Monday, January 23, 2012

Rewarding News

The nominees for this year's BSFA awards have been announced, and I'm very pleased to report that my review of Arslan by M.J. Engh has been nominated for best non-fiction.  I'd like to take this chance to thank the BSFA and the award's administrators, as well as everyone who nominated my review, and to congratulate the other nominees.

I don't expect to win, nor do I think that I should.  As proud as I am of my Arslan review, and as gratified as I've been by the positive response that it has engendered, I can't hold it up against the entire third edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, or the SF Mistressworks project, or the other, more "conventional" nominees such as the blog Pornokitsch, the catalogue for the British Library's much-lauded Out of This World exhibition, or the essay collection The Unsilent Library.  The BSFA's nonfiction award casts a wide net and has a history of producing rather esoteric shortlists.  Which makes it a lot of fun and thus a good award to be nominated for, and that's more than enough for me.  I look forward to learning, when the award is handed out, which of the fantastic and deserving works with which my review has the honor of being nominated gets to take the award home.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Big Guns: Thoughts on Sherlock's Second Season

Two seasons into its run, I'm having trouble deciding whether Sherlock is a brilliant show or a terrible one.  The episodes themselves seem to alternate between the two extremes, with little in the way of middle ground--devastatingly clever updates on Sherlock Holmes tropes alongside plots so full of holes that they barely hold together, gags that make you gasp with laughter alongside lines so leaden and overwrought that you hardly know where to look, characters you fall in love with in a single scene alongside one-dimensional harpies.  My reaction to these episodes is similarly bi-polar--sometimes the credits roll on what seems like a perfect story, but thirty seconds later the whole thing has collapsed into a pile of contradictions, implausibilities, and contrivances; other times, you switch off an execrable story and the only thing that sticks in your mind is that one hilarious scene.  When writing about Sherlock, I invariably find myself making laundry lists of its faults, then concluding that I really like it.  If I weren't so frustrated, I'd be very impressed.

Sherlock's second season is very much of a piece with its first, which is--predictably--both a very good and very bad thing.  The things that worked in the first season--Martin Freeman, Benedict Cumberbatch, the relationship between Sherlock and John, the witty overlaying of Holmesian tropes and stories over the 21st century--are still very much in evidence (though somewhat muted in that last case).  Equally, the flaws that marred the show and held it back from greatness--its messy plots, the unwieldiness of the 90-minute format, the horrible writing for female characters--are back in force (though again, there has been some marked--if, ultimately, insufficient--progress on that last front).  The one key differences is in the stories that Sherlock has chosen to tell in its second outing.  Though the first season appropriated many of Holmes and Watson's most famous attributes, only a few of Conan Doyle's original stories made it onto the show, and those that did were fairly obscure ones and only faintly referenced--a brief nod to A Study in Scarlet in "A Study in Pink"; "The Bruce Partington Plans" as a subplot of "The Great Game."  In its second season, Sherlock has broken out the big guns--the two most famous one-off characters in the Holmes canon, Irene Adler and James Moriarty, what is arguably the best-known Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the most iconic incident in Holmes's career, his confrontation with Moriarty and seeming death alongside him.

It will probably come as no surprise if I say that the results of bringing these stories into the Sherlock universe are mixed, but what's interesting about the ways in which the second season is terrible is that they give the impression that Sherlock is eager for the cachet of its source material, but doesn't entirely trust it.  "A Scandal in Belgravia" starts out like gangbusters, cleverly updating the story of a shady woman with damning information about a powerful man who may be more than Holmes can handle.  The episode's first half, which is very nearly a play-by-play of "A Scandal in Bohemia," is Sherlock at its best--tense, funny, fast-paced, and peopled with indelible characters.  When that story runs out, however, Sherlock appends to it a complication in which Irene Adler's actions go from naughty-yet-understandable to villainous and potentially disastrous, and "Belgravia" devolves into a muddled mess.  The sharp, quick-moving plot turns episodic, and the story seems to take forever to come to its close--not least because it has so many false bottoms.  (This structural complaint does not address the equally valid, and equally damaging, problem of "Belgravia"'s handling of Irene herself, about which so much virtual ink has been spilled that I could hardly contribute anything to the discussion, certainly not in the face of Steven Moffat's own rather revealing response to the accusation that "Belgravia," and Sherlock in general, are sexist.)

"The Hounds of Baskerville," meanwhile, carries over little from the original novel but its basic premise--the legend of the Hound and the young heir who fears that he is its next target--a few character names, and the theme of pitting Holmes's rationalism against the other characters' superstitions.  The story itself is scooped out and replaced with what initially seems like a clever inversion--few people are credulous enough to believe in spectral hounds anymore, but many would be willing to at least consider that the secret weapons lab next door is unleashing its test subjects on the local population--but whose execution is sloppy, rooted in the stupidity of its players (a top secret military facility allows its highest-ranking officers to choose a password as weak as "Maggie"), their inexplicable willingness to accommodate Sherlock (Mycroft just gives Sherlock the credentials he needs to enter Baskerville for the second time), and plain coincidences (John happens to wander into a room where the crazy-making gas is leaking), and whose resolution offers a "rational" explanation to the legend of the Hound that is in fact significantly less plausible than the original, supernatural one.

I don't mean to suggest that Sherlock's problem is that it deviates from its source material, but I do think that the ways in which "Belgravia" and "Baskerville" deviate from their sources are telling, and shed a light on the show's actual problems.  "A Scandal in Bohemia" is an interesting story not simply because Holmes is beaten, and not even because the person who beats him is a woman, but because Irene Adler is so thoroughly uninterested in Holmes.  She's in the middle of her own story that is far greater than him, and he is but one of the impediments on her path to a happy, private life with the man she loves.  What's more important, however, is that by the end of the story Holmes recognizes this, and realizes that his client is the villain in Irene's story and that he, Holmes, is on the wrong side.  Irene beats him less because she's smarter than he is--does anyone doubt that he could have tracked her down after she gave him the slip?--than because he's realized that letting her go is the right thing to do.  It's a story that shines a light not only on Holmes's appreciation for intellect, but on his fundamental decency, and is thus completely unsuited to Sherlock, which has chosen to recast Holmes as an amoral sociopath.  Sherlock is far from the first Holmes adaptation to have reworked Irene Adler into a villain, Holmes's requited love interest, and Moriarty's ally (Guy Ritchie's first Sherlock Holmes movie did all three just a few years ago), but its emphasis on Sherlock's need to be the smartest guy in the room--in the pursuit of which, not justice or the greater good, he humiliates Irene and leaves her to a gruesome fate--makes him seem a great deal crueler and less heroic than I think the episode intends him to be, even taking into account the "happy" ending in which he saves Irene's life.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, meanwhile (which I feel I ought to say is my very favorite Holmes story, and whose mangling at Sherlock's hands I am finding it hard to get over), does two things that Sherlock could never have countenanced.  First, it sidelines Holmes for most of the story, sending Watson to gather evidence and meet the various players while Holmes observes from afar, only appearing to solve the mystery in the novel's final chapters.  Second, despite its Gothic premise, the novel is in many ways a cozy mystery, driven by the tightly-woven, longstanding relationships between individuals and families in a small village, into which both Watson and Sir Henry Baskerville blunder.  The plot is driven and eventually resolved by those relationships--by Miss Stapleton's confused feelings towards Sir Henry, or Mrs. Barrymore's devotion to her criminal brother.  Sherlock is too invested in its title character and his antics to spend the bulk of a story away from him (a fact that "The Hounds of Baskerville" amusingly comments on when it has Sherlock pretend that he is about to send John to investigate on his own, then dismiss the idea as lunacy) or root that story in the emotional lives of one-off characters.  I'm not enamored of the choice to make Sherlock both a sociopath and the emotional center of the show, but having made those choices, it was surely incumbent on Sherlock's writers to choose stories that would complement them.  Neither "A Scandal in Bohemia" nor The Hound of the Baskervilles do, and it's hard not to conclude that they were chosen solely for their name recognition, with very little regard for whether they suited Sherlock's vision of itself and the kind of stories it was trying to tell.

Happily, "The Reichenbach Fall" does a better job of marrying Holmes to Sherlock.  It helps that hardly anyone remembers what precedes the ending of "The Final Problem."  The salient points about that story are that Holmes is determined to stop Moriarty, that he sends Watson away to keep him safe, and that he realizes that the only way to kill Moriarty is to lay down--or at least pretend to lay down--his own life.  All of which is perfectly congruent with the way that Sherlock has built up both Sherlock and Moriarty.  The episode itself, though by no means perfect, is probably my favorite since "A Study in Pink."  True, the plot relies, like too many Sherlock stories, on coincidences and stupidity--Sherlock entertains, if even for a second, the possibility that a few bytes might comprise a computer program sophisticated enough to break into any computer in the world; the police are said to be stumped by Moriarty's break-ins but apparently never bothered to consider the possibility that he had help on the inside; Mycroft happily chats about his brother with an arch-criminal who has made his animosity towards Sherlock abundantly clear; no one ever explains how the kidnapped children were made to fear Sherlock--but these are in the way of go-homers, the kind of plot holes that only make themselves felt after the credits roll.  And the story works, credibly suggesting a threat that could easily get under Sherlock's skin, and tying that threat to a series of well-crafted challenges that only lead him closer to his doom.  "Reichenbach" is a sort of cross between "A Study in Pink" (it restores John, at least partially, as our point of view character, bookends the beginning of his relationship with Sherlock, and echoes the question of how a person can be forced to kill themselves) and "The Great Game" (which like it features Sherlock jumping through Moriarty's hoops on the path to his own destruction), and though it doesn't deliver the sort of highs that these (or "A Scandal in Belgravia") do, neither does it plumb their depths.  The pacing, which is Sherlock's most consistent bugbear--most of its episodes lose steam around the one hour mark--is kept at a steady clip that obscures all but the most egregious plot holes without shortchanging the characters and their interactions, and the plot handles its high stakes in a way that is plausible and that doesn't veer into melodrama until very near the end.

