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‘Sherlock,’ ‘Dragonball Z’ and a bad case of power escalation

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Would you believe me if I said “Dragonball Z” and BBC’s “Sherlock” have a lot in common?

Probably not. And I concede, on the surface, they can hardly sound any more different. “Dragonball Z” is a Japanese anime about the alien martial artist Goku who defends the Earth from superpowered villains. “Sherlock” is a British crime drama that retells Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories with a contemporary coat of paint. One is an adrenaline-filled beat-em-up, the other a series of intense mind-games. One explores the complexities of its morally detached protagonist, the other features muscular men with spiky hair who shout until their adversaries just sort of leave awkwardly (that is how I would rewrite the series, anyway). However, as an admirer of both, I have noticed that most fans — myself included — would say neither are currently as good as they once were. Tragically, both these downfalls can be chalked up to one common thread: a bad case of power escalation. 

The phenomenon can be summarized like this: With any battle anime (or manga if you want to be annoying about it), a natural cycle occurs. First, there is typically a villain that the hero needs to defeat; this new baddie needs to be threatening so the hero can have something to work towards — it wouldn’t be as interesting if they were a complete push-over! So, insert training montages and the power of friendship, then after a heart-pounding fight our heroes win. It is a happy ending; perhaps, the show could even end right here, but we’re dealing with franchises. The show must go on. Now, we have another villain, and in order to challenge the now stronger hero, this villain needs to be even more powerful. If baddie one could lift a boar, baddie two can throw cars as though they were made of foam-noodles. The hero then bucks up, gets even stronger and defeats villain number two, just as an even stronger villain three arrives — I think you get it by now. This is called power escalation, and such a phenomenon can turn initially simple stories into some insane stuff. 

This is when I must bring up the “Dragonball” franchise: the poster child of power escalation. Allow me, dear reader, to paint a nostalgic picture of the days before super-saiyans or alien warlords. Believe it or not, the original show was quite low-key!

“Dragonball” initially centered around a boy with a monkey tail accompanying a scientist girl on a quest to locate seven wish-fulfilling artifacts called Dragonballs. Our young Goku had superhuman strength and eventually learned to shoot a blast of energy — the famous “Kamehameha.” Other than that, however, this was pretty much it. Most fights in the show involved simple, though supernaturally exaggerated, martial arts. And sure, our hero would occasionally turn into an uncontrollable giant ape, and there was a rabbit guy who could turn people into carrots — look, I never said the show wasn’t weird — but these stranger elements were woven in so the viewer could easily understand how they work. It was a neat and elegant fighting system. This is, of course, not the “Dragonball” most people recognize. 

“Dragonball Z,” the more famous sequel series, had to exceed the bar raised by the already long-running original. This has led to some madness. We have alien threats capable of blowing up planets with their pinky finger, and child-like gum monsters capable of transforming entire galaxies into biscuits. Now, in the most recent arcs of “Dragonball Super,” the entire multiverse is at stake. We have gone from slightly magic karate to Lovecraftian feats of power. Granted, this is not necessarily a bad thing; “Dragonball Z” has been praised widely for raising the stakes. Most fans, however, agree that, at a certain point, something has been lost in this endless pursuit of power. We’re working with gods now, and us mortals have been left behind. 

Now, I am aware, dear reader, that this was the easy part — we already know anime is weird. How does “Sherlock” fit into this? And I respond with a follow-up question … Have you seen “The Final Problem?” This episode will be the focus of my autopsy, and my reasons are simple: first, this one episode perfectly exemplifies many of the show’s most recent faults, and second, I love making fun of it. 

“The Final Problem” is the season four finale, and considering there is still no sign of season five, quite a fitting title to what might be the show’s last episode. Our sexy detective Sherlock Holmes has discovered that he has a secret sister named Eurus, an “era-defining genius beyond Newton” and a highly dangerous individual capable of brainwashing people with a single conversation. Our heroes have reason to believe that she escaped from prison — which is, I should note, a literal island penitentiary in which she is the only prisoner — and with the assistance of Sherlock’s decidedly less sexy brother, Mycroft, they infiltrate said prison for … some reason. But they have fallen into a trap: Eurus has taken control of the whole island, and she insists on running Sherlock through a series of tests in which human lives are put on the line. 

Already, one should be able to recognize the sheer surface level absurdity of this premise. These spectacular 90 minutes are the writing equivalent to shooting fireworks in your backyard, only to realize you stuffed the rocket in the wrong way. Unfortunately, there are way too many issues for me to get to everything, and most of them are not directly relevant to the point I want to make. It’s a shame, really. I would really like to regale you with the juicy bits, like how this episode reveals that Mycroft apparently spends his off-time watching erotic noir films sassily through an old-timey projector. Also, I tragically cannot go into the details of when Mycroft, two minutes later, steels himself to duel a clown with his umbrella, which is then revealed to be a sword, which — plot twist — is revealed to have been a gun the whole time. No, I must ignore the major narrative sins of making Sherlock’s entire character explainable by a shoe-horned villain and a very specific case of amnesia; I must throw it out with the gentler though equally stupid transgressions like describing their childhood home as a place “where there is always honey for tea,” or when Eurus deduces that Sherlock surely must have had sex because of his “sensual” violin playing. All these are not so important … but I really needed to get that out of my system. 

No, the biggest issue in “The Final Problem” can be most easily traced back to the villain, Eurus. She represents the type of adversary that transforms this show into something larger and more epic, but also completely unrecognizable. Eurus has single-handedly changed the show from a crime drama to a battle anime. 

Here’s the point: this is a classic case of power escalation, with a British coat of paint. “Sherlock” was never a completely realistic show, of course, but one of the major draws of the series was following the brilliant Sherlock Holmes and being able to trace his thought process. Most of his deductions, at least the plot-important ones, had a logic to them that makes sense to our realism-centric brains. In the first episode of the series, Sherlock sees through the bad guy’s evil plan, revealing that the firearm he wields in his kidnappings was a fake. He discovers a third option that the viewer themselves could have guessed, because all the evidence and logic was right there. In another episode, a government official is being blackmailed by the formidable Irene Adler (a better Eurus in my opinion), and our hero deduces the passcode not through some out-of-nowhere mind power, but by understanding her emotions — ultimately, the key to solving this whole conflict was a simple pun, once again made easily available to the viewer. 

Just like in “Dragonball,” however, BBC had to keep raising the stakes — we needed smarter and smarter baddies, larger and larger consequences. By the time we get to “The Final Problem,” we have lost the ability to follow our combatants. Eurus has become so absurdly smart that she is able to decode the brains of an entire prison; this isn’t something we can realistically trace, like a passcode or a faulty gun. This is the feat of an “X-Men” villain. And in order to match her, Sherlock needs to up his game. We get less of those fast but logical explanations the earlier episodes were known for, and we see Sherlock win just because the plot demands it, just because he is that smart. This is hardly different from Goku summoning an even larger spirit bomb in a clutch moment. At least now we can say Sherlock Holmes and Goku have something in common.

Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu.