Going out with a misfire

Sherlock’s final episode was by far its worse

 

Author’s note: I meant to publish this close to the time Sherlock‘s finale was broadcast but was travelling and I got distracted. Hope at least some of you are still interested in reading it.

<Spoilers>

I was six when my Dad started reading me Conan Doyle as bedtime stories. So if I describe myself as a lifelong Sherlockian that is only a very mild exaggeration. As nerds tend to be, I am extremely exacting when it comes to adaptations of my obsession and I was sceptical of the whole notion of a modern update of the character. Despite that I almost immediately came to adore Sherlock.  It was clearly made by people who knew the source material and had captured its spirit. At one point I wrote that:

The idea that we are living in a golden age of telly is now commonplace. The programs used as evidence of this are typically American cable shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. But given Sherlock’s fantastic writing, acting and plotting it deserves to be up there too.

I kept faith with it when it began taking a lot of flak. The quality undeniably dropped in the third season but it could only be realistically deemed as bad if judged by its own stellar standards. The mysteries were definitely less exquisitely crafted than before and indeed seemed mostly to function as playground for the characters but as those characters were still a riot to watch that was hardly a fatal flaw. Sherlock was still soaring, just at a lower altitude than before.

Therefore, I am rather disappointed to report that its final episode is genuinely poor. Not less good, not worse but actually bad.

It was not totally without merit. As has often been the case, even when the  narrative failed the actors still delivered. It was genuinely sad to see Molly being humiliated again, Mycroft trying to sacrifice himself and Moriarty being theatrically reptilian as per usual. But these character moments didn’t really lead anywhere. Indeed, Molly’s appearance felt less like a fitting send off than a final insult and Moriarty seemed to be there mostly as a form of fan service.

And much of the narrative depended on undermining the coherence of the characters. You or I might not notice that we are repressing memories or looking at an optical illusion simulating glass rather than real glass, but the preceding four series have made it clear that Sherlock would have. However, his unexplained intellectual dive was nothing compared with his brother’s, who goes from being established as the smartest character in this universe to being so dumb that he lets his evil genius sister meet Moriarty without supervision!

A bigger problem, however, was that the proceedings seemed to be in the wrong genre. It appeared to be set in a Bond villain’s lair run by a opponent nearer in conception to something from a horror movie and in execution to something from Doctor Who. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with genre shifts – executed well they can make a show – but a finale is an odd place for one and the effect was jerky and discordant. The whole episode felt contrived and overwrought.

The whole episode felt contrived and overwrought. The first half was rushed and marked by abrupt shifts in location and tone. And once we got to the meat of the story it hardly felt worth it: facing off against Euros felt less like the organic end to Sherlock’s journey than a contrivance to drag him there. It all seemed rather daft. At one point an exploding drone forces the heroes to leap from the windows of Baker Street accompanied by terrible CGI flames. In another, the villain appears to possess the power of mind control. And as already mentioned the Holmes brother’s intellects take a dive for no reason. That such a smart and entertaining show has apparently ended with a collage of dumb, unsatisfying moments is a grave disappointment.

Tidings of logic and joy

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[I forgot to include a spoiler warning. Apologises to anyone who read this and then regretted it]

The seasonal benevolence of the BBC is impressive. For Christmas, they gave us both more Dr Who and more Sherlock.

Even though the residents of 221B Baker Street were back they were not quite as we are used to seeing them. The update has been restored to its original setting. Well sort of. In the end it was all a dream. But that was justification enough to watch the actor/character combos we’ve grown to adore back in action.

It’s quite a romp. Things are allowed to be more knowing, strange and melodramatic than before. And for all of those things the baseline was already high. The freedom to be heightened produces some great moments. The new setting creates opportunities for lots of new comedy. And the return to the age of Conan Doyle allows Moffat and Gatiss to indulge their love for the author – even more than usual.

But that does come at a price. That looseness borders on indulgence and this episode just doesn’t feel as finely honed as a regular episode. The formulation of the various “dreams within dreams” becomes messy. By the end I wasn’t sure whether we were supposed to believe Holmes’ solution of the problem. For the first time in the show’s run the cinematography was distracting rather than impressive. And its style of repartee feels anachronistic coming from Victorian mouths.

