After catching most viewers off-guard with a superb first series back in 2010, Sherlock was unable to make it to our screens unhyped this time around, so it’s fortunate that Gattiss, Moffat & Co. left themselves somewhere to go by saving the three most famous of Conan-Doyle’s detective tales for the second series. What they have in mind for a potential third series is anyone’s guess..
Last week we were dazzled by Steven Moffat’s razor-sharp opener, but this Sunday’s offering is definitely the main event. The Hound of the Baskervilles is not only Holmes’ most famous adventure, but arguably the most revered detective yarn of all time. Few stories can boast so many screen adaptations, yet this modern retelling stands head and shoulders above a crowded back-catalogue. With his overt penchant for all things supernatural and macabre, Mark Gatiss was the obvious choice to write the thing and he glories in mixing the original material with the lethal wit of Cumberbatch’s contemporary sleuth. Those who have read the book will have appreciated the shots of Sherlock cutting a solitary figure on one of Dartmoor’s rocky outcrops, an image that was so central to Conan-Doyle’s text. As such, the writer’s love for the original material is stark. Yet while last week’s opener was a character-driven tour de force in which we were introduced to a darker side of our eponymous hero, this was all shimmering flashbacks and eery cut-aways. Gatiss shrewdly noticed that ‘..Baskervilles’ is the most famous of Conan-Doyle’s stories because it is a mental battle as much as a mystery.
For once, most of us will have had a handle on the plot before setting eyes upon the episode, and the 21st century re-up includes Russell Tovey (who should be very much at home with this kind of material) as Henry Knight, a man haunted by the memory of his father being ripped to pieces by a gigantic ‘hound’ some 20 years earlier. He appears in our midst after the customary session of verbal-jousting between Sherlock and Dr Watson (this week’s highlight was the Cluedo argument) and recounts his story. Despite oscillating frantically on the case, Sherlock eventually takes it and is sure that the nearby ‘Baskerville’ MoD facility has something to do with the luminous pooch that purportedly stalks the moors scoffing members of the public.
Any praise for Cumberbatch as the Baker Street sleuth is fast becoming mere truism, but his character has also been expertly created as a touchstone for modern day culture. Impatient, delighted with his own cleverness, in many ways he serves as an icon for a new generation. What Conan-Doyle would make of the BBC turning his hero’s intelligence into an avenue for cruelty – more last week than this – is another matter, but you can’t deny that this fast and furious version of Holmes is magnetic. The fact that the word ‘Aspergers’ also featured for the first time here showed a level of self-awareness for this issue, yet despite a wonderfully high octane performance from Cumberbatch, he is edged out of the spotlight here.
It was undoubtedly the idea of a monstrous dog which first made ‘..Baskervilles’ stand out from other technically superior Holmes’ cases and as Gatiss himself pointed out in a recent series, mankind has fascinated itself with monsters since the dawn of time. A tangible antagonist also makes this episode a winner and as the case begins to unhinge Sherlock, the viewers are left even more intrigued. And that’s before we even get on to Moriarty’s final scene..