California Literary Review

Sherlock Recap: ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’

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May 14th, 2012 at 5:27 pm

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Sherlock: The Hounds of Baskerville

Martin Freeman as Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes
Copyright: BBC Pictures

So, Sherlock takes on one of the classics. The Hound of the Baskervilles becomes The Hounds of Baskerville. Say what you like about Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffatt (no, really, go ahead, everyone else on the internet does) but they know how to tweak the antennae of Holmes geeks. A plural has been transported from one end of a phrase to the other! A definite article has mysteriously vanished! It must mean something. And indeed it does. They may be dealing in images and pictures and visuals and pretty young men’s faces, but they understand the very intimate and meaningful relationship many of their target audience have with grammar.

Of course it was all sheer misdirection – Hounds turned out to consist of one hound and one H.O.U.N.D., but playing fair was never part of the deal. (Classic move – they baited the grammar, then switched the typography.) I suggested last episode that Sherlock doesn’t raise the usual issues about translating Victorian prose into modern TV, but they certainly had a little fun with the problems of saying out loud things which might make more sense written down. Though there was an insistence here as well that TV has its own integrity and can’t be beaten by the prior claims of literature: when a character called Stapleton appeared in the plot some people (mentioning no selves) though they’d spotted the murderer. Any such snobs received a sharp one over the knuckles by the plot’s subsequent unravelling and learnt not to assume that this version of Sherlock can be neatly decoded by using the Holmes stories. If you want to watch Sherlock, you play by TV’s rules.

Beginning with a client who is haunted by impossible memories of his father’s death at the paws of a “gigantic hound”, we quickly zoom down to Dartmoor to discover that the beast is a local legend. They boys blag their way into a Ministry of Defence base, borrowing Mycroft’s credentials, and think they’ve found themselves a whistleblower when an unknown scientist unexpectedly vouches for them. There are a couple of false leads, involving the landlord of a local pub who keeps a savage dog on the moor to improve the tourist trade, and a set of mysterious torch flashes which turn out to be the signal for a local dogging spot. (“Dogging”, get it? Oh, look it up, I’m not using that kind of language on this site.)

This may seem implausible, but I spent a few years down in the West Country near Exmoor, and I have it on pretty strong local authority that those folks over on Dartmoor get up to all sorts, I shouldn’t wonder and are frequently revealed as no better than they ought to be. Everyone gets feelings of massive canine-type terror when they visit the sight of the killing, Sherlock twigs that it’s a hallucinogenic gas created by a secret military project and conducts an experiment on John to test his thesis, because sometimes your best friend and source of emotional nourishment seems a better option than a lab rat and rats are so much less forthcoming when it comes to the debrief. It all climaxes in a showdown at a gothic hollow (fitted with pressure pads to release the gas), various people cop it (including, somewhat unfairly, a dog) and the original killer tries to escape across a minefield which he subsequently leaves on the vertical rather than horizontal axis.

Amidst all this plot, we saw a notable development in Sherlock’s character itself, as we watched him shaken by the possibility that he was wrong. I find the attempts to diagnose Sherlock rather tedious. Is he a sociopath? A potential psychopath? A pathological narcissist? You may as well ask “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” One of the pleasures of this series is the enigma at its heart: Sherlock may be any of these hiding under a conscious disguise as one of the others. Or he may simply be a blank slate onto which the audience can project their speculations. (That would explain his face. Or is it an expression?) But when we discovered that the H.O.U.N.D. project had involved hallucinogenic gas, and thus it was reality at fault and not Sherlock’s calculations, I don’t think it was a cop-out. He doesn’t need to be wrong, we just need to watch his mind grappling with the fear that he might be. Though if we accept that, we might find it difficult to object to the ordeal he put John through in order to discover the effects of the gas. Both involve standing outside as we watch someone struggling with their own mind, so who’re we to criticise?

The whole episode seemed to revolve around questions of perception and memory, and the way recognising something as impossible can’t stop it hurting you. Could that be the real terror at the centre of this version of Gothic: knowing it’s all a nightmare without that knowledge giving you any power to stop it? It certainly didn’t revolve around that plot, which was risible. A trail of evidence which ends in a murderer offing someone whilst wearing a t-shirt plastered with the name of the top-secret military project which developed the weapon used in the said offing? It’s a study in perception and fear, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

  • Sheenagh

    Or he may simply be a blank slate onto which the audience can project their speculations. (That would explain his face.) Poor Cumberbatch. You shouldn’t be so cruel to one of hte finest actors of this, or any other, generation. ♥

    Interesting point about perception and fear. Particularly for Sherlock, it would be the not-knowing that terrifies. In this episode, once he knows HOW it’s been done, the situation loses much of its terror for him (though, as you say, that won’t stop it injuring him). And similarly for poor Henry Baskerville, who really is just asking if he’s sane and the evidence of his mind can be trusted.

    This will step up a gear in the next episode, where Sherlock knows how Moriarty’s plan is working [no spoilers] and is in many ways (and, I think, ultimately) powerless to reassert his own perception of reality over Moriarty’s.

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