Sherlock, Series 2: “The Hounds of the Baskerville”

A child running. Someone being attacked. A middle-aged lady with a spaniel and a young man in the middles of a misty bog. What could this all mean?

Using this classic horror set up and a bit of shaky cam, writer and series co-creator Mark Gatiss takes “Sherlock” into the horror movie territory in his “The Hounds of Baskerville.” As the title suggests, this episode is based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

The original story did appear to venture into the horror genre. In that Sherlock Holmes tale, there was a legend about a beast, a curse and a lecherous lord. Two centuries before the story’s time and place, a Hugo Baskerville kidnapped and imprisoned a young girl in his bed chamber. When she escaped, he rode after her, setting loose his hounds as he asked the dark lords of hell to help him catch her. Yet both Baskerville and the girl were found dead with a giant hound guarding over their bodies. The hound vanished. Now a descendant of Hugo, Sir Charles Baskerville, has been found dead on the Dartmoor bog. Dr. James Mortimer travels from Canada to claim his inheritance from his distant cousin, but fearing the curse Hugo set loose on the family, requests Sherlock Holmes’ aid.  Mortimer is warned by an anonymous note, but proceeds to Baskerville Hall.

While the supernatural is suspected, Sherlock proves that the problem they face is from a murderous man, hoping to inherit by way of killing off the other heirs.

Although set in Devon, the actual Baskerville Hall is located in Clyro Court near Hay-on-Wye, Powys, Wales. Yet the hall was relatively modern having been built in 1839 by Thomas Mynors Bakerville for his second wife, Elizabeth. The story was published in 1902.

Devon was the location where a Richard Cabell lived, hunted and gained a bad reputation. He was suspected of murdering his wife. Cabell died in 1677, but legend has it that upon his death a pack of hounds supposedly began to appear, baying at the moon and roaming the moor. The ghost of Cabell supposedly leads the hounds who wait for him near his tomb. Sherlock combined the Baskerville with the Devon legend to write his story.

In Gatiss’ “The Hounds of Baskerville,” the child has grown into the terrified young man, Henry Knight (Russell Tovey). Knight’s father had two decades ago been murdered with Knight as the only witness. After years of therapy, his current therapist is Louise Mortimer (Sasha Behar), Knight decided to return to the site where his father died only to again see the gigantic hound.

Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) has returned home just a few moments prior to Knight’s arrival at Baker Street with a harpoon and splattered with blood. Instead of a red herring, we have a bloody red Sherlock who complains that he had to ride the Tube (subway) in this condition because none of the cabbies would pick him up.

Sherlock is nervous and bored, suffering from both a nicotine fit and his impatience to be intellectually stimulated. Watson’s blog hasn’t offered anything more interesting than the disappearance of a glowing bunny named Bluebell.

“Nothing of importance…Oh, God. John, I need some. Get me some.”  he cries. He means we soon gather cigarettes and perhaps something a wee bit stronger (the 7 percent solution of opium).

“Sherlock, you’re doing really well,” Watson (Martin Freeman) calmly replies.  Gatiss explains Sherlock’s appearance by having Watson later comment, “You just solved one by harpooning a dead pig, this morning.”

Doesn’t that make you wonder? Never mind. That has nothing to do with the hellhound or Baskerville.  And Baskerville has been the topic of a TV news piece: Baskerville experiments…animals grown for the battlefield…are all of them still inside.” The reporter interviews our subject, Henry Knight, a Grimpen resident. There is a coal black beast with huge red eyes roaming the moors, a gigantic hound, according to Knight.

What intrigues Sherlock, something more interesting than bunnies that glow in the dark, is that Knight used the word hound instead of dog. In today’s England, one hardly differentiates between a hound and a terrier. Why hound? Why not glowing bunnies? Because the story is about the Baskerville.

Using Mycroft’s security card, Sherlock and Watson bluff their way into the Baskerville which is a cold white facility where biological and chemical warfare projects as well as more practical research on topics ranging from stem cell to common cold are performed. No dogs here, but a few rabbits and a screaming rhesus monkey. For the record, I’ve heard that beagles and not big, hulking black dogs are favored for lab research, but this is fiction.

In the lab, we meet a Dr. Stapleton (Amelia Bullmore) and she has some bearing on the case, but there is actually only one murder (Knight’s father) and the rest is more about attempting profit from the legend as well as a rogue scientist attempting to cover up past research.

Security is not so lax and eventually (23 minutes) Sherlock’s cover is revealed, but a Dr. Robert Frankland (Clive Mantle) aids the two by vouching for Sherlock although he later makes clear that he knows Sherlock from his blog and is aware he is not Mycroft. As a result of Sherlock’s impersonation of him, Mycroft sends Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) to keep an eye on his younger brother.

At night, Sherlock, Watson and Henry visit the hollow where his father died. The night is dark, but the bog has an eery green glow and the mist rise making things hard to discern. They hear growling sounds.  Sherlock and Henry see the hound, but Watson does not. Instead he sees flashing lights using the Morse code (UMQRA).

Sherlock is a young man (early twenties) and this is perhaps the first time he has felt fear. Yet he’s bothered that Watson, a veteran of real warfare in Afghanistan, neither saw the dog nor felt fearful. Watson shrugs this off, but Sherlock does not, saying “Once you’ve ruled out the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be true.”

Sherlock has practiced divorcing himself from feelings, and yet he was afraid. Sherlock’s solution is to use Watson as part of an experiment. In the original story, Watson was kept in the dark–Sherlock separately journeys to Dartmoor and remains incognito for some of the story. Yet in this BBC series, Sherlock pushes the boundaries of friendship in a way that might not be easily forgiven except that it makes for good storytelling, creating a visual red herring for the viewers.

If you haven’t been watching “Sherlock,” then Gatiss wants to make sure you know just how brilliant this young lad is. I’m not sure that those moments of explosiveness, where Sherlock shows off  how much he knows about a particular person in a burst of impatience, are really necessary. Beyond Sherlock’s assessment of Knight, the rest of the showboating  (e.g. Mrs. Hudson or the stranger at the cafe) is wasted time, except to show just why Sherlock has only one friend as if his lack of social graces weren’t enough.

And to truly think out a hard case, Sherlock requires isolation so that he might enter his “mind palace.” The visual realization to show how Sherlock enters and re-arranges his mental furniture compares Sherlock’s thinking process with how we use computers and iPads, sifting through screens, browsers and tabs that carry a wide assortment of information before creates an idea, a theory or thesis. I like how this series has adapted the usage of subtitles to illustrate modern technology as well as Sherlock’s thinking patterns. This creates a visual short hand–we don’t have to cut away to see what is on the cellphone or computer. The writers don’t need to introduce all of Sherlock’s deductions into the dialogue, except for those excessive, fast-paced bits of monologues. In the mind palace sequence, we see Sherlock thinking and immediately associate him with a man in a room where the walls are invisible computer screens.

Although the first few moments of this episode suggest we’re venturing into the horror genre, “The Hounds of Baskerville,” looks at more modern fears of science and conspiracy theories. Like the original story, it remains grounded in fact, science as opposed to science fiction. In this way, Gatiss is true to “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

References: “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” “The Adventure of Black Peter,” “The Sign of the Four,” “A Study in Scarlet,” and “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.”

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