deep frustration with Sherlock, often within the same scene.
  • Lestrade finally gets a first name! In the books, he is only ever referred to as ‘Inspector G Lestrade’. Here we learn he is called Greg. Typically, Sherlock has never bothered to know his name.
  • The final reveal where John realises it was Sherlock who trapped him – turning him literally (well, almost) into a laboratory rat, just so he could test out his hallucinogenic theory.
  • Paul McGuigan’s direction is suitably unsettling, making clever use of lighting effects, camera angles and movements to convey the characters’ discomfort at events.
  • The coda with Mycroft ordering the release of Moriarty from a stripped-down cell in which he has written ‘Sherlock’ on the walls over and over again. What the hell is going on here? And do we really have to wait until next week to find out?

Things I didn’t like

  • A bit too much random plot-filler, some of which was genuinely amusing (Sherlock’s initial rant about needing nicotine or a case, or preferably both) but much of which wasn’t (see my next point).
  • Was it really necessary for John to stumble upon the local dogging venue to plant the very remote seed that HOUND might be an acronym in Sherlock’s mind? I understand why Gatiss wrote this little side-step: it was a nod to the original, where the flashing of a light across the moors was integral to one of the major sub-plots. Even so, it felt tacked on.
  • Sherlock’s ‘mind palace’: funny. The Minority Report hand-waving thing as he manipulated his thoughts: funny. Jumping from there straight to a recessed memory of Project HOUND, Liberty and Indiana: whoa, major leap of exposition there. It wasn’t so much deduction as dredging, and it was mighty convenient that Sherlock somehow knew about a top secret US project which had been shut down for over 20 years. Mycroft really ought to lock up his files more carefully, eh?
  • Deducing that Major Barrymore’s password was ‘Maggie’. In addition to this being basically an informed but still lucky guess, is it really plausible that a high-ranking military officer in charge of a top-secret facility would use such a simple password? With lax security measures like that, is it any wonder we’re so bad at keeping secrets? Still, at least he didn’t use ‘password’ as his password, I suppose.
  • The explanation of the whole HOUND acronym felt very forced.

I suspect this was a real Marmite episode. Viewers who were expecting the pace and action of a typical Sherlock episode will have been sorely disappointed. Those looking for an interesting new take on a familiar and well-worn story will have been happy to see past the various flaws in the plot and revel in all that is good about Gatiss’ version. I fall into the latter camp – this wasn’t as great as A Scandal in Belgravia, but even merely very good Sherlock is still a cut above the best that the majority of other shows can ever aspire to.

Next week: The Reichenbach Fall (aka The Final Problem). Not a place that those Health and Safety folks would recommend, I suspect.

Rating – 8/10

Links: A Scandal in Belgravia reviewSeason 1 reviewOfficial BBC Sherlock home pageSherlock Holmes’ website – The Science of Deduction (BBC)Dr John Watson’s personal blog (BBC)The Sherlock Holmes Museum