When Steven Moffat announced that Sherlock would travel back in time to Victorian London for its holiday special, Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, fans were divided. The move made sense, as the successful BBC series’ one-off entry would return the show to the time period of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories — as opposed to Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ modern interpretation. However, if it truly had nothing to do with the popular contemporary take, then why bother?
Turns out, much of the early press emphasizing The Abominable Bride‘s Victorian-set adventure served as an appropriate distraction for Sherlock fans. Yes, the Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) characters were more like the original versions created by Doyle, and yes, the majority of the special looked like a period piece. Nearly an hour into the 90-minute episode, however, the appearance of
Jim Professor Moriarty (Andrew Scott) in combative conversation with Holmes throws the narrative into question. More on Moriarty’s appearance and its twists and turns in a moment.
The Abominable Bride begins with a quick recap of the first three seasons, then retells Holmes and Watson’s first meeting at the morgue in the first episode, “A Study in Pink.” This time, the meeting occurs in the 19th century. The overly long introduction then fast forwards through presumably several months (or years), as if Moffat and Gatiss quickly wanted to rehash their own series for the benefit of non-fans. Within a few minutes, Holmes and Watson are the partners Sherlock fans have come to know and love, albeit with different clothes, period-appropriate verbal stylings and an absence of text messages.
Cut to the public suicide of Emilia Ricoletti (Natasha O’Keeffe), a married woman who — with a face “white as death” and “mouth like a crimson wound” — shoots at bystanders with two revolvers before turning one of the guns on herself. Aside from the public aspect of the incident, Ricoletti’s death usually wouldn’t attract Holmes’ attention. However, she subsequently rose from the dead and murdered her husband in view of several witnesses — a police officer among them. With supernatural elements like these, it’s “The Hounds of Baskerville” all over again.
The story is based on the “account of Ricoletti of the club foot and his abominable wife,” a case mentioned in passing in Doyle’s short work, “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.” As Doyle didn’t write an actual “Abominable Bride” story, Moffat and Gatiss were able to craft their own as an excuse to return Holmes and Watson to their original period while advancing their own arc. And advance it it does, for while the Victorian characters attempt to figure out what the Ricoletti case is all about across several different-but-related incidents, modern-day Holmes tries to figure out how Moriarty has seemingly come back from the dead.
You see, the Ricoletti case did occur within the overall story of Sherlock, but not quite in the manner presented by The Abominable Bride. It’s simply “a famous [case] from 100 years ago,” as Holmes indicates to Watson, Mycroft Holmes (Mark Gatiss) and Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington) when they board his now-defunct flight into exile. With the help of a few hallucinogenic aids, Holmes had been using his brief time on the plane, which he boarded at the end of the third season’s “His Last Vow,” to deduce the nature of Moriarty’s return via the Ricoletti case history. Both involved deceased individuals returning from the dead to wreak havoc, so why not?
On the one hand, Moffat and Gatiss’ narrative trick feels like a letdown. Instead of getting an authentic reinterpretation of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, fans (and detractors) of the BBC’s contemporary version were merely shown a slight of hand. Holmes is still the smartphone-using, nicotine patch-wearing Sherlock of Sherlock, and everything in The Abominable Bride is just a glimpse into his drug-addled brain.
While this conceit isn’t true to Doyle’s original stories, however, it is true to the modern retelling of the consulting detective in Sherlock. Holmes frequently made use of his “mind palace” throughout the previous three seasons — sometimes with drugs, other times without — but viewers were never granted access to its internal machinations. Everything that happened in his head was relayed to the audience just as it was told to Watson and others. Like the show’s supporting characters, those watching were required to keep up (if they could).
Plus, a truly one-off holiday special that doesn’t advance the plot established by the series seems… wasteful. It’d be great to see Holmes and Watson actually on the case in Victorian London, but what would this have to do with Moffat and Gatiss’ previous work? It looks great, and was understandably fun for the actors and crew involved in The Abominable Bride‘s production, but if it doesn’t advance Sherlock‘s particular story. Specifically the ending of “His Last Vow,” in which Sherlock killed expert blackmailer Charles Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen) and was sentenced to exile — only to be recalled following the apparent reappearance of Moriarty.
After the first time slip, The Abominable Bride flirts with narrative structure more and more as it jumps between Victorian and 21st-century London. Viewers new to the series probably found this confusing, despite the opening montage, but there was enough context for anyone in the audience to at least grasp the special’s basic tenets. That setting(s) aside, this was an appropriate Sherlock tale that stayed true to the series’ interpretation of the character while setting up the fourth season return of the detective’s archenemy.