Friday, January 3, 2014

Sherlock Is Tong Tied



SHERLOCK: THE BLIND BANKER

After some time I have decided to watch as many Sherlock episodes as time will allow before Season Three of the cult show premieres.  I think I am right in calling Sherlock a 'cult show', not because it is obscure.  Far from it: Sherlock is WILDLY popular.  Sherlock is a cult show because its fans, Sherlockians, are so fanatical as to be unhinged.  The CBS Sherlock Holmes-centered series Elementary is seen by the Sherlockians to be downright Satanic (I'm honestly surprised the Sherlockians haven't gotten together in some Comic-Con and made voodoo dolls out of Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller, let alone Elementary creator Robert Doherty, who in their minds cannot touch the shadow of  'genius' Steven Moffat). 

That Sherlock fans and Elementary fans are engaging in some sort of online nerd war doesn't bother me all that much.  Sherlockians thinking that Benedict Cumberbatch is THE Sherlock Holmes, the ONLY Sherlock Holmes (and their fierce dismissal of Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett as being somehow inferior to Benny) DOES bother me tremendously, so much so that it's the fanbase itself rather than the show that has made me highly reluctant to watch Sherlock

People who insist Sherlock is somehow the Citizen Kane of all Sherlock Holmes adaptations: past, present, and future, and that there was no Sherlock Holmes prior to A Study in Pink and there will be no Sherlock Holmes after Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman's John Watson (or as I lovingly call them, Benny & Marty) end their run should be publicly horsewhipped.

Nevertheless, it is unfair to dismiss a whole program because a group of devotees make Al-Qaeda look like the Rotary Club.  I am letting my disdain for these nutters get in the way of what could be and what I am told by rational people (those who don't dream of when the TARDIS will land in front of 221 B Baker Street) is a good show.  With that, I return to the second episode of Sherlock's first season.  The Blind Banker has good ideas within it, but somehow I am surprised at how dumb Sherlock Holmes is in it.  I'm not saying that Sherlock Holmes is stupid.  I am saying that at least twice I figured things out faster than HE did, and from I know of The Great Detective that isn't suppose to happen. 

Holmes is asked to inquire on a case by a former university classmate Sebastian Wilkes (Bertie Carvel) where someone broke into the former head's office and left odd graffiti on the walls and leaving a paint slash across the painting's eyes (hence, The Blind Banker).  While Holmes has no interest in taking payment, Watson (financially strapped) is more than willing to take the check in Holmes' name.  When Holmes works out that the symbols were a message of some kind for a particular employee, said employee, Edward Van Coon (Dan Percival) is found dead in his apartment. 

A suicide, both Watson and Detective Inspector Dimmock (Paul Chequer) hold.  Nonsense, says Holmes.  It was murder, painfully obvious too.  Van Coon was left handed, so he couldn't have shot himself from the right side.  Now, the question is, who killed him and why?  We then come across another strange death, that of journalist Brian Lukis (Howard Coggins) is also killed, and with a library book as a clue, we find similar strange writings in the library.

How are they connected?  Well, to coin a phrase, 'ancient Chinese secret'.

No Sino Bigotry Here

It takes a bit before a secondary story is tied into The Blind Banker, that of Soo Lin Yao (Gemma Chan), an expert on ancient Chinese tea sets.  Her co-worker Andy (Al Weaver) fancies our lovely Asian lass, but she kindly declines his offer of coffee (seriously, being Chinese he should have said tea).  It's not just because she may not like the likable Andy.  It's because she recognizes the markings.

Sherlock gets advise from his 'art expert' (a graffiti artist) and eventually connections are made.  The two victims are connected by their constant travels to China and visits to a particular shop, where the markings are discovered to be Hang Zhou numerals, which can also be translated to particular symbols.  Holmes finds a connection to antiquities smuggling and the Tong of The Black Lotus, and its nefarious head, General Zhi Zhu (sadly, not the Brazilian children's television host Xuxa).  Holmes also finds Soo Lin is in danger, but despite this a figure still manages to care for ancient Chinese teapots.

Eventually, this story is tied into Watson's love life.  Watson, in need of cash and some stability, begins working in a clinic, but these late nights investigating force him to nap at the office.  The office manager Sarah (Zoe Telford) steps in, and the good doctor and good manager fancy each other, so Sarah agrees to go on a date with John.  This peeves Holmes only in that it interrupts their work, but fortunately, Holmes has found a brilliant way to mix everything: he suggests Watson take Sarah to a Chinese circus, where John discovers that the reservations are for three, under the name Holmes.

