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.