This is a guest post by Lily Ankh.
As most people with access to a television or the internet within the UK (and outside it, in many cases) will be aware, the third season of BBC’s Sherlock recently started again. Grossing at 9.6 million live viewers and many more on catch up, it was the most watched show of the year – although that isn’t hard, seeing as it aired on the 1st of January. Several articles have already been written about how the episode seemed to be focused pleasing the “the obsessives” over the casual viewer, resulting in the latter feeling alienated at the expense of making the former happy. I disagree. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the show’s producers, (heretoafter referred to as Mofftiss, because they have effectively merged into one entity) have done nothing but tease, taunt and actively insult their fanbase under the guise of pandering to it.
Unlike the two authors of the above articles, I am an active member of the Sherlock fandom, as well as the ACD original fandom and several other adaptations. I was even, however briefly, a vaguely famous name within the Sherlock online community. I went on chatrooms, I participated in critical discussions, I wrote fanfiction. During the years-long gaps between both series 2 and 3, I watched the fandom eat itself alive trying to come up with new material.
The most important question in this recent gap, of course, was “How did Sherlock do it?” How did the Great Detective, genius extraordinaire, fake his own suicide so convincingly that a doctor was fooled? Theories ranged from the reasoned and logical to the deliberately surreal, and although I never saw one involving Derren Brown, you will note that the surreal theory above does mention using a mask on Moriarty’s body.
Of course, every viewer was interested in finding out the answer, but the fans had a particular investment: after the explosion of theories started to die down, Moffat announced to The Guardian “There is a clue everybody’s missed… So many people theorising about Sherlock’s death online – and they missed it!” The fandom tore itself apart trying to come up with what it could be, guessing everything from the mini webcam Sherlock finds in his flat to the fact he phones John instead of his usual method of texting. We watched with bated breath to find out what amazing and fantastic masterpiece Mofftiss had created, hoping to be dazzled and amazed.
What we got was two cop-outs and the first theory we had come up with. Even the final explanation, presented as the “real” one, had enough holes in it that they were actually pointed out in-show to Sherlock as he sauntered out with a self-satisfied air, probably in much the same way Mofftiss did after penning the answer. When John told Sherlock that he didn’t care how he faked his death, interrupting him going through it meticulously, it was like a slap in the face to the people who really wanted to know. I can’t speak for every fan, of course, but I know that plenty of the circles I move in were very disappointed. Moffat has demonstrated as showrunner of Doctor Who that he considers tying up important plot holes as pedantry: “I did kill off Strax, and I’ve barely explained how he comes back to life – that will be a DVD extra, for those who are being pedantic”, and clearly this penchant has been carried across to Sherlock as well.
That isn’t to say the episode wasn’t without its good parts. Plenty of the nods to fandom were friendly and amusing, such as the reference to ACD original A Case of Identity, or John finally growing the iconic ‘tash, meaning he was no longer the only male adult Watson without one.
Perhaps the best hat-tip (or should that be deerstalker-tip?) was the moment where
Anderson clearly states “I believe in Sherlock Holmes”, coupled with the Empty
Hearse scene, where the hashtags #SherlockLives and #SherlockIsNotDead flashed
up on the screen in the show’s characteristic white text to signify that Sherlock’s
re-emergence had been revealed to the public
“I Believe in Sherlock Holmes” was a meme started by the fandom as an homage to the original public outcry after Doyle killed off his iconic character. Instead of hate mail and black armbands, fans would put up posters or start trending topics with “Moriarty is real!” and “Sherlock is Alive!” There were email accounts and websites set up, and messages would be sent worldwide, the fandom coming together to show their love for the series by keeping it alive during the hiatus. There were a few oddballs who took it a bit far, but mostly it was harmless fun to entertain those in the know and intrigue those who were not.
These two moments were a great way for Mofftiss to show how they understood the fanbase and appreciated their commitment to the show.
Unfortunately, they fell a lot short with some other aspects.
Recently, Channel 4 produced a documentary about One Direction fans called Crazy About One Direction. As well as showing some of the more unusual elements of the band’s fans, (usually called “bandom” or “Directioners” for that specific band) the documentary made a point of showcasing fanfiction, particularly slash fanfiction. Slash fanfiction is when two people, usually both men, are paired together romantically within the story. Two women being paired is generally called femslash, and there is also het when it is one man and one woman, but slash is an umbrella term I will be using to cover all of these variations.
