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Sherlock Hemlock
Posted on Friday 3 January 2014 at 10:00 am

Sherlock Series 03 Episode 01: The Empty Hearse


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I hated Sherlock when I first saw the first episode. Like with a passion I hated it. Have I ever mentioned that here? I also hated the second episode and largely tuned out the third when it was on so I had no real opinion on it other than it was an episode of the show I hated (I was watching with friends or else I would have given up and never watched the third episode). Then a bunch of things happened, not the least of which was I found out about the unaired 60-minute pilot version of Study in Pink and the necessity of cramming in an extra 30-minutes after-the-fact for the aired version, which explained many of my problems with that episode, so I decided to give it another chance. I rewatched series 01, was able to see past the massive flaws in the first episode to the good stuff going on, still hated the second episode, actually paid attention to the third episode and fell massively in love and nothing has changed since. So where would I put The Empty Hearse on the Sherlock scale?

Rachael's Ranking of Sherlock Episodes, Best to Worst
Series 01 Episode 03: The Great Game
Series 02 Episode 03: Reichenbach Fall
Series 01 Episode 01: Study in Pink on rewatch mixed some with the unaired pilot
Series 02 Episode 01: Scandal in Belgravia
Series 02 Episode 02: Hounds of Baskerville
Series 03 Episode 01: Empty Hearse
Series 01 Episode 02: Blind Banker
Series 01 Episode 01: Study in Pink the first time I watched it

Honestly, the first two and last two positions are fairly set with the episodes thus far, but everything in the middle fluctuates a bit depending on my mood and rewatches and the like. Empty Hearse might move up on rewatches or in context with the rest of the series to come, but things aren't looking so hot for it comparative to other Sherlock at the moment. But Sherlock overall is brilliant, so comparative to most of the rest of what is on television, it was pretty fantastic.


Top Three Things I Loved
Sherlock's back!! It really didn't take much to make me happy from the start. Lovely theme music, somewhat new and lovely opening credits, etc. I'm good to go! The rest of the episode delivered on the things I love about Sherlock: some laughs, some thrills, some intelligence demanded of the characters and the audience. Hooray for Sherlock!!

Mycroft and Sherlock. I've always loved Mycroft, in the canon and in every adaptation, and the completely different relationship they give the brothers in this show from that in canon and in most adaptations is, for me at least, one of its strengths. I love how much screen time they had together and the deeper look at their relationship and I especially loved Operation-not-Chess.

The Lost Special!! When Moffat and Gatiss said they're treating everything as canon, they meant everything! They've always done background details from non-canon stories, either other adaptations or Conan Doyle mentions but not written stories like what they did with Giant Rat of Sumatra here, which we suspected was coming in some form since Rat was the word clue they dropped for this episode way back when (Wedding and Bow are the words for episodes 2 and 3). This time, however, the main plot of the episode drew heavily on a sort-of-kind-of-maybe-not Holmes story as the main focus story, not just background detail shout outs, and I found that rather cool. For anyone who doesn't know The Lost Special, it is a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle in which a train goes missing. The police are unable to solve the mystery, which becomes a media sensation. An amateur detective of some fame writes a letter to a paper suggesting a solution, which turns out to be wrong, and only later does a criminal confess and explain how it was all done, which is similar to what was done in the TV show. There are several clues that lead people to assume the mystery letter writer is meant to be Holmes, despite the fact that he gets the details of the solution wrong, never appears "on screen" and never actually investigates the case, and the story is clearly not "written by Watson" or Holmes himself. The story is not part of the canon of 56 shorts and 4 novels, but it is kind of on the fringe. Here's the rather short Wikipedia entry on it and a link to the text of the story itself since it isn't in copyright in the US or the UK anymore, which means it probably isn't anywhere since the US has one of the stupidestly long copyright terms in the world right now. That story link goes to the spot for the start of the specific story in an html version of a Conan Doyle book of shorts. For the start of the entire book go here (or just scroll up on your screen from the other link) and for downloadable epub, kindle, etc. formats of the book for putting on an ereader, go here. I also have this BBC Radio reading of it that I'd be willing to share if anyone wants an audio version of the story.

