Outside the Government: The Hounds of Baskerville


It’s January 8th, 2012. Flo Rida is at number one with “Good Feeling,” wiht Coldplay, Jessie J, Rihanna, and Raio Cruz also charting. In news, Gary Dobson and David Norris were finally convicted of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and Michelle Bachman dropped out of the Presidential race following Rick Santorum’s win (by a stunningly small 34-vote margin) in the Iowa Caucuses. 

While on television it’s The Hounds of Baskerville, an adaptation of what is arguably the most famous Sherlock Holmes story ever. This speaks to the way in which the confidence shown by Scandal in Belgravia was, broadly speaking, reflected in every aspect of Sherlock’s second season. From the start, Moffat and Gatiss announced the grandeur of their plans, with the still memorable trio of one-word teases: Woman, Hound, Fall. Immediately the three stories being used snapped into place, and nobody made any excuses - the plan was clearly to tackle the three most iconic Sherlock Holmes stories not to be Study in Scarlet

In hindsight, thinking about it, this was always going to be the tricky one. “Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Final Problem” are both massive stories in part because they put Sherlock Holmes in extremely unusual and dramatic positions. They largely modernize themselves. But The Hound of the Baskervilles is iconic more because it was a tremendously popular novel at the time, and has been frequently adapted. It’s not a story that involves any particularly major change for Sherlock Holmes. It’s just a particularly classic Sherlock Holmes story. Although, adding to the difficulties, Sherlock is actually not in large swaths of it.

Still, certain aspects of the approach all but decided themselves. Certainly this had to be the middle episode, by dint of being the one that least disrupted Sherlock as a character. It was also as self-evidently the one Mark Gatiss should write as Scandal in Belgravia was the one that Moffat should write. Past that, however, the way to approach this is almost all question marks and challenges to overcome.

To some extent, however, with Gatiss in place the solutions to most of these challenges became, if not self-evident, at least simpler. Gatiss is and always will be a nostalgia artist. And so when tackling something like adapting The Hound of the Baskervilles, he was always going to stick as closely as possible to the iconography of the original. And yet in many regards his most important decision in terms of how this episode works is the major change, which is to change Baskerville from being Henry’s family name to being a mysterious government research facility. Gatiss’s interview-stated reasons for this - that conspiracy theories are what’s scary these days - are as idiosyncratic as most of Gatiss’s stated plot logic, but it nevertheless proved a savvy choice for other reasons.

In effect, what the decision to have a gleaming white research facility as one of the major settings for this story did was, over the course of ninety minutes, make it so that it could go back and forth between the Dartmoor setting and a visually different place, allowing each location room to breathe. It would have been easy to just turn the gothic horror elements of this story up to eleven, and the decision to have large amounts of time in which the story was doing something else helps ensure that, visually, this story rolls along nicely. McGuigan’s reliably excellent direction goes a long way towards making it work as well.

But under the hood, there’s just not a lot there that’s non-obvious. This is Sherlock Holmes solving a gothic horror mystery. It contains Sherlock’s at this point trademark mixture of extreme textual fidelity and larking around, swapping out solutions from other stories, placing red herring characters, and generally containing lots of nods to the larger Sherlock Holmes canon while pointedly making sure it has enough to surprise the hardcore Holmes geeks. That’s most of it.

But equally, that’s largely the point. This is the story that was picked for this season for no reason other than the iconic nature of the original text. It’s not there to do anything big and flashy. It’s there to demonstrate that Sherlock can do a good version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, because no self-respecting series of Sherlock Holmes adaptations can ignore that story. It’s overstating the case to say that it’s the televisual equivalent of a contractual obligation album, not least because that would wrongly suggest that the episode is uninterested in quality, and it’s not. But this is an episode that’s largely concerned with squaring away the relationship between the program and the literary tradition of Sherlock Holmes. It’s the point where Sherlock declares itself to have finished the business of proving that it’s a worthy contributor to that canon. Which, to be honest, it probably has to do before it can tackle the big Moriarty story, so fair enough.

But it provides something of a stumbling block for the purposes of me writing this piece because, well, I was never that big of a Sherlock Holmes fan. Most of the reading I’ve done on the subject came in the wake of Sherlock. I’ve still not actually read The Hound of the Baskervilles, and to be honest, I’m not exactly dying to. So I’m not really the person you want writing your analysis of how The Hounds of Baskerville interacts with its source text. Normally that would be fine and I could go on and do something else, but in this case that’s not really an option. 

