09/01/2012

Ideal Holmes

On the trail of `The Hounds of Baskerville`

We’re only in the second week of 2012 and both main terrestrial channels are running big adverts about original drama but the bar has already been set. It would indeed be surprising if many of the other series being touted can match Sherlock’s stellar second season. Last week it was sexual shenanigans, suggestive twists and blink and you miss it turns, now we have something else.


Sherlock and John are surprised by Mrs Hudson's choice of wallpaper

Entirely different in tone from last week’s episode; `The Hounds of Baskerville` (note the subtle alteration) plays superbly on our expectations. Mark Gatiss’ absorbing adaptation stretches beyond detective fiction to encompass conspiracy thriller, horror, psychological thriller and adventure managing to imbue each with the necessary ambience. Out of the confines of London for much of the time, the episode naturally takes advantage of the striking landscape and the Baskerville research centre.

Bored with a lack of decent cases, Sherlock is ready to bracket Henry Knight’s claims of a giant killer canine that took his father twenty years ago as bunkum until Knight refers to the animal as a “hound” tweaking Holmes’ imagination. Knight is played effectively (by Russell Tovey of Being Human in familiar territory here) as an increasingly gibbering wreck and the adventure plays very much to horror conventions at first. There’s the odd locals, the sightings, the mystery of why a vegetarian pub restaurant would have a large meat bill and there’s the legend of the hound itself. People claim to have seen it but Sherlock is, as you’d imagine, cynical about that. That is until he sees it.

Alongside this, the investigation of Baskerville reveals animal experiments and Gatiss wants us to conclude that some sort of mutant animal escaped. Yet matters take a different turn. While never matching the stealth of twists in last week’s caper, this episode focuses more on reactions and introduces some interesting aspects of Sherlock and Watson’s friendship. There is a lot to enjoy – Gatiss’ dialogue sparks as Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman draw every nuance they can. Both have never been better in these roles than they are in this episode, their volatile friendship amply demonstrated in several exchanges that run the gamut from the witty to the angry.  Plus we see Sherlock almost admit he’s been wrong about something.

If the pace is slower than usual, there is a tension that builds as matters develop as well as some well sketched decoys to mislead us as to the nature of the case. Gatiss supports this with moments of humour but then pulls us back to the brink- if last week’s episode was Moffat’s finest TV work then this must be one of the more eclectic Gattis’ best scripts. The narrative never runs out of steam yet constantly delights however familiar or otherwise you are with the original story.  The keystones of that story are still in place, with inventive contemporary re-imaginings.

Director Paul McGuigan again turns a great script into a filmic joy, rising to the challenge of balancing the horror, the camaraderie and some atmospheric set pieces with dexterity. He knows how to ratchet up the tension; one scene where Watson is seemingly trapped with the animal in a sealed lab is nail biting and his visualisation of Knight’s visions becomes extremely powerful.


Sherlock resorted to his light sabre to sort out the hound
The modern translation manages to be self aware enough to use the ever present fog on the moor as the ultimate source of the hallucinations that make people see the hound, a neat comment on a horror film staple. Then having convinced us that the animal does not really exist, don’t they just go and bring it on for the finale anyway in an awesome double bluff! After nearly 90 minutes of shadows, growling and deception there it is, a great big red eyed slavering monster that is too scary even for Steven Moffat’s other show.

In short then, if you haven’t deduced it yet, this was as good as but different than last week’s episode leaving the viewer with only one question - how brilliant is this series?

Words: John Connors
 

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