Sherlock: The Abominable Bride movie full length review - Half is half a plot, half a self-indulgent mess.
Note: Here be spoilers. Also, this is a little long, for which I offer apologies.
For better or worse, Sherlock is a show unique unto itself. That may be why, despite missing most of season 1 and hating season 3, the Abominable Bride was the only Christmas special I sought to watch this/last year. And that was unfortunate, because the result of this episode was underwhelming and frustrating.
This version of Sherlock has always been essentially a fanfic that's long since devolved into a parody of itself. Particularly post Reichenbach Fall, its spent the rest of its time indulging in its own 'coolness' (Sherlock using "I'm a high functioning sociopath" as a one-liner last season finale being merely the most egregious example), and I only emphasise this here because it was prevalent throughout this episode.
Sherlock's first Christmas special takes a trip back to Victorian England, and sets Sherlock and John out to find a ghost bride who won't stop killing. Alongside this is the developing Suffragette movement, which is both heavy handed and abruptly 'concluded'. But it's also a continuation of the season finale, as the Victorian crime is simply Sherlock's way of solving his present day mystery ? that of Moriarty's apparent return at the end of Season 3.
The setting was excellent, and I didn't have any trouble with the characters in this setting. I wanted to spend more time with the setting, and so the back and forth switching in the second half became jarring (especially because the present day work is troublesome ? more on that below). The acting as always is at least good, and mostly great ? fat Mycroft was a surreal treat. And the back and forth dialogue is still mostly witty and charming.
It is however, with the story, the characters, and the choices made, that the episode highlights some of the show's greatest flaws. Firstly and most blatantly, is the use of Moriarty as the show's crutch. Having created so popular and magnetic a villain ? though one always a tad too cartoonish for my tastes ? the show has tried to have its cake and eat it too, kill him but not let him leave, and consequently not let the show move on. The suggestion at the end that he really is dead undercuts the previous season's twist finale, and not at the least in a clever way. And the result of overuse is that Moriarty's appearances are no longer surprising or very interesting, but just going through the motions.
Secondly, and more broadly, is the show's own love of itself gets in the way of telling any kind of story. Much like 'Empty Hearse' and "Sign of Three", a paper-thin setup of a story is a jumping off point for quips and Sherlock being 'intelligent/sociopath' (the latter is used here like street cred, the former is often achieved not by making Sherlock smart but by making his associates dumb). What counts for character development is Moriarty monologue-ing and things we've seen and heard before (or not at all, see below). This is exacerbated by the fact that this is all at the expense of the episode's plot, not supplementing it. Like in the 2 aforementioned episodes, the episode starts off with a compelling mystery, gets side-tracked by self-referencing, repetition, quips to appeal to 'the fanbase', and then the story has fallen by the wayside, with either a forgone or forgotten conclusion (not quite as lazy about it as Empty Hearse, though still lazy). And it's not like the episode is short for time ? the 90 minutes per episode continues to be mostly unnecessary, with few episodes needing the time. The plot is thus forgettable, and what takes up the rest of the time is the show's own meta, its desire for what passes as both intelligent and 'cool', and often (but certainly not always) failing at both.
Last, and certainly the least of problems, the show has often hinted at the particulars of Sherlock's drug abuse, but it has often been the case that the show just tells us he has an addiction ? we are told he has an addiction, but we do not see it. Here we see it, but it may be too little, too late, with little to no build-up. The jump is too jarring ? like Moffat and Gatiss finally remembered that Sherlock has an addiction! Most of these complaints are not new, but they certainly aren't improving. They are more noticeable here perhaps because ? particularly with the dream/mind palace nature of the plot ? it was a story which was standalone, without a standalone story. Nothing happened in it that added something meaningful to the overall series, but it was barely half an attempt at a standalone story.