Thursday, February 2, 2012

The hounds of what now?

As you will recall (and if not all y'gotta do is scroll down, it's in the post directly below this one) I was very positive about the opening episode for series two of the BBC's Sherlock, calling it a thrillingly entertaining bit of television and all that sort of shlock. My laziness being what it is, by the time of this writing the third and final episode of said series has already aired. But we're not going to talk about that one just yet, as first I'd like to say a few words on the previous week's offering, "The Hounds of Baskerville", written by big brother Mycroft Holmes, beter known in the real world as Mark Gattis. Yes, I know I'm late to the party, but this is my blog, I can write about stuff whenever the bloody hell I want! Don't like it, go back to reading the opinion pages in the newspaper or something. Go on. Get out. We don't need your kind here. 

Is he gone? Good, I hate that guy. Alright, so, "The Hounds of Baskerville". What did I think of it? Well, compared to last week's offering: an outing of perfectly average quality. Perhaps even disapointingly average. Why was it less good than "A Scandal in Belgravia", you ask? Well, I sorely lamented the lack of naked chicks compared to that episode, for one thing. That's right, nothing to see here people, move along. These aren't the hounds you're looking for. 

...or are they, though? "Less good" in this context certainly doesn't imply awful. There were things to like about this episode, and as they say, one must take the good with the bad - so let's see how the various elements hold up. 

Problem #1: these dogs aren't scary at all! Hounds my ass, what do you take me for?
The episode is, of course, based on the Arthur Conan Doyle classic The Hound of the Baskervilles. I've not read it yet myself and don't expect you guys to have either, but as its one of the Holmes adventures most often adapted and referenced in other media I'm sure the title alone will give all you pop culture pundits an idea of what we're in for. That's right, this is The One With The Big Dog™, in which everyone's favourite jackass detective is called in to investigate reports of a monstrous hound terrorizing a village in the English countryside. Of course as this series' premise is basically Sherlock Holmes IN SPACE THE PRESENT DAY (wouldn't Sherlock in space be awesome though? ...what're you looking at me like that for?) the tale gets the obligatory modern upgrades. The main of these is that the titular Baskerville isn't the name of a wealthy family propagating the myth of the hellish hound, but a government research institute implied to be running all sorts of shady experiments, including among others, you guessed it, illicit animal testing, with popular belief around the village being that this practice spawned the creature. 

And with that I suppose we might as well get to the bad without further ado, as the plot is where the episode kind of falls off a bridge in my oh so humble opinion. I'm going to go into spoiler territory here, so if you haven't seen the episode, tread carefully throughout the next two paragraphs - though, to be frank, it's nothing you couldn't have deduced (haha) on your own. 

Yes, I saw the twist coming, if you can even call it one. There was no hound. Of course there wasn't. There are hints to its existence here and there, with even the ever-rational Sherlock at some point believing that he saw the creature, but it's all a sham. As it turns out, the countryside outside the village and near the Baskerville institution is strewn with pressure-sensitive pads that release a hallucinatory chemical when stepped on, which, mixing with the ever-present fog in the region, makes people very susceptible to hallucinations, to seeing what they expect to see; in this case, a monstrous dog waiting to tear them limb from limb. There was bound to be a rational explanation of course - that's not what I'm complaining about. It should be clear to anyone who's seen as much as half an episode of Sherlock that this series is not gonna do supernatural stuff, and while the hound being created in some sort of mad science experiment is hinted at, even that's obviously too much of a stretch - this show is just too rooted in down-to-earth realism to incorporate an element like that.

In all fairness, the fluorescent bunny does make for some bonus points.

My problem with this is the fact that they hint at the possible existence of the creature so strongly, while it's just so obvious it's all going to be explained away near the end: they didn't need Sherlock Holmes for this case, the Hardy Boys could've polished this one off in between lunch breaks. Hell, stupid old me even saw it coming a mile away. The fact that drugs of some kind were involved was fairly obvious from the parallels between Sherlock's twitchy state after believing he'd seen the hound, and the nicotine withdrawal-fueled rage we see him fly into at the start of the episode. While it's not a bad thing per se to have an obvious solution to a mystery, it is a bad thing when you write your characters as being unaware of said solution much longer than your audience will likely be - especially if one of said characters is Sherlock Holmes, the genius detective. It stops the show from being interesting and exciting and turns it into a waiting game, the viewer waiting for Sherlock and crew to figure out what's already obvious. 

Of course the plot of "A Scandal in Belgravia" wasn't particularly strong either, as I said in my discussion of that episode. Sure, in "Scandal" the plot mattered, but there it was mostly a means to an end, a way to plop down sets of characters in a situation so we can watch them play off of each other - and it was a very loose plot, a story spanning across several months. "The Hounds of Baskerville" however is different, for this is a proper adventure, a much more plot-focused outing. It comes close to fulfilling the classical unities of action, place and time. It's obviously conceived as a much tighter narrative than "A Scandal in Belgravia", and thus the fact that the story just feels kind of weak and mundane becomes harder to overlook. 

