The English-speaking world has been frothing at the mouth over the return of Sherlock, Stephen Moffat's update of the classic Conan Doyle tales of an aloof, brilliant and loquacious detective. Having been known for his mastery at the helm of Doctor Who, Moffat's reinvention of the classic character as 'a new sleuth for the 21st century' winningly combined modern technology and modern London with a sparkling script and excellent casting, namely the relationship between the exasperated, quietly ruthless Watson and the enigma that is Holmes, infused with life by brilliant performances from Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch, and with co-creator Mark Gatiss and Andrew Scott demonstrating brilliant arrays of eyebrow movement as bureaucratic government figure Mycroft Holmes and maniacal villain Moriarty respectively, the scene was set for a stunning series. And stunner it was. The first episode was an utter delight - a simple plot allowing the two leads to interact and provide plenty of verbal jousting, a rapport that became the sparkle of the series - and a slow build over the next few episodes built to a spectacular cliffhanger climax.
The world went wild over the show - Benedict Cumberbatch became a heartthrob overnight, Martin Freeman arguably got his Hobbit gig off the back of his performance, and Moffat's status as the best writer at the BBC was assured. We waited, with great anticipation, for the second series.
And when it arrived, on New Year's Day, we happily settled down waiting for the latest innovations from Gatiss and Moffat. With last season focusing on introducing the old characters to a new audience, this season is re-imagining three classic Holmes stories for the new generation of fans.
The first, A Scandal in Belgravia, introduced us to Irene Adler, the closest thing we encounter to a woman in Holmes' life. This being the 21st century, Adler is re-imagined as a dominatrix for hire, using her sensuality and her incredible intellect, along with an impressive array of booby (pardon the pun) traps and a total lack of clothes, to bewitch Sherlock and, in theory, the audience. She is dragged into the story by means of a quickly abandoned plot detail about a royal family member being photographed acquiring her services (ah, a young female Royal family member - how Black Mirror), and is elaborated on further with a complicated plot about a fake terrorist bomb plot being busted, then busted again. Her involvement with Moriarty cements her in our minds as a woman not to be trusted.
And, in my mind, her appearance in the story means that my trust in the rest of the series is tentative.
Prior to this episode, aside from the mother figure of Mrs Hudson, the pitifully smitten Molly and the potential love interest Sarah, the women in Sherlock have been kept on the sidelines, as you might expect from a series based on Victorian society. Arguably, the Adler in this series is the perfect opposite for Cumberbatch's Sherlock - she is aggressively, teasingly sensuous yet icy, feminine yet harsh (and, judging by pictures of the actress when not styled as Adler, 'harsh' is the look they were going for), and sexually voracious where Holmes' aloofness and calculating nature indicates emotional and (if an achingly cheap joke in the episode is anything to go by) sexual immaturity. Sadly, while Cumberbatch's Holmes pairs perfectly with Watson, his pairing with Adler brings out the worst in both, and turns the series from achingly clever to worryingly cheap.
Take our first meeting with Adler. Crucially, Holmes' ability to read people is based on their appearance, so Adler's appearing naked and thus unreadable outfoxes Holmes and leaves him (and a pre-watershed audience with children watching) speechless. I know I sound like a Daily Mail reader, but you know a series is on its way out when it is required to titillate us with storylines about a dominatrix (who has all the warmth and appeal of a Vulcan, even when her supposed humanity is revealed at the end), nudity and digs at thirty=something male virgins.
And it's not just the presentation of Adler - cold, calculating and generally unpleasant as a Bond villainess - that jars. While the first episode of the previous series was shot almost entirely in a dingy flat or the back of a taxi, this one veered from the inside of Buckingham Palace (featuring, in slightly Guy-Richie-Holmes fashion, a naked Holmes played for laughs) to a supposedly unrelated countryside scene, with a strangely placed terrorism storyline and a brief sojourn in the Middle East. All this mess not only wastes screentime that could be given to Holmes and Watson, but trivialises the two other brilliant characters of the series - Mycroft becomes largely helpless and largely useless, and the utterly brilliant Moriarty's unhinged style is replaced by barely memorable text exchanges with Adler; a brilliant character, the perfect foil for this predictable Holmes, totally abandoned. If this is what it takes to bring a woman player into the series, I'll stick with Molly.
While, no doubt, all the messy plot lines will be tied up, the first episode was a mess of set pieces, pensive shots of Mycroft, and too much of the one-dimensional Adler, with little time left to expose the beating heart of the series - the relationship between Holmes and Watson, the only exposure being numerous digs about the pair's sexuality and a few awkward Christmas parties featuring pitiful love interests for both. This season is attempting to contextualise the characters deeper in society in a way that is ruining the dynamic - who can forget the simple joy of Holmes throwing a strop in a silk dressing gown or knowing everything about Watson from a 30-second observation? Instead of such brilliant moments devised purely from great acting and a razor-sharp script, we now have a series of US agents, Carry On-style slapstick and bad puns in place of sparkle.
Please, Moffat, I implore you - restore my faith!
Note - this piece was largely promoted by a piece in the Evening Standard where a writer compares Sherlock to Doctor Who - confusingly, he is under the impression that they are on a par simply because they have the same writer. He declares Sherlock the victor. I have to wonder whether he's subjected his son, bored by the Christmas Dr Who episode, to a naked woman cavorting in front of what was, and can still be, the finest pairing on the BBC for entertainment.