Tag: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Review: The Six Thatchers

This review contains spoilers.

I know I bang on about sexism a lot, and sometimes I do wonder if I’m being truthful in my criticism: truthful to my personal experience of the text, rather than received opinion about it garnered from my pretty universally left-leaning Internet lurking-places.

I mention this here because I loved the first two series of Sherlock with a fervent devotion: it was my Favourite Ever Show for at least a couple of years.

Having watched the first episode of series 4, though, marred by the debacle that was last year’s Abominable Bride and by seven years of Moffat’s writing for Doctor Who and by his general faint air of contempt for women, QUILTBAG folks and fans, I’m struggling to remember just what I liked about it. Does this mean I’m privileging my distaste for the creator’s politics over my actual experience of the text?

The Six Thatchers sees Sherlock, restored to 221b Baker Street after the bizarrities of His Last Vow, investigating a bizarre pattern of crimes across London: at each crime scene, a bust of Margaret Thatcher has been smashed. Sherlock is convinced it’s a posthumous game of Moriarty’s: “It’s too baroque,” Sherlock says, not inaccurately. About halfway through, though, he has a revelation:

“This is about Mary [John Watson’s ex-spy wife]!”

You can almost hear Moffat going, “This is an episode about a woman! Nobody will ever spot that!”

A couple of scenes later:

“I was so convinced it was Moriarty I couldn’t see what was right under my nose.”

Conveniently (and ironically, given Moffat’s evident love of self-referentiality) these three quotes pretty much sum up what I think annoyed me about the episode.

We’ll take the thorny sexism issue first.

This Is (Not) About Mary!

This is what pisses me off about Moffat’s writing of women, a problem that also manifests itself in his writing for Doctor Who: the stories he writes for women are not actually about them. I am sure Moffat thinks that Mary, an ex-killer with an intelligence almost to match Sherlock’s own, is a strong female character. But look closely: though The Six Thatchers delves into Mary’s secret past, though it sees her face-to-face with an old friend who was once dearer than family, though it looks at her marriage and watches her sob out her last words, it is not about her.

It’s about Ajay, the PTSD sufferer wrenched by betrayal who tries to kill her.

It’s about her husband John and his boredom in their marriage.

It’s about Sherlock and his vow to protect the Watsons, Come What May.

Do we get to see Mary’s feelings about the friends she lost? No; Mary’s past only affects her insomuch as it’s plot-convenient. Do we get to see her being friends with Sherlock? No, not really, because she’s at home minding the baby more often than not.

The only glimpses we get into her actual inner life are two sickening monologues in which she rambles on and on and on about how much she loves John. One is a letter, left behind as she flees her family to save them from the shadow of the past; we see not her face as she writes it but John’s as he reads it. The second is her death-speech (like in a bad melodrama, nobody can die in a Moffat production without reading out a manifesto about their life): “You gave me everything I could have ever wanted,” she coughs out bravely, “Being Mary Watson was the only life worth living.”


This fiercely independent, intelligent woman can’t even be granted a death of her own (Clara Oswald much?); it’s all about her husband, who, I might add, seems pretty bloody grumpy about her efforts to save her family – “Lies, all lies!” – for someone who’s also an ex-soldier and presumably has some skeletons in the closet of his own.


Just a thought before I move on: what would Mary be doing if she hadn’t met John?

“It’s too baroque”

To return to my questions about whether I’m being fair to the text, I think the reason I didn’t enjoy the episode – as opposed to the reasons why it’s a sexist episode – is a structural one. The first two series of Sherlock are explicitly mystery stories (apart from perhaps The Reichenbach Fall), fast-paced, snappy, and importantly following a really familiar structure, viz., the detective story, that allows us to keep up when Sherlock talks too fast and/or pulls solutions out of his ass (which I suspect happens more often than I cared to notice). The latter ones have tried to be character stories first and foremost, and for me it’s becoming abundantly clear that this isn’t a show set up to talk successfully about character. It wants to be twisty and fast-paced and surprising and reveal shocking bits of backstory, with the result that the plots are ever more far-fetched and, yes, baroque, and ever less able to pay off on that far-fetched-ness; and the characterisation is ever less consistent and believable, and ever more offensive.

