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‘Sherlock’ clue may hint at inspiration for the Victorian special episode

The new Sherlock special is definitely set in 1895. Could this be a clue?


Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Internet Culture

Posted on Apr 27, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 11:35 pm CDT

The BBC confirmed last month that the next Sherlock episode will be a Victorian spin on the regular series—which is itself a modern-day fanfic of the Victorian Sherlock Holmes stories. Now screenwriter Mark Gatiss has given us another clue about the one-off special.

Gatiss corrected a tweet from the British Film Institute, explaining that the episode will be set in 1895, not 1885. After that, the upcoming fourth season will return to the show’s normal 21st century continuity. Gatiss added via the BBC that the 10-year gap between 1885 and 1895 made all the difference.

The year 1895 is synonymous with the height of Holmes’ career, commemorated in the poem “221b” by Vincent Starrett. The poem celebrates the immortal nature of Holmes and Watson as literary figures, forever frozen in time in their home at 221b Baker Street. It ends:

“Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.” 

The internal chronology of the Holmes stories is still disputed among Sherlockians, hindered by Arthur Conan Doyle’s lackadaisical attitude toward continuity. Fans have to deduce which events happened in which year, with most timelines agreeing that four or five of the short stories took place in 1895.

One thing is certain: Sherlock Holmes returned from the dead in early April 1894, aged 40. This means Victorian Holmes will be at a similar point in his life to the 21st century Sherlock, who returned from the dead at the beginning of season 3 last year.

According to most timelines, 1895 contained the events of the short stories The Solitary Cyclist, The Three Students, The Bruce-Partington Plans and The Adventure of Black Peter. Some also include The Norwood BuilderThe Bruce-Partington Plans is an obvious choice as an espionage adventure about stolen military documents, although some aspects were already cannibalized for an earlier Sherlock episode. Black Peter is a simple murder mystery and The Three Students is a case of college exam plagiarism, while The Solitary Cyclist is about a governess being sexually harassed by her employer.

Mark Gatiss and the episode’s director previously tweeted references to another story called The Blue Carbuncle, although that could be a red herring. Either way, the upcoming episode will probably be an amalgam of several stories plus new characters, which is how Sherlock episodes typically go. We already know Watson’s wife Mary is involved, which is more than you can say for the Victorian stories. Her main role in the original canon is to marry Watson, vanish into the background, and then die sometime in the early 1890s.

If we trust the 1895 clue the most likely guesses for the Sherlock special are The Bruce-Partington Plans and The Solitary Cyclist (due to #Setlock photos of a new female character), although Sherlockians will still be racking their brains for months to come. If anything, the main message of Gatiss’s clue is that while Sherlock fans are excellent detectives, the show’s writers are still at least one step ahead.

Photo via BBC One

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*First Published: Apr 27, 2015, 5:53 pm CDT