Top Three Things I Didn't Love
WTF Sherlock!? You survived just fine on your own for two years, solving cases and breaking up a massive criminal gang, but you get back into London and you fall to pieces without John? OK, maybe the shock of John not being delighted at his resurrection just rattled him too much and that can kind of explain not being able to get John out of his head. Fine. Nothing, not even being rattled by John's reaction and subsequent absence, can explain Sherlock failing to count the bloody number of train cars, though. That was an amateur mistake and there's no way he would have gone days without spotting it. Bah!

Pacing. There were two main things that needed to happen here: bring Sherlock back, both in universe and for the audience, and have an engaging plot on its own. The balance was never found between the two and it just felt weird. There was too little actual plot until the very end. There was too much with the coming back from the dead in weird ways (see problem #3 below). When Sherlock-the-character and the audience both are getting re-introduced to the big Sherlock-the-show family, is it really the time to introduce his bloody parents as new characters? Don't get me wrong; I loved the stuff with Sherlock and Mycroft both with the parents, but this wasn't the right place for it, in my opinion. Most importantly... when you have to create fake dramatic tension at the critical climatic moment by inserting a completely random flash-forward scene that doesn't belong there and has nothing to do with the actual dramatic situation in which the characters have found themselves and makes at least one viewer wonder if there was a problem with the download and the show just skipped or something, because you have no actual tension in that moment and no other way to force the audience to be anxious for a few moments before the big reveal (which wasn't even really necessary because there was enough tension without dragging it out for several minutes), you have massively screwed up!

Fandom is not The Show, nor is it the entirety of The Audience. I get what they were doing with the obsessive fanfic theories (which of course always have to involve sex/Tru Luv and preferably slash) of surviving the fall and whatever. It stopped being entertaining for me after about two minutes. There were far too many *wink wink nudge nudge* moments aimed at obsessive fandom and even just too much of Cumberbatch winking at the camera or throwing his coat dramatically in moments that weren't obsessive fan theories playing out. It was also always a really weird take on it. Was it embracing fandom? Was it making fun of fandom? I've always maintained that part of the problem with large portions of obsessive fandom is that people can't accept that obsessive fans aren't the majority of the audience of anything and the show/book/whatever should be its own thing on which fans riff but should never just be for them. Most people who watch Sherlock were a bit excited it was coming back, maybe read one or two newspaper articles about it or maybe not, watched the episode, discussed it with their friends / family / whomever for about 5 minutes and then went on with their lives. The vast majority of the audience is barely even aware that all the obsessive fandom stuff exists and they certainly have nothing to do with it. That's totally fine, as long as everyone is aware of that. Obsessive fans shouldn't demand that the show be written in a way that appeals just to them and the creators shouldn't bow down to the obsessive fans. This episode felt way too fandomy in ways that didn't work and I really don't know how regular people watching it would react to it all. I suspect it would either be more laughing at how ridiculous 45-year-old virgins living in their parents' basement are or just confusion and not understanding what was going on because they don't know enough about fandom to even realize that was what was being played with.
EDIT: After I wrote all this, I started reading other reactions to the show. This blog post at The Guardian website has a very similar "fandom" problem with this episode and the Doctor Who Christmas Special as I did. Guess it's not just me, then.

So there you go. My thoughts on the new episode. I know several of you have already posted your thoughts so I'll check them out in a moment. I wanted to get my own initial reaction out before seeing how anyone else felt about it.

Comments:

eanor
eanor at 4:26 pm on 03 January 2014 (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I haven't really been able to put mine into a coherent order but reading other people's reviews helps me doing so. :-)

I pretty much agree with you, especially with the two main points of criticism, the pacing and the "fandom" problem. I think I would have loved the nods to fandom very much if there had only been very few. Because I honestly think the huge and active fandom is one reason why the show is so massively successful and it's really nice they acknowledge this. But as it was, half the ep felt more like fanfic that like an actually episode and that was simply weird... I think I might enjoy these shout-outs more on a rewatch, but right now I'm really not sure this much was necessary... And yeah, the pacing felt really off, too.