In other words: it’s because this episode is (Not) About Mary that I was bored by it. The early episodes have more than their fair share of sexism, racism and homophobia; it’s just that they’re also quite exciting. The latter doesn’t make the former OK, of course, but it does make it possible for me to enjoy watching them. Whereas things like The Six Thatchers just make me want to fling my laptop out the window.

Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Albus Dumbledore

It’s Tournament of Books time! If you’ve never heard of the ToB and you like books, can I suggest you go check it out immediately? It’s possibly the most exciting internet event I have yet come across, and it introduced me to readable literary criticism, and if that isn’t a good enough recommendation then I don’t know what is.

With that excitement over with: let’s get cracking, dear reader.

Harry-Potter-And-The-Chamber-Of-Secrets_novelI’m re-reading Harry Potter this year because the Book Smugglers are doing so, and it seemed like a good idea to get back in contact with the texts themselves, rather than this shared cultural idea we all have about what is now more an entertainment franchise than anything else.

I reviewed Philosopher a couple of years ago on the blog, and I didn’t really feel I had too much to say about it this time around, so here we are with Chamber of Secrets.

A brief plot summary for those of you who have miraculously escaped the Potterverse. All is not well at Hogwarts School, as a spate of strange attacks attributed to the mysterious and dreadful bogey the Heir of Slytherin terrorises the students and staff, and Harry Potter, boy wizard, hears disembodied voices in the wall. Who is the Heir of Slytherin? What is it that is muttering imprecations of violence in the walls? And can Harry and his friends solve the mystery of the Chamber of Secrets before the school is closed?

Chamber of Secrets is at its heart a tale about prejudice (and, by analogy, racism). Salazar Slytherin, the founder of one of the school’s four houses, was a notorious proponent of the idea that only pure-blood witches and wizards should be able to attend the school, and that so-called Muggle-borns (witches and wizards born to non-magical parents) should be shunned. The attacks at the school are all on Muggle-borns or Squibs (pure-blood witches and wizards who can’t do magic), and the book explores in some detail the various systems of prejudice in place throughout the wizarding world.

One of the things that I forgot about the novel was just how menacing it is: “The Chamber of Secrets has been opened. Enemies of the Heir, beware.” Written in blood (well, actually, red paint, but we don’t know that yet) on the wall above a comatose cat. That’s horror-film stuff right there. It’s a very effective way of registering the horror of prejudice, I think: it turns the heimlich unheimlich, the familiar strange and awful, working from within to attack (because it’s always already latent in) the structures of regularity and order and Civilised Behaviour we construct around us. (The Chamber of Secrets, centuries old, is said to have been constructed in the castle right at its very beginnings.) In Chamber of Secrets, Hogwarts, Harry’s escape from the abuse he suffers at the hands of his Muggle aunt and uncle, turns upon itself, its own miraculous and homely architecture generating monsters and buried secrets, its own student body attacking itself. As the attacks against Muggle-borns worsen and increase, the society within the castle begins to freeze up: students lose much of their freedom, shepherded between classes by teachers, and hysteria breaks out, youngsters flinging accusations back and forth. It’s a particularly well-judged piece of symbolism that those attacked by the Heir of Slytherin are Petrified: literally, frozen, made voiceless, their agency stolen away; made irrelevant by prejudice.

Unfortunately, this subtle piece of allegorisation clashes with Rowling’s elaboration of the book’s moral message, which is that individuals should be judged by their choices, not by what is innate to them (be that their parentage, their ability to talk to snakes, their social status, etc.). Abstractly, of course, this is a theme which meshes perfectly with a tale about prejudice and racism; but Rowling embodies it as Harry’s inward struggle against what he thinks of as his innate Slytherin-ness, a struggle brought to a head by his encounter with Tom Riddle, the ghost of the series’ Dark Lord, Voldemort. Like Harry, Tom is an orphan who hates the Muggle world; like Harry, Tom speaks Parselmouth, the language of snakes. Tom functions, effectively, as Harry’s double, the point supposedly being that Tom is what Harry might have become. (I’m not going to go into the fact that it’s practically impossible to see Harry choosing to side with the person who killed his parents.) This metaplot essentially dramatises the hero’s struggle with the Dark Side of his personality.

