'Like a gaze from a crowd of strangers, suddenly one is aware of staring into the face of an old friend...'
And there we have it. Sherlock faked his death by placing Moriarty's body on the ground with a face mask based on his own and then bungee-jumped down into St Bart's Hospital before snogging Molly and going on his merry way. Fantastic! Who thought of that?
Anderson, as a matter of fact. Because that isn't really how he did it.
Sherlock blasted back onto television on New Year's Day with a fabulous piece of misdirection which captures so well the intelligence, playfulness and unpredictability that make it such a must-see show for millions across the world. The running gag of the fake explanations is a welcome cheeky dig at the internet furore Sherlock's 'death' caused two years ago (while also feeding another one in the Sherlock/Moriarty kiss). In the end, the version that Sherlock gives Anderson is merely sufficient, ticking off some of the more obvious clues given in 'The Reichenbach Fall.' However, surely this is but another clue that the real answer is yet to be revealed...
In any case, that's enough about how Sherlock returned, as John himself, says the more important thing is why. Called back by his brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss is as reticently entertaining as ever), Sherlock needs to stop an underground terrorist network who are planning an attack on London. Making great use of the myriad mazes of the tube, this leads to as much intrigue, twists and inventive direction (from Sherlock newcomer Jeremy Lovering) as normal although, unusually for Sherlock, the mystery is not the focus of this adventure. As a sure sign the series is taking on its own life away from simply adapting Conan Doyle's stories, most of 'The Empty Hearse' is dedicated to its characters.
This is an episode that really revels in the fantastic cast it has to offer. While Gatiss' script is as witty and fast-paced as ever, each of Sherlock's friends is allowed their moment in the limelight. Lestrade's hugging of Sherlock upon his return, Molly showing off her Benedictine new boyfriend, even the previously repellent Anderson has been rehabilitated as a washed-up conspiracy theorist. This reviewer's favourite touches were Molly playing John for a day and the joyous joke of Mycroft being subjected to a night at Les Miserables with his and Sherlock's parents (who in a brilliant in-joke are played by Cumberbatch's real-life mum and dad, Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton)! In an episode written by one of them, it is perhaps expected that there is some great material on show here for the Holmes brothers. Echoing back to Mycroft's scolding of Sherlock's social inexperience in 'A Scandal in Belgravia', Sherlock gets the upper hand here by showing he is now the sibling with the social skills. 'I'm not lonely,' Mycroft says. 'How would you know?' Sherlock replies. The Great Detective has come a long way from his sociopathic status in 'A Study in Pink.'
However, the real content of 'The Empty Hearse' is the relationship between Sherlock and John and how it is not only strained by Sherlock's two-year long disappearance but also Watson's fiancée, Mary Morstan. Amanda Abbington is a excellent addition to the cast, as Martin Freeman's actual partner, she is utterly believable as the one person who might be more important to John than Sherlock. There is much fun to be had in Sherlock's reaction and relationship with Mary, while she seems to take a shine to him immediately, he has a begrudging respect for her, as if understanding he now has a rival for John's affections. Platonically speaking, of course. By the end, though, the detecting duo are back in business. Although both are changed men, the game is back on - although it seems someone else is laying down the rules...
Overall, 'The Empty Hearse' a triumphant return for Sherlock and his gang. With an increased sense of humour and dedication to its characters, the series now seems to have a bigger heart than before to run alongside the breathtaking mysteries. With an increased sense of duty to its characters as it develops its own life away from Doyle, Sherlock is back and has proven itself still at the top of television. That's the real revelation of this episode.
Five favourite Sherlockian references:
- The villain of the piece, Lord Moran, is drawn from two Conan Doyle sources. He is named after Colonel Sebastian Moran, Moriarty's right-hand man who attempts to murder Sherlock in 'The Empty House.' Moran is called the biggest of Sherlock's markers or 'rats.' Coupled with the fact that his terrorist plot takes place in Sumatra Road tube station, this is a reference to the most-famous untold case in the canon, 'The Giant Rat of Sumatra.'
- It turns out that in the past two years, Sherlock has been travelling the world, breaking down Moriarty's criminal network. As Mycroft says, in Serbia Sherlock faced Baron Maupertius, a never-seen villain in Conan Doyle's stories who actually featured in Andrew Lang's Young Sherlock Holmes novel Death Cloud.
- The coded text that the villain who stuck John in a bonfire sends Mary, including the lines 'Saint or Sinner? James of John?', is also a sly nod to the original stories. In 'The Man with the Twisted Lip', Mary calls her husband 'James' rather than John. Bless, Conan Doyle - continuity was never his strong point.
- Hidden away in the story is actually a very short adaptation of the Doyle adventure 'A Case of Identity.' When a woman comes to Sherlock about the disappearance of her online boyfriend, he quickly deduces the boyfriend to in fact be her step-father - very much like the plot of the original.
- The missing train that disappears during a tube journey is based on non-canon mystery 'The Lost Special' by Arthur Conan Doyle which sees a private train go missing on its way to London. The story does not categorically feature Sherlock but instead an unnamed 'expert' on such matters solves the case...
As Sherlock returns, Doctor Who bids farewell to its 50th anniversary year. Read my reflection on Who's golden birthday here!