First off, I want to thank everybody for a fantastic first few days on the Last War in Albion Kickstarter. It’s doing better than I’d imagined.
I wanted to throw another announcement of it out alongside a proper Eruditorum post so I could stress the fact that all Kickstarter backers get to read the Doctor Who-related project I’m working on as it’s serialized. The first chapter of it is already up as a backer-exclusive update, and I should have the second one up soon.
I’ve also added a new reward tier – a full set of Eruditorum Press books (TARDIS Eruditorum 1-4 and A Golden Thread, along with the Last War in Albion book) in paperback. That’s $100, but if you’re quick and one of the first ten people to get over there, you can get it for $80.
If that’s not enough to tempt you, I’m adding two unofficial stretch goals – if the Kickstarter can hit $6000 by the end of the week, I’ll resume thrice weekly posting for the remaining Sarah Jane Adventures stories, thus getting to Season Six just a little bit faster. And if it makes it to $8000, I’ll go thrice weekly for Miracle Day as well, shortening the mid-series gap for Season Six. I figure that while covering both is a necessary part of the blog, it’s nobody except for the person who’s going to pop up in comments objecting to this claim’s favorite stretch, and we might as well give ourselves a way to make it go a bit faster.
It’s August 1st, 2010. The Wanted are at number one with “All Time Low,” with Swedish House Mafia, Eliza Doolittle, Katy Perry, Eminem, and Flo Rida also charting. In news, significant flooding takes place in China and Pakistan, and Chelsea Clinton gets married.
While on television, Sherlock’s back for another round. First of all, it is customary to point out that The Blind Banker is an unfortunate piece of Yellow Peril adventuring that leaves more than a slightly unpleasant taste in the mouth. There’s not a lot to say about this besides pointing out that it is precisely as racist as you would expect from something overseen by two people who think there’s not really anything wrong with The Talons of Weng-Chiang besides the rat. But whereas that story at least makes sentences beginning “other than the racism” understandable, if not necessarily advisable, this one misses the “be really brilliant” part of the equation and ends up as the consensus crap episode of Sherlock.
That said, the reason it’s crap isn’t that it’s racist, but rather that it’s a fundamentally misconceived episode that doesn’t understand what show it’s a part of. This is actually more understandable than it sounds – I would bet good money that a sixty minute draft of this script existed. It is thus the one episode of Sherlock that unabashedly treats the show as though it’s a standard issue case-of-the-week show in which the point is to solve the mystery, tease the season finale, and cut to credits.
Its first problem, and by no means its only one, is that it’s ninety minutes long. Where A Study in Pink grafted on an extra half hour by adding the Mycroft/Moriarty feint and the “rache” business, both of which amped up the degree to which the episode was an engagement with the larger corpus of Sherlock Holmes and which thus made the episode feel genuinely bigger and weightier, The Blind Banker spins out… well, we can’t know exactly which thirty minutes of this were the padding, but it’s clearly something. My money would be on the entire Soo Lin Yao plot, personally, but the really damning thing is that it hardly matters. All that’s added is an extra thirty minutes of solving the case, because all this episode has to go on is solving the case.
It’s not, of course, that mysteries and procedurals can’t work. I love a good procedural. And much as this is a poor episode of Sherlock, it’s a functional if padded procedural. The underlying mystery isn’t a great one, but it works without major error. But fundamentally, the plot only ever advances when Sherlock figures something out that the audience had no cluing for. The fact that the entire episode is based around a code is frustrating, as the audience is left staring at an implacable wall, where last week the entire spark of the episode came from the fact that there wasn’t a wall around the bulk of the mystery.
Perhaps the real basis for comparison is the villain, since both A Study in Pink and The Blind Banker hinge on the reveal of a villain whose first appearance is their reveal as the villain. But A Study in Pink overtly hides the mystery in plain sight, flagging the killer as “invisible” and turning the question to the nature of his invisibility. By the time he shows up the question isn’t “who is he” but “why can’t we see him,” and the answer – “because he’s a cabbie” – is satisfying, especially because it’s been threaded through that specific scene via the repeated intrusion of the “your taxi’s here” bit. So when we finally grasp that the cab outside Baker Street is the killer the effect is of something moving into focus. None of that infrastructure is present for the equivalent reveal in The Blind Banker, however. Like the solution to the code, it’s not something coming into focus but a wall coming down revealing what we were forbidden from seeing previously. It’s not so much plot advancement as the removal of plot hinderance.
In a proper procedural, where the pleasure comes in a formulaic adventure being delivered on a reliable schedule, this sort of thing works. But the 3×90 setup of Sherlock cuts dramatically against this approach. The “three movies in two weeks” structure demands that each episode be singular and unusual. There’s neither time for Sherlock to establish what an ordinary episode is nor time to waste being ordinary in the first place. Which is where The Blind Banker really falls down. As a second episode of a television series it’s perfectly fine – it demonstrates business as usual and is at least at a baseline level of competence, if not much above that. Usually in the first few episodes of a new series there’s at least one dud where the show learns a few things to avoid, and The Blind Banker is clearly it. This wouldn’t even be particularly worth remarking upon were it not for the fact that the three episode seasons don’t give weak episodes the space to hide.
But this isn’t even particularly interesting as a failure. It’s an unambitious episode from start to finish. Steve Thompson’s primary virtue as a writer is visibly that he doesn’t seem to mind being rewritten by better writers, a virtue that does not appear to be in play here. This script was never meant to be a singular anchor between a big season premiere and an equally big season finale. It’s a slender bit of fluff that’s been pressed into service as something far, far bigger than it can hope to manage. Notably, it’s clear that the other Sherlock script that’s attributed soley to Thompson has blatantly been completely rewritten by Moffat, and that in Season Three they give up all pretense that Thompson’s job is to do anything more than make writing the third episode a little faster by giving Gatiss and Moffat a script to revise. Which, for a 3×90 show in which every episode has to be huge, is the right way to do it. Sherlock isn’t a show that can afford a second tier writer’s existence.
But for all of this, it’s easy to understand why they tried. The ninety minute episode structure is very strange, and surely took some getting used to. Of course they tried to get away with padding one of their existing plots from when the show was to have sixty minute episodes into a ninety minute one. And sure enough, they learned from it not working – never again is the middle episode a bit of disposable fluff between the two “real” episodes, and never again is there a story quite so consumed with the raw mechanics of solving a mystery as this one.
And for all of this, there are moments of real cleverness. Everybody who’s worked on this after the writing took place has given it their all. There’s still a spring in the program’s step and a real sense of excitement over the fact that it’s not just another procedural, it’s Sherlock Holmes. The party is perhaps irrevocably spoiled by the fact that it’s just another procedural, but these things happen.
But unfortunately, that’s about all there is to say about The Blind Banker. It’s an inevitable and uninteresting mistake that compounds its necessary failures with a steaming pile of racism. This, ultimately, becomes the really inscrutable thing about the episode. Its mediocrity was perhaps necessary, but why it had to be mediocre while simultaneously harkening back to old racist fears about vast and unstoppable syndicates of Chinese gangsters led by mysterious overlords is an enduring mystery. The answer is surely simple enough – this really is a television series made by two people who think The Talons of Weng-Chiang is something to pay homage to instead of to guiltily acknowledge the good points of. But this failure takes an episode that could have been forgettable and instead goes that extra mile to make it absolutely awful.
And with that we’re done. Miles under the usual word count, but you know what? I’m getting too old to spend 2000 words on television that deserves to be forgotten.