Again, this is a perfectly fine literary strategy, if a little hackneyed by now, except that its very interiority sets up interference patterns with the social focus of the book’s discussion of racism. What it means in practice is that the culminating confrontation between hero and villain, the confrontation which saves all the victims and potential victims of the prejudice that Tom has unleashed upon the school, occurs not between perpetrator and victim, between prejudiced and prejudicee, but between privileged-and-prejudiced-person and privileged-and-unprejudiced person. Harry is pure-blood; the Muggle-borns aren’t allowed to fight for themselves (the book is particularly hard on Hermione, Harry’s best friend, who is both Muggle-born and, being female, a member of an actual real-life minority; she does all the intellectual hard work before literally being fridged so that Harry can go on and save her), which makes Harry’s defeat of Tom, prejudice incarnate, uncomfortably reminiscent of Sherlock’s realisation that perhaps feminists have a point in The Abominable Bride. To put it another way: while the racism storyline is predicated on difference, the inner struggle storyline is predicated on sameness, and the two sit uneasily beside each other.

I still think Chamber of Secrets is a hugely enjoyable book: I’d genuinely forgotten how good Rowling is at plotting and pacing, and how saturated the books are in authentic detail without feeling over-determined. I just think – well, a lot of fans proffer the books’ depiction of racism as evidence of its literary worth, and, actually, when you look hard at this book, at least, it’s not wholly unproblematic.

Sherlock Review: The Abominable Bride

“I’m your housekeeper, not a plot device!”

Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss

Sorry, Mrs Hudson: as it turns out, you are a plot device. You and ALL WOMEN EVER.

I just spent the last couple of hours trying to write a serious review of The Abominable Bride. It was quite good, actually. I was going to argue that the episode’s ridiculous metafictional reversals were part of an attempt on the writers’ part to discredit Conan Doyle’s body of work as no longer relevant and, of course, suggest their own as alternative.

But my heart wasn’t really in it. The Abominable Bride may be the worst thing I have ever seen on television, and if there is any coherent sense to be made out of it I don’t have the time or energy to tease it painstakingly out. I don’t think it deserves that kind of attention, much less rewards it.

The episode begins as a horribly campy Victorian tale featuring Our Heroes as they attempt to solve the case of a woman who apparently kills herself and then returns to murder her husband. This is a terrible idea. Cumberbatch and Freeman make a fantastic modern-day Holmes and Watson, but only indifferent Victorian ones, and you’re much better off watching Jeremy Brett in those interminable ITV episodes of Sherlock Holmes if Victoriana is what you’re after. The case itself is just awful, tedious watching: a Dr Hooper so transparently female that Sherlock must be blind not to see it, a not-very-scary ghost who we know from the word go is absolutely not going to be a ghost, which makes the transports of fear that Our Heroes indulge in over-the-top and ridiculous, a Mycroft who makes himself mordibly obese for a bet (because that’s funny, right?), a pointless conversation between Sherlock and Watson about whether Sherlock has ever you-knowed which fails to establish anything we didn’t know already.

That’s before we reach the frankly offensive denouement, when it transpires that the bride is actually a group of suffragists punishing abusive husbands by going out and murdering them. Moffat and Gatiss are clearly trying to prove their feminist credentials in the face of profound disagreement from many, many people, and it fails spectacularly when Sherlock proudly tells all the women that yes! the mighty Holmes agrees with their cause! go forth and multiply!

Thanks, Moffat/Gatiss/Holmes, but I don’t actually need you to validate my feminist rage, and nor does anyone else. That’s sort of the point.

Also, pro tip: it doesn’t really help your cause when you dress your feminists like members of the Klu Klux Klan.

But this is just not bad enough for Moffat and Gatiss; they have to go a step further:

“And he woke up and it was all a dream.”

Sherlock, it turns out, is working out a hundred-year-old case in his mind palace (which is swiftly becoming the most irritating way of representing abstract thought processes ever devised, and by the way real mind palaces do not work like that) in order to help him work out how Moriarty has come back from the dead to threaten England. The episode dips in and out of dream and reality for about half an hour, the net result of which is Sherlock realising that Moriarty is dead but has a lot of friends, which we already knew anyway. There’s also a dream-confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls which is probably supposed to reveal the deepest depths of Sherlock’s demons but actually just tells us that he really, really hates Moriarty, which, let’s see, oh, yes, we knew already.

There was more, but to be honest by this point I had given up the will to live.