Thank you very much for explaining about this "Lost Special", though!! I didn't know about this and the plot felt very off to me, too. Knowing the case was based on at least something Holmes related rather than on "V for Vendetta" does change my view on the episode. That was really interesting to know! :-)
Rachael
bratty_jedi at 5:33 pm on 03 January 2014 (UTC) (Link)
I think I would have loved the nods to fandom very much if there had only been very few.
Yeah. That's it exactly. Just a bit would have been good, but it really did feel like half the episode was "Oh, look! There's this thing called fandom and we're being clever with it!" or just straight up fanfic on its own as you said, and not even particularly good fanfic at that. Did you see the Many Happy Returns mini episode they released? That was all about teasing the fandom (especially bits like Sherlock/Cumberbatch saying he could wink at the camera because people seemed to love that but he didn't know why) and I enjoyed it as a silly stand alone short. As the actual episode, it is not so good.

Thank you very much for explaining about this "Lost Special"
Glad my life-long Sherlock Holmes obsession helped you :D "V" and this were both definitely riffing off the same real historical event of Guy Fawkes attempting to blow up Parliament, but I don't think this was riffing off "V." I've seen other people saying that, but I think the real historical event and the Conan Doyle story are the only sources for this. It is most likely just a coincidence (or logical outcome based on the layout of modern London) that this combined the real bombing attempt with the disappearing train story to arrive at a bomb in the subway and "V" also used the subway as the means of getting the bomb to Parliament.
Robert Goodman
Robert Goodman at 3:54 am on 23 February 2014 (UTC) (Link)

probable basis of "The Lost Special"

I think "The Lost Special" was inspired by the loss of Engine 115 on Sept. 22, 1892 in Lindal in Furness into a sinkhole. If that date (not the year) and engine number look familiar together, it's because the TV serial "Lost" was named for and based largely on "The Lost Special". "Watchmen" too was based on the A.C. Doyle story, which is evergreen and keeps inspiring loose and close adaptations.
donutsweeper
donutsweeper at 6:26 pm on 03 January 2014 (UTC) (Link)
Ugh, the pacing. I actually got a bit bored during the motorcycle scene because the pacing/tension was so fake. Will they make it in time to save John? Will Sherlock be smart enough? Clever enough?

Duh. Of course he will. It's *John* and it's nowhere near the end of the episode. There is exactly zero chance they won't save him. So, therefore, no tension about it. (If there was a *how* would they save him aspect to the tension, it might have worked, but there wasn't.)

I'm going to ask some non-fandom folks I know what they think of it after it airs here in the States, I have a feeling they'll have similar opinions about the overly fandomly nature of some aspects of the episode. I agree, it went a little too far.

I *did* love the bit with Sherlock's parents, and that they were played by Benedict's actual parents. Although, Sherlock having a normal upbringing by normal, everyday folks, makes some of his quirks much less believable and that much more annoying. Oh well.
Rachael
bratty_jedi at 6:59 pm on 03 January 2014 (UTC) (Link)
There was definitely too much fake tension ll throughout. I think I started playing with my phone during the bike ride scenes.

I did love the parents and that it was Cumberbatch's parents as a thing on its own, but it just felt out of place here. I'd have loved it more in a different episode. I don't mind that Mycroft and Sherlock both coming out of a perfectly normal family doesn't really make sense because there's dozens of ways it could be explained away with more details. Of course, this gives me even less impetus to finish the fanfic I started writing almost two years ago due to that fanvid with Hugh Laurie's House as Sherlock's father. It's six chapters, I wrote three completely and two mostly in a few weeks, then got stuck on one and never had the time to go back to it. Keep meaning to...
donutsweeper
donutsweeper at 7:01 pm on 03 January 2014 (UTC) (Link)
Have you seen the video of House as Sherlock's dad? It's really well done.
Rachael
bratty_jedi at 7:14 pm on 03 January 2014 (UTC) (Link)
Yeah. The video is what originally started me on the idea.
chemina42
chemina42 at 8:22 pm on 03 January 2014 (UTC) (Link)
I want to say ditto to the first commenter, from the criticism of the pacing and the fandom problem to the - what seemed to me - nod to the V for Vendetta plot.

