Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Sherlock: The Hounds of Baskerville

The middle installment of this all-too-short second series of Sherlock on Masterpiece Mystery saw the twenty-first century incarnation of the world's foremost consulting detective tackle a reimagining of arguably his most famous case -- The Hound of the Baskervilles. Originally published in serial form from 1901-1902, Doyle's original tale is a dark and twisty story of family secrets and murder, the latter inspired by a local legend of a fearsome, other-worldly hound roaming the moors. I must admit I was quite curious as to how Sherlock would adapt this fantastical tale to its 21st-century setting and audience. Anchored by a strong script from the pen of the show's Mycroft, a.k.a. Mark Gatiss, I was not disappointed -- as only this series can, Gattiss' script manages to retain the essence of the original story while at the same time transforming it into a unique and fresh spin for this series' purposes.

To begin our analysis of this episode, here's the summary from the PBS website:

Boredom has set in at 221 Baker Street, with Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Last Enemy, War Horse, The Hobbit) jonesing for a meaty case and — in its absence — a cigarette. Only the arrival of Henry Knight (Russell Tovey, Little Dorrit), terrorized and desperately clinging to sanity, piques the consulting detective's interest. A gigantic hound — part tourist attraction, part conspiracy theory, part demonic moor stalker — is legend around Baskerville, a top-secret military compound where, it's rumored, chemical and biological weapons experiments are conducted on genetically engineered animals. And Henry Knight has just seen the hound's footprints in the very location where it killed his father decades before. Sherlock gleefully sets off to track the demonic hound with John (Martin Freeman, The Office UK, The Hobbit) at his side and Mycroft's access-granting government ID on hand to enter the high-security corridors of Baskerville. But he may have opened doors to a realm where deduction and reason have no place. Written by Sherlock series co-creator Mark Gatiss (Doctor Who), The Hounds of Baskerville offers thrills, chills, laughs, and an unsettling, unprecedented facet of our hero's clinically controlled mind. (One episode; 90 minutes, TV-PG)

The episode opens with images of a terrified young boy crashing through the woods, desperately trying to escape the something (or someone?) viciously attacking his father on the moors. Now a young man, Henry Knight has returned to the scene of his worst nightmare twenty years later at the urging of this therapist, hoping to put his demons to rest -- only to discover he's standing on ground covered with giant, hound-like footprints. Henry is played by Russell Tovey, who I first fell in love with as the lovelorn John Chivery in the 2008 miniseries adaptation of Little Dorrit. Look at his ears, isn't he adorable? *wink* Also, how deliciously ironic is it that Tovey makes his Sherlock debut in an episode centered on a legendary, fearsome hound, when he played a werewolf in Being Human? At any rate, Tovey's character Henry retains the same first name and status as sole male heir of his family, only with significantly more baggage than his counterpart in Doyle's novel. I thought it was an extremely nice touch to change Henry's last name from Baskerville to Knight, a nod to the original character's status as a peer.

At 221B Baker St., Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) is in desperate need of a challenging case or, barring the appearance of the former, a nicotine fix. I ADORED Sherlock's entry, blood-covered and brandishing a harpoon (a nod to the short story "The Adventure of Black Peter"), completely clueless as to how crazy he must've appeared to everyone he encountered. :) This sequence between Sherlock and John (Martin Freeman) puts the focus squarely on the heart of the series -- the wonderfully odd and unexpected friendship that has developed between Sherlock and John. Freeman is just brilliant here, so matter-of-fact because by this point he knows better than to be surprised by anything Sherlock does. And it reminds viewers of Sherlock's penchant for falling back into drug usage (in this case, cigarettes) when no suitable case presents itself with which he can exercise his incredible intellect. Sherlock's manic desire for cigarettes, even going so far as to suggest something "seven percent stronger" when offered tea (a nod to the canonical Holmes' cocaine habit, mentioned in The Sign of Four), is vintage Holmes -- manic, energetic, self-absorbed by the desire for something, anything, "worthy" of his time. The banter between John and Sherlock in this scene is a prime example of just how perfectly suited each actor is to his respective role -- and to a lesser extent I must include Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs), as her never-failing cheeriness in the face of Sherlock's "eccentricities" is a mark of just how much these three oddly-matched individuals have become a family of sorts.

