Big Finish Review: Plight of the Pimpernel
As we reach the latter days of the Big Finish monthly range of Doctor Who adventures, with the final entry coming in March next year, a lesser studio might have exhibited a slacking in quality: a mood of exhaustion, or a feeling that the efforts of the team were being saved for the next phase. Plight of the Pimpernel blows those fears out of the water. This Sixth Doctor story treads some familiar ground for Doctor Who, but excels in quality and possesses an uncommon intelligence and humanity. It’s also a high-stakes story which commands the listener’s attention to the very last moment.
Plight of the Pimpernel has been written by Chris Chapman, and directed by John Ainsworth. It’s available to purchase at the Big Finish site here, before going on general release from the 31st January 2021. Here's the synopsis…
It's 1793 and the Reign of Terror is slicing through the elite of Paris - but not if the Scarlet Pimpernel has anything to do with it! With a very British pluck, and daring bravado, he rescues French aristocrats from Madame Guillotine's embrace. But who hides beneath the Pimpernel’s mask? And isn’t the Scarlet Pimpernel just a fictional character?
At Highmoor House, in England, Peri plays lady of the manor while the Doctor tends to the strange wounds of her ‘husband’, Sir Percy Blakeney. As Peri prepares to host a lavish ball in Sir Percy’s name, French agent Citizen Donat, and a sinister alien force are uninvited guests, both intent on unmasking the Scarlet Pimpernel and putting an end to his heroic escapades, forever!
We enter the story in Paris at an execution, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a party - and in a way, it is. It’s the French Revolution, and the hoi polloi have risen up, hurrying the aristocracy to the dreaded guillotine. But there’s a saviour on the horizon: a man dressed as an undertaker, riding a horse named Queenie. He releases two imprisoned men awaiting execution, who then pledge their lives to the mysterious figure. It’s none other than the Scarlet Pimpernel. Of course it’s really the Doctor, but Colin Baker’s hideously funny French accent gives the game away a little earlier than that reveal. He’s indulging in one of his fanboy obsessions, acting as the famed Pimpernel from the novels of Baroness Orczy.
The Doctor returns to England, from a ‘medical conference’ on the continent, and appears at the estate of one Sir Percy Blakeney (Jamie Parker, last heard in Big Finish’s Shadow of the Daleks). The Doctor’s known there as Dr John Smith, and he’s treating Percy for a mysterious injury. Meanwhile, Peri (Nicola Bryant) is also incognito - as Percy’s wife, Lady Blakeney, complete with cut-glass English accent. Percy is in on the deception - he’s sanctioned the Doctor’s charade as the Pimpernel while he’s unable to do the job himself. He’s suffering a mysterious injury, inflicted in the course of his duties, with an unknown energy signature emitting from the wound. Percy says it was a mere thief in the night. The Doc and Peri worry that he’s lying.
Meanwhile, the Pimpernel is being hunted down by two very different sources. One’s a mysterious French agent of Robespierre, Donat (Anthony Howell), who pursues his mortal enemy with all the zeal of Javert pursuing Jean Valjean. Howell is a delight as the sinister and rage-filled Donat, while Stewart Clarke embodies another shadowy menace (to say more would be to spoil the surprise). Back in England, the supporting cast are terrific, with Oliver (Joe Jameson) making an eager, puppyish sidekick for Peri’s Pimpernel.
The story takes Peri to France on Pimpernel duty, and back in England there’s an annual ball coming up at the estate - and Blakeney’s keen to carry on his family’s tradition with the Doctor’s help. Plight of the Pimpernel moves at a breakneck pace and keeps shifting gears as the plot unfolds, easily avoiding the trap of getting stuck in a rut. The audio format is used to its fullest effect here, taking us back and forth between characters and locales in mere moments.
The adventure is at its most interesting when it’s querying the intersection of the historical and fictional: The Doctor and Peri are aware that the Pimpernel (and Percy) are purely fictional characters, and puzzled as to how they can be alive and well in 18th century Europe. The resolution doesn’t quite paper over the implausibility of the premise, and poses more questions than it asks, but who cares? What writer Chris Chapman is more interested in is querying the role of an ideological figurehead, a name that stands for more than actions alone. It’s a perfect match for a story involving the Doctor, a character whose reputation precedes him and defines him.
Chapman has great fun incorporating swashbuckling and masked aliases to Doctor Who, and overall paying tribute to its pulp roots, in particular the sprawling Pimpernel series of Baroness Orczy. Chapman’s written four Big Finish stories for Colin Baker, and he has an excellent grasp of what we love about Six: his snark, his aloofness and his easily wounded pride. A late development in the plot elicits painful self-flagellation and guilt from the Doctor - Baker really gets an opportunity to show his range here.
The hunt for the Pimpernel grows wilder and stranger, and the story draws to a shocking conclusion, with many revelations about the identities of those involved. There are cleverly drawn parallels revealed between Donat and Percy, who have both suffered at the hands of forces beyond their control, and seek to redress the balance. But Plight of the Pimpernel always returns to the same, elusive question as it probes the motivations behind its main players - what’s in a name?
The four parts of Plight of the Pimpernel are split down the middle by a suite of Andy Hardwick’s excellent music for the story, an atmospheric and baroque undercurrent to the story of chivalry in a time of chaos. Meanwhile there’s a trailer for The Grey Man of the Mountain, this month’s other monthly range release, an adventure featuring the Seventh Doctor, Ace and the Brigadier - review coming soon.
The package comes complete with the unusual cast and crew soundbites. Writer Chris Chapman (and his very young daughter Edie) chats with John Ainsworth - a multi-hyphenate producer, director and script editor - discuss the original titles of the story before settling on the final name. Meanwhile Andy Hardwick delves into sound design, drawing on a wide arsenal of tricks to contribute to Plight of the Pimpernel's anachronistic soundtrack.
Colin Baker pops in, talking about his personal request for a historical Pimpernel story - before remembering that the Pimpernel is fictional, and seeing how well Chapman dealt with that small stumbling block. Nicola Bryant remarks that she loved Peri’s story, in which “there’s no holding her back.”