H.O.U.N.D

For once I’d like to be able to start the year and say writing on television is better than it used to be. Less lazy, less predictable, better structured. This hasn’t happened. I was impressed with the first episode of Sherlock, the insane high-concept plotting, the characterisation – all of it came together brilliantly. So, I was quite excited about the idea of the same team putting out a modernised Hound of the Baskervilles, now retitled, Hounds of Baskerville. How disappointed I was to discover that it had all fallen apart in the ending.

For the purposes of explaining what didn’t work in this episode, I will be spoiling quite a few things. So that’s a warning to all those who haven’t yet seen the episode. I will also be referring to Raymond Chandler’s brilliant rules of a mystery story. We are playing with the writing of a detective story so it stands to reason that it should stand up with the best.

The plot as it stands. A young boy witnesses his father’s murder and twenty years later returns to the spot. He believes a giant hound killed his father and has now returned to kill him. All he remembers is two words, ‘Liberty, In’ The local town have made a living from this myth over the years and Sherlock and Watson show up to solve the case. Fair enough, nice interest premise. Things start to get complicated for the writers when they introduce footprints in the forest. Sherlock and the man go to the spot his father was killed and both see a hound, Watson hears one instead. They investigate the local army base and discover animal experiments. They meet a scientist who offers them his cell number for further information. It doesn’t sound so bad right now, and it’s not. There are a few moments of brilliance and the characterisation is spot on. However it all falls apart in the final reel.

In the end, character’s are at a loose end. They know that the hounds are a result of a shared hallucination brought on by poison. They don’t know how or why. They break back into the lab and Sherlock thinks for a few minutes. Then he suddenly remembers that somewhere in Liberty, Indiana there was a science experiment codenamed H.O.U.N.D. That’s your big mystery solution. SHERLOCK THINKS FOR A FEW MINUTES. I say this with all honesty, suddenly remembering something that we as an audience have no prior knowledge of at all, is not smart writing. It is the equivelent of ‘it was all a dream’ endings.

I refer to Chandler, “The solution must seem inevitable once revealed. This is the least often emphasized element of a good mystery, but it is one of the important elements of all fiction. It is not enough merely to fool or elude or sidestep the reader; you must make him feel that he ought not to have been fooled and that the fooling was honorable.”

Lest we mention the fact that there was a dog, or dogs (never really explained how many, what dog, why or where it came from) loose in the woods and a completely bizarre scene in which Moriarty is released from prison at the end (with no knowledge of him being incarcerated in the first place).

Overall, badly thought out, and poorly constructed. Let’s hope the finale picks the quality back up to the standards of the first episode.

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7 thoughts on “H.O.U.N.D

  1. I’m going to wade in here and disagree somewhat. I agree, the first episode was better than the Baskerville one, but i still enjoyed the latter immensely and these plot points didn’t really bother me so much. I’ve had to stop and think why though, because your arguement is convincing.

    On Sherlock remembering; I think Gatiss is trying to be as true to the original Sherlock as much as possible. Truth is, Conan Doyle’s detective often worked things out in a similar manner – he has a vast store of knowledge in his head that he often steals away in a haze of opium or fiddle-playing to explore around in. Lots of CD’s mysteries are solved by Sherlock identifying some exotic tobacco that simply no-one else would have known or cared about – this was a major part of his appeal back in those days I believe. Ok, maybe here, in terms of modern plotting, we need more to go on and it does feel a bit cheating if the main character knows more than we do. I just think maybe Sherlock is the only possible exception to that, if there is one, and I find myself more forgiving for it. Its the same really as Dr Who remembering why such-and-such an alien behaves in such-and-such a way which will help him defeat/rescue said species.