My issue with all of this isn’t the dream-device per se, which can in the right hands be used to great effect; it’s that none of it feels very significant. It’s just showing off. It isn’t clever, or experimental, or bold; it’s a pair of showrunners who have created a very successful series not being accountable to anyone, and just writing whatever the hell they like because why not?

I sincerely hope the upcoming series won’t be more of this, because it’s just boring. Boring, and bad.

Doctor Who Review: The Husbands of River Song

“It’s like loving the sunset. You don’t expect the sunset to love you back.”

River Song

In the by-now-ubiquitous Doctor Who Christmas Day special, the Doctor meets up with his old pal/wife (and daughter of bygone companions Amy and Rory Pond) River Song, caught up in an audacious plan to steal a diamond from the murderous King Hydroflax involving, well, marriage. (Hence the title.)

It’s a troubling story which continues the last series’ overall trend of subordinating and fridging characters with marginal identities to Moffat’s monolithic Doctor-god. Moffat has form for writing interesting and transgressive female characters who ultimately get undermined by male counterparts: the transgender Missy, chased out of a hitherto fertile storyline about moral ambivalence for being jealous of the Other Woman Clara in The Witch’s Familiar; “I-don’t-even-want-a-husband” Me, reduced to the Doctor’s cosmic housekeeper in The Woman Who Lived (although, it has to be said, redeemed somewhat in Hell Bent); Sherlock‘s Irene Adler, originally the only woman who ever beat Sherlock Holmes, rewritten as a lesbian who turns straight for Sherlock and is ultimately outwitted and humiliated by him. The Husbands of River Song continues the trend: the polyamorous, independent and deeply feminist River reveals that, in fact, she only has One True Love, who is, of course, the Doctor.

If it were only that, well, it would be irritating. But Moffat humiliates River by implication by having her declaim her love in high romantic fashion, all unknowing, while the Doctor is standing next to her. She likens him to the sunset, to the stars; most importantly, she notes that the Doctor doesn’t love her back, because he’s not “that small, that ordinary”.

By implication, River, the kickass archaeologist with the sonic trowel, the daughter of Amy and Rory, half-Time Lord, time traveller, the woman who carved “hello, sweetie” in the oldest rock in the universe – she is “small”, and she is “ordinary”. We are supposed to believe that this articulate, arrogant woman would really say that of herself – and, furthermore, can’t recognise, can’t even admit the possibility of recognising, the supposed love of her life right next to her.

What’s so frustrating about this is that without the stupid romantic storyline which Moffat seems to be, excuse me, in love with (before River there was Clara, and before Clara it was Amy, and why is it always women that the Doctor makes “friends” with?) The Husbands of River Song could have been a good episode. We might have had the Doctor and River romping through the universe as equals, sparks flying, sonic devices squawking, spaceships crashing. There could even have been some light flirting.

Instead, we have demeaning storyline after demeaning storyline, with the Doctor reigning triumphant over everyone.


Silent Witness: Protection Pt 2

“Science doesn’t lie. People do.”

Silent Witness

Ah, Silent Witness. The show that proves time and time again that there is a difference between thoughtful, intelligent telly and telly you actually want to watch.

See, Silent Witness is continuing the streak of excellence that began with the Falling Angels serial. The second part of Protection follows up on the first part’s discussion of child protection – “protection”, of course, having a spectrum of meanings – with depth and sensitivity and a refusal to allow the kind of simple good/evil categorisation that detective dramas have a tendency to fall into. As in Falling Angels, by far the best character study here is that of a secondary character (the forensics team, it seems, are gradually being relegated to the background, mere framing devices for the story): Louise Marsh, child protection officer, burdened with the responsibility of deciding the difference between accident and bad parenting. Actress Claudie Blakley’s distinction between professional façade and personal struggle, often a transition effected in seconds, is particularly striking – in fact, this detailed character work is sharply at odds with the very one-note characterisation of several members of the forensics team, most notably the apparently unmoving Clarissa. And though the separate plots don’t actually converge as I thought they would, the thematic unity they provide is satisfying without being glib.

There’s no denying, then, that Silent Witness is good television. But, dear gods, it’s depressing. Although there is sort-of a happy ending, there’s also rape, paedophilia, suicide, teenage pregnancy, parents who lose their children, all of which tends to dampen one’s lunchtime somewhat. I know it’s disingenuous to complain that things like Death in Paradise are silly and then turn my nose up at serious shows like this, but…


Can we just have Sherlock back, please? That would solve all my problems. Thank you.

