Revisiting SHERLOCK: Series 3, Episode 1 - The Empty Hearse - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Revisiting SHERLOCK: Series 3, Episode 1 - The Empty Hearse

Tony Fyler’s missing Moriarty.

There’s a sense in which when Sherlock came back for Series 3, it could be accused of being without a powerful rudder of evil. The death of Moriarty (or at least the apparent death of Moriarty – more in a couple of weeks) left a power vacuum that, as with the original Sherlock Holmes stories, felt like there was less of a point to going on. This is actually a perversity of reading or watching Sherlock Holmes at a distance of history. If you ask the average man in the street what’s the best-known Sherlock Holmes story, they’ll say The Hound of the Baskervilles – which has no hint of Moriarty in it anywhere – but if you ask them who the best-known villain in the Sherlock Holmes canon is, they’ll look at you as if your head is leaking goo and tell you it’s Professor Moriarty of course, as if there’s only Moriarty. No, no, no. Conan Doyle was adept at writing master criminals, and Charles Augustus Milverton, the master blackmailer, was a really good one. But by creating in popular fiction a duality that had previously only been the purview of religions and grand mythologies – God and the Devil, angels and their demonic counterparts, the idea had rarely if ever been brought down to the level of the shilling shockers or the penny dreadfuls in such a way as Holmes and Moriarty, which is why to this day, we refer back to them as the archetypes of this kind of equal opposition as it saturates our modern fictions and fantasies – Conan Doyle created a monster for himself that he would forever find it difficult to escape. The great detective and the Napoleon of crime even originally died together, so intertwined were they in the public imagination.

As with Conan Doyle, so with Moffat and Gatiss – Sherlock and Moriarty are supposed to have died together, and it would have been an elegance to let them do so, but as in the nineteenth century, so in the twenty-first, the audience would never allow Sherlock Holmes to die. So The Empty Hearse confirms the fact we got at the end of Series 2 – Sherlock’s alive, if not exactly well, having cheated Moriarty of his death. There’s also a good deal of faith kept with the original return of Holmes (in The Empty House) in the opening sequences of The Empty Hearse too– Sherlock under cover in Eastern Europe, rooting out the last vestiges of Moriarty’s criminal network, Mycroft helping him fake his death and maintain the fiction. But here it’s Mycroft who recalls him, having got a tip-off about a terror cell planning a bombing campaign. What’s more, Gatiss is well aware of the world in which we live, and has some fun with fandom – The Empty Hearse being a club of conspiracy theorists, led by Lestrade’s forensic expert Anderson (he who lowers the IQ of a room by walking into it). Through them, we see all the things Sherlock’s actually not, but that fans are prone to thinking it is – a slick hero drama where the leading man’s too cool for school, a subverted homo-erotic love story between Holmes and Moriarty etc. All the dreadful fanfiction dross, in fact, is gently satirised through this bunch of cosplaying moderate saddos. Touche, Mr Gatiss. Touche.

The Empty Hearse seems to take an age to get around to any actual plot, but that’s understandable because a man’s coming back from the dead, and there are reactions to have – John’s night of many punches is a funny sequence that possibly goes on just a little too long, the development of the thread that Watson is getting married to Mary Morstan is relatively faithful to the books, as is Sherlock’s not entirely favourable reaction (beyond Sherlock itself, you could do worse than equating Sherlock Holmes to Sheldon Cooper in modern geek culture – selfish as all hell, but worth saving), and Lestrade’s reaction is probably the most satisfying and real; no pretence at anger, just a slightly blokish, manly relief and gratitude. Molly too gets her moment, a chance to be Watson when Watson – determined that ‘I don’t shave for Sherlock Holmes’ (yes, the T-shirts really were on the streets the very next day) – refuses to accompany him to what turns out to be an entirely fake crime scene. It’s a nice thank you, but she can’t do it again. She’s met someone, with whom, bless her, she’s having ‘quite a lot of sex,’ and she needs to focus on their relationship, rather than throwing herself into sidekick duties with the great, if slightly tarnished detective.

The plot, when it does get going, is a perfectly good one, coming via an Underground trainspotter (who are like regular trainspotters, but without their effortless elan). A passenger disappears from a moving tube train between stations – ooh, it’s a good one. Without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, this single thread leads to much bigger things, Holmes and a now clean-shaven Watson trapped under the Houses of Parliament with a great big bomb, to celebrate the 5th November and the historical attempt to blow up parliament by a bunch of religious dissidents, one of whom, Guy Fawkes, is still burned in effigy every year, because clearly the British have no sense of irony about our monarchy. As we say, the plot itself is delicious, but it feels lacking the demented frisson of a Moriarty moment, and the substitute, a kidnapping of Watson and a plan to burn him alive in a bonfire, texting not Sherlock but Mary with a skip code leading to his location feels almost like a half-can of random peril crowbarred in for no terribly good reason except to show that there’s still a magnificent manipulative mastermind behind the scenes, even if Moriarty’s no more. As such, it only ‘sort of’ works, feeling like a sideways distraction from the main plot, though it does highlight one thing very strongly – there’s more to Mary Morstan than meets the eye.

Overall then, does The Empty Hearse work?

That depends largely what you mean by ‘work.’ It brings Sherlock Holmes back with many solid nods to the original (the disguise as a French waiter works, but in an almost-painful way), it sets up Mary Morstan as a new element in the dynamic between Holmes and Watson, it delivers some good comedy through The Empty Hearse group, and a tight terrorist plot, strung out from a single thread of disappearing commuter. But along the way, there’s rather more filler than we’re used to – Molly’s day out with Sherlock, the bonfire burning drama etc, and at the end, while there’s a thrill of excitement that there’s somebody watching footage of Sherlock and Mary pulling Watson from the flames, it’s clearly not Moriarty, and that perversity of experiencing Sherlock at a distance, away from the Strand magazine serialisations, makes us inherently disappointed at that. Yes, fine, good, Sherlock’s back and it was pretty awesome – but there’s still a part of our geek-soul that shoves hands into pockets and schlumps off, kicking stones and muttering that if Sherlock was clever enough to not die, Moriarty was clever enough too…

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

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