Evolution: [noun] A gradual process in which something changes into a different and usually more complex or better form.
‘The Hounds of Baskerville’ is a story of evolution on many different levels - evolution of a classic story, evolution of genetic composition in species, evolution of science, evolution of family, and maybe most importantly for ‘Sherlock’, the evolution of characters.
If there are two things Mark Gatiss knows and understands brilliantly, it is Sherlock Holmes and the horror genre. So when the opening scenes of Hounds start to play you know you’re in safe hands, and due for an absolute treat.
Hounds is arguable the most famous Holmes story. In the original canon, it is definitely Watson’s story thanks to Holmes’ apparent absence through most of the investigation, and although Sherlock is on the trail every step of the way here, John is very much vital to the development of the case. What ‘Sherlock’ succeeds in exceptionally well in this episode is demonstrating just why Sherlock has a ‘John Watson’. He’s not simply here to retell Sherlock’s story, be his bumbling sidekick, or function as comic relief. Not only is he Sherlock’s outsourced conscience, a Jiminy Cricket if you will to Sherlock’s Pinocchio - the continuing development of Sherlock’s humanity in series two is so evident the metaphor couldn’t be more apt - but he is smart, brave, and unique as an individual in his own right, and he proves vital for Sherlock to progress with this mystery. It is often too easy to overlook John in the presence of Sherlock, but here he is given ample screen time to demonstrate his worth, and Martin Freeman takes full advantage of this.
It is certainly most evident in this episode how Sherlock is progressively becoming more ‘human’. In ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’ we learnt he does in fact eat and sleep, and here this continues, showing him enjoying a pint down at a pub, and later even demonstrating he can drive - proving that unlike his brother he will in fact absolutely do all the “leg work” instead of relying on other people to perform the tedious jobs while he just does the deductions.
Benedict Cumberbatch has been given room to grow with his character, and although ‘Scandal’ may have been the story that examined Sherlock’s ability to love and be loved - or at the very least understand it – here he thoroughly covers the full spectrum of emotion, from mania to fear, affection to distain. He lowers his hard unemotional exterior in an extremely telling scene between Sherlock and John that gives us a first real glimpse of how important his friend has become to him, and his growing understanding of how he needs to behave in an ‘alien’ way to his usual behaviour in order to hold onto the special relationship they share. We may not be at the point of the infamous scene of ‘The Three Garridebs’ yet but the scenes demonstrating “sentiment” on his part - which as we all know Sherlock is not a fan of - are certainly very apparent here.
In a nice touch Mycroft, who is notably absent from the original Canon story, is added to this version. Along with Lestrade, their inclusion lends itself to the increasingly strong sense of ‘family’ appearing in the series’ universe, adding to Sherlock’s support network and gifting familiarity to what otherwise would be a distant world from their regular city habitat. In fact London is the one main ‘character’ in ‘Hounds’ that is obviously absent and was interesting to see if this Sherlock would seem out of place anywhere; a fish out of water. By replacing his usual playground with the Devon backdrop, it gives the characters room to breathe and shine for who they are, not what they are.
It would be remiss not to mention the very strong supporting performances, notably that of Russell Tovey’s Henry Knight. His portrayal of the terrified son of the creature’s victim is compellingly believable. His character motivations and behaviour may be less complex than Lara Pulver’s Irene Adler, but he is no less precise with his delivery. The only negative aspect with having such strong guest appearances in famous character roles is it seems a pity we are unlikely to see them return to the series.
The main problem that has always plagued this story is just how difficult it is to make the narrative satisfying to a sophisticated modern audience. In the case of the Granada series’ adaptation, so unhappy was Jeremy Brett with the final result he wanted to re-film it. And as Mark has himself commented in the past, the hound itself is ultimately always disappointing when it is finally revealed. That is one fear that is unfounded in this version of ‘Hounds’.
Despite the obvious liberties Gatiss has to take with this story in order to translate it into the 21st century, he cherry picks elements of other Holmes stories and interweaves them seamlessly. There are many nods to them, along with highly quotable updated Canon references for an avid Sir Arthur Conan Doyle enthusiast. For those who aren’t however, they feel natural in the dialogue and plot, so as to feel fresh, original and fitting, rather than crowbarred in for the sake of it. There are also some uses of the famous Gatiss black sense of humour in the script to balance out what would otherwise be an all out intense thriller.
The suspense throughout the episode is tangible, and this is most definitely an episode to watch with all the lights off. Tonally it is very different from the first episode in the series. Paul McGuigan does an amazing job with the horror aspect, and in one particular scene his direction is arguably equal to Steven Spielberg’s famous kitchen scene in ‘Jurassic Park’, only perhaps combined with the darker subtext of Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’. You fear for the safety of the characters, even though you know they must survive until ‘The Reichenbach Fall’, and yet still you remain on the edge of your seat. The upgraded deduction scenes from ‘Scandal’ continue here as well, McGuigan deploying visual tricks akin to the screen technology of ‘Minority Report’ to demonstrate Sherlock connecting the dots of the case.
In short, this episode does not fail the standard established by ‘A Scandal in Belgravia.’ It is equal in smart, sharp dialogue, plotline and effects. The cast are fully settled into their characters now, and now have room to play with them, giving the viewer much to digest. It’s hard not to give this episode anything other than a glowing review (if you excuse the pun), but it simply exceeds expectations, which are already high when it comes to this second series, and finally delivers on the promise of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous horror story for Sherlock Holmes.