Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Professor James Moriarty specifically to kill off Sherlock Holmes, reasoning correctly that an extraordinary criminal had to be responsible for the death of his mighty creation. In The Final Problem, at the picturesque and deadly Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, the two titans of law and crime were supposed to have engaged in mortal combat and plunged to their deaths.

Sherlock - series 2In The Reichenbach Fall the acting abilities of Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott set an incredibly high benchmark for future clashes between Holmes and Moriarty. Never before in the same onscreen narrative have the Prince of Detectives and the Napoleon of Crime been so evenly matched – operating as intellectual equals but diametrically opposed in terms of morality. Like Sherlock, Moriarty needs a challenge in order to prevent stagnation and in the consulting detective he finally found a worthy opponent. In many ways he knew Sherlock better than anyone and played upon the detective’s cleverness and arrogance in order to ensnare him in an elaborate and seemingly inescapable trap.

It was entirely apt for Andrew Scott’s Moriarty to accept his own death as the only way of defeating Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. Personally I’ll only accept that the slippery bugger is truly dead when his neatly severed head is displayed in the fridge at 221b Baker Street. After casting a shadow across the first two series of Sherlock it’s probably time for Moriarty to bow out. Although Scott’s astonishing performance is going to be much missed other villainous characters are lurking within the canon awaiting an airing. The master blackmailer Charles Augutus Milverton and Moriarty’s chief of staff Colonel Sebastian Moran to name but two…

It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes was distinguished.

The Final Problem

The Death of Sherlock Holmes. Original illustration from The Strand Magazine by Sidney Paget.

The performance of any actor is built upon the material they are given to work with and when Stephen Thompson was announced as the writer for this most important and apocalyptic of tales I did have concerns at the final product adapted from The Final Problem. Thompson’s previous script for Sherlock was The Blind Banker and for me it remains the weakest story of the series to date. Similarly his work on the 2011 series of Doctor Who left me unimpressed. Thankfully I was proven spectacularly wrong and I love when that happens. The Reichenbach Fall is without doubt one of the best 90 minutes of script written for television in the last decade. I could be disparaging and wonder if Steven Moffat and/or Mark Gatiss added to the mix with rewrites, but it’s Thompson’s name on screen and so the credit for this unpredictable, emotionally draining, and magnificent piece of writing rightly belongs to him. Any television that sets the media alight with praise and vast public speculation as to the resolution deserves laudation and celebration.

Despite being one of the most famous events in the entire canon this clash of the titans has only been dramatised sparsely. The best interpretation had previously come with The Final Problem, the 13th and final episode of the 1984 series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Starring Jeremy Brett and Eric Porter as Holmes and Moriarty respectively, the finale was filmed on location at the actual Reichenbach Falls and concluded with two stuntmen plunging down the falls on cables. Nearly 30 years on it remains an incredible stunt – far above and beyond the naff CGI plunge depicted in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (which at no point even bothers to explain how Holmes survived the fall).

In common with the source material, The Reichenbach Fall is topped and tailed by the musings of Watson over the loss of his friend. Martin Freeman gives an utterly brilliant and heartbreaking performance as John – a man shattered by tragedy who simply can’t believe that his friend has gone, along with his reason for a purposeful existence. Deep underneath he clearly blames himself because if he hadn’t extolled the incredible talents of Sherlock to the public then his friend would have remained out of the public eye and not become a target for the press. With all the recent revelations about the intrusiveness of the press into private lives this story acted as a timely reminder of the power of the Fourth Estate to build up a person and to subsequently destroy them.

Sherlock - The Reichenbach FallSherlock’s fall from grace in the public eye by Moriarty’s manipulation of the press is helped along nicely by the arrogance and jealousy of individuals such as Anderson and Donovan and the naivety of eager journalist Kitty Riley. They simply can’t accept that Sherlock could be smarter than them and so are quite happy to add fuel to the fire that burns away the consulting detective’s aura of infallibility. Even Mycroft’s naivety over the abilities of Moriarty to control a situation contributed to his brother’s downfall.

Some have expressed surprise that Lestrade should be targeted for death alongside John and Mrs Hudson but it’s glaringly obvious why this should have been the case. Lestrade is the one member of the “establishment” who remained loyal to Sherlock. The “professional” has faced too many mysteries (like facing down “the Hound of the Baskervilles”) alongside the “amateur” to scoff at the latter’s abilities. It’s worth betting that when the time comes Lestrade will relish enacting revenge upon those colleagues who doubted Sherlock and contributed to his downfall.

…whom I shall ever regard as the best and the wisest man whom I have ever known.

Conan Doyle always claimed that he had no intention of resurrecting Holmes after the events at Reichenbach Falls. Indeed his diary at the time contained a satisfied entry of “Killed Holmes”. So why didn’t he have the great detective die in an unambiguous hail of bullets in front of witnesses, rather than having Watson deducing the outcome of the ultimate encounter between Holmes and Moriarty based upon footprints and a note left behind by his friend? Throughout the preceding stories it had been demonstrated time and time again that Watson is incapable of deducing anything! It’s always been my view that Conan Doyle left himself a whacking great get-out clause in case he ever wanted to bring Holmes back to life, which he did after being offered huge sums of money by his American publishers in 1903: $25,000 for six stories, $30,000 for eight stories, and $45,000 for twelve stories. A phenomenal sum of money in those days.

The Reichenbach Falls (Turner, 1804)However, in The Reichenbach Fall Holmes DID plunge to his death. Right in front of Watson. There can’t be a shadow of a doubt that the great detective is dead. Except of course for the fact he is alive at the end of the episode. Unless Series 3 is going to be entitled John and Sherlock (Deceased), Sherlock clearly faked his death. But how? Ever since the episode concluded the Internet has been abuzz with theories as to how Sherlock could have faked his death so publicly. According to Steven Moffat a whacking great clue to the solution was shown in plain sight – but no one has clocked it yet. That Molly was involved in the cover-up seems almost a given. And surely John being sideswiped by that bicycle couldn’t have been a coincidence…

In the midst of all the doom, gloom and frequent WTF?! moments, the programme makers took time out to poke fun at one of the great icons of the Holmes mythos: the deerstalker. Sherlock’s attempt to deduce the etymology of a deerstalker, his bemusement as to it’s and his subsequent description of it as a “death frisbee” was hysterical. John taking a mannequin hanging from the ceiling of the living room completely in his stride was a lovely comical insight into how everyday life at 221b Baker Street must seem utterly surreal to any visitor to the address.

Another lovely touch of humour and nod to past interpretations of the canon came with John’s visit to The Diogenes Club, where Mycroft spends a great deal of his time. The club was introduced in The Greek Interpreter and fan speculation across the years, building upon the connections of the elder Holmes brother to the British Government, has developed the establishment into a front organisation for the British Secret Service – particularly in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and the works of Kim Newman. The elderly gentleman who summons the club staff to deal with the rather noisy John is 92 year old Douglas Wilmer who portrayed Sherlock Holmes in the television series Sherlock Holmes between 1965 and 1968 and in the 1975 film The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.

Along with Doctor Who, Sherlock is an example of what great event television should be. Intelligently written material bought to life by dedicated and capable actors and production teams who don’t trumpet every plot in a desperate press-orientated attempts to gain ratings. Steven Moffat has rallied against spoilers being leaked and he’s quite right to do so – I love watching well-crafted television where you don’t have a clue what is going to happen next.

Comes Series 3…

  1. bibliopirate says:

    I need to see this show.
    It’s not surprising that both this and Doctor Who are great examples of television. Right now both are being run by Stephen Moffat who has yet to let me down.

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