Revisiting SHERLOCK: Series 1, Episode 3 - The Great Game

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We play the game again, with Tony Fyler.


Now that’s how you end a series.

The Great Game, written by the Mark Gatiss, the “other half” of the creative team behind the show, is a beautiful conceit in and of itself, and it scatters references from many original Conan Doyle stories around it like a confetti of Easter eggs.

The idea that while Sherlock’s boredom makes him shoot holes in the wall, Moriarty’s boredom makes him have people loaded down with Semtex and set a range of puzzles for the consulting detective gives the characters the classic duality for which they’ve become a watchword throughout the subsequent history of fiction. The idea that Moriarty, the ‘consulting criminal,’ is willing to cut some of his projects loose merely to feed the game – to ruin lives, to kill innocents when people explode, just to play his game with Sherlock Holmes – brings the Moriarty character screaming into the 21st century. A Napoleon of crime is a difficult concept to get our heads around in these jaded high-tech days, but Gatiss capitalises on the groundwork that’s been done in the first two episodes, to let us understand. Moriarty is Blofeld at the heart of Spectre, he’s the one no-one gets near, the whisper you dare not make, because the retribution for even a whisper will be terrible.

Mycroft brings his brother a case to kick off the episode, and the case of Andrew West and the missing Bruce-Partington missile system plans ticks away in the background throughout this story as an example of the high-level, top secret world in which the Other Holmes Brother operates, but it’s literally blown off the screen fairly early on by the beginning of the great game – the series of cases Sherlock must solve against the clock, to stop a hapless stranger being blown to smithereens. As Sherlock notes, it’s an elegant set-up – if the case isn’t solved in time, the innocents die, taking others with them. If the innocents deviate from relaying the exact instructions they’re given, they’re shot, meaning they can’t reveal their location, and so they die, taking others with them. Each of the cases is tightly plotted and paced, from the archive case of Karl Powers, which started the careers of both Moriarty and Sherlock, through the case of Janus Cars and its special service, to the killing of Connie Prince, and the case of the fake Vermeer. They’re mostly examples of different ‘kinds’ of Sherlock cases, though there’s a doubling in Karl Powers and Connie Prince – a murder that’s been disguised as an accident or nature, in among the fake murder of Janus Cars and the art fraud leading to murder in the case of the Vermeer. The pace doesn’t really slacken at all until the Vermeer case, when for some unknown reason – Moriarty trying to up the stakes and unnerve Sherlock, presumably - there’s no countdown to intensify the pressure, so the framing structure of the case-by-case race is a little lost, but it does then deliver a great additional shock when it turns out with ten seconds to go that this time, the Semtex-carrier is a child, and Sherlock only manages to solve the case with two seconds to spare.


Along the way, Watson’s sent to take details of the Bruce-Partington case, and Sherlock is introduced to Molly’s new boyfriend, Jim, who he immediately pronounces to be gay, a deduction based on a combination of personal grooming, visible underwear, and the fact that Jim slips him his number while no-one’s looking. Telling Molly that her boyfriend’s gay is what Sherlock considers a kindness, highlighting an issue that’s prevalent throughout the episode – Sherlock doesn’t particularly care one way or another about the people trapped inside Moriarty’s Semtex overcoats, he only cares about the work, the cases, the solutions. He needs to prove he’s right, needs to prove he’s better than the man setting the puzzles. It’s a characterisation that resonates back to both A Study In Pink and The Blind Banker, inasmuch as Sherlock, for all his brilliance, is as vulnerable to psychological manipulation as anyone else – give him an incomplete or unsolved puzzle and he’ll put himself and others in danger to be able to say he solved it. In A Study In Pink, it was himself he put in danger, going with the homicidal cabbie to play his game of toxicological chess, while in The Blind Banker, it’s John and Sarah he endangers with his potentially reckless need to solve the whole crime. As he clearly says in this episode, “Heroes don’t exist, and if they did I wouldn’t be one.” Sherlock Holmes is not a hero, he’s an addict of the game, the battle, the quest to challenge his otherwise chronically bored brain. And that’s how things play out here too – in a reckless moment of triumph, he lets Moriarty know he has the Bruce-Partington plans on a USB stick, and arranges a meeting at the swimming pool where Karl Powers died, only to find when he arrives that he’s been out-thought again – Watson’s there with a Semtex overcoat strapped to his body, and the red dot of a sniper rifle dancing round his chest.

In an updated version of the confrontation in Conan Doyle’s Final Problem, we finally meet Andrew Scott’s Moriarty – only to find we’ve already met him, as Jim, Molly’s boyfriend. If you’ve ever wondered how to steal the bejesus out of a scene, watch Scott’s performance here. It’s a rollercoaster ride. He looks and sounds so normal, so ordinary – until he doesn’t any more, and he dances through the performance, by turns lyrical, swaggering, furious and businesslike. He gives Sherlock a ‘friendly warning’ to stay out of his business in future, assuring him that he’ll kill him at some point in the future anyway, but that if he doesn’t stop interfering, he’ll ‘burn the heart out of’ the great detective. The Bruce-Partington plans, as it happens, he has no interest in, flinging them casually away, if only to prove that Sherlock still doesn’t understand the power and the reach of the man he’s dealing with.


Then, ever quixotic, he leaves, allowing our heroes to shuck off the Semtex.

But this is Moriary – and whereas in the original Final Problem, the two meet and he simply walks away, to plot and scheme another day, this is a 21st century Moriary, more prone to changing his mind. For Doctor Who fans who want to know where the writing of Missy, the bananas female incarnation of the Master, came from, it’s possibly not too far a stretch to say if you look at Andrew Scott’s Moriarty, you can get the bones of her forming. He comes back suddenly, having reconsidered his position, leading to a tense stand-off, with Sherlock threatening to shoot the Semtex and blow them all to bits, and sniper-dots crawling all over him. Shots swap between Moriarty’s face and Sherlock’s, and back again. Music swells to a climax, annnd –

Did we mention that’s the way to end a series?

Series 1 of Sherlock featured an explosive combination of great adventures from Arthur Conan Doyle, and a re-imagining by two of TV’s most effective drama writers. A Study In Pink set out the stall of what a modern Sherlock would be like. The Blind Banker expanded the remit slightly, overplaying its hand but delving into more traditional Holmesian territory. And The Great Game did for Moriarty what A Study In Pink achieved for Sherlock, electrifying its audience with a bold, breathtaking new approach, delivered by an actor hungry for the challenge and capable of blowing the doors off our imagination. On the basis of these three stories, a second series (and a whirlwind of worldwide fandom) was absolutely assured.

Previously
A Study In Pink
The Blind Banker

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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