Thankfully for John's patience (ha!), Henry arrives at Baker St. seeking Sherlock's help for explaining what happened to his father all those years earlier, and what, exactly, haunts the moors and his dreams to this day. Tovey is just brilliant as Henry -- edgy, haunted, his every word and action is weighted with survivor's guilt and torment. Sherlock's initial interview with Henry is in every respect a vintage "client scene," one of those moments that occur so frequently in the canon where Sherlock makes a series of amazing and spot-on deductions simply by looking at someone. We've been given this to some extent in previous episodes of the series via the text-message style pop-ups that appear on-screen when Sherlock first meets someone -- however, this time Gatiss gives viewers the joy of watching a maniacally intense Sherlock wow one of the lesser mortals he so frequently has the burden of dealing with, as he lays out, piece-by-piece, Henry's journey to Baker St. (Also, how funny was it watching Sherlock insist that Henry smoke, just so he could get all up in his personal space and inhale second-hand?)

Much to Henry's chagrin, Sherlock is at first uninterested in the case until he is struck by Henry's repeated use of the old-fashioned word "hound" to describe the monstrous beast he saw on the moors. No longer the ancestral home of the novel, Baskerville is now a top-secret military testing facility. Henry's father had been one of the "conspiracy theorists" sure the base was involved in animal testing and the like, developing super-beasts which would of course explain his childhood memories surrounding his father's death. Sufficiently hooked, Sherlock at first promises to only send John to Dartmoor -- a nod to the original novel wherein Sherlock is mostly absent for the first half, Watson sending reports to him, unaware that his friend is observing all, hidden away in an isolated house on the moors. Thankfully for Sherlock, Gatiss and Moffat opted to make Sherlock and John more equal partners in this investigation, giving the ultimate rationalist a chance to confront the seemingly impossible.

I loved the scenes of Sherlock and John driving across the moors -- the bleak beauty of the scenery is the perfect moody, atmospheric setting for a tale of an impossible monster. When they arrive at the nearby village inn (a vegan establishment, significance forth-coming), they discover the the legend of the hound has created something of a cottage industry with tours to areas where there have been alleged sightings. One of the innkeepers is a cheery Little John -- I mean some guy named Gary played by Gordon Kennedy, a.k.a. Little John, which just got me to thinking why oh why did Robin Hood have to end the way it did? *sigh* Despite the claims of a local tour guide, Sherlock remains unconvinced that the local legend is real, and after John swipes a suspicious receipt for a large meat delivery from the vegan pub, the two proceed to the Baskerville testing facility.

In one of the episode's most brilliant comic touches, Sherlock impersonates his brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss), using a stolen ID card to gain access for John and himself to the top-secret facility -- buying them an estimated twenty minutes, give or take, before the ruse is discovered. I love how John voices a token objection before going along with the plan (of course), even going so far as to "pull rank" when questioned by the officer who greets them, freaking out over the unheard of "surprise inspection." It's a nice reminder of John's military days, a past that seems to have been more frequently mentioned in the stories than it's been given play in this set of films. During their highly illegal tour they meet Dr. Frankland (Clive Mantle), who is WAY too nice for his own good, and Dr. Stapleton (Amelia Bullmore), a highly secretive woman who seems to relish her animal experiements. Now, I was probably biased here, but Bullmore's appearance immediately set me on alert -- not only does her character share the name of the novel's villain, but Bullmore had the distinction of appearing in one of my favorite Inspector Lewis episodes from last season -- the deliciously twisty Wild Justice. Incidentally, I loved how Stapleton's work reminded Sherlock of a query he received through his website -- where a child wrote wanting to know how her pet rabbit disappeared from its locked cage. It's a nice touch that reminds one there's rarely a throwaway reference in these scripts, so tightly do Moffat and Gatiss strive to present their incarnation of Sherlock and his powers.