But perhaps I'm being overly harsh. I'm making it sound as if this was a terrible episode but it really wasn't - while watching it I did find it enjoyable enough. Of course most of the enjoyment has to do with our lead actors, who, (and I'm sorry if I'm sounding like a broken record) once again do a marvellous job at portraying their characters. Benedict Cumberbatch remains amazing as Sherlock, continuing to play the great detective as a right bastard with no sort of social graces whatsoever. For a while it seems he's continuing the slightly less asocial trend witnessed the previous week, when we saw him apologizing to Molly for scolding her and seemingly somewhat opening up to Irene Adler. In this episode, after crudely ignoring the findings of Martin Freeman's Watson and pushing him out of the investigation into the Baskerville case, Sherlock runs up behind him and apologizes. He states that indeed, like he told Watson, the great detective Sherlock Holmes doesn't have any friends... emphasizing the plural: he just has one. A touching moment, indeed - which ends up being kind of subverted at the end of the episode, when we find out Sherlock used Watson as an unwitting guinea pig in one of Baskerville labs to determine the cause of the hound hallucinations. What a pal! 

Clearly a man you can trust with your life.

Speaking of John Watson, I have to say it's good to see Martin Freeman got a lot more screentime in this episode as compared to "A Scandal in Belgravia". There he got kind of sidelined in favor of Miss Irine Adler (as he himself at a few points wryly observed), but this week he's much more a part of the action, showing his worth to Sherlock through his medical expertise and his clear intellect, offering a few clever deductions of his own. He is ever the voice of reason to Sherlock's manic tendencies, the ying to his yang, and Martin Freeman once more puts a lot of sympathy and tenderness into his performance. 

Of course one of the reasons "A Scandal in Belgravia" worked so well was that although the plot was somewhat inconsequential, with Steven Moffat at the wheel you got all those wonderful little character moments he's shown himself to be so apt at writing. And perhaps big brother Mark's been using Moffat's writing as a cheat sheet (or maybe they collaborated, or maybe Gattis is just quite good on his own - I'm just cracking jokes here), for while said character moments might be less bountiful and less good than the previous week they're still certainly here. I've described Sherlock and Watson's rather touching friendship moment, but there were a few others. One that really got me was the following exchange, when John and Sherlock run into a holidaying Inspector Lestrade at a local pub. Sherlock accuses Lestrade of spying on him, blurting out that "that's the reason you're using the name Greg, isn't it?" Watson soothingly tells Sherlock that that's the man's actual first name, to which Sherlock replies: " is?", seeming so genuinely dumbfounded that it made me laugh out loud and miss the next couple of lines. 

I also have to mention that the story being set in a small village in the English countryside is actually a rather nice change of pace compared to the busy urban jungle of central London in which we usually find our heroes. There are some lovely shots of  the sprawling green English hills and the picturesque little village where much of the action takes place. Several reviewers have noted the similarities between a shot of Sherlock looking out over the landscape from atop a rocky mound and Caspar Friedrich's famous painting Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, or Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. The shot certainly gives off much the same feel of wonder and adventurousness. I wonder if the similarity was deliberate? Either way, I think we could've done with a few more of these landscape shots: they provide a nice parallel to the stark, sterile lab environment of the Baskerville installation, really drawing you into the surroundings and making you enamoured with this tranquil landscape that is being threatened by the big bad Baskerville science guys.

Speaking of the visuals, however, I do have to bring up one more thing that bugged me, namely the terrible CGI hound that shows up near the end. For while the creature is indeed not real the episode still decides to show us a representation of the dog Sherlock and the others are imagining - and boy does it look horrible alright, but probably not in the way intended. Maybe I'm nitpicky, but for me... eh, it just didn’t work. I'm against the use of CGI in general unless it's absolutely necessary, and while I can stomach it in shows like Doctor Who where it happens all the time, here it just felt out of place. It really took me out of the experience. 

The 90's called, they want their special effects team back.

But yeah, that’s “The Hounds of Baskerville” for ya. In all fairness it wasn’t a bad episode by any means. More likely my being underwhelmed by it stems from its status as being the middle child of this season, being neither the opening episode that really has to go all out to draw the audience in nor the series finale that has to wrap up the proceedings in a spectacular blaze of glory and excitement. The previous series' “The Blind Banker” faced a similar problem, being entertaining enough in its own right but seeming kind of unremarkable in comparison to the tightly plotted opener “A Study in Pink” and the fast-paced and exciting finale “The Great Game”. In all honesty though, I didn’t go into it expecting to be blown away or anything along those lines: I always force myself to be critical about things in hindsight, but I was certainly entertained by this episode. If you don’t expect too much of it, there's a good chance you will be too.

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