Outside the Government: The Abominable Bride


If you remained flummoxed/couldn't be bothered to look for it, Husbands of River Song is here.

It’s January 1st, 2016. The Justin Bieber/Adele block are back to occupying the top four spots, with Fleur East, Coldplay, and Mnek & Zara Larsson also charting. In news, Bill Cosby is arrested on sexual assault charges, while a bevy of storms and flooding hits the UK. 

While on television, The Abominable Bride. In some regards a Doctor Who blog is the worst context from which to look at this story, as it forces us to ask “was Under the Lake/Before the Flood worth this?” For a story that already suffers from taking the inflated expectations that Sherlock’s ninety minute structure saddles individual episodes with and adding being a one-off special to it. Really, any terms that are rooted in setting expectations for the story to live up to are going to set it up to fail. This is a bit of fluff that elevates itself unexpectedly in its final act—a bit of goofy filler that turns out to have teeth. 

In this regard, though unquestionably a minor work in the Moffat renaissance that runs from The Day of the Doctorthrough The Husbands of River Song, it is still clearly a part of that era, full of the confidence and panache that characterizes this period of Moffat’s work. Although, of course, it’s not just Moffat’s work; this is a cowrite with Gatiss. That said, for all that we’ve waxed at length about the subtle nuances of collaboration and the impossibility of nailing down a single author for individual parts of a collaborative work, figuring out which of Moffat and Gatiss contributed “let’s do Sherlockin the Victorian period” and which contributed “OK but let’s make the third act a weird Inceptionriff about addiction and the value of women” is not exactly a Sherlock Holmes level of deduction.

But let’s avoid the easy trap there of focusing entirely on Moffat’s simultaneous recycling of Last Christmas and precycling of Heaven Sent and talk about Gatiss, who after all we’ve also developed a newfound interest in the style of. The two-thirds of the episode that are most actively Gatissy are another clear sign of his increasing confidence and deftness. Gatiss has always been above his average quality for Sherlock, but there’s a relaxed confidence to The Abominable Bride that he can’t always muster. Often with Gatiss there’s a sense that he’s slightly too eager to win the audience over—as though he’s aware that his love of Victoriana, grotesquery, and vintage horror might not actually be a straightforward ticket to popular success. But here there’s a welcome swagger to proceedings. It has what the kids these days are calling big dick energy. Everybody knows the novelty of this, the fact that the show’s been off the air for two years, and the fact that the BBC can still do Victorian England in its sleep can carry them for an hour without incident. And so the story just gets on with it without worrying about its reception. 

In truth there’s little to it. There’s little to nothing in The Abominable Bride that requires the Victorian setting per se. The resolution—that the bride is in fact a vast conspiracy of women seeking independence—would be a bit of a tough sell in the present day, but the part of it’s that a problem is the part the show lampshades anyway by having it be part of Sherlock’s fever dream, namely the idea of such a near-universal conspiracy in the first place. It’s not like contemporary women don’t still have reasons to rise up and start murdering terrible men, after all. Past that, all you’ve really got is that the Victorian setting lets Gatiss get his Talons of Weng-Chiang on with a scene outside an opium den. And to wear a fat suit, which, fair enough, he’s clearly having the time of his life in. 

Nevertheless, the Victorian setting gives everybody an opportunity to play around without being goofy. Indeed, on the surface everybody ends up in a much more straight-laced version of their characters. Sherlock is sterner and more austere, John is more straightforwardly uptight and repressed, the women are all more literally repressed, etc. A few exceptions exist: Molly’s cross-dressing to successfully pursue her career is a delightful bit of play, and Mycroft, as mentioned, is in a grotesque fat suit, but for the most Sherlock uses its modernization to become more playful, and rolling that back thus makes the show superficially more stodgy. But there’s a basic amount of frippery implicit in the premise. Everyone takes it seriously enough to not have it feel like they’re taking the piss, but there’s still an underlying playfulness to the basic setup.