As predicted, the facility quickly realizes they've experienced a major security breach -- and Mycroft's reaction in London is appropriately, hilariously, droll. The commander of Baskerville, Major Barrymore (Simon Paisley Day), is enraged until Dr. Frankland unexpectedly steps in and vouches for Sherlock and John's story -- allegedly because he's a fan and as a friend of Henry's father, is eager to help the son. Barrymore is a throwback to the novel, as that was the name of the butler -- and as such it is a nice touch to see Baskerville's modern "gatekeeper" share the name of its literary counterpart.

Meanwhile, following an intense session with his therapist Louise Mortimer (Sasha Behar), Henry has remembered two words -- "Liberty" and "In," though he has no idea how they are connected to his father's death. Dr. Mortimer is a nice connection between the novel and this adaptation, as in the novel Mortimer is the family practitioner responsible for bringing the Baskerville family to Holmes's attention, and a sort of self-appointed guardian to the family heir. (Side note: how hilarious is John's reaction to Henry's apparent wealth -- and why can't I live in that house?!) That evening the the three of them make their way to Dewar's Hollow, the site of Knight Sr. death. John gets separated from Sherlock and Henry, and while on his own he notices a series of flashing lights, apparently Morse code, but the letters being transmitted make no sense. (I LOVE how Sherlock has "inspired" John to observe and consider everything as a potential clue!) This "code" is later revealed to be shaking car lights from couples hooking up at a popular romantic spot -- it is a hilarious and cheeky twist on the situation John discovers regarding Barrymore's brother-in-law in the novel, where signal lights are used to get the escaped prisoner supplies. When he hears an unearthly howl he immediately runs toward Sherlock and Henry, just missing the fact that they've seen it, the monster of Henry's dreams, and a sight that has left the unflappable Sherlock shaken to the core.

This is a fascinating deviation from the canon, in that Moffat and Gatiss have chosen to place Sherlock right in the midst of arguably supernatural occurances, forcing him to confront the seemingly impossible with his oh-so-rational mind. This leads to an extraordinarily painful (but brilliantly played) scene between John and Sherlock at the pub. Sherlock is so rattled, so uncharacteristically upset, he rages at John's every attempt to calm him and dismiss what he saw (though he cannot, because being Sherlock he must explain it). It was a well-constructed moment in which to play one of Sherlock's most famous quotes -- "Once you've ruled out the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be true" (a variation of which appears in several stories, including The Sign of Four). Watson's rejoinder to this bit of philosophizing to is to call Sherlock "Spock," which is just brilliant since Cumberbatch has a role in the upcoming Star Trek film. But I digress. In response to John's concern Sherlock then lets rip the killer line that he has no friends -- and wounded (enraged?) John leaves Sherlock to stew.

This is such a pivotal scene in the development of the Sherlock/John friendship over the course of this series. Does John put up with Sherlock in order to avoid dealing with his own issues? Perhaps, to some degree. But I keep coming back to the moment at the end of "A Study in Pink," when Mycroft muses that knowing John could be the "making" of his younger brother. And this is why I think Freeman's portrayal of John is so achingly brilliant. He's every bit the steadfast friend Watson is in the canon, willing -- happy, even (most of the time, ha!) -- to stay in the shadows while Sherlock hogs the spotlight with his brilliant deductions and his quick wit. But he feels deeply about this friendship in a way that Doyle, I think, only touched on in the stories. No matter how Sherlock may (most of the time, unintentionally) wound him, John seems to know he doesn't mean it, or rather can't help it -- and to realize that while he may never say it, Sherlock needs him as much as he needs Sherlock. These two wounded, messed-up people really are the making of each other -- and the way they complement each other, the depth of that friendship is the heart and soul of the show -- at least for me. :)

