For a certain portion of the UK’s television viewing population, the last three weeks have been simply glorious. We waited for two years, and then – AND THEN – Sherlock and John hurtled back into our lives, bringing us laughter, tears, gasps and occasional feelings of nausea or confusion when confronted with a particularly gruesome body (or the sight of Sherlock with a girlfriend). For three all too brief ninety-minute sessions, our lives were whole again.
But now those days are over for what may well be another two years, so it’s time to stave off the gloom with some obsessive dissection of what went on. To whit: the first episode, The Empty Hearse, was offered us not one but three possible solutions to the conundrum of how Sherlock faked his own death at the end of the last season. Each possibility was more ridiculous than the last, involving bungee jumping, fake bodies, wax masks and, at one point, Derren Brown. OK, so the writers were gently mocking us for all the implausible theories we’d come up with during the interim, and if we had any sense of humour, we found it funny and we laughed at ourselves. But let’s be serious – how did he actually do it?
Well, it turns out that we may never know. Ultimately, Moffat gave us three options, proposed one as the ‘real’ solution, and then, in a cruel twist, told us that even that one might not be how it actually happened. Immediately, the Internet exploded into a frenzied debate – which one was true? Were any of them true? Will we ever know? And was this utter genius on the writer’s part, or a bit of a cop-out?
Laying my cards on the table, I’m saying it was a disappointment. I’m all for leading your viewers up the garden path for a while, but you need a pay-off at the end to make it worth their while, and I’m not sure that we got that – particularly since the episode was so concerned with confusing and beguiling us that it forgot to contain any actual plot.
But, then again, what did we expect from Steven Moffat, Sadistic Television Overlord? I’m certainly not the only TV obsessive to be building up a strong list of reasons why Moffat is an evil genius, and, so far, I’ve managed to stay the right side of actual fury, unlike those fans branding him a liar, “the biggest troll in television”, or indeed “the King of all things troll-ish who reigns over a land in which the people are constantly crying and everything hurts”. As well as his sinewy plots on Sherlock, he earned both abundant praise and unrestrained ire for the Doctor Who fiftieth anniversary episode, in which he twisted around everything we thought we knew about the Doctor’s history, character and ability to regenerate. (Incidentally, I thought that episode was brilliant. You see – even I don’t know whether to adore or loathe the man.)
It should be noted that Moffat isn’t the first TV writer to have induced this bizarre love-hate relationship in his fans. Back in the 1960s, Patrick McGoohan’s final episode of sci-fi drama The Prisoner was so ambiguous and inconclusive that British fans rioted, leading McGoohan to believe that he was going to be lynched in the streets. Then, in the heady days of the 1990s, Buffy the Vampire Slayer secured its writer, Joss Whedon, a founding place in the tradition of using a TV writer’s name to mean a particular way of messing with viewers. While “to Moffat” is to insist that a show-related fact is 100% true, only to reveal later that, in fact, this is not the case and you were an idiot to believe it, a fan gets “Jossed” when the background understanding he or she has built up over the course of a series is vaporised in short shrift by a new episode, or, more poignantly, when a character is killed off unexpectedly and heart-breakingly. By the end of Buffy and Angel, Whedon’s flagship shows, almost every major character is dead, with the exception of Buffy herself, who has actually died twice but come back to life (cue long-winded explanation involving Hellmouths and Wiccan magic). Overall, Buffy and Angel had “more heartrending moments than stakes at a Slayers convention”.
But that’s not to say that the writers of our favourite shows are always mean and nasty. Sometimes they give us exactly what we want; this, in the terminology of manga fandom, is ‘fanservice’. Fanservice comes in many forms. It can be a cameo appearance from a beloved character or actor – Tom Baker in the anniversary episode of Doctor Who, Noel Fielding popping up for a last hurrah in the final episode of The IT Crowd, or Teri Hatcher playing Lois’s mother in Smallville. It can be a revealing outfit – Kaley Cuoco dressed as Wonder Woman in The Big Bang Theory, Colin Firth appearing from a pond in a white shirt in Pride and Prejudice, Lea Michele dressed as Britney Spears in Glee. It can be a fourth-wall-breaking in-joke about the ridiculousness of TV, such as Alex’s reference to the hospital in Grey’s Anatomy as ‘Seattle-Grace Mercy-Death’, or Baldrick suggesting that if a film was made of Blackadder’s life, Baldrick would be played by “some tiny tit in a beard”. Or, just to please the hardcore contingent, it can occasionally be a sexy moment straight out of erotic fan-fiction – Dr House telling Wilson, “I really gotta get you laid. If I have to plough that furrow myself, so be it”, Phoebe and Rachel’s kiss on FRIENDS, and, of course, the recent will-they-won’t-they-did-they-actually moment between Sherlock and Moriarty in The Empty Hearse (shippers ahoy!).
The real question is: how far should writers and producers take this kind of thing? There’s no question that fans are a force to be reckoned with. The last few years have seen entire series revived through fans’ efforts: when Firefly, Joss Whedon’s space western, was cancelled after one season, fans successfully campaigned to get it released on DVD, sales of which led to the commissioning of a film sequel; likewise, Arrested Development got a film adaptation and at least one further season when its fanbase grew to substantial proportions thanks to DVD sales and Netflix.
Naturally, if the team behind a hit TV show panders too far to the fans’ whims, there will be accusations of selling out and brown-nosing. On the other hand, ignoring the fans completely – or deliberately choosing to mess with them – can be dangerous. Shows like How I Met Your Mother, which eight seasons in has yet to reveal who the eponymous mother is, has slowly worn down its viewers’ interest so that the majority of them are now just praying for it to be over; meanwhile, one-off events like the notorious ‘Red Wedding’ on Game Of Thrones or the rape scene in Downton Abbey can cause viewers to be “5000% done” with a show they once loved.
Thus far, both Joss Whedon and Steven Moffat seem to be getting the balance just about right. The Internet has frequently vented its anger at them, but it’s an anger borne from love; and, crucially, people are still watching their shows. Whedon has a loyal following of fans who’ve jumped eagerly into Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse, Firefly and Agents of SHIELD; meanwhile, the first episode of the most recent season of Sherlock was the most tweeted-about episode of any drama series, a record which the third episode summarily went on to break. Clearly, they’re doing something right, even if they occasionally cause their fans moments of angst and despair. So well done, and we’ll be waiting with bated breath for the next season. Which would be welcome as soon as possible. Please. Grrr.