All of this would feel intensely disposable, however, were it not for the final third of the program, in which everything gets substantially complex and attempts to be about something. Of course, this is still a light New Year’s special. It ties back to the His Last Vowcliffhanger to gain some substance, but it does so with only a subtle shift to the substance of the cliffhanger, recontextualizing it from “Moriarty is still alive?!?!?!?!” to “Moriarty is causing havoc from beyond the grave?!?!?!?!” This is artful, in that it has weight and feels like an answer to the question, but the question it puts down in its place is not actually any different from a narrative perspective. Given the way in which The Six Thatchers is going to open with a predictable “let’s ignore this cliffhanger and do something completely different” start, establishing firmly that Moriarty is dead really doesn’t change anything. You could still pull The Abominable Bride out of the running order and have a clear narrative trajectory. But it feels substantive on its own terms at least.

Much of the rest of Moffat’s presumptive contribution is structural grandstanding. As we already noted, you can tell he wrote this off the back of Last Christmas because he basically recycles the structure of repeatedly waking up well past the point where the dream seems resolved. On the one hand, this gives the back half a structure of dizzying reveals and reversals in keeping with the core of Sherlock’s narrative pleasure. On the other, it doesn’t actually go anywhere. This is actually a story set in Sherlock’s drug-induced fantasies during the present day! The erasure of women is bad! Here’s a resolution in the present day! Nope, only kidding, we’re going to do a proper reenactment of Reichenbach over what is apparently definitely not a matte painting! OK now it’s the present day resolution! Wait, let’s do a fake credits cut and then end on the Victorian note by validating all of that instead!

It’s not that any of these transitions are bad. On their own they’re clever twists. But there’s no whole here. It’s not like Last Christmas, where the story goes through though a series of dream/awakening cycles as part of considering and rejecting various endings for Clara. There’s a reason for the repeated “it’s just a dream” structure—it serves the purpose of a specific thematic concern. Here it exists in order to tart up Mark Gatiss’s Victorianism fetish, which isn’t strictly speaking a narrative purpose. And so it’s mostly forced to skate on sheer cleverness. It manages it, especially in the bleary end of holiday fug of New Year’s, but there’s a carefully tailored level of ambition here.

There is one aspect, however, and an interesting one, that ends up feeling substantive, which is Moffat’s continued treatment of Sherlock’s addiction. This is an element the show ignored for the better part of three seasons before bringing up in a big way in His Last Vow. But it’s a major feature of Moffat’s last two solo Sherlock scripts and one of his Gatiss cowrites. It’s the defining concern of the back half of his Sherlock work, in other words. And it’s a somewhat baffling theme for Moffat. Nowhere outside of Sherlock is addiction a major textual concern. His personal life reveals no obvious angles for the interest. And it doesn’t really fit tidily into any of his usual obsessions. Indeed, up until His Last Vow it seemed plausible that Sherlock might simply ignore the drugs angle entirely, although its obsession with textual play always made that unlikely.

It’s notable, however, that Moffat’s engagement with addiction is, charitably, not especially grounded in any realistic depiction of the subject. It’s not just the dubious idea of large quantities of morphine or cocaine being a useful cognitive aid in vividly reconstructing a 19th century investigation. (At the very least, you’d want a psychedelic for that, but of course those are non-addictive and don’t risk near-fatal overdoses.) It’s also that Moffat is walking out into psychological territory that deserves some decorum while also trying to maintain ambiguities about whether Sherlock is or is not in fact an addict that would be difficult to sustain even by a writer for whom addiction is a substantive issue they feel passionate about, little yet someone who is using it out of a sense of continuity fetishism. But of course, Moffat is generally less of a continuity fetishist than Gatiss, and Gatiss generally avoids this topic. There’s still got to be something more to the sheer degree of Moffat’s interest in it. 