The following morning Sherlock is on a roll thanks to the revelation that "hound" is not necessarily a thing but perhaps an acronym. I loved watching him try to apologize to John for his rudeness the night before, because just saying "sorry" would be way too easy (he even makes COFFEE!). His admission that he doesn't have friends, he just has one -- oh, that was brilliant and Cumberbatch's delivery just broke my heart into a thousand pieces. This was of course followed by unbridled hilarity when Sherlock shoots himself in the foot going on about John being a "conductor of light," not a genius but inspiring genius in those like himself. *wink* Oh, Sherlock. The breach temporarily repaired they discover the arrival of Lestrade (Rupert Graves), sent down by Mycroft to keep an eye on Sherlock, but really just ridiculously happy to be there. I love Rupert. :) And the whole thing about Sherlock not knowing Lestrade's first name was Greg? HILARIOUS. The three of them really have this sort of deliciously dysfunctional "three musketeers" vibe going on. John takes advantage of Lestrade's presence to clear up the matter of the vegan pub's meat order. In another nod to the novel, the pub owners had been keeping a dog which they loosed on the moors to feed the legend, similar to how Stapleton in the novel used his own monster of a dog to feed the legend and frighten Sir Henry's predecessor to death. The pub owners claim to have put the dog to sleep for its out-of-control behavior, but Sherlock doesn't buy their explanation, because he definitely saw something, something that can be explained loose on the moors.

After convincing Mycroft he needs access to Baskerville's facility, Sherlock and John return, and John strikes out on his own to investigate labs for signs of animal testing while Sherlock (allegedly) meets with Major Barrymore. John finds himself locked in an abandoned lab, where he hears a growling and gradually becomes increasingly terrified (loved how valiantly John fought the fear impulse, one has to credit his military discipline), to the point that he locks himself in an empty cage until Sherlock arrives to free him. He tells Sherlock he's seen the hound, but Sherlock attempts to calm him by assuring him that they've all been drugged with something that mainifest their fears, i.e. what they've been conditioned to see/expect. It's a nice role-reversal from earlier. And oh, while my rational side "knew" Sherlock "had" to use John as a test subject, given their recent fight, oh how I hated it -- but at least Sherlock gives us the sense during the reveal at the end of the episode that he realized most people would take being made secret test subjects emotionally.

Sherlock then bans all from his presence so he can "go to his mind palace," a mental-mapping memory technique that allows him to sift through everything he knows regarding Henry's key words "Liberty" and "In." Cumberbatch was just brilliant in this sequence. It not only showcases his masterful grasp of the character, but it is a wonderful visual showcase for the series' colorful and visual filming techniques used to bring Sherlock's thought processes to life. This scene results in Sherlock realizing that Henry's key words refer not to things, but to a place -- Liberty, Indiana. He then utilizes Dr. Stapleton's computer access to research the location -- failing that, they go to a higher clearance level -- Barrymore's -- after Sherlock deduces the Major's password. Liberty, IN was the location of the H.O.U.N.D. project, a CIA chemical weapons experiment with a goal of developing an aerosol that would defeat the enemy by disorienting the fear stimulus center of one's brain, triggering violent, over-powering hallucinations. The project was shuttered after the test subjects were driven mad -- but clearly one of the founding scientific minds behind the technology hasn't given up on it -- as identified by Stapleton, the over-eager Dr. Frankland, with his penchant for Americanisms like "cell" instead of "mobile" is the culprit. (Interesting that a female Stapleton is once again key to solving the crime!)

The hound-through-hallucinogenic-gas is just a brilliant method, I think, of updating the original storyline. It retains so much of the story beats and flavor of the original while at the same time becoming something wholly unique to this series' incarnation and vision of Sherlock & Watson. The Holmes of the canon encountered the effects of hallucinogenic gas in the story "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot," which became to my mind one of the creepiest and most memorable episodes of the classic Jeremy Brett television series.