The Blind Banker wraps with Sarah and Watson (who through a series of misunderstandings, been confused for Sherlock Holmes) taken by General Xuxa...I mean, Zhi Zhu, and the object of the murders, an ancient Chinese Hairpin, eventually recovered from the unwitting owner, one of the two victim's mistress.  Our Dragon Lady, having failed in her mission, is bumped off on orders by a mysterious "M".

Jealous?  Whatever gave you that idea?

I am trying to not let the fact that Steve Thompson, The Blind Banker's screenwriter, has written two of my Eleven Worst Doctor Who stories so far (Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS and The Curse of the Black Spot at Numbers 9 and 3 respectively)* influence what I think of The Blind Banker.  I, however, did find things that I found odd and distasteful, but I'll get to those in a moment.  For now, let's focus on the positive. 

The interplay between the two main leads and Telford's Sarah is sparkling.  Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch make these two figures appear genuine and more importantly, friends, if not ones that would really express it as such.  Holmes doesn't leave Watson out of things as much (Holmes' attack in Soo Ling's flat an exception).  Even in this we see that connection between these two is one that can be at times frustrating.  Freeman's angry rebuke of Holmes while the latter is being strangled isn't as funny as the screenplay thinks it is, but it does show Freeman's Watson to be someone who can stand up to Sherlock.

Similarly, the relationship between John and Sarah is pleasant, almost endearing.  Even the normally remote Sherlock Holmes is allowed a moment of unwitting levity.  When Watson tells Holmes he has plans and thus cannot help him that night, Holmes is confused.  A date?  In a somewhat sarcastic manner John explains to Sherlock what a date is.

"Where two people who like each other go out and have fun."

An incredulous, almost hurt Holmes replies, "That's what I was suggesting," to which Watson says, "No it wasn't.  At least, I hope not."

In this little exchange, we see that the relationship between Holmes and Watson has developed to where Holmes admits that he likes Watson (and given how remote Holmes can be, haughty with everyone, this is a subtle and extraordinary admission). 

I also enjoyed how Thompson managed to tie in a series of random events into a logical conclusion that the tong reached that Watson is Holmes.  It is almost as if the tong were using the same methods Holmes would have used only to arrive at a totally erroneous conclusion.  I was even pleased by Freeman's comic foil, him constantly getting in odd situations due to Sherlock's behavior.


I'm prettier than Brett or Rathbone... 

However, sometimes I think there was simply too much effort to make Martin Freeman into someone closer to a Nigel Bruce, the bumbling dimwit who isn't quite there.  Freeman's Watson isn't nearly as dim as Bruce's Watson, but the opening where Watson ends up arguing with a check-out machine is a bit cringe-inducing, especially when it is intercut with Holmes fighting off an assassin simultaneously only for Watson to arrive at 221 B unaware of what had been going on (the puns weren't helpful in that aspect either).  Later on, when Watson is being tortured, there is a mention of the Empress Hairpin, but when Holmes brings up this Empress Hairpin, Watson behaves as if he's never heard of it.  This is highly odd given that General Zhi Zhu had mentioned it a few hours earlier. 

One thing that I really did not care for in The Blind Banker was in how I figured things out faster than Sherlock Holmes.  Granted, I had more information (the subplot of Soo Lin) but even when watching the scene at Van Coon's flat I thought the only logical explanation was not as Detective Inspector Dimmock put it, Spider-Man commit the crime, but that it had to be someone quite agile who could climb.  When we got the connection to the Black Lotus Tong, I thought the only way they could travel incognito was via a Chinese Circus (which would give them an agile acrobat). 

Why Holmes didn't come that conclusion sooner surprises me.

Also, if Soo Lin was in such danger, why would a.) Holmes and Watson leave her unguarded, and b.) not bother to take any weapons to which to protect themselves?  How did no one notes the graffiti on the sculpture in the Antiquities Museum? 


For my next trick,
I'll make Tibet disappear.
Even that was not as appalling as the 'yellow menace' The Blind Banker indulges in that went out with Fu Manchu.  We see only two types of Asian women: the victim who was forced into prostitution (Soo Lin) and the Dragon Lady (Zhi Zhu).  Even the tong's name, Black Lotus, smacks more of something out of a Charlie Chan movie than something from the 'progressive' Twenty-First Century.   Throwing in this idea that Soo Lin's brother was this acrobatic assassin made things to me even sillier.  I don't think the people involved with The Blind Banker are bigots, but one would have hoped that perhaps we could have seen Soo Lin be less victim and more victor. 

