Queerbaiting and Why BBC Sherlock Isn't "Just a Show"

Okay, I'm so late to the party that the guests have gone home and all that remains is overturned furniture and a bunch of empty Solo cups. But the hosts haven't bothered to clean up the mess yet so my soapbox remains, here in the middle of the room.

To Moffat, Gatiss, and everyone else responsible for the Rise and Fall of the BBC Sherlock Empire: I've got quite a few bones to pick with you.

I watched Sherlock series 4 with the rest of the fandom, the exact second it aired. Because we're in the US, my roommate and I had to take extreme measures to ensure we would get to watch the premiere real time. I'm a Tunnelbear/livestream/backup livestream vet, so January 1st, 8th, and 15th were entire days devoted to streaming each new episode at 4 p.m. EST (and watching "Still Open All Hours" at 3:30, just to be safe). Sherlock fans get a new series only every three years, and everyone was so excited for series 4.

That is, until the series 4 actually aired.

To say it was a letdown would be insulting to letdowns everywhere. The first episode ("The Six Thatchers") had some pretty unexpected, pretty out of character moments (like John literally beating Sherlock to a pulp) but it was acceptable because hey, that's only a third of the whole season. Surely they'll make up for it in the next two episodes, right?

Episode two ("The Lying Detective") was pretty solid. I'm not going to complain about a whole 90 minutes featuring a creepy villain, beautiful production, interesting premise, and great acting. Everyone was much more in character—relative to "The Six Thatchers," that is—but there was still a ways to go before this season rose to the quality of the previous three.

Any "quality" episode two brought to series 4, episode three ("The Final Problem") ruined completely. The episode was so poorly written, scripted, and acted, the entire fandom (myself included) believed it was a prank and the true episode three was out there, still waiting to be released.

Some fans still think that. I've pretty much abandoned hope. At this point I don't even know if the existence of a secret episode matters, because Moffat and Gatiss have let the current last episode sit as official for far too long.

Of all the godawful things that went wrong in Sherlock series 4, the most infuriating is how they completely "no homo"-ed the relationship they had built between Sherlock and John, despite much of it being very not "no homo." That, my friends, is called queerbaiting—one of the worst and most offensive things a creator can do to the LGBTQIA+ community. It offers them a voice then retracts it. It dangles representation in their face and says bite, then pulls away before they can catch it.

So yeah, series 4 made (still makes, apparently) a lot of people pretty angry with the show and the showrunners. And naturally, backlash against it has led to backlash against the backlash. The most frequent argument is that “it’s just a show” and we're all mad because our “ship isn’t canon."

If only it was that simple. The problem here is that the piss-poor writing and horrible queerbaiting of series 4 had detrimental effects beyond the scope of the show itself.

It may be just a show, but it’s a show that gave us a community. It’s a show we put a lot of faith in because it was so good for so long. It’s a show we enjoyed the same way you enjoy hanging out with a friend. And when that friend turns their back on you and starts going back on everything they’ve ever said, you’re going to mourn the death of the person you thought they were and the relationship you two shared.

And give me a break, we’ve dealt with non-canon ships before. That’s why we have fanfic and fanart and headcanons and AUs. This frustration, this outrage, is not about that at all. It’s about the obvious (obvious) queerbaiting, the possibility of representation—of something we deserve, because no one else has created a show with so much potential to have characters naturally be gay, not in a way that’s forced or makes the entire show about them being gay—that was completely rejected.

It’s about Mark Gatiss, an openly gay man, abandoning an entire group of people he should instead be protecting. It’s about every interview when a cast member called it “television history." It's about every other lie, exaggeration, and half-truth they made us believe.

It’s about taking a really wonderful love story (and above that, just a really wonderful story) and screwing it up after six years of beautiful and intelligent writing. It’s about how the hell do you expect us to be proud or happy about all the shots you threw away.

So no, it’s not "just a TV show,” and it’s not about our ship. It’s about something we (not as a fandom but as a collective group of people) deserve and were denied.

Seven months later, I am still mourning the death of the show I thought BBC Sherlock was. I came into the fandom straight after series 1 hit Netflix, so it's been a part of my life since 2011. I gave them those five years happily because I saw them telling a story so many people have gotten wrong, and I thought they were finally going to get it right.

From day zero, Moffat and Gatiss started working towards an endgame Arthur Conan Doyle never could have pursued. Not many people outside of the fandom have seen the unaired pilot, a 60-minute rough draft of the first official episode. It's jokingly called the "gay pilot" for a reason: It laid the groundwork for every lie to come.

In the unaired pilot's most memorable scene, Sherlock is on the top of a building searching for the missing suitcase. He's hyper-focused, paying no attention to the moon behind him or his long coat swaying in the wind. On the sidewalk below, John looks up at the man he met mere hours ago as if he's the most extraordinary thing in the world.