This makes it a fitting choice as a Christmas Special: entertaining while it lasts but ultimately disposable. I like the kind of experimentation that characterised this episode and series 3. But after a stretch of it, I hope that Moffat and Gatiss will take things back to basic for series 4.

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Which in a way was what Moffat did for Dr Who’s Christmas special. This was coming off the most ambitious series since the show’s resurrection in 2005. It tried out new types of episode like a one hander and was bolder with its themes and character choices. By contrast, this Christmas Special felt like it could easily have been from the Russell T Davies era.

I deduce that it was successful from the fact I didn’t hate it. I have an allergy to the Christmas specials that I tend to find cloying. That’s indicative of the fact that I tend to like my Who dark. I find it funnier when it’s not trying to be comedy and more affecting when it eschews sentimentality. I’ve also generally disliked the River Song story arch partly because I find Alex Kingston grating but mostly because it brings out the two worst aspects of Moffat’s writing: convoluted plotting and women written as fantasies rather than characters. So my not being upset about this episode is actually a significant achievement.

Sure it wasn’t great. It mistook goofiness for hilarity, leaned too much on us finding River a compelling character and had too many cameos from overrated comedians. But it had enough energy and weirdness to carry me through. And I liked the scene where we saw the Doctor bring the restaurant into existence. For dramatic reasons, we usually see what happens when his efforts to manipulate time go wrong or at least only succeed in desperate situations. So it was good to see him living up to his billing as a ‘Time Lord’ and effortlessly play with the course of history to do something special for a loved one.

Of course, I may start to look back on this episode with genuine fondness if it proves to be River’s last.

Whatever my misgivings about these two episodes they were both good pieces of television, and suggest that we’ll have plenty to enjoy when the main series return next year.

A fourth season of Sherlock this year is unlikely

In a recent interview, Sherlock supremo Steven Moffat was asked about rumours that series four of Sherlock might be shown at Christmas. His answer seems to imply it’s unlikely:

We have no idea what we’re going to do.  I’m starting the third week of the new [season] of Doctor Who, so I’ve got quite a lot going on.  I doubt it.  But, it’s a matter of when everyone’s available, and when Mark [Gatiss] and I think we’ve got a strong enough script.  We’re quite picky.  We want every episode of Sherlock to be really, really good.  That’s out ambition.  We don’t have to make a million episodes.  We have to make some very, very good ones.  The moment we drop that idea, it will stop being what it is.
Still, we can hope!

Some questions about series 4 of Sherlock

*Warning – what follows contains spoilers not only for Sherlock but also a number of the original stories: namely the Empty House, His Last Bow, Wysteria Lodge and the Dying Detective*

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When will it be on?

Reports are that the BBC wants it ready for Christmas this year. Which, if true would be quite a change from the two year wait we endured for this series.

Moriarty WTF?

Is he actually alive? If so how? Why has he decided to ask the whole nation if they missed him?

Who will the villain be?

Kind of conditional on the answer to the last question. Could be Moriarty himself obviously. I strongly suspect Moriarty’s henchman Sebastian Moran will appear as the dragon if not the big bad. One could imagine a story arch where he tries to take revenge on Holmes for killing Moriarty.

Conan Doyle’s novels and short stories furnish plenty of other options. For example:

  • Don Juan Murillo – deposed dictator now hiding in the English countryside
  • Von Bork – a German spymaster working in Britain on the eve of WWI
  • Culverton Smith – an expert on tropical diseases who uses them as a murder weapon. Chance for a topical story about bioterrorism anyone?

Oh and we’ve already met an ethically dubious character who can match wits with Sherlock: Mycroft!

Will Irene Adler reappear?

She’s popping up a lot in Sherlock’s thoughts for someone who’s not going to.

What part will Mary play?

Surely Sherlock will find it helpful to have his own version of Jason Bourne to hand?

She might even be Moffat’s chance to show he can write strong female character who aren’t fantasies.

But of course as Watson threw the USB stick with details of her past onto the fire, we can safely say that it won’t come back to haunt her! ß sarcasm

Oh and the precedent for her character is not very happy 😦

What stories will they take inspiration from this time?

