Chris Philpott is's resident TV expert.

Chris Philpott: Sherlock's bungled beginning

Was the new episode of Sherlock a bit of a cop-out? Chris Philpott thinks it might have been.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman return for the new season of Sherlock. Photo/Supplied.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman return for the new season of Sherlock. Photo/Supplied.

Saturday marked the return of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the hit series Sherlock - yet, while I was excited to see the pair returning to our screens as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson, I was actually more intrigued to see how co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat would resolve Sherlock's apparent death at the conclusion of Season two's final episode The Reichenbach Fall.

I actually felt the explanation of Sherlock's survival was far less satisfying overall than the story that took place around it.

The episode, titled The Empty Hearse and based on Doyle's story The Case Of The Empty House, traced the reunion of Sherlock and Watson, and their attempt to take down an underground terrorist network looking to recreate Guy Fawkes' infamous attack on parliament.

A series of early scenes in which the pair acted alone proved that this show is at its absolute best when Cumberbatch and Freeman are allowed to play together and off each other, their obvious on-set rapport crackling on screen from the moment Sherlock donned a fake moustache and a French accent and interrupted Watson's proposal to Mary.

The sequence - in which the pair get booted out of increasingly scummy eateries, eventually landing on the street - was the first time in the episode that Sherlock reached the potential of its first couple of seasons.

Similarly, the interplay between the two as they try to defuse the bomb in the train carriage made for an absolute cracker of a scene, with "the off switch" providing a brilliant laugh and a great conclusion to the episode.

The production seems to be in top gear as well, as this was one of the best looking episodes of Sherlock to date. An imagined explosion that destroyed the palace of Westminster was exciting to behold, Sherlock's speedy motorcycle rescue was as good an action scene as the show has done, and the various visual flourishes - text messages appearing in mid-air, to name one - were seamlessly integrated with the action, less of a distraction than in years past.

This was a great return for Gatiss and Moffat's wonderful series, and The Empty Hearse would easily have been the best episode of the show to date, if not for the rather lucklustre handling of Sherlock's apparent Season two suicide.

I think my main problem with the explanation is that the episode handled it so wishy-washily. I can understand why Moffat and Gatiss, and co-writer Steve Thompson, would want to make a few nods to the massive amount of speculation online - my favourite being the laughable fan-fiction styled version in which Sherlock and Moriarty plot the scheme together then make out with each other on the rooftop - and make it feel like Sherlock's death gripped the public in-show.

But playing out three or four different scenarios and theories over the course of the episode made it feel a little like the writers couldn't decide which explanation they liked better, and figured out a conceit in which they could film them all.

Assuming we can take Sherlock's on-camera confession to Anderson as true, the eventual explanation - as I understood it: Sherlock jumped off the roof onto a giant airbag, used a corpse to appear legitimate, then switched places with the corpse and used a squash ball in the armpit to suppress his pulse after Watson was knocked over by the cyclist - was fine, if a little similar to many of the theories going around after the second season concluded.

It just lost some of its power because of the multiple scenarios we were given and the focus on the dynamic between Sherlock and Watson. Heck, even Watson was more interested in why, as opposed to how, Sherlock did it. By the end of the episode, I suspect most viewers at home were feeling much the same way. And if that was the point, then bravo.

As I say, a great return for these iconic characters; The Empty Hearse finds Sherlock (the show), and its writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, in fine form. It's just a shame they bungled the resolution of the only major Season 2 cliffhanger.

* What did you think of Sherlock's return?

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Chris Philpott is's resident TV expert.

In a strange way, Chris Philpott has grown up with television: his first big addiction was The X Files, which he watched as a teenager, enthralled by what was possible with the form. Chris’ love of TV grew over the years, parallel to the popularity and quality of serial dramas like The Sopranos, Lost, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. He began writing about TV professionally in 2010, before joining the NZ Herald in late 2013, and considers writing about TV more than a passing interest or hobby: he genuinely loves sharing new series and discussing the big shows with readers. Chris is based in Whangarei, and lives with his wife and daughter. When he isn’t watching television … just kidding, he’s always watching television.

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