A week from now, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ Sherlock returns to BBC 1 after a two year absence.
Just as Moffat has done Doctor Who minisodes to tease upcoming seasons and specials, he’s done a Sherlock minisode, “Many Happy Returns,” to tease the new season.
I watched it. I grinned through it. From a Canonical standpoint, I loved the little touches like the Head Lama (“The Empty House”), the parsley in the butter (“The Six Napoleons,” though changed to ice cream, and the way it played was very reminiscent of Elementary‘s second season premiere), and the Trepoff Murder (“A Scandal in Bohemia”).
Then it changed. The scene shifted from a pub where Lestrade and Anderson were discussing whether or not Sherlock Holmes was alive to Watson’s apartment. It was still good, but not as much fun.
And I want to note that it’s both odd and amusing that Anderson, a man whose IQ lowers that of the entire street, is actually sharper than Lestrade (who, to be fair, was not the sharpest knife in the drawer in the Canon) and has become some sort of bearded prophet preaching the coming of the Messiah… err, I mean Sherlock Holmes.
Overall, I enjoyed it.
And then I thought about it. And then I rewatched it.
And, dammit, like Moffat’s Doctor Who minisodes, “Many Happy Returns” doesn’t withstand any sort of scrutiny.
The Anderson/Lestrade stuff is great. I can’t and won’t take anything away from that. If that’s all “Many Happy Returns” had been, I would say that Steven Moffat had finally cracked the nut of how to make a good minisode.
But then when it gets to Watson, it runs off the rails.
Yes, what happens narratively at that point has charm. It’s nice to see that Watson is still gutted at Sherlock’s death, two years on.
But in terms of what we see at that point, it doesn’t make any sense. Because it depends strongly on coincidence — Lestrade just so happens to drop off a box of Holmes’ effects at precisely that moment, Watson just so happens to watch the DVD at precisely that moment, Watson just so happens to pause the DVD at precisely that moment, Lestrade just so happens to walk past a newspaper with that headline at precisely that moment. To quote Auric Goldfinger, “Once is coincidence, twice is happenstance, three times is an enemy action.” To which I would add, “four times strains suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point.” Either Sherlock was such a tactician that he could fight chaos theory to such an extent that random encounters two years hence would fall into his plan, or everything we saw was simply a coincidence that humans with their tiny little brains could make patterns where none existed. Plus, the coincidences aren’t aimed at the characters in-universe, especially the wink at the end; they’re aimed at the audience, breaking the fourth wall. I’ve never seen Holmes as a tactician of that level, he’s not Grand Admiral Thrawn.
That’s my problem with “Many Happy Returns.” Cowriters Moffat and Gatiss chased suspension of disbelief down an alley, mugged it for kicks, and left it for dead.
I feel churlish for criticizing it, but it’s like some of the Doctor Who minisodes — it’s very well made, it’s very polished, it’s entirely superficial, and it withstands no scrutiny whatsoever. It’s nice and I enjoyed watching it, but when I thought about it and rewatched it, I didn’t like it very much. It’s unfortunate, but for this viewer the third (and presumably final) series of Sherlock begins with a dischordant note.