Mark Gatiss and the Clash of the Titans

Posted: 13 August 2010 in television
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In the Holmes canon there is no villain greater than Professor James Moriarty. He is “the Napoleon of Crime”, a criminal mastermind of such magnitude that it seemed that the first great confrontation between him and Sherlock Holmes had ended with the death of both men at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Moriarty was created specifically by Arthur Conan Doyle to kill off Holmes in “The Final Problem” and since then has bestrode the entire pantheon of evil incarnate in the Holmes franchise, be it books, films, tv, comics, etc.

Herein lies a fundamental problem with the Holmes/Moriarty dynamic…such is the expected fallout from a face-to-face clash of these titans it can only end with the demise of one or other of the parties concerned. The great detective and the master criminal need to shadow play with each other for as long as possible to avoid such a confrontation. And in many ways the confrontation between them has come far too early in “Sherlock”. From the very first episode “A Study in Pink” Holmes has been aware of the puppeteer in the darkness. The insidious threat of Moriarty needs to be built to a greater magnitude than just 2 episodes before a face-to-face battle occurs. What transpires at the end of “The Great Game” is more suited to a Series 2 finale than a Series 1 ending.

But that’s not to say that “The Great Game” is bad, in fact (forgive the pun) it’s bloody great. After Steven Moffat’s fast-paced, and amazingly faithful, adaptation of “A Study in Scarlet” to open the mini-series, “The Blind Banker” was something of a misfire with hardly any of the original canon shining through. With Mark Gatiss taking on the scripting duties (and making another gorgeous appearance as Mycroft) all was back on track for the conclusion of this all-too short set of films.

The main inspiration for this tale was quite obviously “The Bruce-Partington Plans” (first published in 1912 and included in the “His Last Bow” collection of 1917). The secret submarine plans of the original are here updated to “The Bruce-Partington Project”, a missile defence system, but the rest of the plot remains faithfully intact with the mysterious death of a government employee, the loss of vital secrets, the disposal of the body on a train, and the brother of the dead man’s fiancee being guilty of the crime.

And of course lots and lots of references to the Conan Doyle stories to keep us fans (nerds? geeks?) happy:

  • A Study in Scarlet: Holmes basic lack of knowledge in certain areas, such as being unaware that the Earth orbits the Sun
  • The Sign of the Four: The street urchins The Baker Street Irregulars becomes a network of homeless people
  • A Scandal in Bohmeia: ” I’d be lost without my blogger”, from “I’d be lost without my Boswell” – a reference to James Boswell, the biographer and friend of Samuel Johnson
  • The Five Orange Pips: secret societies sending portents of death in the form of melon or orange pips
  • The Musgrave Ritual: Holmes carving a V.R. into the wall with the aid of a pistol because he is bored

Gatiss’ genius lies in not only adhering to canon but spinning out his own quite remarkable narrative at the same time. A series of criminal conundrums to be solved in mere hours with the lives of innocents wired with explosives at stake. An explosion opposite 221b Baker Street just to get Holmes’ attention, a clue to a 2 decade old murder in the form of trainers left in 221c Baker Street (does Mrs Hudson live in 221a?), a blood stained sports car leading to an operation to help those riddled with debt to disappear and claim life insurance, the demise of a TV celebrity at the hands of her brother’s lover, a £30 million art scam exposed from the clues left on a body found on the banks of the Thames. All these scenarios would be enough to drive a normal crime series for an entire episode, here they are solved in mere hours by the Prince of Detectives.

Benedict Cumberbatch, as the narrative itself states, “is on fire” with Gatiss’ material to get his teeth into. From the initial melancholy mood in Baker Street to the confrontation with Moriarty, Cumberbatch runs through a range of emotions and situations most actors would be lucky to deal with in an entire career, let alone a single 90 minute show on the BBC. He perfectly channels the arrogant and adventuresome nature of Holmes. Martin Freeman may not get as much over-the-top material to play with as his co-star but he does for Watson what the character has always done: provide a human factor to the proceedings. Holmes lives for the challenge and forgets the people. Watson always remembers the little people in amongst the titanic struggle between his friend and his arch nemesis.

And speaking of the arch nemesis…Professor James Moriarty. A professor of mathematics. The Napoleon of Crime. “the organiser of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city” as Conan Doyle stated in “The Final Problem”. Except here he’s “Jim Moriarty” a “consulting criminal” dynamically opposed to Holmes’ “consulting detective”, and more than just a little psycho. To be totally honest it was a little disappointing to discover the so-called boyfriend of lab technician Molly was the great criminal mastermind, he just didn’t have enough of a presence against Cumberbatch and Freeman and had to act things up a bit too much.

But for all the possible faults in the character of Moriarty there’s no denying the power of the final scene with Holmes and Watson targeted for death by multiple assassins with seemingly no way out. Though of course there will be with the confirmation that Series 2 has been commissioned. Any chance of around 6 films in 2011? With his workload on “Doctor Who” we may be lucky to get a single script from Steven Moffat. Mark Gatiss is likely to be the main showrunner and deserving of a couple of scripts. What about an episode from the great Neil Gaiman? He’s proved himself to be an master of the canon with his brilliant “A Study in Emerald” and has recently penned a script for the next series of the Time Lord’s adventures.

Come 2011…Will Series 2 start with the recovery of Watson from the still burning remains of the swimming pool after the bomb detonated? Will Holmes and Moriarty both be missing, presumed dead? In fact was it the real Moriarty? Perhaps the true mastermind remains in the shadows and this was a mere actor in “the great game”?

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ian Sadler, Ian Sadler. Ian Sadler said: Mark Gatiss and the Clash of the Titans: […]

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