Outside the Government: The Sign of Three


We continue to count down towards the TARDIS Eruditorum relaunch on March 19th with revised versions of some old blog posts on SherlockProverbs of Hell will run its final two installments on Tuesday and Thursday this week.

It’s January 5th, 2014. Pitbull and Kesha are at number one with “Timber,” and while the rest of the charts are pretty similar to four days ago, we’ve got Avicii, Jason Derulo, Martin Garrix, and OneRepublic as artists we didn’t actually mention last week. News is about as sleepy as you’d expect for four days at the beginning of the year, although there’s some flooding in Wales, Scotland, and the west of England. On television, meanwhile, the third season of Sherlock continues its twelve day blitz with The Sign of Three.

Let’s talk about what Sherlock is. Although its main character is a detective, it is not quite a detective show, in that the solving of mysteries is not its main narrative engine. One suspects that had it been comprised of six hourlong episodes a season it would have been, as it would have had several filler episodes each run that would have ended up being case of the week romps, but the reduction to three episodes a year changed it into something weirder. Nevertheless, its basic dramatic engine is still closely related to that of the detective show: the moment of Figuring It Out. Its defining pleasure is the cathartic click as the puzzle box's mechanisms slide into place in a moment of triumphant Aristoteleanism. Over ninety minutes, this produces an interesting effect. Because ninety minutes is also more or less your basic length for a film, there is a tendency to describe Sherlock in those terms - as periodic triptychs of Sherlock Holmes films. With two thirds of the episodes set as event episodes (that is, premieres or finales), it's easy to get swept up in this.

Nevertheless, Sherlock is unmistakably television, and The Sign of Three is a prime example. It is well aware that it has no obligation to make a stirring case for its scale and scope. Its end is a self-consciously subdued homage to The Green Death. No effort is made to tease the impending threat of Magnusson. It is confident that people who are watching it will probably do so again in a week, and so does not engage in the sort of sprawling, ambitious cliffhanger that films (and, to be fair, series finales) do in order to hold interest over the course of months and years.

Perhaps more importantly, it shares Doctor Who's willingness to push against traditional dramatic structures. If one pauses Sherlock to ask "how much time is left,"one is almost always slightly surprised—the big plot beats never happen at quite the moment they're scheduled. The dramatic resolution of The Sign of Three comes a full ten minutes from the end, which isn't unheard of, except that the last ten minutes are all quite subdued and tension free, as opposed to an exploration of the consequences of the climax or setup for something else. The plot is based around a pair of extended flashbacks that don't seem connected to each other or the larger episode until the end. Instead there's the continual anticipation of resolution—of the moment when things will slot into place and the seemingly disjointed plotting will be revealed as the precise clockwork of dramatic unity. (And, being Sherlock, the revelation of what logic that dramatic unity was actually employing in the first place, which, as we were tartly reminded four days ago, is not always going to be obvious.)

In this regard, then, The Sign of Three is Sherlock operating as a well-oiled machine, freely dispensing style and charm as though it’s not even worried about saving anything for next week. As a high concept premise for an episode, “Sherlock gives a best man speech" is outright genius; it’s the sort of thing that, upon hearing, one immediately wants to see happen. And the actual speech, contributed largely (and obviously) by Moffat, is a marvel. And Moffat is predictably adept at moving from moments of comedic flailing and genuine emotion. "If I didn’t understand I was being asked to be best man, it is because I never expected to be anybody’s best friend" is a spotless turn, as is the initial resolution of the Bloody Guardsman case, with the observation that John saved a life instead of solving a crime.

Actually, let’s detour briefly briefly to cover the most immediately interesting of Moffat's contribution to the script, which is that it's a credited contribution. One does not entirely imagine that this is the first script Moffat has done rewrites on for Doctor Who or Sherlock, but nevertheless, it is the first time he's been credited, and in hindsight it appears to have been the start of a trend, with him taking a cowriting credit in each of his remaining seasons of Doctor Who. Of course, Davies didn’t take one until the dying days of his Doctor Who tenure, but he was always very open about the fact that he did them. But while there are persistent rumors of what stories Moffat had a larger hand in (The Doctor’s Wife comes up surprisingly often), he’s generally tried to downplay the extent of his rewrites. Partly this is out of a probably correct sense that Davies was too open about it—his pouting in The Writer’s Tale about resenting Paul Cornell getting all the credit for Human Nature/Family of Blood remains one of the uglier moments of his tenure. But there’s also just a sense that Moffat was, especially early on, just a lighter touch, giving script notes where Davies would perform rewrites. 