Sherlock has now done its own very loose adaptation of three out of the four Holmes novels but only a handful of the short stories. That still leaves them an awful lot of material.

Will it be good?

Duh!!!

The Nolanisation of Sherlock

Yesterday’s dark, mind screwing finale makes me suspect that Gatiss and Moffat are taking inspiration from the master of dark, mind screwing cinema – Christopher Nolan

A dark knight of a slightly different sort

Another dark knight

*Warning – what follows contains an abundance of spoilers. Don’t read if you are not caught up on Sherlock*

Before, I move onto the meat of the post, let me offer a short review of last night’s finale: whoa!!!

After a series that – while still brilliant – often felt unassured and unbalanced, this episode was a return to the show’s own high standards. There were moments of exquisite comedy (Sherlock having a girlfriend!) and character development (the reveal of Mary’s past). However, these did not overwhelm the deliciously complex plot as they had done in the Empty Hearse and the Sign of the Three. Oh and Mikkelson landed the role of Magnusson: he was gloriously repellent.

Now onto business. There has been a small moment from the beginning of the Sign of the Three that’s been bugging me since I saw it. In it Lestrade (almost) apprehends a group robbing banks while wearing clown masks. Why I wondered would anyone so conspicuously (and jarringly) rip-off the iconic opening of the Dark Knight for the sake of a single shot lasting a few seconds? After seeing the Last Vow, I suspect it was there as an acknowledgement of an artistic debt.

Nolan has directed a number of excellent and influential films: Inception, Insomnia, the Prestige and most famously the Dark Knight trilogy. His page on TV tropes says “his films tend to emphasize themes of obsession, deception, guilt, and order versus chaos.” That doesn’t sound a million miles away from the themes of Sherlock.

As this post at Sherlockology notes the Holmes and Batman have something of a shared history. Batman and his supporting characters were partially inspired by the inhabitants of Holmes’ universe. Conversely, a poster for a 60s Sherlock Holmes film branded him the ‘original caped crusader’ and Holmes features in a number of comics. So someone rebooting Holmes in the wake of Nolan’s gargantuanly successful rebooting of Batman was going to be influenced by them.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this, is the similarity of Andrew Scott’s Moriarty to Heath Ledger’s Joker. Both depict their villain as flamboyantly unhinged, reptilian exhibitionists who produce enormous schemes so they can “watch the world burn.”

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However, with this series it’s felt like more has been going on than just osmosis from one reboot to the other. The last two episodes have played around with chronology, a Nolan trademark. And now that we are getting to see inside Sherlock’s mind palace – it is looking an awful lot like a dream sequence out of Inception. Witness, for example, Holmes falling backwards in slow motion while his thoughts rage on at normal speed. A bit like this:

The BBC4 documentary that aired after last night’s episode featured Jeremy Brett – who played Holmes in Grenada’s adaptation of the stories – explaining that you can only see Holmes’ thoughts through “cracks in the façade.” By utilising Nolan’s technique for depicting someone’s mental ‘architecture’ on screen, Moffat and Gatiss can do something different. We plunge into Sherlock’s mind and that allows us to see that it’s a different place from what the surface might suggest. We know he’s extraordinarily rational but I’d always imagined that to be the result of him thinking without emotion in the manner of a computer. Actually what we saw in the sequences inside Sherlock’s mind was that it was a place overran by disturbing thoughts and emotions. It is only by controlling these that Sherlock can achieve his extraordinary mental feats.

It also showed us a lot about the darker side of the Sherlock-Mycroft relationship. In Sherlock’s head his elder brother seems to be the manifestation of his doubts, constantly rebuking Sherlock for his stupidity. While it seems Sherlock inherited his genius from his mother, his cold and domineering elder sibling appears to be the source of his darkness and peculiarity. Sherlock says later in the episode that Mycroft was “a rubbish older brother” that seems like an understatement.