A Few More of My Favourite Things

“For one voyage to begin, another voyage must come to an end, sort of.”

David Mitchell

It’s New Year. Again. (How can it be New Year already?) Which means that it’s time for a round-up post, this year for the first time featuring The English Student’s Reading Stats. Because I have become obsessed with spreadsheets.

Anyway, first things first.

The English Student’s Favourite Things of 2014

(As always, these are all things reviewed in 2014, not necessarily published or released in 2014.)

  • TV: Sherlock: His Last Vow. The only piece of television this year to have turned me into a reviewerly ball of incoherency. Gods I love Sherlock.
  • Film: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. A teensy-weensy bit of a cheat, since this film isn’t new to me; but, come on. It’s Tolkien filmed just the way it should be. And it is perfect.
  • Book: House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski. I read this all the way back in January, and though I have read excellent books since then, none of them has quite measured up to the daring horror of House of Leaves, its deeply intellectual creepiness and its compulsive dark.
  • Misc: Good Omens. The radio adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s darkly funny apocalypse novel was delightful and respectful and All Good Things.

The English Student’s Reading Stats

(Hooray! Spreadsheets!)

  • In 2014 I read 71 books – 11 more than last year.
  • The longest was Fanny Burney’s Camilla, at 956 pages; the shortest was Mark Forsyth’s The Unknown Unknown, at just 23. Overall, I’ve read 28,105 pages.
  • My average rating this year for books was 3.5/5 – either it’s been a particularly good year or I am generous with star ratings. I don’t know because I didn’t have a spreadsheet last year.
  • The oldest book I’ve read – that is, the one that was first published longest ago – was Malory’s Complete Works, from 1485. The average age of the books I’ve read this year is surprisingly old – 70 years.
  • Genre: I’ve read 28 fantasy novels (39%) and 11 science fiction (15%). The rest of it falls into poetry, drama, non-fiction and a number of blurred categories like “contemporary” and “literary”.
  • I’ve read 4 middle-grade books this year (5%), 22 YA (31%), and 44 adult (62%).
  • I bought about half of the books I read this year.
  • The most common reason for my reading a book was for university.
  • 18 of the books I read this year were re-reads – that’s just under 25%, which is ridiculous. I reviewed 58 books – 82% – on this blog. (This is depressingly low, numerically and percentagely. I Must Try Harder next year.)
  • Just 22 (31%) of the books I read this year were by women – although six of them appeared in my top ten favourite books of 2014. This proves, obviously, that women are better at writing books.

So, goals for next year: re-read less; read more books by women; review more books; and, obviously, read more books. And if I can do all that, then pigs will fly.

Happy 2015, Constant Reader!

Scott and Bailey: Damaged

“There is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace.”

Arthur Conan Doyle

It’s episode three of Scott and Bailey Series 4 (I’m going off Wikipedia here, though, so don’t take my word for it), and Rachel’s struggling with her new promotion. The team’s investigating the death of Rich Hutchings, the suspected victim of a homophobic attack, and Rachel’s also trying to deal with her mother, who has become involved with a known domestic abuser. (Kudos to Tracie Bennett, who’s endearingly cringing as Mother Sharon.) The episode deals a sharp lesson in professional competence, as Rachel has to admit that she’s missed a crucial piece of evidence through not checking her messages in front of the team, and her superior gives her a Bad Look worthy of Mary Berry. “Deal with your mother on your own time,” she says sharply.

If I’m honest, I can’t remember the details of the mystery, and I don’t particularly care that much. It’s the method that interests me: there’s very little of the high-flown melodrama that characterises plenty of Murder Mysteries. Even the criminal interviews are more like counselling sessions – “How did that make you feel?” is a question that gets asked with inordinate frequency. At no point does any officer slam their hand upon the table and demand a confession. Superior officer DCI Gill Murray stresses the importance of precision and accuracy over “copper’s intuition”, and so the investigation is – meticulous. Detailed. Thorough. But, and this is important, still quite interesting for all that.

The lesson of Scott and Bailey? Murder Mysteries don’t have to be unrealistic to be watchable. Of course, the most interesting thing about Scott and Bailey may not be its inherent interest but the fact that it is different. Perhaps. But with four seasons under its belt, it’s surely doing something right.