So instead I’m left with a handful of lovely details. Russell Tovey’s appreciably nuanced portrayal of Henry Knight, for instance, which finds considerable depth and nuance in the idea of a scared and terrified man through the clever trick of mostly holding back the choked and desperate register that Russell Tovey had by this point in his career perfected over on Being Human. Benedict Cumberbatch’s superlative performance of the post-hound scene at the hotel. The dodgy CGI hound. But they don’t quite add up to anything.

And yet there is one thing worth pointing out underneath all of this, which is that the way in which The Hounds of Baskerville works is unmistakably an approach with a massive debt to Doctor Who. Its basic design comes straight out of Gatiss’s mucking about with Doctor Who and the starting approach he takes to many of his stories. Gatiss has always been more likely than other writers to do a story that’s very straightforwardly about matching Doctor Who up with a given genre or setting, and he’s by this point developed something of a plug-and-play formula based on figuring out what needs to be included and then figuring out suitably new twists on it. A similar approach applies here - Gatiss has seemingly listed the key elements of The Hound of the Baskervilles and then figured out how to do new takes on them.

And it works. Certainly it solves the whole “the middle installment is the dud” problem of Season One by doing a story that feels meaty in its own right. That the meat comes from the reputation of the source material is ultimately irrelevant. As I said, this had to be done, if only so that Sherlock could move beyond being defined by its premise and start being defined on its own terms. This was a serviceable and entertaining ninety minutes of television. That it was outshone by the episode before it is hardly its fault. There’s not a Gatiss script in existence that wouldn’t have been a bit of a letdown after A Scandal in Belgravia. Hell, there’s barely a script by anyone that could have managed that. That it’s outdone by the one after it is similarly inevitable, given the cliffhanger. But while it may still be the less important middle volume of Sherlock, at least this time it works in its own right and on its own terms. It might even be an interesting take on a classic story. But that’s a matter for a blog other than this one. 


Oliver Bain 6 years, 3 months ago

A good post for someone who hasn't read the original text! Actually it does rather run roughshod over the original story, which has been adapted so often simply because it is extraordinarily easy and straightforward to adapt.

Ignoring that I don't like this episode of 'Sherlock' very much at all, it does at least have that rarest of instances in this series: A client or Lestrade showing up at Baker Street with a case. The growing arc tendency of the show will eliminate that completely pretty soon.

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ScarvesandCelery 6 years, 3 months ago

One thing that may be worth discussing is Gatiss and Moffats' stated aim to make Sherlock confront fear (part of a series - long character arc in which he stops pretending to be above everyone else and becomes a hero). Particularly in the wake of "Listen", a story where Moffat does a similar thing with the Doctor.
So where is the difference in Gatiss and Moffat's respective approaches?
Well, in "Hounds", Sherlock sees the Hound, admits he is scared, then carries out a deduction at double speed just to prove he's still in control of his faculties, that he's still above mere humans.
By contrast, in "Listen", the Doctor's arc requires him not being willing to admit that he's afraid - his resolution involves him confronting the fact that he's afraid of the unknown and accepting that there are some things he cannot understand.
Where "Hounds" is a story about textual adaptation that tries to sneak in fear - based character development for its protagonist, "Listen" is an episode about fear that zooms in on the Doctor to make its central theme more personal. Without getting too review-like, this is why I feel "Listen" works better - because the character scenes are relatively throwaway (though brilliant), they don't seem to change Sherlock as much as they are intended to. By contrast, Listen leaves one with a clear sense that the Doctor has been profoundly affected by the episode's events.

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TheSmilingStallionInn 6 years, 3 months ago

Another thing is the conspiracy theory will become a big part of the Sherlock mythos after the Reichenbach Fall episode where fans will spend the better part of two years trying to come up with ideas/'solve' the mystery of the fall and how Sherlock survived, only for the show to twist that expectation and make the mystery and the solution almost irrelevant. This episode seems to set up or hint at that forthcoming 'conspiracy' that will prove to be a red herring more than anything else.

And the conspiracy theme is really a big part of the original Sherlock Holmes story as there is a conspiracy by the bastard heir of the Baskervilles to take over/inherit the fortune by using the myth of the Hound to scare the legitimate heir to death. And the bastard heir uses his wife as a ploy to get close to the legitimate heir and set up an encounter with the trained, painted dog that is shot to death by...I think it was Lestrade or Watson in the original story. I seem to remember that Lestrade or one of the other Scotland Yard officers also wound up going to Baskerville Hall. And there was that whole thing with the escaped prisoner as a red herring in the original story as well.

