‘SHERLOCK: The Empty Hearse’ is one for the fans

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[For more detailed descriptions of this episode, I encourage you look at the wonderful articles by Holly and Laura. In this article, I wanted to examine the first episode from a “fan service” perspective as well as illuminate literary references contained within the episode. SPOILERS AHEAD.]

First, let me say that I enjoyed the SHERLOCK series 3 premiere, “The Empty Hearse”. The return of the world’s greatest detective was a lot of fun to watch and had some excellent character moments. The scenes between Mycroft and Sherlock were among the favorites for me, as they expanded the relationship and history of these two extraordinary siblings.

Although, while it was great to see Sherlock return, the episode was one completely devoted to fan service, making fan fiction and fan theory the majority of the plot as Sherlock and John navigated not a mystery, but their own relationship. We see multiple theories as to how Sherlock may have survived the “Reichenbach Fall”, some more preposterous than others. The most believable theory presented, is one that bares a striking similarity to BeeonUtube’s theory, taking place in a disjointed scene from the main plot. Why did we cut from the train to this scene? Is it a dream? Is it happening in Anderson’s mind or in Sherlock’s? We may never know. We also see Anderson lead a fan community known as “The Empty Hearse” that meet to discuss theories on how Holmes might have faked his death. This very conceit is a nod to fans who, for the last two years have cooked up theories and memes based around the popular BBC program.

We are also treated to two very funny “death theory” scenarios, by way of ‘shipping’ between Molly and Sherlock, Moriarty and Sherlock. We also get several references peppered throughout the episode regarding everyone’s perception of the Holmes/Watson relationship. Mrs. Hudson believed the two men to be a couple, and John’s fiancé Mary teases her soon to be husband about “shaving for his old friend”. These scenes mirror the gentle teasing and quite a bit of wishful thinking between fans of the show and online communities. The two men try to move on without each other, John by dealing with an influx of ordinary patients at his new medical practice, and Sherlock by dragging Molly along on his investigations as a stilted thank you for keeping his secret. It’s clear that these two men care for one another, John misses the thrill of the chase and Sherlock needs his friend’s presence to do his best work. These two men are an unbeatable team. To quote Doyle’s original novel, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”:

“It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.”-Sherlock Holmes

“The Empty Hearse” lets all of us know that Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss do listen to and appreciate the fans. And while this kind of winking at the audience is entertaining, it really serves no purpose whatsoever to the story. Holmes and Watson come together again to foil a terrorist plot, but that storyline takes a back seat to Sherlock and John’s friendship. The final scene should have the tension that comes from a murderous plot to destroy Parliament, but devolves into a gigglefest, making the mystery and the culprits involved completely forgettable.

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While I appreciate the jokes based around theory and fandom, I want more from SHERLOCK than winks and fan fiction. In the end, “The Empty Hearse” treated fans to a fun and enjoyable return for the great detective, but a mystery and story with very little consequence.

“The Empty Hearse” tethers to literary Holmes canon

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Holmes’ Travels: When we first meet Holmes we see him raggedy and long-haired, being run down by soldiers in the Serbian government. He is captured and tortured, before being snidely rescued by his brother Mycroft. In the original story, Holmes reveals that he had travlled under the guise of a celebrated Norwegian explorer named Sigerson. He traveled to Tibet, Persia, Khartom and France, before finally making his way back to London. This trail of adventures is mirrored in the SHERLOCK Mini-sode “Many Happy Returns” where we see Anderson’s evidence of the detective’s influence among Buddhist monks and also in New Delhi and Hamburg.

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Mary Morstan: Mary Morstan was first introduced in “The Sign of the Four” as a central character. In the Holmes literary canon, she passed away between the events of “The Final Problem” and “The Adventure of the Empty House”. In her introductory story, Watson falls in love with Miss. Morstan while Holmes is investigating brothers Thaddeus and Bartholomew Sholto in a mystery involving secret treasure and a conspiracy of soldiers stationed in India.

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Moran: Colonel Sebastian Moran was Moriarty’s Lieutenant in the Doyle penned stories and had a major appearance in the return of Sherlock Holmes in “The Empty House” , which heralded the return of Holmes after “The Great Hiatus”, but also utilized a convention of mystery tales “the locked room mystery”. As seen in “The Empty Hearse”, Moran is a member of the House of Lords and a terrorist conspirator that intends to bomb the Palace of Westminster.

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Sherlock’s Disguise: In “The Adventure of the Empty House”, Watson runs into an elderly book collector, knocking several of his volumes to the ground. This turns out to be Holmes in one of his many disguises. This scenario is turned on its head, when Watson accuses one of his elderly patients of being Holmes in disguise. Not coincidentally, the erotica the man is carrying bare the same titles as the books in the original story: “The Origin of Tree Worship”, “British Birds”, “Catullus and the Holy War”.

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Homeless Network/ The Baker Street Irregulars: We’ve seen a bit of Home’s network of informants in previous episodes. “The Blind Banker” indicates that Holmes employs street kids to inform his detective work. “The Empty Hearse” speaks of a conspiracy of people known as Holmes’ “Homeless Network” that helped him pull off faking his own death. Featured in both Doyle novels, “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Sign of the Four”, Holmes employs a group of street urchins to keep an ear to the ground for strange happenings around London that may aid him in his investigations.

Other References

The Giant Rat of Sumatra: This is a case of Sherlock Holmes referenced in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire”. In “The Empty Hearse”, Holmes refers to Moran as a “giant rat”. Moran’s bomb is located in the London Underground along Sumatra road.

A Case of Identity: The case that Holmes consults with Molly, in which a young woman’s step-father is “catfishing” her, is a reference to “A Case of Identity” in which a young woman is being courted by her stepfather in disguise.

About author

Robert Walker
Robert Walker 152 posts

Rob Walker is a writer and filmmaker in Colorado, and is creator of the comedy web series Victorian Cut-out Theatre. He loves horror films and comic books (American Vampire, Jonah Hex, The Flash, Planetary). Rob has been a Sherlockian since the age of ten, is a Dark Tower junky and believes that Indiana Jones is the greatest cinematic hero ever created. You can follow him on twitter at: @timidwerewolf and see his other writings and videos at robwalkerfilms.com