Canon References and Symbolism in The Sign of Three

Sherlock: Every Canon Reference You May Have Missed in BBC’s Series 1-3 by Valerie Estelle Frankel

has just gone on sale in paperback and ebook. To celebrate the U.S. premiere, I thought I’d post a sample of all the clever references in tonight’s episode….SPOILERS FOR TONIGHT AHEAD!

The Title

This riffs on the original story of a pact between four men who signed their documents with “The Sign of Four.” At episode’s end, Sherlock plays on this with his big reveal of the “sign of three.”

Symbolism: Sherlock’s Palace

GATISS: “[The Mind Palace] came about because I remember having in the midst – probably in Cornwall – in the midst of an absolute crisis of intractability, I said, ‘But he’s got to find out what it is, but he can’t just bloody look it up. What is it?’ and you said, ‘Why don’t we do a Mind Palace?’ ‘cause we’d both read Derren Brown’s book.”

RUSSELL TOVEY: “What, the Mind Palace isn’t a Conan Doyle thing?”
MOFFAT: “No, no. It’s a really interesting idea. It’s how you store information in your brain.”
GATISS: “Hannibal Lecter does it, and it’s a real idea.” (“The Hounds of Baskerville” DVD Commentary)

However, the creators couldn’t show more than superimposed text in “The Hounds of Baskerville” – doing otherwise would be too expensive.

The Mind Palace appears in “The Sign of Three” as a courtroom with Mycroft as the judge to Sherlock’s lawyer. The women Sherlock invites in play in a giant game of Guess Who? And stand like statues when he’s not using them – a perfect audience, barely alive to him. Mycroft is unimaginably tall and large, barking demands which only serve to confuse Sherlock and disorient him, as shown by his behavior during his wedding speech – the most disconcerted he’s ever appeared. Sherlock also mentions he’s plotted Mycroft’s death – their relationship is quite problematic. He finally dismisses Mycroft as the voice of his mind, insisting on Watson instead, with the words, “You keep me right.”

This seems to be a single room in his mind palace, yet it’s quite telling – He’s playing childish games and using people while Mycroft looms as the parent to Sherlock’s child. “Let’s play murder,” he says in the real world of the wedding. Sherlock rebelliously tells adult Mycroft, “I’m not a child anymore”: in fact a truly childish thing to say. Many references to Sherlock’s childishness appear in this episode:

 SHERLOCK (sitting down in his chair): You bring me tea in the morning?

MRS HUDSON (pouring the tea): Well, where d’you think it came from?!
SHERLOCK: I don’t know. I just thought it sort of happened.
MRS HUDSON: Your mother has a lot to answer for.
(She takes the cup and saucer over to him.)
SHERLOCK: Mm, I know. I have a list. Mycroft has a file.

MRS HUDSON (walking towards the door): I really am going to have a word with your mother.
SHERLOCK: You can if you like. She understands very little.

This may simply mean that Sherlock operates on a mental level far above her or it may relate to his relationship with her as a misunderstood child.

In this episode, John and Mary act somewhat like Sherlock’s parents – embarrassed by his impolite behavior yet also fighting for his needs when there’s a real crisis. In other episodes, John has also been overprotective of Sherlock, shooting the assailant in the first episode and hurling himself at Moriarty so Sherlock can escape in “The Great Game.” He tucks Sherlock into bed and is very protective of his feelings on discovering that Irene faked her death. Sherlock in turn acts completely panicked when John is threatened, showing that he might lose his only stability.

Before the wedding, Mary comforts Sherlock, pointing out that he shouldn’t be jealous of John’s having a friend before Major Sholto. All three work as a team to save the Major, entering a new level of partnership – a real “Sign of Three.”

Sherlock’s adult confusion at Irene Adler (possibly a frequent guest in his mind palace) and Janine the maid of honor appear here – in the final minutes he appears ready to ask the Janine for a dance before seeing she has someone already.