Still, in a rare turn it is Sarah who gives Sherlock a vital insight, and in another rare turn the lightness between Sarah and John made their budding relationship sparkle.  Even poor Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey), the morgue worker who fancies Sherlock, gets a moment of humor though with Sherlock still oblivious.  I did enjoy some of the humor (like Watson so knocked out he literally sleeps on the job), though some (Watson arguing with that check-out machine) didn't work. 

As a side note, Watson's hope that Sherlock wasn't suggestion a 'date' as Watson understood it is a bit bigoted on his side, not to mention it continues Sherlock's odd habit of wanting to suggest there is something more to Holmes and Watson other than work relations.  Despite Elementary having a female Watson, there is less sexual suggestion on that show than there is in Sherlock with its two male leads.  It's almost as if Sherlock wants to both elevate the idea of sex between Holmes and Watson and ridicule the idea of two men having sex at all simultaneously.  I sense a little homophobia in all this, but in the traditional sense of the definition of 'fear of homosexuals/homosexuality'.  Somehow, the idea that two men could enjoy each other's company and even be close without it either leading or suggesting anything sexual is unknown to Sherlock.

The Blind Banker was a bit of a letdown after the much better A Study in Pink, but not terrible.  There were good moments of humor, a plot that mostly held up, and a continued great teamwork between Cumberbatch and Freeman.  With one more episode before finishing Season One, I still find little in Sherlock to suggest I will become either a Sherlockian or a Cumberbitch. 

Always Two: A Master and an Apprentice.

* Sherlock's co-creator Steven Moffat has two stories on that list: The Snowmen and River's Secret Parts I & II (A Good Man Goes to War/Let's Kill Hitler) at Numbers 7 & 6, and Sherlock's other co-creator Mark Gatiss has one: Cold War at Number 5.  Gatiss, however, also has The Unquiet Dead, which I voted the Tenth Best Doctor Who Story reviewed so far. 

6/10

Next Sherlock Story: The Great Game

4 comments:

  1. While I do believe this Sherlock is superior to Elementary, I do not hate Elementary at all actually. I suppose I am not in the "Sherlockian cult" by your definition since I enjoy Jeremy Brett's excellent adaption of the character.
    Because it has been around three years since I watched the Blind Banker, I do remember it being a weak episode, but I can't comment on the actual plot.

    -James

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  2. I think Brett is the best Sherlock Holmes, topping Cumberbatch and Miller. I respect all the actors, but James, the Sherlock fanbase is what drives me crazy. They insist no one other than Benny can be Sherlock, and they either don't know or dismiss Brett or Rathbone or anyone prior to Cumberbatch. THAT, I cannot bear.

    I think I can like Sherlock more if we toned down the rabid fanbase. It's not like Moffat/Gatiss created Sherlock Holmes, but sometimes they behave as if they did. My views are based on talking to Sherlockians, and once I finish Sherlock and Elementary, prepare for the Ultimate Comparison!

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    Replies
    1. Brett is an excellent Sherlock, and even though Cumberbatch is my personal favorite, Brett is significantly underrated and easily my second favorite actor to play Sherlock.

      I do not believe I have encountered the type of Sherlock fan you describe. Most, if not all, of the Sherlock fans I know personally were fans of the original stories and Rathbone before watching Cumberbatch and he is their favorite.

      Your dislike of the fanbase is similar to the one I have with the "Nolanites" that believe anything and everything Nolan spits on is sacred and beyond perfection, so I can relate to that. It took me several years and about five rewatchings of The Dark Knight to actually like the movie because of the rabid fanbase.

      I look forward to your Elementary vs. Sherlock comparison! I have been working on something similar myself for quite some time now where I compare RDJ, Cumberbatch, Rathbone, Millier, and Brett's versions of the character.

      -James

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    2. If you hit the Sherlock Holmes tag you'll find other thoughts on other aspects of Holmes, like my thoughts on my Best Holmes and Watson Poll winners.

      If you ever go to London, I HIGHLY recommend going to 221 B Baker Street. I spent many happy hours (and pounds) there. This was before Sherlock premiered, so it was dominated by Rathbone and Brett (I don't remember Downey, Jr. featured). Maybe now there's room for Benny and Jonny.

      As for the fans, it's bad when fans push others away. I LOVE Sherlock Holmes, and contrary to any impression I might have left I like Sherlock. The show's good, but some fans. I also understand the Nolanites...when I made a crack about the Joker some went off on me.

      Ah, we just try to enjoy something and hopefully not let the crazies get in the way.

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