A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast Christmas Special 2017: Sherlock

d1ad56da-abce-4afe-9f45-79294aede9e3Surprise! Just in time for Christmas 2017, we’re bringing you a very special (and damn fine, we hope) cup of culture. When we started talking about launching a podcast to complement our blog, we did a pilot episode – or, more accurately, a test run. Although we had no intention at the time to release the pilot, we’re still proud of it – warts and all. The sound quality isn’t at its best, but the energy is there, and we had a lot of fun talking about the BBC’s Sherlock – so we’re sharing it with you. Enjoy – and happy holidays!

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Doctor Noo

Confession time: before this summer I’d dabbled in Doctor Who, but only very occasionally. A couple of Chris Eccleston episodes here, the occasional David Tennant or Matt Smith one there – and most of the time I came away from it thinking that it’s like Marmite in that you have to have grown up with it to have a chance. It always felt too much like an in-crowd thing, like a more British and less sex-obsessed Rocky Horror Picture Show, with Daleks instead of Tim Curry in suspenders. (It gets even worse, and this may just get me ostracised by any Whovian friends: while Doctor Who didn’t click for me, I really enjoyed the “Children of Earth” arc on Torchwood, the much-reviled spinoff series.)

Then again, give me a Scottish accent and I’m anyone’s – so the news that flappy-handed Smith would be regenerated as Mr Scary Eyebrows himself, Peter Capaldi, led to me checking out Capaldi’s first outing and staying for the rest of the season. Am I a convert to the Church of Who, though? Not entirely.

Don't mess with the Doctor

There’s still an element there that for me (and, I’d imagine, for most newcomers to the series) is difficult to get into, and that’s the weight of worldbuilding the series carries around with itself. It’s one thing not to know who the Daleks or Cybermen are, but if you see your first Dalek episode less than a year before you turn 40, it’s not easy to get around the fact that, well, they’re more than a little naff. One man’s revered iconography is another person’s incredulous “And we’re supposed to find these scary?” – Which leads to a related issues I had, on and off, over the course of the season, and that’s the issue of tone and intended audience. “Is Doctor Who a children’s series?” seems to be one of the big questions in human existence, alongside “Who are we?”, “Where do we come from?” and “Where shall we have lunch?” From my newbie perspective, the series seems to want to have its child-friendly cake and eat it in a decidedly more adult way. I’m okay with children’s stories being sad and frightening, but at times the tone of the season’s episodes veered so much between make-believe fun for the kids, with a randomness and lack of coherence that can be liberating in storytelling but that can equally make it difficult to suspend your disbelief, that it was difficult to believe in the emotional reality of the stories and characters. Added to which, Doctor Ex Machina doesn’t necessarily make for better storytelling than its more theological cousin.

In spite of this, though, and in spite of some uneven writing, I was surprised to find how much the season’s core relationship, between the Doctor and his companion Clara, pulled me in. In the couple of episodes I’d seen starring Eccleston, Tennant and Smith, I felt there was often something too self-aware to the respective actors’ performance, a knowing wink to the audience. Capaldi’s Doctor isn’t a muted, realistic character, and he does enjoy his broader moments, but I bought the character, and I bought the not always entirely healthy but always interesting interplay between him and Clara.

Doctor-Who--Death-In-Heaven_article_story_large

There would be more to say about the individual episodes and about the season-spanning antagonist, Missy, who in theory I would’ve liked if she hadn’t felt so exceedingly like a regeneration of another Moffat baddie, namely James Moriarty as played by Andrew Scott, and like Sherlock‘s Moriarty I felt she overstayed her welcome. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed an outing featuring a mummy, that most hoary and least frightening of monsters,  and on the whole I’d say that while I’m not a full convert I’m definitely seeing the potential in the series, its setup and its set of characters. Admittedly, though, half of that may be due to the accent, the eyebrows and the memories of one Malcolm Tucker – at this stage Capaldi seems to be turning the air blue even when he’s delivering perfectly PG-rated lines. So perhaps that’s the solution to my issues with those laughable Daleks and Cybermen: make them Scottish.

No shit? Sherlock!

Yeah, I know… That subject header is both corny and a bad joke. Sorry. Anyway, Sherlock. While I loved how the BBC series started its second season, I found the following episode – “The Hounds of Baskerville” – a bit of a disappointment. Entertaining, yes, but also not nearly as clever or charming as “A Scandal in Belgravia” had been. (Preferring naked yet tastefully presented Irene Adler over a hoary CGI hound? Perish the thought!) In that respect, season 2 shaped up to reflect the pattern set by the first three episodes: one good, one weak… one brilliant?

In hindsight, season 2 did mirror the first season – inverting the episodic quality as a mirror would. “The Reichenbach Fall” was definitely a good episode, but it was no “Scandal”… and it showed that a little Moriarty goes a long way. Sherlock‘s flamboyant take on the Napoleon of Crime was perhaps its most controversial take on Arthur Conan Doyle. Was he effective or annoying? While I haven’t read many reviews praising Andrew Scott’s camp Irish master villain, I was a big fan of his in “The Great Game”. His Moriarty’s over-the-top flamboyance struck me as an overt performance covering a ruthless, utterly amoral and frighteningly insane nemesis for everyone’s favourite be-cheekboned sociopath. (Check out his “If you don’t stop prying, I’ll burn you. I’ll burn the heart out of you. ” at 5:45 in the following clip.)

Thing is, there are so many scenes featuring Moriarty in “The Reichenbach Fall”, it frankly becomes a bit boring… and yes, his shtick does begin to grate. He still has many effective moments and a highly surprising exit from the episode, but there was a scene about halfway into the episode that I was hoping to end sooner rather than later.

The second issue I have with “The Reichenbach Fall” is this: set up an ending that signals this clearly that there’s some sort of trick involved and it’s very difficult to become involved in the character’s emotional journey. I’m sure it comes as no major spoiler that at the end of the episode, as in the Sherlock Holmes story it’s based on, our consulting detective seems to fall to his death… but the great sleuth manages to trick death somehow. Thing is, Martin Freeman’s wonderful take on Everyman John Watson makes him an obvious identification figure for the audience, but in the final moments of “Fall” we’re not empathising with him: we’re wondering how Holmes pulled it off. Freeman’s emotionally truthful scene at his friend’s grave is wasted because the previous five minutes were so clearly signalled to be some sort of sleight-of-hand trick. Which, incidentally, also means that the series’ writers will have a hell of a job with the payoff: they won’t get away without an explanation, but chances are that the explanation will be too elaborate to feel satisfying to the audience – the most amazing magic trick is rendered clumsy and inelegant by an “Oh, so that is how they did it… Hmm. Blimey. Cor… And we’ve waited a year for that?”

Having said all of that, the episode was entertaining and, at least to my mind, better than “Hounds” – and it did one thing exactly right: when the whole world turns against Holmes, they don’t go for the tired old “Even his best friend doesn’t trust him…” Watson, the sort of friend Holmes may not deserve and quite possibly isn’t smart enough to wish for, never gives up, never buys Moriarty’s fabrication. And that’s what I’ll be tuning in for when Sherlock returns: not the reveal, not the cases. Holmes and Watson.

Damn… I’m turning into the modern-day equivalent of a Mulder/Scully ‘shipper, aren’t I?