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Dept. of I Am Stepping in It, Probably

Sherlock: A Question of Time. Or Possibly Geometry

Maybe it's a matter of time.

Or it could be a matter of geometry.

While most of my "Sherlock" watching friends have long since given their opinions on the final episode of Steven Moffat's and Mark Gatiss's show, I have been slow to react. Part of that is because, I think, I am not as invested in the show as they are. But there are other reasons.

At the end of "The Reichenbach Fall," I was left impressed but unsatisfied.

I thought the episode and the two previous episodes in this latest series were of high quality. All the actors involved were either very good or excellent. I thought, and think, that the writing and directing was much better in this latest triplet than for the first three episodes (I find it hard to call a three show series a series, but I suppose I'll have to, she said, being a grumpy old woman.) Each episode was gripping, humorous, sometimes terrifying, always intelligent and very watchable. And in individual scenes, in each of the individual episodes of this latest series, I have been moved; particularly by the work of Martin Freeman as John Watson.

However, I found myself strangely unmoved by the entire package; even as my eyes got moist at the end of "The Reichenbach Fall," they did no more than that. I did not experience the strong grief and sadness that many of my online friends and acquaintances did. Why is that?

Here is where time and geometry come into it, at least in my mind.

I don't think the producers had the time, in either series or indeed the entire six-episode stretch of "Sherlock," to effectively do what they wanted to do. And I think what they wanted to do, in addition to presenting us with ripping yarns, intelligently adapted from their 19th century source and reimagined creatively in a 21st-century context, was to tell us the story of the relationship between a great man who might one day be good and a good man who has the seeds of greatness in him.

That has always been the one non-intellectual draw at the center of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Doyle did not bother with — indeed was probably not much interested in — the inner life of either Sherlock Holmes or John Watson. Nor did he directly address the interpersonal relationship of the two. What he did do was draw, over the length of his series of stories, a continuing portrait of two men of vastly different temperaments who nonetheless worked well with each other and had a great deal of respect and affection for one another. The partnership of Holmes and Watson was integral to Doyle's stories and is, I believe, part of why they continue to be so well-loved and iconic a set of works.

What I think Moffat and Gatiss wanted to do in their reimagining of Holmes and Watson, was to go deeper into that relationship by investigating and showing the inner lives that Doyle ignored as a background given. Of course they wanted also to explore and celebrate the intellectual puzzles, the police procedurals gone mad, the updated Victoriana of a master detective versus a master criminal. And that they did very well.

But I think it's the relationship and the inner lives on which it's based that stands at the center of "Sherlock".

Sadly, Moffat and Gatiss didn't have the time to believably develop that relationship, at least as far as I'm concerned.

I think the second series of "Sherlock" presented me with a relationship I was expected to accept at face value as having happened; as something explainable, logical, and organically developed. But it was none of that

This is no knock against Benedict Cumberbatch or Martin Freeman. They sold me on the depth of their characters' feelings for each other.

But (and here the old broad takes a deep breath, because this is ... hard to explain) they couldn't sell me on the reality of those feelings.

(Incidentally, the type of relationship that develops between John and Sherlock is of primary interest to many viewers. I think it may be of primary interest to Moffat and Gatiss as well. I am sure much can be hazarded and written on that issue. Much better writers than I am are doing it now, in print and out there on Teh Intarwebz. That is not my concern here. My concern is the existence – the reality of the existence – of any relationship at all.)

As written, I cannot believe in the process which allowed these two characters to become friends, despite believing, because of the strength of the acting, that the characters believed themselves to be friends. The writers did not convince me of the reality of the developing relationship.

Here's where geometry comes in (yes, I finally worked it in.)

When I was a high school student, stumbling and failing in geometry, one of the admonitions I most frequently heard from my frustrated teacher, was "show the work". He wanted me to show how I had reached a conclusion. It was not enough for me to have the right answer. He wanted me to show that I understood the process by which I got the answer. The work proved that I hadn't gotten it by accident. That's why they call it proof.

By the time I completed watching the latest series of "Sherlock," I felt like that frustrated geometry teacher so many years ago: "Show the work, show the work, show the goddamn work!"

In "Sherlock" I cannot believe in John's and Sherlock's friendship, as much as I want to, as much as Cumberbatch and Freeman coax and lure and impress me into wanting to, because I see no evidence of the process which allowed these characters to become friends.

 

I'm neither an idiot nor a literalist. I know that anything as complex as the presentation or representation of relationships (or concepts of any kind) requires the use of shortcuts, symbolically speaking. Shortcuts are the essence of human thought. It's intuition on paper or celluloid, the act of instant contextualization (just ask Sherlock.) As a reader of reasonably complex literature, and the viewer of reasonably complex movies or television shows, I not only understand shortcuts and ellipses, but expect and generally welcome them; they strengthen my own emotional and intellectual muscles, make viewing and reading both more challenging and more rewarding. I could hardly be a fan of speculative fiction or extremely-niche-specific genre television if I didn't.

