Curator’s Note: This week we’re very pleased to be featuring that rarest of meta within English language fandom, the non-English meta. Given the global popularity of BBC’s Sherlock, it is perhaps unsurprising that both are related to the show: today is a wonderfully complex look at the most recent third series by Russian fan cantadora_09, in which the author interrogates the reasons for their own dissatisfaction with it.
Translator’s Note: This meta was written by cantadora_09, and published on the Russian livejournal Sherlock community. I (pennypaperbrain) asked permission to translate and post it here, with a link. Please don’t repost it anywhere without the original attribution.
This is the most interesting critical meta I’ve seen on Season 3 I think… and I hope it’s survived my attempts to import it into English. Mistakes, misunderstandings (my Russian comprehension is adequate but far from native standard) and blurrings of meaning are mine.
Original Russian text here.
Somewhere deep in the background I always knew that I was two persons. One was the son of my parents, who went to school and was less intelligent, attentive, hard-working, decent and clean than many other boys. The other was grown-up – old, in fact, – sceptical, mistrustful, remote from the world of men, but close to nature… and above all close to the night, to dreams. – Jung
I think with trepidation of what significant changes I delayed or didn’t allow, because of my need to interpret them… If we are only able to wait, the patient and psychoanalyst come to a creative understanding, always an insanely joyful one, and now this joy brings me greater pleasure than I ever got from feeling myself to be a clever person. – D. V. Winnicott.
Like many fans of Sherlock, I was very uncomfortable with Season 3. Until now I haven’t been able to formulate why. But I think I’ve worked it out. I was helped by a feeling I got after Season 1, that grew with Season 2 and finally crystallised with Season 3. It was a feeling of… weariness. I’ll try to explain what I mean. One night around 3am I couldn’t sleep and was trying to understand how Mary Morstan deceived Sherlock and John and how this affects her arc in Season 3, and I realised – it’s too much. Overkill. Not in the sense of my interest in plot events or intrigue, but in terms of intense thought. I was tired of thinking. Most of all I felt that to think so passionately and hard wasn’t something I wanted to do, but nor could I stop. Something literally compels me to think, to the point of obsession.
What’s the problem with that?
The thing is, despite the detective story elements, I didn’t want to think at all during the first two seasons. I just watched the screen and experienced everything that happened there. I didn’t care what Irene Adler had in her phone, or who was behind the secret code in TBB. Or even the immortal mystery of IOU in TRF. All this was just elegant background music for a rich, deep musical theme which was emerging through an incredibly well-told story, which lived and grew by its own rules. I couldn’t tear myself away from that story. You could plunge your arm into it as if into water, and feel its warmth and the soft vibrations of passing fish. It was a kind of trance of immediacy.
And what happened this time?
All through the third season, it feels as if I’m being shouted at from all sides: ‘Think! Think! Think! Watch what we’re doing! Follow our hands!’. And the first time I really did think and follow. But then I put Sherlock aside, had a break and then rewatched. And I noticed a remarkable thing: Season 3 is perfectly made in terms of professional competence and how to make good cinema, but from the point of view of telling a worthwhile story, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
I’m well aware of postmodernism, and the breaking down of the fourth wall, and even the excellent Barthes and his theories of the death of the author. Unfortunately, as far as I know, Barthes never created works of art, so he couldn’t know that their creation is a completely different experience to the writing of critical articles. Like most theorists of postmodernism, his texts construed (and anyway, deconstruction soon helpfully changed the landscape), and this is not the same thing as creating texts.
A good story can’t be assembled from scrap materials. A good story comes together on its own terms, and expresses itself in its own way. Dozens of authors have written about this, having experienced it at least once themselves. When you yourself become the origin point of a story, then with the best will in the world you can’t consider yourself its author. The death of the author is a fiction, because the author never existed. The author was always just a channel, a messenger, a gatekeeper, who brought the story into the world and was present when it appeared. He played second fiddle, existed to fulfil the will of the story.
What does this have to do with Sherlock? Quite a lot. The thing is, it seems to me, in the first two seasons the authors were entirely relaxed and open to the story which wanted to be told through them. That’s why it was so… bright, lively, warm and sparkling. So solid and powerful. The professional competence of the authors was in its rightful – second – place, debugging the narrative in order to make it flow as naturally as possible for the show’s version of reality. So in the first two seasons the authors were pretty much absent, but there were heroes, plot twists, ideas and concepts which required no commentary. They had independent life.
Season 3 is flawlessly shot. With one caveat: it is over-directed. I think Mofftiss fell into the trap that catches so many talented people when they manage something truly stunning: they get tempted to claim all the credit. They decide that everything which happened in the magic lantern was entirely and unconditionally their doing, and therefore completely subject to them.
They start to concentrate on form, with such passion that it’s as if they were trying to film a textbook about postmodernist theory instead of a series of Sherlock. Then you have the breaking of the fourth wall, and the borrowing of fan versions of Sherlock’s survival, and ironic answers to questions, and sarcastic remarks aimed at their critics… I have to say this is done with intricate panache. But why?
Remember Mozart and Salieri? It’s not a story about how the less talented but better-trained and more workmanlike composer poisoned a genius out of envy. It’s about one man with competing selves that strive against each other: the rational, logical self which longs to believe harmony is like algebra, and the deep unconscious self which doesn’t know it creates, and doesn’t want to know how it works, but has a direct link with the numinous. Jung called these two levels of the psyche ‘personality number one’ and ‘personality number two’. Number one knows the rules and knows how to create, and cares how people perceive its works. Number two ‘knows’ nothing, it simply allows creativity to happen. As I was saying above.
