Well, colour me surprised.
For the past few years, Sherlock had been a love-hate affair for myself. For every smartly-plotted plot, there was a smattering of insensitivity, from either Benedict Cumberbatch’s icy Holmes or from Martin Freeman’s passionate Watson. And although the show more than delivered on its promise of edgy topics, thrilling plot developments (see Series Three’s slow build of Mary Morstan and Magnussen), and quotable one-liners, it skimped on development for anyone beyond the leading twosome.
Fortunately, Sherlock: The Abominable Bride was a welcome and enjoyable change of pace, if a weird and at times confusing one, given that the show elected to set this one-off Christmas special in the original canon’s Victorian setting (or is it?). The episode sees the first meeting of Holmes and Watson all over again (in a dingy mortuary no less) and their developing friendship, before we’re launched into the hook of the episode — the Bride herself, a woman who on the anniversary of her death shot herself in view of a street full of people, and then resurrected herself several hours later to gun down her husband outside an opium den.
The fun in the episode really boils down to seeing our modern characters run through the lens of a Victorian setting — the adventurous Mary (a radiant Amanda Abbington) is kept confined to her role as wife and not allowed to join her husband in investigating (the scenes where he reminds her that she can keep busy by preparing his dinner sting as is wont to do), Lestrade is still an inspector (albeit with impressive muttonchop sideburns), and best of all is Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) masquerading as a man to be taken seriously as a coroner. Steven Moffat has drawn ire over the years for his portrayals of women and while The Abominable Bride only makes some attempts at balancing this, he’s had more success with his Doctor Who efforts (see the immediate improvement in Who heroine Clara Oswald in her final year in 2015), so anyone expecting a sudden, wildly feminist revival in his work might want to steel their expectations (there’s an unfortunate case of mansplaining an important feminist movement, for example).
The case itself is only the first layer and writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (the show’s co-creators; the latter also stars as an increasingly obese Mycroft) make this story more than a frothy one-off special, and ensure it acts as connective tissue between the killer cliffhanger at the end of Series Three (which saw an old adversary return from the dead) and lay the path for next year’s series. As an intellectual exercise, it’s a somersault in logic and emotion, and while some of the performances here are drawn with too much turn-of-the-century relish (Freeman’s Watson is outright unlikable in some scenes, compared to his softer modern-day counterpart), it’s a fun way to spend over 90 minutes, and might even be the best, if still imperfect, episode of the show so far.