There is an interesting point that in the original story, Sherlock stays behind in London, 'vanishes' and Watson is left to deal with Baskerville Hall on his own, only for it to be revealed that Sherlock was there all along on the moor. He had followed after Watson and the others in secret to observe things from a distance and keep his reputation from scaring off the real perpetrators.

So in the TV series, Sherlock vanishes for a couple of minutes and leaves Watson on his own in the laboratory to deal with the frightening hound, only for it later to be revealed that Sherlock was watching/observing Watson, suffering from the effects of that drug, and tricking him into believing the hound was really there. And later on in this series, Sherlock vanishes again when he fakes his death, so that he can deal with Moriarty's syndicate after Moriarty kills himself, with Watson believing himself to be alone in dealing with his grief while Sherlock observes him from a distance. An interesting reflection here.

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Alan 6 years, 3 months ago

Another possible point of connection on the "conspiracy theory" angle. I for one was convinced that the true solution to "Reichenbach Falls" was that either Sherlock, John or both had been exposed to some variation on the Baskerville hallucinogen and that some or all of the season finale was a nightmarish delusion about Moriarty destroying Sherlock's life. Certainly heaping swathes of the finale don't make any sense without the imposition of mind-altering chemicals.

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Ed Azad 6 years, 3 months ago

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Ed Azad 6 years, 3 months ago

Another reason why Hound was a bad choice was Stapleton. John Stapleton is one of the big-leaguer villains in Holmes canon -- the others being Moriarty and asociates and C.H. Milverton. (He was wonderfully played by Richard E. Grant in the adaptation before this one.) Obviously you can't toss in a heavyweight like that at this stage. So the physician (a red herring in the original) is remade into the villain, and a government spook to boot. His scheme is so full of logical holes that he reminds me of Max Payne's villainess.

Also, the original is very much a Day in the Limelight for Watson. He's already our audience participation character in Sherlock, so the novelty is lost.

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Oliver Bain 6 years, 3 months ago

I had been rather looking forward to this as a Watson segment. You're right. It was disappointing at the time that Freeman didn't get his chance to carry the thing.

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Jarl 6 years, 3 months ago

I think of all the Gatiss stories I've seen, this is the one I like best. But then, this is also my favorite Holmes story, so it's starting off from a good place.

The bit at the end where we see the Holmes-eye-view of Watson's freakout was adorable.

I'm gonna be honest, I'm not sure I see what the point of making the sugar a red herring was. It only seems to set up Lestrade seeing the Hound too, which itself only lasts about ten seconds, so it wasn't much of a payoff...

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David Anderson 6 years, 3 months ago

My memory is that at the time I had trouble following the plot. As I'm the sort of person who thinks Inception and Memento are perfectly straightforward on the one hand, and is completely oblivious to plot holes in Doctor Who on the other, that was an unusual experience for me.
(I suspect it's partially because 'it was a hallucinogen' can be an explanation for anything, and therefore is unsatisfactory as an explanation for something in particular.)

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BerserkRL 6 years, 3 months ago

The original story is in effect Holmes crashing into a different genre (gothic horror); I think the long delay in having Holmes show up is to let the other genre run as long as possible -- since Holmes' presence would undermine the credibility of the supernatural that makes the main story work. But the original story is so iconic now that Holmes can no longer crash into it as into another genre; it's his own genre now.

Incidentally, given Conan Doyle's own belief in the supernatural, it's interesting how carefully he keeps it out of Holmes' world. He wrote a novel, Land of Mist, essentially a propaganda novel for spiritualism, in which his other famous protagonist, Professor Challenger, confronts the evidence for spiritualism with a skeptical eye but then becomes convinced. In order to do this he has to make Challenger initially more skeptical than he would probably have been; the Challenger of Land of Mist, for example, disbelieves in an afterlife, even though it had been established in an earlier Challenger story that he believes in it. Indeed Challenger -- unlike Holmes -- is generally a prover rather than a debunker of fantastic claims. Thus in one sense Holmes rather than Challenger would have been a better choice for Land of Mist -- except that Doyle had sufficient aesthetic sense to see that this would be a disaster.

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Nicholas Tosoni 6 years, 3 months ago

...A shout-out to "The Moonbase," maybe?

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Daibhid C 6 years, 3 months ago

I recall enjoying this one; in particular I liked the way it played with aspects of the original; making the red herring of the lights on the hill into a red herring of a red herring (the escaped prisoner gets mentioned briefly); Sherlock going up to the moors but claiming he's not taking the case instead of taking the case and claiming he's not going to the moors; that Harry's dad was killed by an actual dog when the real threat was fright, whereas Sir Henry's died of fright when the real threat was an actual dog; and above all the very Doctor Who idea that, if adaptations of Hound must have atmospheric mists drifting over the moors, why not make the mists themselves the threat?