I am, in short, not a lazy receptacle for entertainment, demanding that everything be s-p-e-l-l-e-d o-u-t for me.

But the distance between judicious use of dramatic ellipses and lazy or hurried writing is perilously short, and I think Moffat and Gatiss crossed the line here. (And yes, I also know the dramatic commandment: Show, Don't Tell. I don't think Moffat and Gatiss did either quite as well as they perhaps thought they did.)

Look, I don't need to see all the building blocks of of a friendship put into place one by one in a story about friendship,  just as I don't need or want to have every plot twist in a story loudly foreshadowed (wait, can a shadow be loud?)

But just as I expect a plot to go from A to B, to C and so on, or else to convince me it was necessary to diverge from that pattern, I do need to see evidence that the central relationship in a story about that relationship, is being built. I didn't see it in "Sherlock."

Let me put it quasi-facetiously, and then let me duck for cover.

They had only three episodes to take me from the "John has just been rescued from a bomb, and is really understanding for the first time what kind of life he's entered into as Sherlock's flatmate and apparently inadvertent oddsbody-cum-knight in knitted armor" scenario I saw at the end of "The Great Game" to the "John has realized, for some reason that the writers have not yet shown me, how much love he has for this truly unpleasant git of a genius, who we rarely see approach John as anything but an alien species fated to serve him, (with rare and incidental exceptions) — has indeed shown me why, exactly, he's chosen to stay in that flat, with that git, rather than get the hell out of Dodge" scenario that they provided me at the end of the sixth episode.
And, no, the lure of excitement and fame doesn't count, because that's not really a building block of friendship, is it?

Can I blame Moffat and Gatiss? Can I actually say that it wasn't their fault because they didn't have enough time to show me the work? After all, I've been convinced to take greater leaps, to rely more heavily on intuitive understanding, in films of fewer than 120 minutes, or even individual shorter episodes of other shows coughthedoctor'swifethegirlwhowaitedcough so it can't just be a matter of time.

I don't know. Perhaps, for me, it does come down to geometry in the end.

They didn't show their work.

This entry was originally posted at http://kaffyr.dreamwidth.org/215935.html?mode=reply, where there are currently comment count unavailable comments. You can comment there or here; I watch both.

Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
rosa_acicularis
Feb. 2nd, 2012 05:21 am (UTC)
It's strange - I get very emotional about the conclusion of Reichenbach Fall, but I still think you're absolutely right on with this criticism. I couldn't quite organize my vague dissatisfaction into words, but you've expressed it very clearly here.

It feels almost as if there were a missing series, one set during that summer between Great Game and the Irene Adler case - three more episodes that would have shown us the evolution of that relationship. I can't help but wonder if the reason this doesn't bother me as much as it should is because I've read that 'missing series' over and over again in unholy crap tons of Sherlock fan fiction.

Fandom: Messing with my head since 2007.
kaffyr
Feb. 2nd, 2012 05:37 am (UTC)
I'm glad I'm not standing out there all by myself, and glad my thoughts made some sort of sense to you.

It feels almost as if there were a missing series,

Yes. Exactly. I would love to have seen that series, and I think that Moffat and Gatiss could have done it, although I think they would have had to veer from the practice of reimagining Doyle's stories in order to do so.

I can't help but wonder if the reason this doesn't bother me as much as it should is because I've read that 'missing series' over and over again in unholy crap tons of Sherlock fan fiction.

Perhaps I should read more of it; I have no doubt that there's good fic out there, because I've read one or two by excellent authors - but again, I have not been invested enough, emotionally, to want to. It's a bit of a Catch-22.

Fandom: Messing with my head since 2007.

Heh. Piker ... I've been in fandom (not title or series-specific, mind you, generalized Old Skool Skiffy fandom) actively since 1977 and unknowingly since 1961. Imagine what the inside of my head looks like and how old I am.
sensiblecat
Feb. 2nd, 2012 12:16 pm (UTC)
I think we share a brain. Only you put it very much better than I could have done. It's almost as if fandom are expected to have filled in the gaps.

A line that stuck with me from the "Iron Lady" movie was when Maggie said, "Do you know what's wrong with this country? There's too much feeling and not enough thinking." I felt like that about Sherlock. I rather wished they'd kept to the thinking dynamic. I'm not against emotion in TV drama, far from it, but I do like it to be set up. And everything is such a rush these days. Another example - there was a wonderful dramatisation of "South Riding" back in the 70s - 13 one-hour episodes. Last year we got three, roundabout 90 minutes each, and it wasn't enough. Ditto Birdsong. You just don't get the depth. And the audience is rushed into juicy, extremely emotional moments without that important build up. It leaves you with a sense of having overdosed on the icing and ignored the cake.

Many of your remarks, for me at least, apply equally if not more so to the Doctor/River ship in DW.
kaffyr
Feb. 2nd, 2012 07:15 pm (UTC)
Thanks for your thoughts, I really liked going through them.