It is of course quite possible that I’m reading too much into all of this and that Nolan’s work isn’t an influence on the show. It is perhaps a notion I have a weakness for as I’m a huge fan of both. However, I am right then that would be relevant to a debate that I’ll let the Guardian’s Sherlock blog explain:

a piece in the Independent saying you shouldn’t have to concentrate too hard to enjoy Sherlock (as if the past two decades of outstanding television, from The Wire to EastEnders, haven’t repaid viewers for taking more than a passing interest), as well as a more reasoned suggestion by Mark Lawson that shows such as Sherlock and Doctor Who should always be seeking to reach new fans and not just pleasing their online hardcore.

However, as the blog’s author Sam Wolfson later suggests

I think we’ve tired of the traditional detective format, well trodden by Poirot/Morse/Creek/CSI, where a single case is wrapped up with a few clues within one episode. Sherlock fiddling with that format is part of the reason for its success, and I’m fully on board with it continuing in ever-more brash ways.

And a success it has been. There isn’t a trade-off between demanding more of an audience and broadening it. Viewers for this series of Sherlock are actually up.

To see why I am mentioning this in relation to Nolan consider the following from Guardian film critic Mark Kermode:

Is Christopher Nolan the saviour of spectacularly intelligent cinema? On the evidence of his most recent work, the answer is an unequivocal “yes”. Having used a bestselling comic-book franchise to create a pair of movies (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) that are perhaps best described as art-house flicks posing as blockbuster fare, Nolan cashed in his hard-earned artistic and financial freedom with Inception (2010, Warner, 12), the $160m auteur vehicle that proves really expensive movies don’t have to be stupid to be successful.

Likewise Sherlock is ‘spectacularly intelligent’ TV and it’s doing exceedingly well. And if smart TV is drawing on ideas from one of the smartest guys in cinema then that’s a cause for further celebration.

 

 

 

Some Thoughts on Sherlock’s Return

*Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers*

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1. They got me

I doubly fell for the fake solution in the first scene. I was feeling very smug when it came up because my theory had been that it was Moriarty’s body that fell from the roof.

2. Gatiss and Moffat were even more cheeky than you thought

Not only did they provide us with a fake solution but made it a surprise even though pictures of it had actually appeared in the paper. Oh and in a Guardian interview they along with Andrew Scott basically gave away that the solution would be disappointingly simple but the way they embedded it into the story would make it seem like a bigger surprise.

3. Are we quite sure we really know what happened?

Are they still screwing with us? I wouldn’t put it past them.

4. It all got rather postmodern

The two fake reveal scenes were based on fan theories. So we had viewers of the show unwittingly writing bits of it!

5. This was one of the less superb episodes

It was still great. All of Sherlock is. And this was undeniably the funniest episode so far and the scene with the bonfire was stunningly tense. However, the foregrounding of the characters did mean that the plot was less dazzlingly than usual.

6. It seems characters are going to be the fore in this series

As next week’s episode resolves around Watson’s wedding that seems to be a given for now.

7. Sherlock is growing

Speaking of characters, the scene where Sherlock discovers that Molly’s fiancé is his doppelganger seemed pretty pivotal. It stood in contrast with the way he’d humiliated her in similar situations before. Could that perhaps suggests he’s gradually softening into something more like the Victorian gentleman of Conan Doyle’s stories.

Given that we have been introduced to Sherlock’s parents, whether we’ll dip into his past. Conan Doyle did in the Adventure of the Gloria Scott and the Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.

8. Molly seems to have taken on a life of her own

It’s possible that Gatiss and Moffatt always intended to bring Molly into the emotional heart of the story. But it doesn’t seem like it. Louise-Brealey, the actress who plays her, said in an interview after the last series that the “reaction to Molly this series has completely taken me by surprise. I did my day or two filming, like last time. But this year – because of the frankly brilliant writing – I think people have noticed her. Which is amazing.”

Her explanation is that “Molly works because, while Watson is “the audience”, Molly is every woman of a certain age sitting at home on the settee fantasising about running their hands through Benedict Cumberbatch’s hair.” I’d disagree slightly with this. To an extent I think she is the audience – both male and female – in that she is the person who’d love to be part of Sherlock’s adventures but (usually) doesn’t get to be.

9. The roles for women are getting better

Moffat has been criticised for not being able to write women in part because of Sherlock.

