It might be the most widely recognizable phrase in the Sherlock Holmes canon, barring that business about “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” (which Holmes did say), and “Elementary, my dear Watson” (which he didn’t say). The statement is so loaded with the pungent Victorian scent of melodrama and succinctly rendered spookiness that when reading it—somewhere between the ages of around twelve and twenty, as is often the case—one sees the usefulness in fainting couches.
“Mr. Holmes,” Dr. Mortimer asserts, “they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”
If this final sentence of chapter two of The Hound of the Baskervilles frightens you upon reading it, fantastic. If a faint shiver or a surge of curiosity instead takes place, well and good. The fact remains that the statement has become legendary as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. Dr. Mortimer has never seen the devil hound, which is the stuff of local legend and is said to have “tore the throat out of” Hugo Baskerville, and frightened Sir Charles Baskerville to death.
But he has seen footprints. What made them, and how, and to what extent can he trust the evidence of his own eyes?
Be also warned: Your eyes will see SPOILERS about this episode if you continue!
Let it be said that the appearance of the hound itself, when filmed, is always a disappointment. There are no exceptions. Special effects fail to conjure the fright our imaginations provided us when we knew not whether a flesh and blood helldog existed. To a modern audience fed a steady diet of horror films, in which blood is always sold at happy hour prices, and ghosts and aliens and serial killers can rip the meat off hapless humans as if gnawing a turkey leg at a Renaissance fair, what is there to fear in a glowing dog? Even a really quite reasonably large glowing dog, with teeth and things. It is disappointing in the Rathbone version, and the Cushing, and the Roxburgh, and the Brett. It’s disappointing because we’re told it’s the payoff, and it isn’t. The fear of the unknown is the payoff. The dog is Christmas morning when the sugar headache has set in.
That being said, does BBC Sherlock’s “The Hounds of Baskerville” succeed where others fail?
Obviously, explaining the dramatic conclusion would be a spoiler so egregious I’d expect long arms to shoot from my laptop and drag me screaming into internet purgatory. But I will say this: we are given the phrase (delivered by Russell Tovey in an emotional turn as the traumatized Henry Knight), “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” not once, but twice, as Sherlock listens—enraptured, tense with the thrill of the phrase.
So, yes, I’d say the people over at BBC Sherlock get it. Screenwriter Mark Gatiss understands that what is unseen is inevitably more frightening than what is visible. And thus his lead actors are given the opportunity to display a remarkable spectrum of terror, even given that neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock nor Martin Freeman’s John are susceptible to that particular sensation.
We begin at Baker Street, Sherlock bathed in pig’s blood and wielding a harpoon (for those inclined to suggest we are already shark-hopping, please see the opening scene of “The Adventure of Black Peter”). Cumberbatch’s opening salvo is frenetically off-balance—he is desperate for work, for cigarettes, and for something “seven percent stronger” than tea, which substance we can readily infer. Nothing of the wonderfully intent stillness of season one’s Sherlock is visible here; he is petulant and furious and one begins to seek out tooth marks in the wallpaper. But it’s a necessary moment—living with a brooding genius is one thing, but living with a recovering addict is something else, and there is a reason, we think, why John stays—there must be. Enter Henry Knight, who believes his father was torn to pieces by a monstrous hound upon the moors and is falling to pieces over it.
Sherlock and John don’t understand his distress. But they will.
The fiendishly clever modern updates evident in the rest of the series are no less well imagined here—“Baskerville” is a nearby military base, and one Sherlock loses no time over invading to get to the bottom of the mutant canine rumours, which have revitalized Dartmoor tourism. In order to get inside, Sherlock—predictably—has pinched Mycroft’s ID badge, which allows us a delicious glimpse of the inside of the Diogenes Club when Mycroft is apprised of his sibling’s shenanigans. John—less predictably—pulls rank as Captain of the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers in a moment designed to make every Dr. Watson fangirl’s ovaries stand up and sing Mariah Carey’s “Emotions.” The Doctor and the Detective are now a team, and an effortless one—that is, until the hound’s presence begins to make itself felt.