The episode reaches its climax when Dr. Mortimer calls John, frantic over nearly being shot by an out-of-control Henry. He, Sherlock, and Lestrade arrive at the hollow just in time to prevent a hysterical Henry from committing suicide. Now -- I love this conclusion, I adore how it plays out -- but given the limitations of the ninety-minute format, it feels just a tick too convenient, too rushed to be quite perfect. But all told that's a small qualm when one considers the overall quality of the episode. :) Sherlock manages to talk Henry out of suicide, explaining that Dr. Frankland was responsible for his father's death and strove to discredit Henry by driving him slowly insane with the hallucinogenic gas (dosing him up via the pressure-release pads in the hollow every time he visited). Just as Henry seems to calm down, a fearsome hound appears -- a wonderful moment for fans of the original novel. With the gas dosing everyone in the area, the dog looks every bit the monster Doyle created. The dog's appearance is followed by Frankland in a gas mask -- and I loved the touch of Sherlock ripping off the mask, only to reveal the face of Moriarty, not Frankland -- a telling moment for what keeps the great detective up at night, no?

Once Lestrade shoots the dog, it is revealed as completely ordinary -- and Henry is given the mental reprieve to process Frankland's betrayal. It's a painful but rewarding payoff for Henry, as his faith in his father is rewarded -- brilliantly and heart-rendingly played by Tovey. I thought it was an extremely nice touch to have Frankland run off onto the moors, stumbling into the Baskerville minefield -- and meeting his end in much the same way his novel counterpart did (though slightly more *ahem* explosively).

So all's well that end's well outside of Baskerville -- and while I treasure those little moments between Sherlock and John, I really feel the episode could've used a post-reveal scene with Henry, something to assure us that he's getting healthy and moving forward with his life, you know? Instead we cut to a prison, where Mycroft is overseeing the release of Moriarty (Andrew Scott) for a cell where he's covered the walls with graffiti of one word -- Sherlock. It's an ominous promise leading into the final Reichenbach-themed episode of this series.

"The Hounds of Baskerville" is really a brilliant episode, putting a unique update on the classic story, allowing us to see the ultimate rationalist confront and overcome fear -- which for Sherlock I think perhaps stems from a complete loss of control, the fear that logic would fail him. This is hands-down the eeriest, most atmospheric episode of the series to date (the moors never fail in that regard) -- in fact, if it was filmed in black and white I'd think it was  prime example of classic film noir thanks to its brilliant use of light and shadow to foster suspense. It's a fitting bridge looking towards Sherlock's next confrontation with Moriarty, the man this episode reveals to be Sherlock's greatest fear -- perhaps because Moriarity is his complete antithesis, chaos to Sherlock's order.


Charity said...

I loved this episode. It helped that I adore the original novel, and many of the film adaptations of it. But it had some nice character moments in addition to a neat new twist on the original mystery. I laughed my head off when I realized what Holmes was doing to Watson in the lab. So mean, but SO UTTERLY HOLMES.

Not sure what I think of this series' depiction of Moriarty, tho. He comes across too much like "The Master" in Doctor Who, not enough like an evil genius. Tho, his scene in the next episode with the crown and the throne... brilliance.

Rissi said...

Now have this on DVD - yes! Cannot wait to watch these three (or two - still have to decide!). Perhaps this weekend I can start but we shall see...

Unknown said...

@Charity - This story is SUCH a classic! I'll have a lot more to say about Moriarty when I get my Reichenbach post finished...I need to rewatch that episode 2-3 more much going on! :)

@Rissi - This is a great installment, I think you'll enjoy it!

Heidenkind said...

I've never been a big fan of Hounds of Baskerville. We had to read it in middle school, and idk, a book about imaginary dogs? ::sigh:: I did enjoy the interplay between Sherlock and John, as always, but I have to say I was more interested in the missing bunny. ;)

Unknown said...

@Tasha - I LOVED how the child's missing pet was tied into the overall storyline of the episode -- that was a fun touch! :)