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.