Spoilers disclaimer: This review does not contain major spoilers, but contains all the information as can be deduced from the Series 3 Launch Trailer (which, incidentally, is only a trailer for Episode 1).
Yes, that’s the most used word of late 2013 to describe Sherlock‘s third series, starting with The Empty Hearse after a long, hard, two-year absence. The Empty Hearse very much rides on the success of the previous two series, with viewing figures peaking in the second. But it’s obvious that, after the events of The Reichenbach Fall, Sherlock will never be the same again, with the new episode taking place the same two years after the previous series. It is actually named after The Adventure of the Empty House by Conan Doyle, which, despite Sherlock’s return, has little in common with The Empty Hearse. This story, for instance, sees an introduction to John’s girlfriend, Mary Morstan, where The Adventure of the Empty House bids her goodbye.
As with all episodes of Sherlock so far, though, the original material is honoured while key details are changed. The Empty Hearse is actually based on at least nine official Sherlock Holmes stories, with allusions to The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, The Adventure of the Norwood Builder, The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter, The Man With the Twisted Lip, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, The Adventure of the Gloria Scott, The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire, The Adventure of the Reigate Squire, and the novel The Sign of the Four.
But The Empty Hearse‘s charm does not owe to these stories, but to Mark Gatiss’ modern interpretation of the sleuth’s adventures. The humour in episode is perhaps more prevalent than the previous episodes we’ve seen so far, as if fired through a writer’s machine gun rather than a writer’s shotgun. Still scattered, but less uniform.
The episode features humour left, right and center, sometimes becoming too dry and getting in the way of the story. But from the very beginning to the very end, the humour, while somewhat misguided, is still in pure Sherlock spirit.
Much of the story is dedicated to Sherlock and John getting used to the idea that the former isn’t dead. But, as with the recent Doctor Who Christmas special, The Empty Hearse isn’t self-supporting, relying too much on previous series. I suppose that was the danger of leaving the series on such a strong, complex cliffhanger.
In fact, let’s talk cliffhangers. The cliffhanger of Series 1 featured Sherlock aiming a gun at the bomb Moriarty had planted on John, threatening to blow the three up. This was easily fixed with a jocular quip about “Stayin’ Alive”. Series 2’s cliffhanger, on the other hand, was too heavily set up by the episode to pave the way for an easy resolve. Gatiss was stuck, and what eventuates won’t please everyone. The question on everybody’s lips is answered, quite rightly at the end of the episode, but quite wrongly half-way through the climax – literally – inserted in with no apparent care for timing.
There are actually two climaxes – one about three fifths through the episode, and one at the end. The first is scary. Boy, is it scary. The resolve is good and brings together the threads from the episode that built to a crescendo after the slow, drawn-out and even boring first third. This scene, which, unlike the climaxes of all three episodes of Series 2, doesn’t feature any special effects.
Despite this, the special effects themselves are grand. One scene in particular stands out, featuring a collage of trains similar to the “mind palace” special effect we saw in The Hounds of Baskerville in Series 2. What separates this from much of the first two series, though, is that the montages are breathtaking. The opening scene in particular is gold. We are graced with an entire suite of new music that matches the montages as if it were composed specifically for each one.
To suit this is the acting, which is nearly on top form, although the script doesn’t allow the leads, particularly Cumberbach and Gatiss, to shine (strangely enough, considering Gatiss penned the piece). In particular, there was a disappointingly juvenile performance by Jonathan Aris, returning to play Anderson from Series 1 and 2, and the denouement was especially disappointing in this respect.
In the new episode of Sherlock‘s Series 3, there is more than enough for the fans. It’s clear that The Empty Hearse won’t be an instant classic like The Hounds of Baskerville was. Some may be disappointed with the much anticipated big reveal, and some won’t help but feel a little cheated. But if I’ve learned anything from The Emtpy Hearse, it’s this:
You just can’t expect miracles.