‘Sherlock’ Sends Benedict Cumberbatch Back in Time to Victorian London

The definitive modern-day version of the Sherlock Holmes story travels back to the Victorian era in “The Abominable Bride,” a new special episode.

They finally got Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes to put on that iconic deerstalker cap.

In an episode from the second series of Masterpiece’s contemporary-set Sherlock, the title character impulsively uses the hat most associated with the literary detective to hide his face from the paparazzi. It inadvertently becomes his signature when the photo lands on the front cover of Britain’s tabloids.

“What kind of hat is it anyway?” a frustrated Sherlock wonders. “Is it a cap? Why’s it got two fronts?” When Martin Freeman’s Watson informs him that it’s called a “deerstalker,” he adds, “You can’t stalk a deer with that. What are you going to do, throw it? Some sort of death Frisbee?” He promptly chucks the hat across the room, with no intention of ever putting it back on his head.

Yet there Cumberbatch is, wearing the maligned hat, along with more Arthur Conan Doyle-era Victorian period dress in the new Sherlock special, “The Abominable Bride,” set to premiere simultaneously, for the first time, in Britain and the U.S. on Jan. 1. There are horse-drawn carriages in the streets of London and a curlicue mustache on John Watson’s face. There’s even an over-sized pipe in Holmes’s mouth.

What happened to the modern-day Sherlock viewers have grown to love over the past five years?

When period-tinged photos started to leak from the set in 2015, Sherlock’s co-creator Steven Moffat was quick to clarify that the change was made for this one-off special only, and not a permanent shift in the series.

“The special is its own thing,” Moffat told Entertainment Weekly in March. “We wouldn’t have done the story we’re doing, and the way we’re doing it, if we didn’t have this special. It’s not part of the run of three episodes. So we had this to do it—as we could hardly conceal—it’s Victorian.” He added, “It’s kind of in its own little bubble.”

As for the nature of that story, it’s a bit more supernatural than a typical episode of the show, which tends to rely on the detective’s on-the-spectrum attention to detail, along with modern technological advances to solve its convoluted cases. This time, we’re dealing with a “ghost story.”

“Ghost stories work better in a Victorian setting,” Moffat said recently. “This strand of Doyle original stories that are creepy and scary, and the chillers, we haven’t done much with in the modern show. But putting it back into Victorian times, you think it’s a chance to do a ghost story, really—a creepy, scary one.”

According to Moffat’s co-creator, Mark Gatiss, who also plays Mycroft Holmes in the series, the special’s title is derived from an off-hand reference Sherlock makes to the case of “Ricoletti of the club foot and his abominable wife” in Doyle’s short story The Musgrave Ritual. But beyond that small clue, the showrunners revealed little else about the plot.

Actor Rupert Graves, who plays Inspector Lestrade and sports enormous muttonchops as the period version of his character, remarked in a behind-the-scenes featurette for the special how everything in the Sherlock world slows without the benefit of modern technology. “One of the great things about the modern-day Sherlock is the speed with which he can globally get things done,” Graves said. “In this, you have to use telegrams and Morse and I think that has an atmospheric shift.”

Cumberbatch added that the time period transformation did not change much about his character, whom he describes as “very old-fashioned” even in a modern setting. “He’s very contained in another era,” he said. “So for me it feels weirdly at home for this character.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

But the decision to air a one-off special as opposed to kicking off the highly anticipated fourth series this year likely has more to do with Cumberbatch’s demanding schedule than any grand artistic statement. Not only did the actor star in a divisive version of Hamlet this past year, but he also had a starring role in Black Mass, stirred controversy with his trans character in the upcoming Zoolander 2, and started filming the title role in Marvel’s Doctor Strange.

Meanwhile, Martin Freeman has been nearly as busy, wrapping up the Hobbit series and his role in Fargo while filming next year’s Whisky Tango Foxtrot alongside Tina Fey and making an appearance in yet another Marvel property, Captain America: Civil War.

There simply wasn’t time to shoot more than one episode of Sherlock, which is certain to disappoint some fans who are anxiously awaiting the resolution of a major cliffhanger from the end of Series Three. When we last left Holmes, he had been banished to Eastern Europe to embark on a mysterious mission after murdering “the Napoleon of blackmail.” But he is immediately called back to London when it is discovered that his nemesis Moriarty is still alive.

Rather than address any of those lingering questions, “The Abdominable Bride” transports the characters into the past where they must take on an entirely new case. But it appears that the salty nature of Watson and Holmes’s relationship remains intact. “You’re Sherlock Holmes, wear the damn hat,” Watson says at one point, shoving the deerstalker into his partner’s hands.