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Sherlock S4E1 The Six Thatchers – Spoiler-free Review * 20 December 2016

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Expectation and Anticipation are powerful things.

There is never any doubt that a new episode of Sherlock is highly anticipated, especially when it is the opening episode in a new full series of three episodes.

Expectation for a new episode though is something different.

S2E1 A Scandal in Belgravia carried great expectation with it. We had to know how Sherlock, John and Moriarty got out of that potentially sticky situation at a swimming pool with an explosive vest.

S3E1 The Empty Hearse was possibly even worse. Expectations were through the roof. Feverish theorising for two years had left the audience gagging for an explanation as to how Sherlock Holmes had survived faking his own death. Structurally that episode was interesting, with the heightened anticipation of the solution arguably hobbling the main thrust of the narrative itself. We were far more interested in wrapping up the cliffhanger than the plot we were given, at least on a first viewing.

The Abominable Bride was an interesting tangent into period stylings, or so we thought. It turned out to be deeply linked to the overarching plot thread we were left with at the close of the third series, all while not answering any of our questions as to whether Jim Moriarty was in fact dead or alive.

That intentional tease has arguably torpedoed our expectations for the opening of the fourth series - after all, Moriarty's state of existence is relatively moot when Andrew Scott is able to pop up in the bowels of Sherlock's mind palace. But as we've lengthily drawn out above, expectation and anticipation are very different things. And the fact that you may have zero expectations going into Sherlock S4E1 The Six Thatchers is arguably the episodes' greatest strength.

We've been implored to avoid all spoilers relating to the episode, which is something we always strive for in these early reviews anyway. We're intent on coming back after airing to fully talk about the episode in greater detail though, as there is much to enjoy and discuss.

This is a seismic episode of Sherlock.

Laced with warm hearted comedy at the start, it is then fuelled by a propulsive energy into a Proper Case, involving the mysterious and seemingly random destruction of the titular six busts of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. If you're familiar with the canon stories, then you'll recognise this is all a spin on The Six Napoleons, but as often the case with Sherlock it all spins off into a different, bigger tale than the original inspiration. Rest assured though the episode is largely all plot with great excellent dollops of character development peppered throughout, the narrative allowing the episode to make surprising turns and allowing it to explicitly borrow elements from a genre the series hasn't dug too deeply into before now. But at the same time, you may very well find your steadfast sympathies challenged, and that in turn was shocking to us a viewer. One member in the cast in particular potentially exceeds all their previous work on the series in their performance.

Rachel Talalay's debut on Sherlock as director is stupendous, infusing the show with that hinted at new colour while revisiting favourite motifs in new ways yet again. The stylistic quirks and grace notes Paul McGuigan introduced way back in the first series continue to evolve in new and innovative directions, so much so it takes a moment to fully process the leap here. Mark Gatiss' script is by turns delightfully light and extremely heavy duty, the plot rightly mysterious and then refreshingly straightforward once all the pieces are clearly revealed. And mention must be made again to David Arnold and Michael Price's score. Sounding lusher and more cinematic than ever before, it truly transcends the television home that the series is supposed to occupy.      

Going in though, remember the difference between expectation and anticipation.

The stakes are heightened beyond what you could have expected. And that is the mark of a show that means some serious business. And in particular, you should have your anticipation dialled right up, because if nothing else The Six Thatchers will provoke some huge reactions from viewers come the close... and ensure you stick around once those credits have rolled too!

We'll be back with a far deeper analysis of The Six Thatchers after the episode airs on January 1 2017 on BBC One in the UK and PBS Masterpiece in the USA.