The answer, I think, comes in the phrase “his usual obsessions.” Because of course, obsession is increasingly one of them. The obvious example here—and one that relates non-trivially to the idea of addiction—is the Doctor and Clara’s relationship in Hell Bent, and really Clara more generally. (It may be Mathieson’s lines, but consider the end of Mummy on the Orient Express, which is the only time in the new series that addiction has explicitly come up, and one of only three times in series history.) There’s a shift in the latter part of Moffat’s tenure in which his interrogations of masculine genius start focusing on the fixated obsessiveness with which genius is attained. 

On one level this is a step backwards—a move towards being interested in the tortured nature of male heroism and away both from his previous critiques of it and from his recent interest in recentering their narratives on women. But The Abominable Bride makes it clear that his commitment to the latter is intact, and of course his other example, Clara, is far from male heroism. Perhaps to the point, whatever critiques one might want to level against Moffat’s handling of addiction, he doesn’t romanticize it. Even here, where he decides that morphine and cocaine have magic powers, he makes Sherlock’s drug use deeply pathetic, making sure to draw attention to his petulant cruelty to Mycroft and to John’s shock and disappointment at the realization of what’s happened. Sherlock’s quip at the end about having gone through an overdose to prove Moriarty’s death masks a level of guilt and shame about it. This isn’t glorification of the tortured beauty of male pain; this is another step in Moffat’s long-term condemnation of shitty men. One that has some obvious flaws in its handling of a subject matter that deserves more sensitivity, but that’s still complex and nuanced for what it is.

So The Abominable Brideis far from the highlight of this golden age. Indeed, it’s something like the golden age at its most basic and stripped down level of quality. It is a story without particular ambition, that’s unapologetically coasting on the hope that the audience’s hangover will just have cleared up. It advances little, disappears up its own ass at times, and is really just aiming at being a bit of silly fun. And yet even here, when there’s a bare minimum on the line, Moffat is stretching himself, working with brash confidence, refusing to blandly settle. The Abominable Brideis what Moffat working in 2013-15 did on a middling day. And as middling work, it’s extraordinary. This sort of going all out is unsustainable. Indeed, this is the last story for either Doctor Whoor Sherlock to maintain this sort of indefatigable effort. What remains for Moffat’s work is still good, and at times extraordinary. But here the period of mad and frenzied late genius ends, with a story that, in its own way, demonstrates exactly what the period’s virtues were.

(The other two are Talons of Weng-Chiang and Nightmare of Eden, btw.)

TARDIS Eruditorum will return on December 31st.




Chris C 2 years, 3 months ago

The real story of this episode is Douglas Mackinnon, of Time Heist fame, attempting to deliver an interpretation of the Sherlock visual style and severely overreaching himself.

There's one point where he rotates the camera 360 degrees during a scene transition for no good reason and you can see it wobble midway through.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 2 years, 3 months ago

As there's a small contingent that whines inconsolably if I mention Mackinnon's mediocrity, I tried to get to 2000 words without ragging on him here and succeeded.

But yes, the direction does this no favors whatsoever.

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UrsulaL 2 years, 3 months ago

Perhaps the addiction is a metaphor for Moffat's own writing career over those last few years? Because between Doctor Who and Sherlock, the quantity of television he created was amazing, and the quality indicates an obsessive focus on this work.

The effect on his family must have been similar to an addiction as well, as the demands of work in Cardiff pulled him away from his family. I suspect that one of the motives for creating Sherlock was to have a reason to work with, and see his wife on a regular basis while they made it. How often do addicts draw their loved ones into their addiction, or do loved ones enable addicts?

So the addiction is a metaphor for intense, obsessive creativity, and the way it can be both exhilarating and harmful in the long term.

