Business as Usual at Baker Street (Spoilers for His Last Vow)

After two episodes of fan-pleasing emotional complexity and self-referential humour, there was a bit of a feeling of “business as usual” about last night’s Sherlock finale as ex-teacher Stephen Moffatt cracked the whip and put a stop to all this touchy-feely nonsense. He turned in a brisk, tightly plotted tale full of twists and rather short on convincing character development.

Watson, in particular, seems like a different character this week. Apparently he’s already a little bored with married life, but not bored enough to call his old friend and check whether loneliness is driving him back to the crack dens. In Moffat’s defence, this behaviour pattern is pretty consistent with John’s military background, English emotional reserve and the general male reluctance to do emotional heavy lifting. If anything, it’s the increased openness of the previous two episodes that’s the aberration.

I have no problem whatsoever believing that John has spent the last four weeks with the thought “Must call Sherlock,” niggling away at the back of his mind but constantly postponed, since to do so would open up a can of worms that could potentially wreck his marriage.

Of course, that was nothing to the can of worms that very nearly did. And, while it was certainly a lovely jaw-dropping reveal when Mary turned out to be a bad ‘un, the more I think about it, the less likely it seems that Sherlock, who thought nothing of grilling her friends to check whether they were suitable wedding guests last week, wouldn’t have had his suspicions aroused by Mary’s lack of family and friends, and done a little pre-marital sleuthing. If I still wrote fan fiction, I’d quite enjoy going AU and writing the scene where he confronts John with his findings and the wedding gets called off.

The trouble with Mary is that, with her nefarious background left hazy, it’s a tough call to feel any identification or sympathy with her – particularly as writing three-dimensional female characters has never been Moff’s strong point. Indeed, it was notable this week that all the female characters were less fully developed than in the previous two outings. Mary is now a blank slate – ironically, perhaps, very much as she was in the original. So, despite her pregnancy, she immediately becomes the less worthy rival than Sherlock for John’s heart.

I don’t want to get too far into Moff-bashing. It’s such a cliche these days – and because I don’t have a huge emotional investment in Sherlock I enjoyed His Last Vow despite its faults. Loved the mind-palace stuff, enjoyed the reptilian villain enormously, so much so that I rather regretted his demise. Lindsay Duncan’s tormented blackmail victim was a class act, we found out once and for all who bought the Teletubbies’ old place after they moved out and Moffat got to dramatise another cherished male fantasy. No, not shagging a tabloid hack. What red-blooded male, comotose and grumpy after Christmas lunch, hasn’t fantasised about someone turning up in a chopper, knocking all those irritating relatives out for an hour or two and transporting him to a James Bond-style lair?

(Incidentally, those who criticise Sherlock’s harsh treatment of Janine might care to read the ACD original, in which Sherlock proposes marriage to the blackmailer’s maid in order to get into his house).

But back to Mary, whose situation ironically echoed that of Wanda Ventham (BC’s mum,  also featured in last night’s episode) in the 1970s TV series The Lotus Eaters. Does anybody really have a shred of sympathy for her now? This story exposes her to much of the fan-hate that was so neatly avoided in The Empty Hearse, since she’s now isolated as the devious interloper and architect of Sherlock’s emotional collapse. In some ways, this whole series demonstrates how tricky things become once you acknowledge the emotional subtext that fans love so much. It’s going to be hard to return to the Case of the Week format that served so well until the Pandora’s box of UST was opened up.

Of course, all this applies equally, if not more, to Doctor Who, which Sherlock seems to resemble more and more. I am not sure that is a good thing. More confusing still, I saw a lot of RTD’s Who in His Last Vow. The ending was pure Doomsday; I was waiting to hear the immortal line, “And, John Watson, since it’s my last chance to tell you…” And then we had the trailed return of Moriarty, with its unpleasant echoes of Simm’s cackling Master in the best-forgotten The End of Time.

And so concludes a thoroughly entertaining and divisive third series. There was much to admire. The acting was uniformly superb, the writing excellent, the plotting somewhat problematic as we stray further from ACD’s clearly defined template. If there’s one conclusion to be drawn, I think it echoes Laurie Penny’s (her piece on Sherlock in The New Statesman is a balanced, well-argued read):

What is significant about unofficial, extra-canonical fan fiction is that it often spins the kind of stories that showrunners wouldn’t think to tell, because fanficcers often come from a different demographic. The discomfort seems to be not that the shows are being reinterpreted by fans, but that they are being reinterpreted by the wrong sorts of fans – women, people of colour, queer kids, horny teenagers, people who are not professional writers, people who actually care about continuity (sorry). The proper way for cultural mythmaking to progress, it is implied, is for privileged men to recreate the works of privileged men from previous generations whilst everyone else listens quietly.

 

I don’t think it’s quite that simple, because some writers fit and follow the Straight White Male demographic more closely than others. What results is a kind of fan-whiplash, when writers with a different angle on the fan-creator relationship pen adjacent episodes of the same show. It reminds us that fandom seeks to address what remains an unequal dynamic. The creators (usually straight white males, as Penny points out) have the power to dole out largesse, but also to withdraw it and reinstate the conventional hegemony at any time. And while this is invariably accompanied by howls of indignant publicity-generating reaction on Tumbr and elsewhere, sending their ratings skyrocketing, that isn’t likely to change any time soon.

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