    I thought the dog was the one owned by the people in the pub who are playing on the myth? I thought that was actually quite a clever plot detail. They said they’d put it to sleep, but they hadn’t and they still let it out to roam the moors and perpetuate the local legend. And the last Moriarty scene will have been tagged on by that great doyen of story-arcs Mr Moffatt, determined to keep the arc going. The next ep is the ‘Riechenbach Falls’ which is a famous Moriarty vs Sherlock story and most probably intended as a major climax. Moffatt had to find a way of shoehorning Moriarty into each episode I suppose.

    Like with its predecessor Dr. Who, I find myself forgiving plot details like this, because all of crime fiction is similiarly constructed in ridiculous, outlandish and fanciful ways, with no recourse to reality. I just like to revel in the clever dialogue and inter-references to the larger myth, which I think Gatiss really excels at. Fair criticisms though Dan. Perhaps Gatiss is trying too hard to maintain some outdated elements of story telling, and it all comes down to whether you want modern storytelling, or nostalgic myth reflection?

    • “I thought the dog was the one owned by the people in the pub who are playing on the myth? I thought that was actually quite a clever plot detail. They said they’d put it to sleep, but they hadn’t and they still let it out to roam the moors and perpetuate the local legend.”

      I agree with Dave about the dog being owned by the pubkeepers.

      As far as Moriarty, I thought it wasn’t a real prison, but rather some private security holding facility– perhaps after the failure of The Woman’s plots, one of her contacts found their way back to Moriarty? It’s not explicable with the facts we have at hand, so you’re right, it’s bad writing.

      The bit that annoyed me about the “Sherlock thinking” scene was all his silly hand movements, as though his mind is a touchscreen.

      The big point I didn’t understand was this: if the dog was their hallucination, how did the tourguide have a real, physical cast of a *huge* paw print? That dog was a normal-sized, if slightly large dog.

  2. Well, I’ll wade in shall I…

    I disagree with both of you. Not about this episode, because I didn’t watch it, but about the first episode being any good. I thought it was awful.

    I enjoyed the first series, except for the China/museum/circus episode, but had to give up halfway through the opening episode of this one due to an anger rising through me and threatening to make me do something outlandish like raise my voice and say ‘oh for goodness sake!’ at the television.

    Actually I did say ‘oh for goodness sake!’ at the television. Quite a lot. I said it at the sultry looks being thrown about like confetti, at the soundtrack turned up to eleven, at the decision to change the set-up of the programme from wacky-man-in-normal-world to wacky-wacky-world-of-wackiness, at the laughable need for nudity every five minutes.. all these annoyed me, but what really got my goat was the way Sherlock’s intelligence is portrayed. For example:

    I see a dog hair on your leg. You own a dog. I see two dog hairs. You own two dogs. I see three dog hairs. You have three dogs. The queen owns three dogs. You work for the queen.

    What?

    And that whole boomerang story. Is that taken from the original Conan Doyle? Is it as moronic in the original? A five year old could list thirty reasons why the set up, and its solution, is spectacularly fanciful.

    And that is my main problem with the structure of Sherlock. Holmes doesn’t work out anything except how to move to the next scene. He less a detective than a plot device. As Dan points out, his solutions don’t come from anywhere except a need to wrap up a story neatly. It is lazy writing that asks the viewer to observe only: any gesture of participation, any thought during the viewing, causes the whole house of cards to collapse.

  3. I completely agree with a lot of these comments. The dog thing was unclear because I was under the impression that they shot a dog, we saw a body didn’t we? Or was that a hallucinated dog? Then they shot at another one? And then we hear that the dog was possibly still alive at the end? How many hallucinated dogs were there versus real ones?

    Nija, you are spot on with that touchscreen nonsense, it was like Minority Report.

    I would also like to emphasise how stupid the creators seem to think their viewers are. At the end when we see the prison cell with Sherlock scrawled across the walls, did we really need text ONSCREEN telling us what it said? Unlikely.

    I worked out the poisoned aspect of the story fairly early on in the episode, and that made me quite happy. I like to work things out, I like to feel as smart as the detective. My favourite part of mysteries is thinking I’ve got everything worked out, and actually being right. There’s a satisfaction. Throwing stuff we couldn’t possibly know into the mix takes away from all of that and makes the audience feel stupid.