So taking a co-writing credit here served as a tacit suggestion that Moffat was taking a more active hand on Sherlock than he had. It made a strong claim that the middle episode was no longer the "unimportant" one. Yes, The Hound of Baskerville was clearly an improvement on The Blind Banker in that regard, in that it was at least an adaptation of a major and iconic Sherlock Holmes story and not a seemingly random choice from the “other scripts” pile, but between this actually having a major event in it vis-a-vis John's wedding and the fact that Moffat and Gatiss both took writing credits on it, this felt more substantial. It's also worth noting that this was explicitly and deliberately the purpose of Davies taking the co-writing credit on Planet of the Dead and The Waters of Mars. It’s a subtle and intensely inside baseball way to mark The Sign of Three as a big deal.

And, crucially, it is. If Sherlock is driven by its puzzle box resolutions, this is probably the biggest and most cathartic snapping into place it’s done. There’s a dizzying number of moving parts in play—by the time it gets to the end it has two cases, Major Sholto, and Mary's pregnancy to resolve. And though it comes together gloriously, the fact that there’s still ten minutes of episode left when it happens is oddly stressful, especially given what happens to Mary in the actual Doyle stories (and will eventually happen to her in Sherlock). There’s a couple of shots that serve to highlight the way in which Mary's wedding dress is tight around the abdomen, which turn out to be setup for the title drop, but which, given the murder method, leaves a constant lingering sense that this is all going to resolve with Mary suddenly collapsing in a pool of blood. And so when we get to the low key ending of Sherlock leaving the wedding, the cut to credits feeling more like a reprieve than anything else.

This, of course, is a key piece of setup in its own right, as the end of the season is going to turn heavily on the question of who Mary is, and, more importantly, what role she's going to have in the larger narrative. This is familiar territory for Moffat, who has been poking at and deconstructing the sort of plot that would emerge from John being violently widowed ever since A Good Man Goes to War. And much of The Sign of Three, in hindsight, is about setting that up. The warmth between Sherlock and Mary, and the way in which she integrates smoothly into John and Sherlock's life is too pronounced for this to actually go in the direction teased. Other writers might make a character this good just to kill her, but for all the talk of his problems writing women, it seems very much outside the bounds of what Moffat would do. And yet the most interesting question—what he's going to do next—remains entirely opaque. There are teases without substance, most obviously the invocation of the next episode's title. But they don’t go anywhere, instead leaving a sense that, over the course of these ninety minutes, the scope of what Sherlock can do as a show has changed.

Which makes the extent to which The Sign of Three is very much a display of "the sort of things Sherlock does well" an idiosyncratic but compelling virtue. This is an episode of Sherlock you can basically hand to anybody and say "this is why the show is good," which, given that there are only thirteen of them and the first one is also brilliant, is not necessarily something it needed, but nevertheless something that's worth doing periodically, especially for a show that burns this bright and brief in a given season. And yet by the end, after this episode's fire is extinguished, the remaining calx is something difficult and ever so slightly unsettling. We've made a big dramatic mission statement about the nature of mysteries in Sherlock. We've done a warm and funny episode that pushes the series' most obvious virtues to the forefront. All that remains is the main event—the season finale by the show's marquee writer. And the job it has to do is both simple and massive: be nothing like anyone would have guessed.


Comment deleted 1 month, 2 weeks ago

Przemek 1 month, 2 weeks ago

Maybe I'm just being thick here but... why was RTD's approach to rewrites too open? I agree that resenting Paul Cornell for that specific writing credit wasn't very professional but other than that... well, he did rewrite most episodes. I can understand hiding this fact as a professional courtesy to the less known writers so that they can get more spotlight but other than that, what's so wrong about admitting it?

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Jack 1 month, 2 weeks ago

I'd assume it's because RTD was strongly suggesting what Cornell was getting praised for was things he actually wrote, and that without his rewrites, the episodes wouldn't be praiseworthy. There's a difference between rewriting to fit certain realities of television, or to make it work with the creative vision of the series, and going "All that is good in this series I wrote!", which is the sense you got from RTD's complaints about those episodes.

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