So in Season 3, Mofftiss have adopted the Salieri method. For several reasons. I’ve already explained the first. The second relates to the first: they’ve scared themselves. TRF lays out so many ideas, hints, allusions and references to the probable ‘solution’ that it seemed impossible to explain it all. Having set up a load of signs in the text, Mofftiss forgot that those signs only have meaning in a particular context – when there is akairos (Ancient Greek: a special moment with unique qualities). In drama, this is called a turning point. But the world – both real and fictional – doesn’t consist of moments like that. The Greek god who gave his name to this phenomenon was capricious, moody and elusive. It’s seldom seen and hard to catch. For the exceptional to happen, you have to live through daily life, and there’s hardly any of that in Sherlock. So to give full scope to the potential meaning of all the signs in TRF is impossible.
There’s only one way out of this situation: to try to take control of the story. In this case, by subjugating it to its form. Entrusting harmony to algebra. And instead of filming Sherlock, starting to tell us how the authors film Sherlock.
Cinematic techniques have been raining down on us from the first second of the first season. They roar like a jet plane and break the glass like Sherlock crashing through the window of Barts, all the while pushing us along, hinting and stating outright that things are only going to get cooler and we should guess all the riddles ourselves because the authors aren’t going to do it for us.
But in fact they do. They show us Mycroft in Sherlock’s Mind Palace, explaining that he symbolises his rational self, although this was obvious from the first episode of the first season. The whole series is built on Sherlock as a central character and other characters as reflections of different aspects of him. As if that was not enough, the authors return to a pre-used explanation and give it an additional chew in the scene where Mary shoots Sherlock, adding Molly as internal medic and loyal friend, Anderson as internal forensics man and Moriarty as internal madman. And just in case we still don’t understand what’s going on, we’re shown Sherlock’s regression into a curly-haired little boy. In tandem, we see a flashback about Mary, when in the first episode of the series it was broadcast loud and clear that we should expect a Big Surprise and Plot Twist relating to her.
So this is the point at which I got tired of thinking. Or rather I got tired of rationalising along with the authors, and returned to the reason I started watching Sherlock in the first place.
And I began to feel. Not in the moments when I was literally forced into Sherlock’s fall to the floor and his dramatic survival climb out of his Mind Palace, but in the simplest and most insignificant of moments: John returning to Baker Street and seeing the dust lit by the sun, Sherlock as he returns looking at John, John swearing at Mrs Hudson, Lestrade hugging Sherlock… These moments when the story finds its own way, in spite of not being invited. And says what it wants.
Let me stress again that Season 3 is a highly professional piece of television, made by genuinely smart and talented people. From a professional point of view, it’s outstandingly executed. But from the point of view of storytelling, it has no value. From the perspective of a film-maker’s skill, the appeal to the audience is effective and clear. From the point of view of story, it’s a narrative failure Because a storyteller sitting by a campfire doesn’t expect the listeners to help him. He just says, ‘Once upon a time there lived a king…
Speaking of the fourth wall, that too is there for a reason. The thing is, absolutely all art, and theatre in particular (as the progenitor of cinema) comes back to ritual. And ritual is a process which takes place in a well-defined space, which is not allowed to be violated. The prohibition isn’t there to humiliate those excluded, but because numinous space begins inside that magic circle, and only specially trained and gifted people can withstand direct contact with the numinous. Therefore everyone else remains outside the perimeter, observers at most, but not full participants.
Theatre carefully preserved this tradition, and the fourth wall is a clear analogue of the magic circle. Breaking it means either provoking uncontrollable, often near-psychotic reactions in the audience, or dissipating the numinous. In the case of Sherlock season 3, I think the latter happened. That’s why many fans saw the three episodes as a farce. But it’s not a complete farce, just a farce in as far as the experience reflected the reality of a broken container (fourth wall). And it’s a reminder of the great power of myths that keep warning us: you can behave as you please, but everything has its price. Burn the skin of the frog if you want, but the princess will vanish, flowing through your fingers like sand, fleeing to distant lands. Translator’s note: In the Russian fairytale The Frog Princess, a prince burns the frog skin of his frog-turned-human wife, hoping to keep her human, but this only succeeds in turning her into a swan who flies away.
Surprisingly, we’re back to the topic of narcissism. Mirrors in huge quantities are paraded in front of viewers by the authors in Season 3, which says something about not only the fans but about the authors themselves – such a quantity of mirrors is needed only by someone who isn’t certain of his own existence. And this is the flipside of the narcissistic grandiosity which assumes that the text you ‘wrote’ is totally subservient to you. Is it any wonder that the third season caused an outbreak of narcissism in the fandom? Translator’s note: The author is presumably referring to Russian-language fandom here, rather than directly commenting on anything specific in anglophone fandom. Maybe it’s worth asking why fandom separated into two camps of ardent fans and equally passionate detractors? A text which is itself split always splits the audience. We simply reflected the grandiosity and uncertainty of Mofftiss.
Well, that’s what I think. Do I like Season 3? No, I don’t. Do I think it was badly made? No, I don’t. I’m just certain that sometimes those things are completely separate. Maybe Season 3 turned up in my life this way just to make me realise that. As for the series as a whole, I’m sure that Sherlock as a series has ended, but there will be various stories based on the stories already filmed. Interesting, no doubt, but not for me. I wish luck to the amazing Sherlock who I was still able to see in this season, albeit intermittently, and I’m sure he will have a very interesting and full life. In the end, he never cared what was written and said about him. And that gives me immense respect for him.