Some slight spoilers ahead!
Like the introductory episode, The Blind Banker wove a number of Sherlockian references into its story. The cipher came from The Dancing Men, the Chinese pottery from The Illustrious Client, the university acquaintance client from The Musgrave Ritual, and the tattooed secret society from The Valley of Fear.
Unlike that introductory installment, however, this was an unholy mess.
Most of what interested me about A Study in Pink was absent. There, the updating was exciting, a playful yet recognizable adaptation of its Conan Doyle source material. Last night’s scattergun approach failed to hit its mark. While Steven Moffat’s love for the characters and their world had been very evident, Stephen Thompson’s script was just a lazy runaround featuring some blokes called ‘Sherlock’ and ‘John’.
Crucially, the cracking of the cipher was muddled and boring. In Conan Doyle’s The Dancing Men, a household is terrorized by the appearance of tiny chalked stick figures. Their child-like aspect increases their sinister effect and, as the story progresses, we follow Holmes’ deciphering of them. Here, the substitution of graffiti representing ancient Chinese numerals was less threatening and less involving. The deciphering process was obfuscated and the messages’ contents were banal. This series is in trouble if its adaptations are less dramatic than their source material.
Oh, and BBC? Don’t try to do ‘streetwise’ faux-Banksy characters. You just make us cringe.
All of the secondary characters were roughly sketched, there for exposition and little more. What happened to Soo Lin’s admiring co-worker, for instance? I kept wanting the episode to delve into the Chinese underworld a little further, to give us some sense of their place in the community. As it was, Chinatown was used simply as exotic backdrop, Orientalism at its worst.
There was some nice character business between Cumberbatch and Freeman, but nothing that built on what we’d seen last week. The series’ reluctance to explore the friendship’s dynamic in favour of superficial banter was disappointing. The introduction of Sarah (Zoe Telford) was equally unrealized, her roles as feisty female and damsel-in-distress seeming uncomfortably contrived.
Even taken as pulp adventure, this interminable episode simply didn’t thrill. I think this speaks to a problem with the series’ format. You can’t be sub-Messiah one week and sub-Indiana Jones the next. That just prevents the audience from understanding the limits and rationale behind this fictional world, a massive problem for an update of this kind.
Don’t even get me started on the ridiculous villains and cack-handed Sax Rohmer finale. If you want to see that kind of story told effectively, go and watch the Tom Baker Doctor Who serial The Talons of Weng-Chiang. The inclusion of Moriarty at the conclusion was unintentionally laughable, more Dr. Claw than Napoleon of Crime.
As you can tell, I was bitterly disappointed by The Blind Banker (a title that promised much that it failed to pay off). The high expectations set by A Study in Pink have been significantly lowered. Still, I do like Mark Gatiss as a writer, so let’s hope that next week’s The Great Game shows a firmer hand at the reins. Otherwise, we may see a potentially great Holmes and Watson undone by the most dangerous enemy of all. Lazy scriptwriters.