Another year, another final review being a Doctor Who audio drama I hadn’t got around to giving a listen before Christmas! “Plight of the Pimpernel” is sort-of a pseudo-historical, though really the sci-fi far outweighs any historical context to come from the setting, not least the fact that the titular Pimpernel is a fictional character! But how is he then alive here in this story? Let’s find out!
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!
*spoilers appear from here on out!*
The first thing I’ll say is that “Plight of the Pimpernel” has a very brisk pace and some well written characters, something I wasn’t really expecting, well the former anyway. Normally these historical-set stories have a slower burn, but I was happily surprised here. Within the first two episodes we have The Doctor playing the role of the Pimpernel in Revolutionary France then popping back over to England to tend to his patient, the “real” Sir Percy / Pimpernel (Jamie Parker), who had been looked after by Peri, acting as his wife. While The Doctor begins treating his very alien wound, Peri then pops over the channel to keep the story of the Pimpernel alive, alongside aide Oliver (Joe Jameson) but runs into a malfunctioning killer robot who is only interested in killing the Scarlet Pimpernel. Peri and Oliver manage to escape and head back to England, where The Doctor and her have some pressing questions for Percy…
The first Pimpernel eventually reveals to them that his race had been wiped out by a group of killer robots and he is the last of his kind. The classic stories of Earth found there way to his planet (which for the record is also a couple of thousand years into the future) and so he decided to “cheer himself up” by playing the role of his favourite fictional character, safe in the knowledge that his naturally tougher skin means he’s not in any actual danger. The robot Peri encountered was trying to “finish the job” and wipe him out as well. Leaving things there for now, Peri and The Doctor go back to putting on a false smile and hosting a ball at “Percy’s” request, but the party is crashed by French lawman Citizen Donat (Anthony Howell) who tries to kill the Pimpernel but fails due to his hard skin, but then it turns out the robot followed the Frenchman to the ball and is after his target. The Doctor, Peri, Percy, Oliver and Donat all end up in the cellar, where Percy’s transmat back home still sits, and soon everyone is whisked away to a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
What a stunning cover. Top marks to the artist, this may well have won the “cover of the year” award, if only the award existed…
While slowly making their way across the rubble the robot reappears but soon gets crushed under a tonne of debris, which makes Percy head back to the teleporter with a spring in his step, ready to resume his adventures… but to everyone else who stayed behind, a holographic interface opens from the robot and tells them an entirely different story. The man who now goes by Percy was formally a tyrannical dictator who, when challenged by his subjects, went into a safe bunker and literally laid waste to his own population, the robot being their last ditch attempt to get revenge on the man who committed genocide. The Doctor is furious that he’d been curing and assisting a genocidal mad-man and confronts him, his only excuse is that in hindsight he regrets it and that him saving a few people in Revolutionary France will somehow atone for the sin. The Doctor isn’t convinced but suddenly Citizen Donat appears and stabs the would-be-Percy with the robot’s sword.
We then hear of Percy killing Donat, reappearing in his old life and saving some more people from the guillotine, but it’s revealed that this was merely a simulation The Doctor created for him, and in actual fact he was brought to near-death by Donat’s wound and is recuperating in the TARDIS. The Doctor gives him one last chance to seek atonement and he refuses, so our heroic Time Lord informs him that his body and mind are about to be inserted into some sort of mind prison, where he was exist in an empty void for the duration of a rather long sentence. It’s a pretty crazy story, but the twists and setting changes work in the its favour.
Not a lot, if I’m honest. I will admit that while I enjoyed the story from start to finish, the big twist came off as too obvious to me. I knew there was something clearly not right about “Percy”, and when we got to his planet and he talked about the devastation the evil robots caused I immediately went “hang on, I bet it was him”. Not a big deal as the story was still well told, but it did take a lot of the edge off.
Also maybe the over-use of the phrase “Madame Guillotine” got annoying, I’m pretty sure there must have been other ways of having people mention the implement, even if it’s just having one or two characters say “Guillotine” instead…
The First Doctor TV story “The Reign of Terror” is set during the French Revolution, with The Doctor himself meeting Maximilien Robespierre himself, who is mentioned in this story.
Beyond that there are just the odd jokey mention here and there. I will say that only last year we heard The Doctor and Peri deal with a tyrannical and genocidal dictator who was trying to avoid getting his due in the story “Memories of a Tyrant”, though the actual story beats beyond that are quite different I still feel it was worth mentioning!
“Plight of the Pimpernel” is another great “pseudo-historical” from Chris Chapman, who also gave us the great “Scorched Earth” earlier in the year (among other stories!) Full of great dialogue and a nice, brisk pace, it’s only the lack of surprise in the reveal that knocks the story off from a 5. Still bloody good though!