Plight of the Pimpernel

Posted in Audio by - December 10, 2020
Plight of the Pimpernel

Released December 2020

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

The first of two December releases in The Monthly Adventures range, ‘Plight of the Pimpernel’ by Chris Chapman thrusts the Sixth Doctor and Peri squarely into the danger of France’s Reign of Terror in 1793. But as the guillotine continues to threaten the lives of the aristocracy, the very British and very fictional Scarlet Pimpernel continues to provide a heroic respite that has captured everyone’s imagination.

Unlike the First Doctor serial ‘The Reign of Terror,’ ‘Plight of the Pimpernel’ wisely chooses to take a very different narrative direction by not prominently featuring any of the known historical figures of the time in order to distinguish itself. This allows the actual setting and particular thoughts about the Revolution to develop much more robustly through the viewpoints of both the aristocracy and the common man. It also allows the plot to take on aspects of the much more common pseudohistorical genre as a character created in the early twentieth century showcases his brash bravado and daring nature in the late eighteenth century, a dichotomy that expertly allows a very bombastic and Sixth Doctor to fully flourish. Jamie Parker and Colin Baker play off of each other perfectly as their characters’ individual ideals and eccentricities shine through, and Nicola Bryant proves to be a momentous force in her own right as a very self-assured Peri acting both as friend and as lady of the manor helps to drive events forward while ensuring the plot remains grounded in genuine emotion from beginning to end.

Every author, of course, chooses when to reveal certain key information, but Chapman intriguingly chooses to take away a significant portion of the enigma surrounding its titular hero fairly early on in the story. To be sure, crucial and even more personal information regarding the Scarlet Pimpernel continues to come almost until the very end, but the decision to focus more on that character as an individual does come at the sacrifice of continued French world-building to truly put his actions here into a cultural context. Instead, a morality play about grief that asks whether a man’s best intentions in the present and going forward can ever make up for past actions unfolds, and the incredible emotions this discussion brings forth from the Doctor creates a genuinely fraught moment in which literally anything seems possible. Unfortunately, those past actions are only touched upon fairly briefly via a few words and a quick trip in the TARDIS, and so there isn’t quite enough substance to fully resonate with those expressive words which means that ultimately little is offered to distinguish this particular sole survivor from the countless others who have featured in somewhat similar circumstances in other stories. The Scarlet Pipernel’s multiple pursuers from very different origins do offer an intriguing plot point that prove crucial to the development of its layers, but the admitted lack of any personal danger certainly takes away from this hero’s accomplishments and brings his purported personal growth wholly into question with his chosen identity still only somewhat tenuously explained. Of course, subversion is something of an underlying theme to this story that surprisingly rears its head most prominently with one final twist that casts a fortnight’s events in an entirely new light.

Even with Citizen Donat a bit too over-the-top, the Scarlet Pimpernel’s actions within France from the viewpoints of the French is ultimately more satisfying than the reported journey of self-reflection and betterment that ultimately features. ‘Plight of the Pimpernel’ is very much a story of two halves, but the strength of the historical aspects earlier on means that the hero’s past cannot fully develop as his true identity comes to feature later on, and both plotlines are diminished as they strangely compete for prominence while the science fiction plot emerges and begins to dominate. Nonetheless, this is an undisputed showcase for Baker and Bryant, and the sound design is wonderfully immersive while bringing the dangers of this setting vividly to life. This is a story that maybe tries to do too much without really turning its hero into something unique, but its overall confidence and sheer style help to make for a listen that is never anything less than fully engaging.

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