'Sherlock' Star Benedict Cumberbatch, Creators on Show's Success and Possible Fifth Season

'Sherlock' season 4 episode 1 still H 2016
Courtesy of BBC

Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss, Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington spoke about their work ahead of the start of season 4 and how close the show stays to Arthur Conan Doyle's stories.

Hit drama Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington, will return to BBC One in the U.K. and PBS in the U.S. with its fourth season on Jan. 1.

But much fan debate has focused on whether there will be a fifth season. No definite word came just before the holidays, when BBC director general Tony Hall hosted a reception and preview of season four in London's Soho, followed by a Q&A with castmembers, writers and others working on the show, whose comments were embargoed until now.

The BBC has said that the new season, once again written by creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss and inspired by the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, begins with Sherlock Holmes (Cumberbatch) back on British soil as Dr. Watson (Freeman) and his wife, Mary (Freeman's former real-life partner Abbington), prepare for their biggest challenge: becoming parents.

Naturally, someone asked whether there were plans for a fifth season of the drama. "We would love to do more, but — we are genuinely not lying ... — we absolutely don't know," Gatiss said. "It's up to all kinds of factors, scheduling and willingness to do it." He concluded: "We are just not sure." Gatiss also shared that someone had asked him the same question earlier, quipping that "I said I have high hopes for spring, but after the inauguration, I'm not so sure."

Moffat previously said that he and Gatiss have plotted a fifth season. And Cumberbatch said this fall: "We never say never on the show. I'd love to revisit it. I'd love to keep revisiting it — I stand by that — but in the immediate future, we all have things that we want to crack on with, and we've made something very complete as it is, so I think we'll just wait and see." He added: "The idea of never playing him again is really galling."

With the exception of Victorian Christmas special The Abominable Bride a year ago, there haven't been new installments of the hit drama since 2014. One of the reasons has been the actors' busy schedules. 

"I am very, very proud of the success of this program," Cumberbatch said at the preview event for the new season, lauding Moffat and Gatiss. "For all of us, the heavy lifting is really done by two extraordinary fanboys. … And it's just very fun to play fast and loose with the traditional and just do your job as an actor."

Asked about how Sherlock is part of the often-cited current golden age of TV, Cumberbatch said: "You don't take a job thinking [about contributing to that]. You'd be a pretty dead duck if you did. … It's important for us to keep confounding the expectations of audiences and fans so that we can evolve rather than sitting on laurels." He drew laughs when he concluded: "It would be a horribly grand thing to associate with. But if you want to say that, that's fine."

Freeman, meanwhile, lauded Sherlock for allowing the actors to explore their ranges. "It is always interesting to play shades of people," he said.

Abbington said beyond the acting challenges, there are also the fun parts. "I got to go to Marrakech" for the new season, she shared. "Jesus, fantastic!"

Someone asked Gatiss during the Q&A what was more fun: writing an episode or doing a brilliant scene with Cumberbatch in Gatiss' role of Holmes' brother, Mycroft. Replied the writer-actor to laughs: "Doing brilliant scenes that I have written."

Moffat shed some light on the title of the first episode of season four, "The Six Thatchers," a reference to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. "It's a simple equivalence — that's what we have done from the beginning of modernizing it," he explained. "We needed somebody who was iconic — she's become Napoleon. She's an iconic figure."

Added Moffat: "We often use titles that are slight changes to the original. Like "The Empty House" becomes "The Empty Hearse," which is my favorite. We are taking the original, but we are always doing a twist on it. The whole point of doing a modernized version is to say it is all happening again and this time is slightly different. We are absolutely, I think, loyal to the storytelling principles of Arthur Conan Doyle, which are utterly brilliant. It is the heresy of the true believer."

Gatiss also talked about how close the writing team stays to Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes stories. "I think Sherlock Holmes always strives best when people don’t treat it as a monument," he said. "The stories are meant to be lurid and strange — that's why we love them. … We always try to find the stories we love and little bits and pieces of stories which are very familiar. We always go back to Doyle, but equally we are not treating it as a sacred monument."

Questioned about how daunting writing the new season was, Moffat said with a big smile: "It's not daunting at all; it's bloody brilliant. Normally, when you write shows, hardly anyone ever watches them and you sort of beg your friends and family, and people lie to you about having seen them." He added: "Making sure that people actually watch is bloody marvelous. I have never had an audience before." Amid laughs, Cumberbatch jumped in, imitating Moffat's voice and saying: "He's having a good time!"

So what was the biggest challenge for the Sherlock team in producing season four? "The big challenge was that peaceful dog [in episode 1], that bloodhound dog," Moffat said, drawing laughter. "It didn't move. That was an immobile dog. … It looked exactly like an ornament. It wouldn't do a thing."

Cumberbatch recalled, to more laughs, what the female trainer of the dog said while shooting in central London. "She said, well, the dog doesn't like pavements or concrete. It doesn't like people or busy streets or open spaces."

Rachel Talalay, who directed the first episode of the new season, acknowledged she had her own biggest challenge in "living up to the amazingness of the show." Looking toward show producer Sue Vertue, she added: "There is just no room to miss a beat, so that’s an incredible challenge. And watching it tonight with the actors who hadn't seen it yet was terrifying."

Produced by Hartswood Films, season four of Sherlock consists of three 90-minute episodes. The team behind the hit show has teased that the new season would be the darkest one yet.