Another example of Sherlock’s childlike confusion appears during his first real conversation seen with a child:

SHERLOCK: Basically it’s a cute smile to the bride’s side, cute smile to the groom’s side and then the rings.
ARCHIE: No.
SHERLOCK: And you have to wear the outfit.
ARCHIE: No.
SHERLOCK: You really do have to wear the outfit.
ARCHIE: What for?
SHERLOCK: Grown-ups like that sort of thing.
ARCHIE: Why?
(Sherlock pauses for a moment.)
SHERLOCK:…I don’t know. I’ll ask one.
ARCHIE (thoughtfully): You’re a detective.
SHERLOCK: Yep.
ARCHIE: Have you solved any murders?
SHERLOCK: Sure. Loads.
ARCHIE: Can I see?
SHERLOCK (after only a momentary hesitation): Yeah, all right.

Sherlock implies that he understands being a boy but must consult a “real” adult on adult matters. He and Archie bond over gruesome case photos as Sherlock doesn’t sugar-coat or sensor the images as other adults would.

By the episode’s end he emphasizes his relationship with John and Mary, along with a hint of wistful jealousy:

SHERLOCK: Don’t panic. None of you panic. Absolutely no reason to panic.
JOHN: Oh, and you’d know, of course?
SHERLOCK: Yes I would. You’re already the best parents in the world, look at all the practice you’ve had.
JOHN: What practice?
SHERLOCK: Well, you’re hardly going to need me around now that you’ve got a real baby on the way. (“The Sign of Three”)

Canon References

  • Donovan warns Lestrade: “Jones’ll get all the credit if you leave now! You know he will!” Lestrade and Gregson spend the first episode battling to outdo each other on a case, and Jones is similar in “The Sign of Four.”
  • Holmes is shown getting on quite well with a little boy. On the show, he and the Baker Street Irregulars (a gang of street urchins) understand one another perfectly. This also works well as a nod to the film, Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars, which details more about the relationship.
  • John references Harry and her drinking problem, mentioned in the first episode. He also mentions he’s seeing the psychiatrist less.
  • Wedding telegrams echo the original Holmes’s fondness for telegrams.
  • One telegram Sherlock reads says, “…Oodles of love and heaps of good wishes from C.A.M. Wish your family could have seen this.” Mary flinches. It appears she’s had dealings with Charles Augustus Magnussen (Milverton in the short story). This also hints at her family situation–Mary notes in flashback that she’s an orphan.
  • Sherlock reads a telegram from Mike Stamford, Watson’s former colleague at Barts, who introduced them.
  • When Sherlock is asked to be a best man, he’s confused and notes that a philanthropist (and occasional murderer) is the “best man” he knows:

JOHN: The best man.
SHERLOCK: The best man?
JOHN: What do you think?
SHERLOCK: Billy Kincaid.
JOHN: Sorry, what?
SHERLOCK: Billy Kincaid, the Camden Garroter. Best man I ever knew. Vast contributions to charity, never disclosed. Personally managed to save three hospitals from closure, and ran the best and safest children’s homes in North England. Yes, every now and again there’d be some garrotings, but, stacking up the lives saved against the garrotings, on balance I’d say…

This is a flip on the original line – “I assure you that the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three little children for their insurance-money, and the most repellent man of my acquaintance is a philanthropist who has spent nearly a quarter of a million upon the London poor.” (“The Sign of Four”)

