The Scarlet Pimpernel is a novel by the Baroness Emma Orczy. In fact, between 1905 and 1940, Baroness Orczy wrote no fewer than 18 novels and short stories featuring swashbuckling English aristocrat Sir Percy Blakeney and his exploits saving French lords and ladies from the guillotine during the French Revolution and its aftermath.
The point it’s important to remember about that brief English literature lesson is that in Chris Chapman’s The Plight of the Pimpernel, both Percy Blakeney and the Pimpernel are as much fiction in the Doctor’s reality as they are in ours.
In which case, whose house are the Doctor and Peri staying in, while the Pimpernel’s adventures light up both sides of the English Channel?
In some respects, it’s an odd conceit, The Plight of the Pimpernel, with both the Doctor and Peri at one time or another playing Pimpernel (in line with one of the Baroness’ later stories, The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel), alongside or instead of Sir Percy. The Doctor admits that while he knows there must be chicanery of some sort behind this bringing to life of the legendary toff-saviour, he’s both keen to find out what it is and also, when it comes right down to it, keen to spend some time alongside his literary hero.
Of course, from the very beginning, this sets up a handful of potential truths: the Pimpernel’s an imposter; the Pimpernel’s an innocent amnesiac, a la The Next Doctor; we’re not really in Revolutionary France, etc, etc. Our minds leap to them all pretty quickly, and the rest of the running time is involved in showing us which – if any – of the things we thought were going on were correct.
Along the way though, there’s scope for both unusual sci-fi action when it turns out the Pimpernel is wanted by more than the French authorities, and an interesting philosophical line that might just give you a new perspective on the Doctor’s post-Time War character.
The villain – and no, we’re not going to tell you who the villain is, what kind of spoiler-factory do you take us for – is in a pretty grand tradition of Classic Doctor Who villains, from Omega to Eldrad to Scaroth and more. People used to power, who having suffered a dramatic setback try to make a new destiny for themselves. That’s what gives us that pause for thought about the post-Time War Doctor. How you deal with the things you’ve done, and how easily you forgive yourself for the hurt you’ve caused in the past, are key themes to the drama surrounding the Pimpernel. And while we may not have been involved in space-time shenanigans that send the police force of a major European nation after us, we’ve all had regrets in life, all had relationships. Whether our regrets define us, and whether, when it comes right down to it, we’d do things differently if we had the chance, are decisions we make for ourselves.
Here we have a Sixth Doctor in at least some degree of crisis, because he uncovers a target against whom he can unleash his famous moral outrage, but the complexities of the situation into which he’s led by the surely-can’t-be-real Scarlet Pimpernel mean that as well as the external target of his rage, he also feels the need for some savage self-criticism.
Remember the Sixth Doctor of The Twin Dilemma? All reckless action and devastating repentance? There’s a touch of that character keystone in this story, though both Chris Chapman and Colin Baker are in far tighter control of the character here, meaning the Sixth Doctor’s fury is more buttoned-down and powerful than it is necessarily explosive and shouty. In a way, that makes the Sixth Doctor less safe for us as listeners than we’re used to, which gives a degree of thrill to the story. You’re actually, at one point, not entirely sure you’re safe in his company. As he chases after the villain, having been duped himself into doing frivolous things that may have cost lives, there’s a sense that he can only atone, can only cleanse his lofty Time Lord conscience, by spilling the blood of the character who led him to his folly.
Intense, high-octane stuff when it really gets going, The Plight Of The Pimpernel.
It’s also, before we oversell the dark and brooding nature of that plot-strand, a right old romp that would in no way be out of place in the 21st century show. Apart from anything else, it’s larks with the Scarlet Pimpernel! Wigs, silks, dashing escapes and rescues from French dungeons – all the makings of a great Sunday afternoon adventure movie.
To give him credit though, Chris Chapman does point out that it’s rarely as if those who were heading to be executed were friends of the people. The Revolution by no means came about spontaneously – it was an eruption of long-growing frustration against the…ahem…1%. And while, like most revolutions, it ended up turning to blood and bureaucracy, at its heart, it was a fundamental rejection of unfair financial and social privilege, so those rescued by the Pimpernel are less innocent victims than they’ve been traditionally portrayed.
If you’ll forgive a contemporary reference, they’re the people who would these days spout Fascistic hate on Twitter (and in real life), and then cry about being ‘cancelled by snowflakes’ when their access to a mouthpiece is taken away. It’s just that the Revolutionary French had a rather more…permanent…method of cancellation.
With class tensions bubbling into violence, a Percy Blakeney who surely can’t be Percy Blakeney since Percy Blakeney is fictional, a chance to act out the Pimpernel role for himself and at least a couple of devastating realisations later in the story, The Plight Of The Pimpernel puts the Sixth Doctor properly through the wringer in a way rarely seen on screen, and not enormously often done on audio either. In fact, it’s dangerous character work throughout, because the Doctor, our avatar for all that’s right and good in the universe, is duped, coerced into actions that turn his anger in on himself, and potentially lead to a crisis point as to whether he is, after all, ‘a good man.’
The Plight Of The Pimpernel is a powerful audio story that balances the necessary swash and buckle of its premise with a philosophical pulse that riffs on self-forgiveness – even if those you wronged have yet to forgive you. And it ends with a degree of the Time Lord Merciless, as seen at the end of The Family Of Blood, and with the same vibe – his kindness has been abused, the Doctor has been duped, and his actions to try and avoid bloodshed have led to the deaths of innocents. The Sixth Doctor frequently wears his moral outrage on his gorgeously-multi-colour sleeve, like a big brother for those in the universe who can’t defend themselves. If you turn that inward, if you make him something close to ashamed of himself, you begin to get a sense of where notions like the Valeyard, the War Doctor, and the Time Lord Victorious come from.
There’s never anything explicit in the story that forward-references any of that, but you’ll get a guaranteed shiver before this story’s over, standing where you are in the 21st century, and knowing what lies ahead for this Doctor and the ones who’ll follow him.
The Plight Of The Pimpernel sets up a fair few expectations early on, and does its best to meet them. When it starts to give you answers to the questions at the heart of the story though, it goes beyond its initial premise and delivers something that’s absolutely true to the spirit of Classic Who, while foreshadowing a Doctor who will be more than the universe’s best friend. A Doctor who will need to purge his own darkness, and occasionally his own dangerous tendency to trust, if he’s to do the job that being the Doctor demands. Tony Fyler