    • Correction! Makes the audience feel that the writers *think* we’re stupid. And that’s worse than just feeling stupid, IMHO.

      Ben– never saw the first series, so I can’t compare. But the first episode at least had very interesting and fun mindgames.

  4. On the dog: he goes over to the pubkeeper to tell it its now dead. There was only one dog, they said they’d killed it but that was a lie. The devilish aspect of the hound was part of the hallucination – it was a normal, if big, dog (although it was clearly a staffy which aren’t big. they could’ve got a rottweiler which can be huge – although, yes not big enough to create that footprint perhaps).

    I think Gatiss and Moffatt et al are contending with the tricky process of modernising Sherlock. Perhaps Ben is right – perhaps Holmes has never been a good story device as he knows far too much and does not allow the reader to figure it out themselves. Perhaps Poirot and Marple are better in that respect. However, there is no denying that Sherlock became an British mythological emblem and some aspect of his character and scenario appeals somehow, somewhere. I think the problem is that Conan Doyle’s stories are better thought of as Adventure tales rather than Crime ‘here’s a mysterious set up, work it out’ Fiction a la Agatha Christie. It seems his audience took greater delight out of the man himself rather than out of his peculiar adventures.

    And in this interpretation, that’s what seems to be getting mixed up: Gatiss trying to shoehorn a mystery narrative onto adventure tales and coming out the other side with a frustrating mix of the two. If you take Jonathan Creek for example, the set-up and mystery are the most important things and you can have a go at figuring them out for yourself, given the clues. Sherlock has never really been about that – I think you are supposed to succumb to the man himself and let him take you into his strange, brilliant head. Its an exercise in character not plot. And there’s Gatiss’ problem; this kind of fictioneering is totally plot driven these days and plot is what people expect. Dr Who suffered the same criticisms.

    Nevertheless, I like the modernisation techniques – the touchscreen stuff made me really smile. it was just an abstract and fanciful way of showing his ‘mind exploration’ and i thought it was a lot of fun. This sort of detail, plus all the text appearing on screen and the zooming in onto suspects etc, is just the playful interpretation of the myth and its enjoyable enough to keep returning, however fanciful the stories.

    But yes that Boomerang thing was shit. There are better mysteries than that out there. That was a shame come to think of it. The police would have found a boomerang. I would have found a boomerang. Meh

  5. Hi folks, sorry for the delay (had to actually watch the episodes first).

    Dan: you’re absolutely right, having a character remember withheld information os a poor plot device at the best of times, one of the things that makes it work or not work though is the panache with which it’s done. Gattis makes a full scene of Sherlock sitting down and consciously trying to think of something which is vastly more satisfying than “Hold on, I’ve just remembered…” (also I find it a little more satisfying than last series’ ‘hold on, I’ll just google that on my phone’)

    I find it a problem with crime fiction as a genre that there either has to be nformation withheld or insufficient information available for the audience to figure everythign out otherwise the detective looks stupid as you’re sitting there shouting “it was the sodding buttler! Get on with it!”

    The other thing I would say in it’s defence is that this series (and indeed the predecessor) is quite a faithful modernisation and pays far more attention to the original works than anything with Robert Downey in, but also does (in my view) quite a good job of letting go of things that don’t work.

    On the negative side, what really bothered me was the conclusion of “of course, we must be being gassed by secret psycho-chemical land mines acitvated by pressure switches” Sorry, but only the most paranoid of conspiracy nuts would come to that conclusion.

    Also, while the butt of many jokes, Holmes/Watson has the potential to be a touchingly romantic (albeit slightly platonic and rather one sided) relationship and it’s a shame to see the “Hee hee, somepeople think they’re gay” joke rolled out quite so often as it is. Some people are gay, get over it, some people spend a lot of time together without necessarily having sex, get over it!

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