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Kat 2 years, 3 months ago

On the subject of addiction not coming up elsewhere in Moffat's oeuvre:

I was never a big watcher of Press Gang but a friend of mine is and she showed me the final episode "There are Crocodiles" which contains this speech:

"Okay, it's like this. There's a tribe living by a river, and in the river there are crocodiles. The tribe has one particular piece of wisdom passed down through the generations. It goes like this: if you happen to meet a crocodile, don't stick your head in its mouth. Every now and then - and who knows the reason - people ignore this advice. Which is sad. Because they die. But very stupid because they were warned. They had a choice. The moral of the story is this: you can't afford to be stupid. There are crocodiles."

This comes after a character is found dead of an overdose. Apparently Moffat is said to have written this in reaction to Dexter Fletcher's struggles with drug addiction.

Anyway, just wanted to share that. Great post - looking forward to both your thoughts on series 11 and the return of Eruditorum in the new year.

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mx_mond 2 years, 3 months ago

I watched this episode on New Year’s Eve, a full year after it aired. It was half an hour of stuff we’ve seen, just in costumes and funny mustaches, half an hour of very effective gothic horror, then half an hour of “Sherlock”.

Out of that, I can say that I liked the second act, when the focus was firmly on the conspiracy of women, best. Because even unromanticised, the asshole genius thing was utterly worn out for me at this stage and Sherlock was always less malleable than the Doctor, more... well, rigidly male. Women, while important supporting players, were always in the background of the main brotp, or cases to be solved. And Sherlock felt completely tied to his concept, even when learning to be less of an asshole. There was no hope of a reinvention that Twelve underwent in the course of his three series – not to mention Benedict Cumberbatch regenerating into Jodie Whittaker.

So while I personally quite enjoyed series 10 of Doctor Who, pervading sense of exhaustion and all, Sherlock at this stage felt utterly unnecessary to me.

Though the murderous conspiracy of women was properly great.

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Scriptscribbles 2 years, 3 months ago

The structural decision to hold off the dream until revisiting the falls is bizarre, because it's so obvious the show felt compelled to revisit it's moment of frenzied cultural response, but didn't actually have a natural place to fit a moment with that much gravitas, so Moffat and Gatiss put it there hoping the iconic nature is enough. It isn't, it's too disconnected from the rest of the episode, and had the unfortunate side effect of convincing viewers predisposed to believe such things that the episode is about how it's always the two of them, Holmes and Watson, rather than about the lovely feminism. Obviously the readings that were convinced in Sherlock and John eloping in gay love were off the mark, but the muddled structure here is the closest thing to accounting for that within the text.

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Przemek 2 years, 3 months ago

I enjoyed this episode while it aired but have found little motivation to rewatch it since. Good fluff with some very nice ideas like the female conspiracy.

As for the addiction angle, I'd say Moffat and Gatiss are at their worst when they just use old tropes without examining them (which is arguably true for most writers). Here it seems like Sherlock's magical drugs are just this - an old, discredited trope lying on a shelf somewhere beside the Yellow Peril tropes - a shelf that "Sherlock" should have forgotten a long time ago. Alas.

I like how "the worst context from which to look at this story" gave us some very interesting insights here. Indeed, if your show is this good when it's just trying to be average there's no other way to call it but the golden age. To paraphrase a meme, you may not like it, but this is what peak performance looks like.

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Daibhid C 2 years, 3 months ago

"but the part of it’s that a problem is the part the show lampshades anyway by having it be part of Sherlock’s fever dream, namely the idea of such a near-universal conspiracy in the first place."

That's an interesting point, because I always thought we were meant to understand, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that Sherlock's solution to the Ricoletti case is - however improbable - the correct one.

(Although I agree that it's very improbable. This is probably as good a place as any to share Professor Ian Stewart's take on the famous maxim: "Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, remains improbable. There's probably something completely different going on and you missed it.")

"Given the way in which The Six Thatchers is going to open with a predictable 'let’s ignore this cliffhanger and do something completely different' start, establishing firmly that Moriarty is dead really doesn’t change anything. You could still pull The Abominable Bride out of the running order and have a clear narrative trajectory."