I can’t help but mention that there are ways in which the Sherlock of this admirable series is nothing like Doyle’s creation, but this happens with all adaptations. Sherlock as conceived by Moffat and Gatiss is crueler than his canonical counterpart. Not that Stamford doesn’t assure us in A Study in Scarlet that Holmes is unnaturally cold-blooded, but the consulting detective who Watson claimed could soothe distressed clients with hypnotic calming powers here can’t even be arsed to try. The Holmes of the canon is a gentleman who buries his emotions beneath the great hulking mass of his brain. The Sherlock of “Hounds of Baskerville” is a savant who thinks of emotions the way most of us would think of rabid ferrets attacking our faces and necks, and this episode explores the crippling effect feelings have on him in vivid detail.
Two crucial scenes explore the dynamic of terror as applied to habitually fearless men—in a fireside sequence in Sherlock’s case, and a laboratory nightmare in John’s. Sherlock, who has relied so wholly upon his logical faculty as to stunt the rest of him excepting height, has seen the hound and cannot cope with what he perceives as a failure of intellect. John, who has stared death in the maw as a soldier and lived to tell the tale, has seen the hound and is horrified at his own courage failing him. Both scenes are phenomenally well acted. Cumberbatch summons all of Sherlock’s calming tics—the steepled fingers, the closed eyes, the oh so practiced nonchalance—to convince himself he’s sane. None of it works. Freeman, every inch the proud veteran, muzzles himself with his own hand, so greatly does he abhor the sounds he might produce. But best of all, in neither scene does Gatiss show us the hound—its monstrosity is inferred from Sherlock and John’s distress, and thus enormously amplified.
There are occasional showy quirks in the episode’s production design I found rather baffling. The white letters, once a province of Sherlock’s head exclusively and an elegant special effect, are seemingly thrown in here wherever there’s a decent excuse. John sees Morse code typed out before him and CCTV cameras impart real time information to the viewer—before we know it, Lestrade will be glaring daggers at Sherlock and the word C-O-C-K will magically appear in the air between them. This overkill is especially true when Sherlock deems it necessary to enter his “mind palace.” The concept of a spatially oriented memory aid is deeply in character, but the special effects team forgot they weren’t filming Minority Report and Sherlock forgot he wasn’t Martha Graham.
But the virtues of the episode far outweigh the hiccoughs. We are treated to a scene in which Sherlock uses a bet to extract information from a habitual gambler lifted straight from “The Blue Carbuncle.” We are given Dartmoor in all its bleak glory and a moving, nuanced performance by Russell Tovey in the role of Sherlock’s agonized client. Stapleton is here, and Franklin, and Barrymore—not as we expect them, but as they work in the context of a military complex that is never inspected and keen to keep it that way. And above all, we have Sherlock, and John, Sherlock’s only friend. “Oh, please,” John laments in the wake of a display of brilliance, “can we not do this, this time? You being all mysterious with your…cheekbones, and turning your coat collar up so you look cool?”
That the friendship is now solidified is crucial; we know what is coming when we hear the title “The Reichenbach Fall.” In a brilliant moment that lasts all of ten seconds, we see Jim Moriarty in “The Hounds of Baskerville,” and are given to understand what truly frightens Sherlock Holmes. I predict this Sunday’s episode will exceed all others for ratings, and deservedly so. Moriarty will test Sherlock’s mettle far beyond the trial of a spectral dog.
For in BBC’s Sherlock, as was the case in Doyle’s works, only men are truly frightening. Monsters exist, but within us—the spectre of the supernatural is but a wisp of fog compared to the vile acts human being inflict on one another. Following The Woman and The Hound, Sherlock is prepared for battle—nothing remains save for us to watch him dance.
Here’s, too, the first episode of Sherlock Season 2 “A Scandal in Belgravia” or check our Sherlockiana page for all things you-know-who, including the three episodes of Season 1.