I still managed to enjoy it enough to say FINALLY upon seeing everyone again, especially seeing more of Mycroft and Sherlock's relationship. It will never cease to amuse me that Cumberbatch's parents played his parents. :) Even my mom saw it immediately!

I guess that teaser trailer that circulated around was filmed separately and could be considered something in between the end of the last season and this one? Because I had seen that little teaser, I was MORE confused when that element came up again, where Sherlock was in the middle of filming something in what appeared to be the same place he had filmed that other video that Lestrade showed Watson in the teaser.
Rachael
bratty_jedi at 9:41 pm on 03 January 2014 (UTC) (Link)
I want to say ditto to the first commenter
I guess ditto on my reply there, too, then? ;)

It will never cease to amuse me that Cumberbatch's parents played his parents. :)
Yep. I love little things like that.


The mini episode with John's birthday video is definitely a stand along prequel set shortly before Empty Hearse. It and the video made with Anderson showing a possible method of surviving the jump were both filmed at Baker St., but it makes sense for Sherlock to film videos at home.
chemina42
chemina42 at 12:30 am on 04 January 2014 (UTC) (Link)
Was it Baker Street? I assumed it was Anderson's home, what with all the notes on the wall and the strings attached to different pieces of the puzzle, a picture of Moriarty in there somewhere and all that. I don't remember seeing red curtains in Baker Street. Which is why I asked myself, why would Sherlock film that birthday message to John in Anderson's home?*

Also, Anderson's got a longer beard in the prequel, haha.

* Watching it back I now see my brain was playing tricks on me and the similarities of having curtains in the background was throwing me off.
Rachael
bratty_jedi at 2:49 am on 07 January 2014 (UTC) (Link)
Also, Anderson's got a longer beard in the prequel, haha.
Yeah, I noticed that bit of continuity oddity and got a kick out of it, as well. :)
Wine gums, envy, pieces of rainbow
qwentoozla at 6:49 am on 04 January 2014 (UTC) (Link)
Thank you for explaining the Lost Special thing, I had no idea! That does make more sense-- I was thinking that the plot did not correspond to any Doyle stories very much. I agree that Sherlock should have noticed the change in the number of train cars... in fact, you'd think the train enthusiast guy would have noticed!

I agree that the pacing was a little off. I think the episode ended up focusing on Sherlock's return a lot more than the actual plot. I didn't mind the fandom stuff though, personally.
Rachael
bratty_jedi at 2:50 am on 07 January 2014 (UTC) (Link)
Thank you for explaining the Lost Special thing, I had no idea!
:) Glad I could help!

I agree that the pacing was a little off. I think the episode ended up focusing on Sherlock's return a lot more than the actual plot.
Yeah. The second episode was much better on the balance between personal life / character development and a plot, I think.
aoife
failte_aoife at 11:47 am on 04 January 2014 (UTC) (Link)
Yes yes and yes on Mycroft/Sherlock interactions. That's one of my favourite things as well. I love how this show emphazises that while they are two super-intellegent people they are also just brothers (and I just love stories about siblings in general).

Also: yes to the pacing. As I wrote in my entry I think Sherlock might work better in 45 minute episodes. That might force them to focus on the really relevant things (while I loved seeing Sherlock reunited with everybody again I would not have minded if meeting Lestrade and Anderson had been put back to the second episode...)
Rachael
bratty_jedi at 2:52 am on 07 January 2014 (UTC) (Link)
There cannot be enough love for Mycroft and Sherlock!

I think they can do the 90-minute episodes, but the show might have been better overall if they'd had the original series of 6 x 60-minute episodes rather than the 3 x 90-minute episodes per series.


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