THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE ABOMINABLE BRIDE
Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss don’t make things easy for themselves, do they? In a story that gives ‘Inception’ a run for its money (well, in dreamy-weamyness, not in cityscapes collapsing and folding in on themselves) we flit between alternate versions of Victorian and present-day London, following both an unsolved case from 1895 and the immediate aftermath of Moriarty’s supposed return at the end of series 3’s ‘His Last Vow’. And, also similarly to ‘Inception’ (a film that must be on in the Moffat household whenever Christmas specials are being written), we are left with an ambigious ending that doesn’t confirm which is the dream and which is reality; I’d bet money on the Victorian incarnations of Cumberbatch and Freeman’s Holmes and Watson reappearing in comic form somewhere down the line. But as it is, the episode is an odd beast for a New Year’s Day special. It demands a certain level of awareness of both the original Conan Doyle canon (the episode manages to weave in Holmes and Watson’s original meeting and the confrontation at Reichenbach) as well as familiarity with the series to date. It doesn’t seem to fit the standalone special format, even though, in the context of ‘Sherlock’ plotlines, it is completely skippable.
Merry Christmas Happy New Year. Totally wasn’t meant to be a Christmas special”
The episode doesn’t start off like this, however, and it’s a credit to the marketing that the audience was clueless as to how ‘The Abominable Bride’ would fit into the wider ‘Sherlock’ canon. Andrew Scott was able to make (another) surprise appearance, and Mycroft’s early mention of “virus in the data” was genuinely unsettling. In fact, it’s over halfway through the episode before there’s a firm link to Sherlock of the present. So for the first hour we enjoyed a straightforward Sherlock Holmes story that seemed to come right out of the pages of The Strand, with lots of twists on modern ‘Sherlock’ elements. And it’s one of these that I feel was given a disservice. Namely, the appearance of an alternate, male Molly Hooper, still played by Louise Brealey.
Molly takes Movember as a personal challenge
That scene was my favourite moment in the whole episode, and surely the biggest twist on ‘Sherlock’ conventions in ‘The Abominable Bride’. If this story had been written by Arthur Conan Doyle, of course the morgue attendant would have been male. So as much as making Mary Watson a put-upon Suffragette housewife instead of an international assassin, it’s something of a logical extreme in an AU version of the modern ‘Sherlock’ to gender-swap Molly Hooper instead of replacing her with a different character. I was applauding the move right up until the end of that scene, when Watson reveals that he knows Hooper isn’t a man, but a woman in disguise. This, I felt, went back completely on what they’d achieved. To my knowledge it’s the first time on British TV that an actress would have played a male role. And to make things worse, ‘The Abominable Bride’ was followed on BBC One by an episode of the tremendously unfunny ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ (which has, of course, just announced a second film), where male comedian Brendan O’Carroll plays matriarch Agnes Brown in one of the many, many instances of male actors playing women.
Watson shares some fan stories from the Strand’s more sensational pages
Now I admit in terms of the story of ‘The Abominable Bride’ it makes more sense to have the Victorian Hooper as a woman disguised as a man. The struggle of Victorian women is a major theme in the episode, and it doesn’t shy away from showing normally likable characters like John Watson be openly sexist to accurately show the values of the age. So thematically a female Hooper makes for a tighter story. However it wouldn’t have been the first time a TV show with a major fanbase chose a leap forward in representation over solid storytelling (‘The Legend Of Korra’ anyone?). And one of the joys of AUs is seeing familiar characters and elements given a new twist, and now the biggest example of that we’re left with is, er, they made Mycroft fat. Which, seeing as it’s reverting to the character’s appearance in the books, isn’t exactly a new twist.
‘Sherlock Holmes And The Case Of Who Ate All The Pies’
I still enjoyed ‘The Abominable Bride’ immensely. I admit I was expecting some sort of link to the present day to tease the fourth series of ‘Sherlock’, but I got far more than that. It’s an episode that will reward repeat viewings, which is exactly what we need in the traditionally long wait until the show returns. However, in my view, it would have been that much better if Louise Brealey had played a man.