Something else that "Reichenbach" does, however, is to drive home just how thoroughly Sherlock is committed to its vision of Holmes as the Doctor.  That Moffat's Doctor and Moffat and Gatiss's Holmes shared a lot of their DNA was obvious already in "A Study in Pink," and in the intervening two seasons Sherlock has taken a very similar approach to its storytelling and character work as Doctor Who, emphasizing its central character, a superexcited blur of furious, and extremely funny, intelligence over his more recognizably human companions, and using moments of cleverness to distract from an incoherent overarching plot.  The two series's most recent seasons even wrapped up in largely the same way, with the main character, who has for a while been aware that he is marching towards his death, faking that death in part in order to get away from the attention that put him in danger in the first place.

Which raises an interesting question: given that I find Who basically unwatchable at this point, why am I still--and despite all the flaws that I've noted in this review, and which have aggravated me over the course of this season--won over by Sherlock?  Why, in other words, am I still debating whether Sherlock is brilliant or terrible rather than coming down, as I have in Who's case, on the latter side?  Like Who, there's almost always something worth watching for in Sherlock--a particularly funny scene, an especially clever bit of plotting, and of course the two leads--and it could simply be that after a mere six episodes, Sherlock's novelty hasn't worn off yet.  But the real reason, I think, that I'm still invested in Sherlock, and that "The Reichenbach Fall" works for me as a whole while "A Scandal in Belgravia" and "The Hounds of Baskerville" do so only intermittently, is Martin Freeman.  Freeman is Sherlock's secret weapon--so secret that it sometimes seems that even the show's writers have forgotten about him.  With hardly enough screen time or material to work with, he not only constructs a complex character--tough and vulnerable, bumbling and terrifyingly competent, fussy and adventurous, exasperated with Sherlock and deeply devoted to him--but gives the show something that Who lacks, a beating, human heart.

Season two, and especially "The Reichenbach Fall," make much of Sherlock's moments of emotion.  These, however, often seem either calculated and cheap--as if, having built up the character's inhumanity to such great heights, even the most basic emotions, such as anger at a thug who beat up Mrs. Hudson or shame at having humiliated Molly, count as major development--or overwrought--not to bring this back to Doctor Who, but the final confrontation with Moriarty has more than a whiff of David Tennant and John Simm chewing the scenery at the end of Who's third season.  It's John's emotions, which are on a more human scale--modulated by his awareness of society's conventions, and rarely operatic--that give Sherlock real resonance, especially when he's stripped raw, as he is at the end of "The Reichenbach Fall."

What season two, with its emphasis on the big guns of the Holmes canon, has brought into focus is that what's wrong with Sherlock is, well, Sherlock.  Not the character, who is great, nor Cumberbatch, whose showier role makes him easy to dismiss but who handles what is actually a tough job with aplomb, switching easily between funny Sherlock, amazing Sherlock, and terrifying Sherlock and making great meals of all of them.  No, the problem is the show's infatuation with Sherlock, and its willingness to set all considerations of plot and character aside in order to let him do his thing.  That infatuation is the reason that "A Scandal in Bohemia" and The Hound of the Baskervilles are neutered in their Sherlock versions--because this is not the show whose main character can realize that he is a minor character in someone else's story, or step back to let John drive a story.  The problem, however, runs deeper than simply a bad choice of source material, as "The Reichenbach Fall" demonstrates.  Sherlock only comes together when it's told from John's point of view, when his normal, ordinary perspective is allowed to mediate Sherlock's extraordinary one.  But the show is too in love with Sherlock to ever let that happen.

I think I'd be alright with Sherlock if it were simply a show that sometimes seems brilliant and at other times is just terrible.  But it's getting harder and harder to watch the show veer between those two extremes knowing that it has the potential to be consistently great, and absolutely no willingness to fulfill it.  That knowledge makes watching Sherlock one of the most nail-bitingly frustrating experiences I've known--it's probably a good thing that its seasons are only three episodes long or I'd go nuts.  But hey, if nothing else, whether brilliant or terrible, at least it's never boring.