The Nightmare After Christmas
Although every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has still not watched the Sherlock New Year special, ‘The Abominable Bride’ is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.
You have been warned.
I really hate dream sequences.
I can count on one thumb the amount of dream sequences I’ve seen or read in any story that I’ve truly enjoyed and felt like they added something to the story1. They’re usually only there as a cheap attempt to make a clever point or as a lame excuse to make the protagonist do something he otherwise would never do. At their worst extreme, they are the primordial slime of deus ex machina. Yes, I know I always say that it is a matter of personal taste what we like and if dream sequences are your thing then… well, I suppose I just have to accept that. But I hate them.
That is what ruined this year’s New Year Special of the BBC drama, Sherlock for me. When Sherlock first started in 2010, I was quite sure I was going to hate it. I had already read and enjoyed most of the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and I wasn’t sure if a weird modern spin on it was really going to work (I mean, just look at Elementary. It’s an outrage!).
But I was wrong! I love Sherlock! I’ve got all the DVDs and have watched them often. It was also my first real encounter with Benedict Cumberbatch, who has quickly become one of my favourite actors. Given how long we’ve had to wait since the end of series 3, I was bursting with anticipation about the New Year special, The Abominable Bride (in spite of the fact I was led to believe they were going to give us a purely Victorian one; whatever I may have said about Sherlock already, Jeremy Brett is the real Sherlock Holmes in my opinion).
At first, it seemed promising. The mystery was suitably mysterious for anything that claims to be Sherlock Holmes (a woman shoots herself, is positively identified and declared to be dead and yet she still manages to go about killing people) and it was entertaining enough to watch… That is, until Sherlock wakes up on an aeroplane and we realise that what we’ve been seeing is a drug-induced dream state. Then it all goes to pot, if you’ll forgive the expression. Because it’s a dream, anything goes; and (I suspect) because it was co-written by Steven Moffat, pretty much everything does go.
Fan service? You got it. Here, have a random fight scene between Sherlock and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.
‘Big exciting uncertainty’ about what is a dream and what is reality? You got it.
My wife (being something of a Whovian) often quips that if dreams were written by man, Stephen Moffat would probably write some cracking ones, in that his stories are nearly always very entertaining to watch, interesting to look at and feel like they’re making sense at the time but when you think about it rationally later on, you realise they didn’t make a whole lot of sense at all and broke most of the rules of their own fictional universe.
But that’s the trouble with dreams. They don’t need to make sense. In fact, the less sense they make, the more dream-like they are. Fiction doesn’t work that way; it has to make sense. Therefore, the dream sequences have to make sense (like in Spider-Man when Harry Osborne has dreams and hallucinations of his dead father saying ‘Avenge me!’ and he dutifully tries to obey. A dream about his dead father taking a banana out for a walk just wouldn’t have allowed the story to progress in quite the same way).
In some ways, that is one thing that set the dream in ‘The Abdominal Bride’ apart from other dream sequences for me. It was almost believable as a dream, which is what ruined it for me. The plot became too confused and fell apart.
Most dreams, such as in Spider-Man, are completely implausible as dreams because they make so much sense. Worse yet, they tend to dictate the actions of the characters in the waking world far too heavily.
Then, of course, there’s the worst kind of dream. It appears in many different forms, but I think you’ll know the one I’m talking about if I simply refer to it as The Dallas Dream. You know the one: the character suddenly wakes up and realises the last hour/week/year has all been a dream. This is deus ex machina at its very finest. The writer has realised he can write no further unless he comes up with some magical excuse to erase some unchangeable events that have already occurred in the story… so he just decides it was all a dream.
Don’t do drugs, kids.
1 I did rather enjoy Data’s dream in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, ‘Birthright’. The reason I thought this worked was because it served to add a new facet of humanity to the android (who is something of a Pinocchio archetype). The fact he was having dreams at all was what was remarkable. Therefore, the content of the dream could have the suitable blend of random and meaningful elements a good dream needs without becoming a weak catalyst for some reckless action or a ‘thank goodness it was all a dream’ moment. He also has dreams in the episode, ‘Phantasms’, which I was not nearly as keen on because in this instance, the dreams are his subconscious telling him what to do.