Last night’s episode was a step forward in that regard. For starters as we’ve already noted Molly is getting a larger and more complicated role. Watson and Mrs Hudson’s reunion was the first time she seemed like a rounded character rather than a comic relief or a plot contrivance. And we were introduced to Mary Morstan who gets to be rather less drippy than she is in the books.

10. The literal meaning of a phrase trick

An underground network turned out to literally be a network in the Underground. That’s rather reminiscent of how the Doctor having a secret “he would take to his grave” meant he would actually visit his tomb.

11. There’s bound to be a fourth series

Moffat has said ‘we had to inform the BBC that Martin and Benedict had commissioned a new series. They signed themselves up. They both announced that they were carrying on – so that’s good’. Indeed the two leads are apparently already optioned for a fourth series

As last night’s episode got more than 9 million viewers, it’s hard to see the BBC not exercising that option.

12. Is this the best TV drama around now?

The idea that we are living in a golden age of telly is now commonplace. The programs used as evidence of this are typically American cable shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. But given Sherlock’s fantastic writing, acting and plotting it deserves to be up there too.

Some hypotheses as to the mystery of the resurgent sleuth

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*Warning contains spoilers for series 1 and 2 of Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: a Game of Shadows*

Sherlock is back. This is true both in the sense that:

1)      a new series of the BBC drama starts this evening (YIPEE!!!);

2)      even though the last of Conan Doyle’s story was published in 1927, Holmes is popping up in an awful lot of culture.

At the present moment there are:

  • Gatiss and Moffat’s series for the BBC staring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.
  • Guy Ritchie’s films Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: a Game of Shadows starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. A third one is apparently on the way. These are essentially Victorian set action comedies.
  • The NBC series Elementary starring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Watson. Like Sherlock, it brings Conan Doyle’s characters into the present day. In this version Holmes is solving mysteries in New York while recovering from drug addiction. Oh and Watson is a women.
  • Ian McKellen will play an elderly Holmes in an upcoming film called a Slight Trick of the Mind.
  • Series like the Mentalist and Law and Order: Criminal Intent that take their basic model from Holme’s adventures.

Furthermore, whereas previous TV and film versions of these stories tended to be stale pieces of Victoriana, recent versions tend to be extremely loose adaptations that nonetheless feel very true to the spirit of the originals. Writers seem to have rediscovered the energy, excitement and mischief that Conan Doyle injected into his stories.

This all raises the question of why Holmes seems to have so much cultural currency at the present moment. Here in no particular order are some theories of mine:

Copycats

It’s not exactly a secret that the creative industries can be strikingly unimaginative. So any successful project seems to result in a herd of imitators.

There seems to have been some of this going on with Holmes’ resurgence. Elementary seems to be a rip-off of Sherlock. In fact, the BBC claimed that CBS had approached them about an Americanised Sherlock, and only made Elementary when they didn’t get permission to do that.

However, that’s not the whole story. The BBC series and the Ritchie films seem to have arisen independently.

1900 is here again (1): it’s scary out there

Holmes’ adventures take place between 1880 and 1914. Chronologically speaking, the final story is His Last Bow which sees Holmes match wits with a German spymaster on the eve of WWI. He is thus a product of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods when an apparently flourishing European civilisation slid towards the catastrophe of World War.

A recent Economist article noted that looking at 1914 and 2014:

the parallels remain troubling. The United States is Britain, the superpower on the wane, unable to guarantee global security. Its main trading partner, China, plays the part of Germany, a new economic power bristling with nationalist indignation and building up its armed forces rapidly. Modern Japan is France, an ally of the retreating hegemon and a declining regional power.

We could also find parallels in the way turn of the century Britain was menaced by Anarchist and Irish terrorism.

It is striking the extent to which modern adaptors home in on these themes. For example, in Sherlock, there is Mycroft’s macabre plan to thwart a terrorist attack on a passenger plane. The first Ritchie film features religious extremists planning to attack parliament with chemical weapons. And in its sequel, Moriarty orchestrates terrorist attacks that aim to push the great powers into a war.

