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Review #3211: Sherlock 2.2: “The Hounds of Baskerville”

Posted on the 10 January 2012 by Entil2001 @criticalmyth

Contributor: Gregg Wright

Some of my favorite Holmes stories are the ones that resemble an episode of “Scooby Doo”. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is one such story (“The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” and “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” are two others). There’s never any doubt that the solution to the mystery will be entirely natural, rather than supernatural (at least in Doyle’s stories), but the supernatural overtones serve to make the mystery much more interesting. And it is fun to wonder, at least for a while, if Holmes might really be up against something truly supernatural this time.

Review #3211: Sherlock 2.2: “The Hounds of Baskerville”

I do prefer, though, that Sherlock Holmes stories never involve anything truly supernatural, as interesting as that might sound on the surface. Much of the appeal of Holmes (for me anyway) is in knowing that he exists in a rational universe of natural laws in which reason always prevails over superstition. If Holmes existed in a universe where the supernatural was quite real, I think that it would dramatically lessen Holmes’ importance in that universe. The thing that makes Holmes Holmes would be completely useless when faced with actual supernatural forces, and I don’t find that idea very appealing.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” may very well be the most famous of Doyle’s Holmes stories, and not without good reason. I went back and re-read the story, finishing just in time to watch the episode, and I’m glad I did. For one thing, the original story is a great read. The chilling atmosphere of foggy Dartmoor and the supernatural dread make it read like a tale of Victorian horror for much of its length. It’s still very much a proper Holmes story, of course, with the inevitable human antagonist pulling the strings.

Secondly, there’s quite a lot in this modern version of the story that can only be appreciated by someone who’s read the original version. In fact, it almost seems like the episode is primarily intended for the fans. It’s like it purposefully plays on our expectations, which isn’t surprising. I suspect that the average person in England is a lot more likely to have read the original story, or at least be familiar with it in some form, than the average person from over here in the United States. Regardless, it’s quite possible that I would have had a lower opinion of the episode if I hadn’t just re-read the original story. I won’t list off all the references and in-jokes here, but they are fairly numerous.

In the original story, Watson is sent on ahead to Dartmoor while Holmes seemingly stays behind (in reality, secretly following along to observe), so Watson is left to do much of the investigating on his own. And in “The Hounds of Baskerville”, we’re led to believe that this will once again be the case, only to have our expectations immediately subverted. The usage of that iconic line: “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” is something else that is best appreciated by someone familiar with the original story. And there’s also the transformation of the Grimpen Mire into the Grimpen mine field (which serves a similar plot function in both versions). The list goes on.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Suffice to say, I was quite excited about seeing “Sherlock’s” take (or, rather, Mark Gatiss’ take) on the original story. At first glance, it’s a bit tough to imagine this story working in this show. The Victorian-era superstition and mysticism, along with the wonderfully ancient and spooky setting of Dartmoor, both factored heavily into the success of that story. Some of this was bound to be lost in a modern setting. And it was inevitable that the concept of the hound itself would be modified. But I was fairly confident that Mark Gatiss would do something interesting with the material.

What’s immediately obvious about “The Hounds of Baskerville” is how dramatically it deviates from the source material. Of course, much is still the same. It’s still set in Dartmoor. There still appears to be a demonic hound out there, terrorizing a man named Henry (surname changed from Baskerville to Knight), and there’s still a villain out there using fear as his weapon of choice. Thematically, it’s very much in the spirit of the original story. But superficially, it utilizes surprisingly little of the original story elements.

This may be for the best, as it does serve to set the episode apart from the original story and make it something that even those familiar with that story can enjoy. It’s not immediately obvious who the real culprit is, even knowing who it was in the original story. But having just read the original story once again and quite enjoyed it, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed at how little actual story content made it into this version. Most of the characters from the original story bear little to no resemblance to the characters bearing their names in this version. I was also somewhat disappointed about not getting to see Watson investigate on his own for a while.

So, initially, I didn’t really appreciate the episode as much as I should have. I spent too much time thinking about what could have been, rather than focusing on the actual merits of this version. Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I like the episode a bit more now, though I still think that there was room for improvement. One of the elements that I’ve warmed up to quite a bit is the episode’s handling of the hound. Modernizing the hound was probably the most difficult part of Gatiss’ writing job.

The hound was one of the more dated aspects of the original story, and I don’t necessarily mean that as a criticism. With a modern audience, not only do you have to take into account how differently people view the supernatural today than how they did then, you also have to take into account the audience foreknowledge of the story’s outcome from reading the original story. We know that the hound isn’t really some sort of demon, so with a remake of the story you’re really fighting an uphill battle. Gatiss managed to come up with a rather ingenious solution to this problem, however.

In the original story, the hound turned out to be just an unusually large and savage cross-breed between a bloodhound and a mastiff, with a special concoction of phosphorous painted onto the dog to give it an unearthly glow. So it’s natural for us to expect a modern equivalent in “The Hounds of Baskerville”. And Gatiss gives us exactly that. The Baskerville military research base (some of which looks suspiciously similar to the alien base in “Quatermass 2″) provides us with the possibility of genetically-modified monster dogs. A bit far-fetched for this show, but also a lot more believable than a demonic hound.

What’s really clever about what Gatiss did here is that his dog legend seems to serve a dual-role, both as the modern equivalent of the demon dog legend in the original story, and as the modern equivalent of the original story’s naturalistic explanation for the dog. So we’re left genuinely considering the possibility that this urban legend might actually be true. The existence of this secret base, the work they’re doing there, and the moment when Holmes seems to see the creature himself all make it difficult to ignore this possibility.

Of course, this is all just a red herring. As with the original story, the seemingly extraordinary is explained by something far more ordinary. Unfortunately, I did find the actual explanation to be a bit uninspired and uninteresting. “Fear gas” isn’t terribly original. And I suppose I’ve never been that fond of the “it’s all in your head” type of revelations. At least in the original story, there really was a hound that posed a significant threat to its victims. There was a dog in this version as well, but it’s not very well established as an actual threat. The madness and hallucinations brought on by the gas seem to be the primary threat. Part of me was actually a bit disappointed that that last appearance of the monstrous dog turned out to be just another hallucination.

Thankfully, this isn’t quite the weak middle chapter that “The Blind Banker” was for season 1, but it’s also a bit of a step down from the previous episode. It’s somewhere in between those two levels in a fairly nebulous area. I found it to be slightly disappointing after my first viewing, and I still think that there are some good, arguable reasons for this, but I also find myself appreciating the episode more, overall, now that I’ve had a chance to let it bounce around in my mind a bit. This was a difficult story to adapt, and I think Gatiss did an impressive job, even if not everything worked quite as well as I would have liked.

Rating: 8/10

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