A line that stuck with me from the "Iron Lady" movie was when Maggie said, "Do you know what's wrong with this country? There's too much feeling and not enough thinking." I felt like that about Sherlock.

Ironically (she said, using it in the modern and not-really-classically-correct manner), one of the writers' problems is that they had to spend so much time on the actual plots of the whowherewhatwhyhow, since they took their inspiration (of not their interpretation) so directly from Doyle stories, that they left little time or space in the story for believable presentation of those feelings. They had to stuff them in, when what they should have done — what they clearly wanted to do — was explore them in a more leisurely fashion. Had they done that, then the FEEEEELINGS! would have been more realistic within the setting for me and, perhaps, less hard to digest. Something that's properly integrated into the conceptual meal is perhaps less bulky and uncomfortable whilst digesting.

Can you tell me a little about Birdsong? BBC? ITV? American cable?

Many of your remarks, for me at least, apply equally if not more so to the Doctor/River ship in DW.

The things that make the Doctor/River relationship more believable, for me, than the John/Sherlock relationship are a) that it took place within a framework that is avowedly skiffical, fantastic and even fairy tale, honestly stating 'We are in a paradigm that is unreal, and you must experience this with the help of ellipses and magical thinking,' something for which the putatively "real" world of Sherlock didn't allow; and b) the Doctor/River storyline stretched across enough time, and showed me enough Doctor-River developmental moments, brief as they were, that I could fill in the gaps in a way that I could not with Sherlock.

sensiblecat
Feb. 2nd, 2012 10:47 pm (UTC)
Birdsong - as in Seb F's novel of the Great War - has just aired on two consecutive Sunday nights over here on BBC1. It's been heavily promoted as the season's big drama. Personally, I didn't care for it - I found it altogether too slow and rather too beautifully staged and filmed. But I haven't read the book. I'd be very surprised if you didn't get to see it, since it appears to be tailor-made for Masterpiece Theater or similar.

kaffyr
Feb. 3rd, 2012 02:27 am (UTC)
Thanks; I'll be on the lookout for it, although I confess, I might not watch it. That's because I also might be the one person in the known universe not watching Downton Abbey, not because it's not good. but because I can see the potentially addictive quality it has - and I have too many things to which I'm already addicted. Another period drama moving at a stately pace ... no, not sure I could do it.
viomisehunt
Feb. 2nd, 2012 05:02 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen the second season yet, but I'm looking forward to it. I don't buy the friendship either, and the main characters are not likable. The thinking process is what works for me.
kaffyr
Feb. 2nd, 2012 07:18 pm (UTC)
I think you will like it. For all my serious complaints and for all I think its flaws are considerable, I liked it. The second season is better than the first, in my view; the writing's more consistent and the actors have all settled into their roles (Gatiss in particular is better, and more tolerable.) Cumberbatch fleshes out his Sherlock, which is fascinating. I always found John Watson likeable, and he becomes one of the true strengths of the show.
joking
Feb. 2nd, 2012 07:55 pm (UTC)
I must say I disagree; the building of the friendship is subtle, but thorough and convincing. You just need to watch for it. For example, Sherlock shows affection for John long before the pool scene in TGG, just in smaller ways. Note the positively fond look on his face in TBB when he tells John to borrow his credit card. Or the way Sherlock leads John on a merry chase in ASiP for the sole purpose of curing him of his limp. Oh, it was partly to prove that his deduction was right, but it was also because he wanted John to lose the limp. I think it's all there from the beginning, and TRF had me completely spellbound as Sherlock made a terrible sacrifice for the sake of his dearest friend.
kaffyr
Feb. 2nd, 2012 08:25 pm (UTC)
Oddly enough, I agree that I can see a few more steps in the development of Sherlock's side of the friendship. I honestly can't see it, even when you point it out, in the first three episodes (except a little bit in The Great Game) — but I do see much more evidence of that side of the development in the last three episodes.

Still, while I see his views changing — and Cumberbatch's interpretation of Holmes' bewildered realization that he cares is fascinating and top-knotch — I don't see him showing enough solid proof of the change that Watson could believably see, and then respond to.

And I simply did not see that growth mirrored in Watson. Freeman made me believe in John's slightly irritated fascination with Sherlock, and in a growing, very wary and reticently amiable affection — right up until he then made me - forced me to believe — in a depth of affection that did not have a believably organic bridge back to the earlier, much less deep, affection.

That, I believe, was the fault of the writer and producer, who didn't handle the emotional pacing as well as they handled the plot. In this, I think they did a disservice to the stellar job Freeman did with what he was given. He just wasn't given enough.

So, while Sherlock's journey was better sketched in, I can't agree that John's was as well served.

But as I said in the cut comment: Of course I'm going to watch the next series, because I think I'm being presented with good quality entertainment despite what I think of as its flaws.

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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