1900 is here again (2): London’s back

I don’t think it’s a co-incidence that Ritchie could go from directing films about present day London gangsters to ones about the Edwardian sleuth living a century beforehand.

Holmes’ London was the hub of the largest empire in history. It was a dynamic, crowded and divided place. In short, it was an exciting city and a great setting for detective stories.

Conan Doyle, a great supporter of Britain’s colonial project frequently uses London’s imperial and global character in his stories. The narrative arch of a lot of Holmes’ adventures could be summarised as: someone commits a dreadful sin somewhere in the world and flees to London to escape it but it catches up with them in the UK and face a reckoning. Holmes then has to investigate the aftermath.

The global cast of villains that Holmes faces include the Mafia, the Klu Klux Klan, the nascent Mormon Church, the Molly Macguires, Australian bush rangers and a poison dart wielding dwarf from the Andaman Islands.

After World War I, London became increasingly suburbanised, the rampant inequality was tamed by the welfare state and it declined as an international city. In short, it ceased to the metropolis Holmes roamed.

But now that London is back. It’s a global city once again, growing much faster than the rest of the UK, it’s the natural habitat of the superrich global elite and a result massively unequal, and also home to an extraordinary cornucopia of migrants. It’s once again a city worthy of Holmes’ attention.

We can see Holmes think

Both Sherlock and Sherlock Holmes, rely on a great deal of technical tricks to take us inside Holmes mind: rapid cuts, bullet time, words on screen etc. Many of these techniques were until quite recently either not available or harder to use with such regularit,. It’s hard to remember now but the way CSI dramatised forensic science was initially quite ground breaking and Holmes’ modern incarnations have to a great extent been following in its wake.

Being able to go into Holmes mind has the added advantage of freeing up Watson to do more than have exposition delivered at him.

Bromance

Alongside the obvious themes of deduction and crime fighting, Conan Doyle’s stories are in a large part about the friendship between Holmes and Watson. This has lead quite a number of people to wonder if the intense companionship between the two men might indicate they were gay. I have always found this idea rather aggravating because to me it has always felt like a product of our collective inability to think about relationships in anything other than sexual terms.

One of the many strengths of Sherlock is how it uses our insecurities around male bonding for comic effect. I would speculate that this is possible to do because these fears are receding: as we become less paranoid about homosexuality, exploring homosociality becomes safer. Holmes and Watson are likely easier characters to portray when society is either largely unaware of homosexuality or largely accepting of it. In the decades between the two problems may lie.

As a side note, this theme seems to persist even when Watson is a woman. Elementary executive producer Carl Bevan has said of the relationship between his iterations of the characters that it’s

a bromance, but one of the bros just happens to be a woman.  He said that from the very beginning and I think it’s really an apt description.  There’s this idea that a man and a woman can’t be together on a show especially without needing to be together sexually or in love or whatever, and this is really about the evolution of a friendship and how that happens.  Watching that should be as much the story of this show as the mysteries that you see week in and week out about who killed who.  We love that and those stories will be great, but the mystery of this relationship and how the friendship comes into being, that should be something that draws people in every week, too.

When is Sherlock coming back?

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NB if you are looking for info on when series 4 will be on check out this post (06/02/14)

On Metro’s TV blog, the people behind the Sherlockology FB page have a go at answering this REALLY IMPORTANT question. However, the frustrating answer seems to be:

[A]t the moment, we simply have to say ‘We don’t know yet.  It’s not ignorance though; it’s genuinely because there is no date yet

Though they do venture some guesses:

Thanks to the Internet Movie Database, the most popular is October 31 2013, which is definite no-no. We know for a fact that post-production will still be on-going for Sherlock until way into November, which also counts out the second most popular rumoured date of November 24 2013 (which would of course be wonderful, a one-two-Who punch for Team Moffat and Gatiss across a single weekend).

Both dates have been consistently denied by the production team on Twitter, with both Mark Gatiss and Sue Vertue shooting them down for the past few months. So for a little while longer, that air-date has to remain a mystery.

But while we never speculate, we’d put the smart money on Sherlock series three debuting in a few months time, and not, sadly, in a few weeks as some websites may have you believe.

So be prepared to carry on feeling like this for a while longer:

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