As the screens that occupy our living spaces get bigger, the boundaries separating cinema from television become ever more permeable. It was reported this week that Netflix has now accomplished its mission to set up shop across the globe as the most convenient of repertory cinemas; you may choose to watch upon it the Wachowski brothers/Tom Tykwer collaboration Sense8, and - with the possible exception of certain sequences in Mad Max: Fury Road - there was nothing more spectacular and exhilarating to behold last year than that show's opening credits; or alternatively the small-screen spin-off from the Coen brothers' Fargo, which has, over its two seasons, consistently surpassed its inspiration for dynamic, deep-focus framing. How do mainstream movies respond? In the case of the current Best Picture frontrunner, Tom McCarthy's incoming Spotlight, it's to assume the self-effacing form of an HBO miniseries. Our images are in a state of some flux.
The BBC, for their part, have spotted that this osmosis opens up another potentially profitable revenue stream: they enjoyed a quantifiable box-office hit upon screening the Doctor Who episode The Day of the Doctor theatrically in November 2013, and this week beamed the New Year's Sherlock special The Abominable Bride into cinemas on the same night it premiered on the box. It is a sign of how the times are changing that no-one at the Beeb had the foresight to put the 1987 Brush Strokes Christmas special on at the Odeon - not even with the considerable carrot of a Karl Howman Q&A - but then, for at least an hour of its running time, The Abominable Bride is framed as a one-off beamed in from an alternate dimension, one that puts the series' modernisation of Holmes on hold to demonstrate that overseers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss can rethink Conan Doylisms just as well as they can outthink Guy Ritchie. Accordingly, these ninety minutes, tellingly listed as Season 4 Episode 0, offer a 19th century intrigue - woman apparently comes back from self-sacrifice to avenge herself on her husband and others - that plays out in period dress, between horse-drawn carriages. If you can't beat Downton in the ratings, join 'em. (The BBC's other much-heralded New Year event: a six-part retelling of War and Peace.)
I should confess that I've only dipped in and out of the series up to this point, but I was struck, even during this anomaly, by how relaxed and fluid the show's own boundaries are - a boon in the often inflexible field of costume drama. Holmes's parlour becomes first a crime scene, then a channeling space; in this reality, a female mortician (Louise Brealey, catching the panto spirit) is obliged to don a moustache to get ahead in her male-dominated field. Having established the rules of this universe over previous seasons, one senses Moffat and Gatiss beginning to make merry, even mischief in the gaps. It's a fun process to observe, and the Cumberbatch/Freeman partnership remains far wittier and sharper - possessed of lighter hands and swifter minds - than the blunt-force commercial pairing of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in the Ritchie films: the actors have a nice, still-functioning comic rapport premised on Watson's ability to see Sherlock for who he really is - a scared, if high-functioning, control freak - while nevertheless insisting on printing the legend. (This will perhaps be obvious to long-time fans, but here Moffat and Gatiss really have brought something new to the canon: a Watson who's no chump, and acutely aware of his role as an enabler. See also: Andrew Scott's quasi-abstract depiction of Moriarty, less a criminal mastermind who needs to be brought to justice than a taunting character defect that needs to be suppressed - an embodiment of the sleuth's depressive, defeatist tendencies.)
Moffat's delight in wordplay - evident as far back as personal kids-TV favourite Press Gang - hasn't abated: it's evident in Watson's huffy response to a domestic ("I'll have a word with my wife to have a word with you", immediately delineating status within this household), and the bet Sherlock makes with this reality's obese Mycroft (Gatiss, under latex) as to the age at which his brother's lamentable diet will get the better of him ("You're gambling with your own life!"). The immediate Twitter consensus was that The Abominable Bride featured far too much of this messiness and mucking about, but those not racing to fire off 140-character mid-show hot takes might have spotted how the plot actually functions in the manner of a compendium. Every one of its multiple subplots and loose ends - the wave of copycat killings investigated by Rupert Graves' Inspector Lestrade; Catherine McCormack as an aristocrat patronised by hubby Tim McInnerny; a case Scott's Moriarty refers to in passing - circles back to the unifying theme: the stiff, cranky way men sometimes relate to women, and the extreme measures women are sometimes forced to take in order to make their presence felt.
Yes, you could accuse Moffat and Gatiss of opportunism - that this is Sherlock jumping on the creaky, hardly turbo-charged Suffragette bandwagon - and there's a specific problem with attempting to shoehorn feminism into this particular male-authored, male-led whodunnit format, in that it requires sisterhood to be treated as an aberration that must, at the last, be explained away by rational men. (One intriguing wrinkle: in their own rather dismissive interactions with the fairer sex, the script depicts Holmes and Watson as just as culpable in this respect as anybody on screen - there's an attempt to critique the all-consuming bromance of the Ritchie movies, in a special that insists all its characters learn from the past to progress in the present tense.) I hear the frustrations of the fans who'd rather the series kick along in its usual mode and tie up outstanding matters - frustrations presumably felt more keenly when only three or four episodes are produced at a time. When Cumberbatch and Freeman are placed at our disposal for a few nights of the year, why are we spending all this time exploring the back alleys of the hero's imagination? Still, for this viewer at least, there remained a pleasure to be taken from spending time there, and this series is now such a juggernaut - and, crucially, still so evidently a source of enjoyment for its participants - that there will surely be further opportunities to proceed, whatever the screen size.
Sherlock: The Abominable Bride can be watched here until the end of the month, and is available on DVD from Monday.