The game is on beginning Sunday night January 1 with “The Six Thatchers,” the premiere of Season 4 of worldwide phenom Sherlock on both BBC One in the UK and Masterpiece in the U.S. The anticipated return comes after last New Year’s one-off episode “The Abominable Bride,” and two years after the Season 3 finale “His Last Vow.” That episode closed as Benedict Cumberbatch’s high-functioning sociopath was exiled from Britain — for about four minutes — before being called back as a mysterious “Did you miss me?” message from arch-villain Moriarty appeared all over the UK.
Season 4 picks up following the events of that episode and delivers another 90 minutes packed with modern twists on Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-sporting detective, as well as sidekick Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman), Watson’s wife Mary (Amanda Abbington) and their new baby.
Cumberbatch, Freeman and Abbington joined creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (who also plays Sherlock’s brother Mycroft) for a recent screening of Episode 1 in London. At the post-screening Q&A, they discussed the series’ evolution and its future. One of the key themes to emerge was that Sherlock Holmes this year is “slightly less of a dick.”
When that quip popped out onstage, the cast joked it should be the tagline for the season, with the added notion that Watson also undergoes a bit of a personality tweak. Hence, “Dickless Holmes, More Of A Dick Watson,” suggested Moffat for a subtitle. To which Cumberbatch quickly retorted, “Not dick-less!”
As previously noted, the opening episode sees one mysterious case in particular baffling Scotland Yard — but Sherlock is more interested in a seemingly trivial detail. Why is someone destroying images of the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher? Is there a madman on the loose? Or is there a much darker purpose at work? Something with its roots deep in Mary Watson’s past? Along with the first, the two follow-up feature-length episodes promise “laughter, tears, shocks, surprises and extraordinary cases,” per the BBC and Masterpiece.
You will find no plot spoilers here. However, it’s fair to say Holmes is led to some soul-searching in the first episode which itself is leading into a season the creators allowed would grow darker through the three installments. “But not in an entirely unfunny way,” Gatiss chimed in. That echoed comments the group made at Comic-Con this summer when they agreed that this season will be the darkest thing the showrunners have ever written for the characters.
Sherlock, Cumberbatch said on the night of the screening in London, “is becoming, in a very clear way, responsible for his actions. But I think he understands that it’s a slow, slow process that began in the very first instance when he met John” and found the “needed missing part of the jigsaw that is him,” beginning a friendship that “has been a humanizing element all the way through.”
He’s “blindsided himself with his own humanity,” Cumberbatch added.
Rachel Talalay directed “Six Thatchers” after an “overwhelming” interview she said was held at Comic-Con. There’s a particularly intricate scene that takes place in an aquarium (evidently sharing invented “shark facts” was an on-set pastime). Gatiss praised Talalay, noting, “In a feature film that would take at least a week and they did it in a day.”
Another challenge? The bloodhound they hired to help the sleuths. Gatiss said, “I’ve had years of experience with animals, especially on League Of Gentlemen, and the people who tell you that they train animals are liars. We basically got there and it wouldn’t do a thing.” Cumberbatch added that they were told on the day, “The dog doesn’t like sidewalks, he doesn’t like people, or busy streets.” The pooch’s refusal to move was added into the script. Said Moffat, “Me and Mark wrote that on the street because he just sat there.”
Discussing how close they play to the original works, Gatiss said, “We are precisely as reverential to Sherlock Holmes as Arthur Conan Doyle was, which is not at all. He never understood til his dying day why people preferred it to all his serious work. But we understand and we embrace it fully. Sherlock always thrives best when people don’t treat it as a monument but have fun with it as an entertainment. The stories are meant to be lurid and strange and that’s why we love them.”
Moffat, who for six seasons showran Doctor Who, was asked how daunting is the pressure to come up with three Sherlock episodes every couple of years. “It’s not daunting at all. It’s bloody brilliant!,” he exclaimed. “Normally when you write shows, hardly anyone ever watches them and you beg your friends and family to notice them at all and people lie to you about having seen them. Honestly that’s my entire life: making sure people actually watch. This is bloody marvelous, it’s not daunting.”
Cumberbatch, who has a thriving feature career with an Oscar nomination for 2014’s The Imitation Game and Marvel superhero Doctor Strange under his belt at $656M in worldwide box office and counting, mused on the so-called Golden Age of television. “I don’t come back to (Sherlock) because it’s part of some grander narrative. I think most actors take a job and try to do it well and take advantage of the lucky break that they got by having a job in the first place. I’m very, very proud of the success of this program. The mark of its brilliance headed by the two creators and writers is right at the front of what is being termed the Golden Age… But you don’t take a job thinking you’re going to contribute to that Golden Age. You’d be a pretty dead duck if you did.”
Also, he added, “It’s important for us to keep confounding the expectations of audiences and fans so that we can evolve rather than sitting on laurels.”
As far as taking on an iconic role, Cumberbatch said, “This is already slasher fiction. It’s an evolution of a template that’s had a worldwide success in published form… We’re not the first to do this, but primarily the heavy lifting is done by two of the most extraordinarily knowledgeable of the already profound fan base and it’s just very fun to play fast-and-loose with the traditional and try to put your own interpretation on it and just do your job.”
The eternal question of “Will there be more?” was also raised. Last April, Moffat and Gatiss appeared to tease this could be the final season, saying, “This is the story we’ve been telling from the beginning. A story about to reach its climax.” However, the typically cryptic duo had also previously said they see the series continuing for a long while and at Comic-Con clarified that they’ve never said Season 4 would be the last and that they didn’t mean to imply it.
Cumberbatch later made headlines for a GQ interview in which he said this season “might be the end of an era,” but added, “I’d love to revisit it, I’d love to keep revisiting it, I stand by that, but in the immediate future we all have things that we want to crack on with and we’ve made something very complete as it is, so I think we’ll just wait and see. The idea of never playing (Sherlock) again is really galling.”
In London last week, Gatiss offered, “We would love to do more, but we’re genuinely not lying this time, we don’t know.” Moffat then threw in, “Who’s to say all the characters make it out alive at the end of the series? Anything could happen.”
Not quite so elementary.
Produced by Hartswood Films, Sherlock made a triumphant return to television on New Year’s Day this year with “The Abominable Bride.” It also was released theatrically and notched big box office, notably in China and Korea, then pulled off an upset and won the Emmy for Outstanding TV Movie.