This documentary and many other sources have discussed the phenomenon of writing fanfiction, but the majority of external discussions consider fanfiction to be a new hobby among fans, started on the internet or perhaps with the advent of fanzines in the sixties. In actuality, fanfiction has been going for about as long as there has been widely accessible literature – nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays would be considered fanfiction, as would the majority of literature written in that time. Sherlock itself is fanfiction; two fans taking a story they love and making it their own. So it seems a little odd that Mofftiss would so heavily snub the queer elements of fandom.
There have been discussions about whether Holmes and Watson were in a relationship effectively since the novels were first published in The Strand, and among fandom experts, the Holmes and Watson pairing is considered one of the original slash couples along with Kirk and Spock from original Star Trek. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of slash writers are LGBTQ themselves (some estimates place it as high as ninety percent of fandom being non-heteronormative), and use fanfiction as a way to insert representation into their favourite media. Even the fandom members who are not themselves queer often prefer to write fiction where there is a more diverse cast. Making a character gay or bi or asexual or trans gives people with those identities someone to relate to, a way to escape their own lives and a way to create something for other fans to enjoy.
Moffat has already utterly dismissed the fans who like to imagine Sherlock as an asexual character by outright stating that asexuality is boring and there is “no fun in that” whatsoever – because of course people who don’t feel sexual attraction and are widely isolated by society also need to know how they are boring – and the cast have made their own statements trying to toe the line between crying NO HOMO and offending the queer people watching. The show itself has also had a similar line, with nearly every episode having someone question the relationship between Sherlock and John, much to the latter’s consternation.
It wasn’t until The Empty Hearse episode, though, that it really became blatant how heteronormative Mofftiss want the show to be.
One of the first scenes in the episode has John telling Mrs Hudson, his old landlady and good friend for several years, that he is getting married. Mrs Hudson immediately assumes it is to a man, much to John’s irritation, as he once again reiterates how very very not gay he is. The option of him being bisexual is never even considered, either. As this article in the Digital Spy mentions, it is not only ridiculous for Mrs Hudson to still think John is solely into men after knowing him for so long, it is offensive to the fandom that the writers feel the need to bash us over the head with it. We know they are not a couple. We do not need you to constantly scream at us that we are “doing it wrong”. What we would like is for you to let us have our space, to carve our own representation out of the blank marble we get given.
It smacks rather heavily of the way that queer people will often be told “oh you’re not really x” until they go blue in the face trying to explain, but to make it about a straight character is doubly offensive. John’s sexuality does not burden him with a lesser or illegal status in certain countries, he has always had the right to marry, he will never risk losing a job or having insults thrown at him in the street because of who he loves. And yet he is so very angry whenever anyone questions his absolute straightness that it seems the character, if not the writers, believe that there is something genuinely wrong with being anything but heterosexual, even though Gatiss himself is gay. Why put these affirmations in literally every episode, if not to upset the fandom?
Then there is the second Fall theory. At the start of the episode, we are treated to a hilariously over-the-top idea for how Sherlock could have lived, involving bungie jumps, sugar glass windows and hypnotism. During this Anderson-suggested theory, we see Sherlock kissing a rather surprised Molly full on the lips (with dubious consent).
Later, a second theory is suggested that has Sherlock holding a dummy wearing his coat and with a picture of his face stuck on. In this theory, Moriarty is with him, and they lean in as if to kiss. This kiss is not shown, though. John is nearly burned alive later, and we also get some violence in the form of John attacking Sherlock for ruining his life, but a consensual kiss between two men is too far. The theory is then interrupted by Anderson, who treats the idea as being just as ridiculous as his own. You know, the one with Derren Brown in it.
This is despite the fact that when they first meet, Moriarty gives Sherlock his number and flirts with him as Jim from IT, and that every meeting they have is bursting with sexual tension. You would think that, even if Gatiss does not see the seriously problematic elements in these comparisons, someone in the crew would. Maybe even Andrew Scott himself, the actor who plays Moriarty and who recently came out as gay. Having the girl who suggests it being the stereotype of the obsessive fangirl cemented who the message was aimed at: the fandom. The slashers. It is telling us that we are ridiculous and laughable, and that wanting characters to be queer is something only weirdos do.
I’m sure people will say I am reading too much into things, that I care too much about a television show. But when there is not a single character within the media who represents a huge part of my life – my sexuality – and when I am constantly snubbed and mocked for wanting that representation and making my own in what little space I can find, I get a bit upset. I love Sherlock Holmes, and I desperately want the show to be what it has the potential to be, but it seems to have done entirely the opposite and managed to upset both the casual viewer by being too meta, and the devoted fan for caring too much. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be in the corner hugging Welcome to Night Vale.