I dunno. I mean, I'm sure that in the absence of Bride, there would be some sort of "This is why we're not actually looking for Moriarty and just waiting to see what he does next" explanation, but "Because he's still dead" is a pretty solid one.

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Allyn Gibson 2 years, 3 months ago

I felt at the time, and still feel, that Sherlock's interest in Sherlock's drug addiction from "His Law Vow" onward was the Moftiss's response to the other "modern day Sherlock Holmes" series, Elementary.

Of the key Sherlock players (Cumberbatch, Freeman, Moffat, Gatiss), the one known to watch Elementary is Cumberbatch; Cumberbatch has said he's invested in the character of Sherlock Holmes and interested in what Jonny Lee Miller does with the role, and Miller has said that Cumberbatch will call him after watching an Elementary episode so they can discuss it.

A key facet of Miller's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is Sherlock's addiction to drugs; Miller's Sherlock is a recovering heroin addict, he attends support support group meetings, and he wrestles with his sobriety, even failing as he did at the end of season 3. The addiction shapes Millerlock's character in a variety of ways, from his relationships with support group members and mentors like Alfredo or his paternal/mentor relationship with Kitty to his companionship with Joan, his relationship with the NYPD, and his relationships with his brother and father, all of which humanize the character.

Sherlock as self-destructive addict wasn't a facet of Cumberbatch's portrayal of Sherlock... until it became one late in the series overall, and the final four episodes of Sherlock all deal with that addiction in some respect. The question is: why take an element of Sherlock Holmes that has been uniquely Elementary's, and why use it now?

With Moffat or Gatiss explaining their reasoning, answer answer will be speculative. But there are two possibilities I've considered.

One. Cumberbatch could have gone to Moffat and Gatiss and said, "My friend Jonny is doing this with his Sherlock. I'd be interested in exploring the addiction angle, too."

Two. Moffat and Gatiss, seeing that Elementary played with Sherlock as addict, decided that whatever Elementary did, they could do better, so if Elementary portrayed Sherlock as an addict in recovery, Sherlock would portray Sherlock as an addict absolutely off his face.

Or, it could be a little from column A, a little from column B.

The "anything Elementary does, we can do better" view seems to be broadly applicable to Sherlock Series 4, however; Sherlock adds a non-Canonical family member to the cast, and the series' big bad is a woman close to Sherlock with a personal connection, as though Moftiss took Elementary's irene Adler/Jamie Moriarty and Morland Holmes and combined them to create Eurus Holmes.

As a fan of both shows, it's interesting to speculate whether they were in dialogue with each other. In some ways, they deliberately avoided each other, such as Elementary's portrayals of Moriarty and Mycroft. Other times, there seems to be a conscious or unconscious influence, like the treatment of Sherlock's addictions. And then there are puzzling things, like Paul Cornell writing for Elementary instead of his friend Moffat's Sherlock. (I really liked Cornell's episode of Elementary, by the way, but I wondered after if Moffat and Gatiss had ever asked him to contribute to Sherlock.) At the time there were two, now there are three, modern day Sherlock Holmes television series, and none of them exist in a vacuum.

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Matthew Parsons 2 years, 3 months ago

Just wanted to pop in and say that this trip through Moffat's past few years and his long goodbye to Doctor Who has made me intensely and unexpectedly excited for something new this coming season. Can't wait to see your take on it. Thanks for your writing, El.

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Roderick T. Long 2 years, 3 months ago

"even by a writer for whom addiction is a substantive issue they feel passionate about, little yet someone who is using it out of a sense of continuity fetishism"

I continue to be puzzled by this recurring phrase "little yet." Is it a mistake for "let alone"? Or is it some extant phrase I've just never encountered outside of this blog?

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Paul Cockburn 1 year, 12 months ago

“This is an element the show ignored for the better part of three seasons before bringing up in a big way in His Last Vow.”

I assume you mean chemical addiction; didn’t the first episode ultimately hang on Sherlock’s “addiction” to working out puzzles? Oh, and nicotine patches.

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