I think most sources agree that series one and two were excellent - Blind Banker aside. Importantly, however, each episode of those first two series had our duo solving a mystery with only the looming spectre of Moriarty providing a constant across the six episodes.
So far, so good.
Then along came series three. This saw the resurrection of Sherlock, the introduction of Mary, and an increased focus on the characters and their back-stories at the expense of the mysteries. This is where, in the eyes of many critics, the series started to lose its way and a schism in the opinion of the fans began to emerge.
Arthur Conan Doyle's success with the original written stories was down to the fact that each of them was self-contained. There was no real need to read them in order and the focus was always on the mystery. The lives of the main characters, away from their adventures, was little more than hinted at with the occasional, usually Watson-focused, domestic scene - the beginning of The Man with the Twisted Lip being a classic example.
As stated, the critical success of the show appeared to decline as soon as Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss drifted from the Doylean formula and focused on the back stories of the characters at the expense of the mysteries to be solved. In series three The Sign of Three was the apex of this shift in emphasis with the mystery being a only modest part of events.
The final episode of the series, an adaptation of Charles Augustus Milverton, saw more of a focus on the mystery/villain and was, in my opinion, the outstanding episode of the series yet not enough to rescue the series from its more savage critics.
The special episode - The Abominable Bride - promised much. We were assured it would be a stand-alone Victorian episode (which many old school fans really wanted) but we should have known better. While the Victorian set elements were fun what we were essentially given was a long drug induced mind-palace excursion by Sherlock that did not overtly advance matters in the overall arc at all. I maintain you could watch series one to four, missing out the special, and not lose out.
Series four, episode one was akin to The Sign of Three in that the mystery of the busts only really existed as a supporting player to the main event which was centred around Mary and her life before John Watson. In episode two - The Lying Detective - we had a stronger story of the calibre of series three's conclusion but even it was designed to advance Mary's story. The concluding episode was all about Sherlock, and how he became the cold logician, with sadistic challenges taking the place of mysteries.
Series four was, ultimately, all about Mary (and Sherlock's back-story) which made her posthumous monologue all the more curious when she stated, in the final episode, that it was all about the duo, the legend and the adventures. This could be said to have been the mission statement for series one and two but not for three and four.
Steven Moffat has said that if there is a fifth series it will return to mystery solving. I really hope it does and I want the series to do well both critically and commercially. Despite all my comments above, I have enjoyed all of Sherlock but I want to get back to the problems and away from the back-story. I get that the writers are entitled to explore the subject how they wish and that some viewers today really love back stories for their heroes but, at the end of the day, Conan Doyle new the formula best and, given Mary Watson's remarks to her "Baker Street Boys" Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss clearly know it too.
Written by Alistair Duncan Buy my books here