  • Everyone warns Holmes that the relationship will change. This is the case in the books, as Watson loses track of many of Holmes’s cases and only drops in on his occasionally during his marriage. At the end of “The Sign of the Four,” Watson says, “I fear that it may be the last investigation in which I shall have the chance of studying your methods. Miss Morstan has done me the honor to accept me as a husband in prospective.”
  • Holmes replies with the line he repeats several times in the episode: “I really cannot congratulate you.” Of course, in the book he says it in private, and on the show, he amends his answer, and finally adds that he actually does congratulate them.
  • Holmes’s other line from original story is repeated: “Love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things” (“The Sign of the Four”). The wedding guests are not amused.
  • In the book Holmes is not seen attending the wedding – it’s uncertain that he even does so. It’s certainly believable that he would compose a violin piece, practice dancing until it’s exact, be immune to the bridesmaid’s charms (yet size up the men around them), catch a criminal during the reception, and then finally walk off alone into the darkness.
  • Speaking to young Archie, Sherlock says, ‘Get this right and there’s a headless nun in it for you.’ This nods to the series’ unaired pilot.
  • The cases mentioned in this one do not appear to be in the book: “The Hollow Client,” “The Matchbox Decathlete,” “The Mayfly Man,” “The Poison Giant,” “The Bloody Guardsman,” and “The Elephant in the Room.” The last of these appears to be just a play on words with the expression “elephant in the room,” except that “The Mystery of the Vanishing White Elephant” was a case in Basil Rathbone’s New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio show of the 1940s. “The Mayfly Man” and “The Bloody Guardsman” are solved in the course of this episode.
  • “The Mayfly Man” has elements of “A Case of Identity,” where a woman dates a mystery man who dumps her suddenly…it’s her own stepfather, scaring off suitors (This plot also appears in “The Empty Hearse”). Likewise in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” Holmes starts “walking out” with a housemaid and even proposes marriage just to get information on the man she works for (foreshadowing the following episode). This is the actual solution.
  • Sherlock tells of “The Matchbox Decathlete” – a French decathlete found surrounded by 1,812 matchboxes, all empty except one. “The Inexplicable Matchbox” appears on John’s blog, There, he mentions Sherlock dressing as a clown and Mrs. Hudson being pushed from a helicopter. He’s unable to add details due to “Every Official Secrets Act.” This is adapted from the case “of Isadora Persano, the well-known journalist and duelist, who was found stark staring mad with a match box in front of him which contained a remarkable worm said to be unknown to science” (“The Problem of Thor Bridge”).
  • Lestrade hypothesizes a very small person with a blow-pipe snuck through the vents and murdered the soldier for “The Bloody Guardsman,” as Sherlock calls it. “The Poison Giant” has a similar plot. In “The Sign of Four,” Jonathan Small’s Pacific Islander accomplice fits this description, and this is actually how the murder was committed.
  • The locked room mystery death of “The Bloody Guardsman” also resembles “The Crooked Man” with a soldier out for revenge on another.
  • The Hollow Client is one of the cases on John’s blog, explained fully there.
  • There’s also the young woman who keeps hesitating on the pavement. Sherlock comments, “Oscillation on the pavement always means there’s a love affair.” “A Case of Identity” has the same line: “I have seen those symptoms before,” said Holmes, throwing his cigarette into the fire. “Oscillation upon the pavement always means an affaire de coeur. She would like advice, but is not sure that the matter is not too delicate for communication.”
  • The fan joke about Watson’s middle name appears again.

GATISS: “‘Hamish’ is from the Rathbone films, isn’t it?”
MOFFAT: “No. Doyle when he wrote these stories was appalling on continuity. Continuity was so bad, he once forgot Doctor Watson’s name and had his wife call him James. He’s called James for a whole story!”
CUMBERBATCH: “Maybe she just forgot the name!”
MOFFAT: “Someone came up with this brilliant theory that the middle name was Hamish – ‘cause it’s John H. Watson in the stories – and Hamish is the Scottish version of James, so she called him by his middle name.”

GATISS: “What’s great is, the lack of Doyle’s continuity is a great field for in-jokes.” (Commentary, “A Scandal in Belgravia”)