Downside of being familiar with the book: as soon as I heard the phrase "Grimpen Minefield" I thought "Okay, so that's how it's going to end."

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Nick Smale 6 years, 3 months ago

"The Hound of the Baskervilles" has long been an important book for me, probably because I grew up ten miles north of Dartmoor and loved having that world portrayed in fiction. So I was really looking forward to this, to seeing an episode of Sherlock that engaged with contemporary Devon in the same way that the rest of the series did with contemporary London. And (predictably) I was disappointed in this; the world of the episode didn't look (presumably it was filmed in Wales) or feel like the Devon I know...

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5tephe 6 years, 3 months ago

It's probably a good thing that you're not familiar with the text, Phil. It's more than a classic because of well executed Gothic themes - is one of the rare Holmes stories that finds something new to do with the character. And intimately tied to that is a certain structural brilliance.

While this piece of television isn't by any means terrible (and well ahead of many other adaptations I can think of), I think a common thread emerging here from those of us that do know the text is that this one showed potential, almost realized it, but was a bit of a let down.

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BerserkRL 6 years, 3 months ago

By the way, Hound of the Baskervilles was my introduction to Holmes, not through the book but through the beautiful and quite faithful 1975-76 Marvel Comics adaptation, which I'm happy to see is online: part one; part two.

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BerserkRL 6 years, 3 months ago

There is also, of course, a Tom Baker adaptation.

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Peg 6 years, 2 months ago

I'm coming in very late in the day, but would point out that "Hounds" uses the straight-forward nature of the mystery to allow Gatiss to build in elements for later use. It's a bridge piece, as the central works of trilogies and quitologies so often are. Regardless of its suface dynamics, under the hood it's dedicated to investing in development.

Some "investments": Sherlock being forced to recognize John as his "one friend," while at the same time illustrating repeatedly how little he understands how to treat a friend. That's critical groundwork for Reichenbach and Season 3's Empty Hearse. It establishes Sherlock's willingness to manipulate John, up to and including drugging him and intentionally terrifying him: without that Sherlock's decision in RF would have seemed to come out of the blue and been uneasily out of character. (Much of Season 2 worked toward that, but IMO "Hounds' is particularly focused on getting that aspect of the relationship cemented firmly in place so they can move into "RF" with confidence and speed when it arrives. Note that Moffat and Gatiss took what are the hardest spots in the season to be sure they built all the steps they needed for RF. After all, if the footings were in place they could always come in and fiddle Thompson's script to tighten, but if Thompson had written either of the first two scripts, his mechanical skills could have shone--but the emotional and developmentalmechanics of the arc could easily have failed)

In the same sense that we have Moffat setting up Mycroft's involvement in pursuing Moriarty in "Scandal," in which Mycroft outright states that if Moriarty wants his attention, he can certainly provide, we see Gatiss then build in the elements that later support the notion that Mycroft's involved in the Moriarty conspiracy, with the hook set solidly when Sherlock opts to "bargain" with Mycroft--and Mycroft then sends Lestrade as Sherlock's backup--and concluding with the tail-hook of Mycroft letting Moriarty go. All that has to be in place by the end of "Hounds," and it has to be in place like a palmed ace or a bunny in a magician's hat.

Gatiss' comment about opting to make "Hounds" a conspiracy story becomes more profound and meaningful when you realize that it's a conspiracy on more than one level. Sherlock and Mycroft and Lestrade are setting up their own conspiracy against Moriarty. They are already apparently part of a conspiracy/collaboration of which John was--and remains--unaware.

Once you start thinking of it specifically as a bridge being slipped past as a freestanding mystery, there's just all sorts of stuff woven through.

My own feeling is that Moffat, Gatiss, and Thompson were perfectly aware that both the original and their adaptation are superficially not all that interesting, but that they're a great choice to provide camouflage for other stuff. The story and the atmosphere are strong enough, that with a layer of emotive fireworks they can cram all sorts of things in as "investment for the future" without fans realizing that there's heavy duty construction going on.

Which is something I think a lot of people miss about Gatiss' work. He's a pro at taking material that isn't really that profound on its own, but that is crucial when seen in a larger arc, and making it entertaining and witty and attractive enough to draw the eye away from his genius at doing the mechanical prep that will pay off authors other than himself. It's a very generous talent, and it's one he demonstrated again in "Robin of Sherlwood," which was flawed, but which was fun, entertaining, and did quite a bit of groundwork for Stephen Moffat's season-arc that no one ever seemed to notice being done.

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