  • For the second episode running, Sherlock gets Lestrade’s first name wrong: Gavin this time, Graham in “The Empty Hearse.” Doyle only ever referred to ‘G. Lestrade,’ though he’s named Greg for Inspector Gregson.
  • “Vatican cameos” (Watson and Holmes’ code phrase for danger) appears again along with a quick glimpse of Irene Adler from the same episode.
  • Sherlock calls himself a high-functioning sociopath again, nodding to episode one.
  • Holmes asks Molly about her boyfriend while studying how to get only mildly drunk.
  • Molly calls Sherlock a graduate chemist. Watson remarks on his friend’s knowledge of chemistry and wonders if he’s a student in the first story.
  • Sherlock mentions his “international reputation.”
  • In his speech, Sherlock describes a case he failed to solve. These happen occasionally, but rarely. “I have been beaten four times – three times by men, and once by a woman,” Sherlock admits (“The Five Orange Pips”). In “The Yellow Face” he simply gets the case completely wrong.
  • Watson’s military career is mentioned, though it fails to get him any concessions.
  • Both Captain Sholtos (original and from this episode) are guilty of great betrayals.
  • Sherlock lets the phrase “previous commander” slip out, suggesting he’s Watson’s current commander. He does on occasion act like it, even in the books:

“Good morning, Holmes,” said the baronet. “You look like a general who is planning a battle with his chief of the staff.”

“That is the exact situation. Watson was asking for orders.”

“And so do I.” (“The Hound of the Baskervilles”)

  • In “The Illustrious Client,” Watson notes, “He gave no explanations and I asked for none. By long experience I had learned the wisdom of obedience.”
  • A client writes “my husband is three people,” and Holmes intuits triplets. Identical twin criminals appear in the film The Case of the Silk Stocking (2004).
  • Sherlock claims he learned napkin folding at an operahouse. An operahouse case appears in Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady (1991).
  • When Sherlock is drunk, the text surrounding his observations is ridiculously useless, emphasizing his current state.
  • Sherlock mentions he’s drugged Watson successfully before – this is seen in “The Hounds of Baskerville.”
  • Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes also has Watson and Holmes ending an era as Watson moves out and plans to marry. Mary in the movie says, “I know you care for him as much as I do … Solve this. Whatever it takes.” In this episode Mary shares both these last two sentiments.

 Doctor Who

  • Sherlock’s frenetic babble when he corrects himself after his Sign of Three slip-up or when the case intrudes on his speech resembles the Doctor’s. “Love a wedding!” he bursts out unconvincingly, mimicking many of the Doctor’s phrases (“Love an ood!”).
  • In this episode and in Moffat’s “The Doctor Dances” Sherlock and the Doctor both enjoy dancing and seem to resent being thought of asexual when interacting with Rose or Janine. Dancing and sex are a metaphor for each other in the Doctor Who episode.
  • When Sherlock gets drunk and scans the area, the usual deductions are replaced by words like “Chair? Sitty thing?” “Speaker high tech thing.” The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors sometimes talk like this, as the Tenth says, “This is my timey-wimey detector. It goes ding when there’s stuff” (“Blink”).

British Culture

  • Wedding Telegrams are sent by those who can’t make the ceremony and are often read aloud by the best man. Sherlock notes, “They’re not actually telegrams. We just call them telegrams. I don’t know why. Wedding tradition … because we don’t have enough of that already, apparently.”
  • Archie is the page boy. These are traditional at British weddings, roughly equivalent to the American job of ringbearer.
  • The classic line to finish the wedding toast is something like “Ladies and Gentlemen, please be upstanding and charge your glasses. I give you: The bride and groom.” Sherlock of course attempts this but then has an epiphany.
  • Other traditions like the white gown (popularized by Queen Victoria herself) are shared between Britain and the U.S. Others are a bit different: British women often wear hats to weddings (seen in Mrs. Hudson and some of the episode’s other guests). The British say, “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, a silver sixpence in her shoe.” Waltzing and formality (such as Sherlock’s properly escorting the maid of honor) are more common in the U.K. The stag night is about the same as a bachelor party.
  • The Changing of the Guard features heavily in the episode. This ceremony is still held roughly every other day outside Buckingham Palace by The Queen’s Guard. They are a tourist attraction in themselves, considered British icons. Many tourists try to tease them or make them laugh, as they’re famously stoic, something Sherlock and John discuss.
  • “Am I the current king of England?” Holmes asks when playing the Post-it Note game. Obviously, there’s no such person, and hasn’t been in Holmes’s lifetime.
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