Review: Doctor Who – Plight of the Pimpernel

Review by Michael Goleniewski

The first of two Big Finish Main releases for December 2020, ‘Plight of the Pimpernel’ sees the Sixth Doctor and Peri caught in the middle of one of the most infamous events in European history. France 1793; the French Revolution and the bloody Reign of Terror are in full swing with heads rolling from the blade of the ‘National Razor’ on a daily basis. It’s a radical and deadly time for the population of the country but a few small lights of hope are working to make a difference, including a mysterious masked hero saving lives in the country and calling himself the Scarlet Pimpernel. But as to who the Pimpernel actually is and who is hiding under the mask, that’s where things get a little strange as the Pimpernel is supposed to be a fictional character and not an actual force for good. With the Doctor and Peri in extended undercover in England and several forces human and inhuman working to put the Pimpernel out of commission, the situation is about to get even more complicated than even the TARDIS team is anticipating to the point where an understudy of sorts may be required to figure things out and save the day…..

‘Pimpernel’ comes courtesy of writer Chris Chapman, last seen as the creator of the frankly amazing ‘Scorched Earth’ from earlier in the year, and wastes literally no time dropping you into the darker aspects of the period. The underlying idea is similar to the New Who adventure ‘Robot of Sherwood’ but far more competently executed and with a fascinating pseudo-historical premise backing it up. It’s not quite as outright fun as its televised spiritual counterpart per se as the story takes on a very well-known and outright dreadful era of French history. But it’s certainly more intelligent and less vague with the idea of a fictional hero appearing in very real times and it plays into a subtle theme of grief and how one soothes it in one’s soul through word and deed that’s a bit more compelling than simply focusing on inspiring heroism through action. It helps that none of the major players in the Revolution actually appear in the narrative unlike another somewhat similar Who serial ‘Reign of Terror‘ which allows the story more freedom to explore its concepts more fully and even use the idea of messing with time as part of its central core. It makes for a very intriguing script that isn’t afraid to take chances and works as a piece that everyone can enjoy regardless if they’re aware of the character or the timelines involved.

The writing also takes time to flesh out both perspectives on the Revolution from the highest upper-class fop to the lowest commoner and really stretches our TARDIS team’s acting chops as well as allow them a bit of superficial fun in the roles they play in a way that bites them hard in the ass later on. Colin Baker and his Doctor were absolutely born for this script and his warm and blustering ego is a perfect self-indulgent fit for the time and the Pimpernel’s sophisticated sense of daring-do. But Nicola Bryant gets plenty of notably compelling moments as Peri, especially when she takes to the Parisian streets herself, and her grounded sense of reality is a nice comparison to her time-traveling friend’s more eccentric qualities. The rest of the cast is covered by a smaller group of actors which normally has the potential to backfire in failing to make each one memorable. However, the characters who are strong really stand out such as Jamie Parker’s idealistic Sir Percy Blakely and Joe Jameson as young awestruck servant Oliver who gets to be a nice sidekick to the main event. Anthony Howell’s Citizen Donat is also a decent persistent villain of sorts in the vein of Inspector Javier with understandable motivations even if he’s a bit too moustache-twirling at times to be completely believable.

The rest of the audio has a few problems here and there but mostly manages to keep things together. Although some moments are left more to the imagination than one would like, the soundscape by John Ainsworth and Andy Hardwick works when it counts. The direction in creating France itself in an audio form is exceedingly good and it has one of the most haunting opening moments of any audio with an immediate and visceral focus on Madame Guillotine. Unfortunately, the writing plays its cards a little bit too early in the narrative, putting most of the big revelations in the first half and not leaving quite as much mystery to keep you going through the more action-packed second half. It’s hard to call it a jump-the-shark moment as it remains interesting the whole way through particularly regarding one very well hidden twist that turns the final act entirely on its head. But it’s far less engaging as a story after a certain point sacrificing the historical aspects for a typical sci-fi fugitive plot that’s incredibly overdone. Really though, how much these issues really bother a listener is really based on experience and personal preference as some might not even notice or care about them. They are worth nothing but they don’t make too much of a difference in the long run or sacrifice this audio’s quality in the slightest other than keep it from being an outright classic. It also must be noted that this audio has one of the most gorgeous covers of the year with the colourful combination of violent reds and light blues a beautiful contrast relating to both the lighter nature of the premise as well as the darker nature of the events at hand.

‘Plight of the Pimpernel’ is a great pseudo-historical for the Sixth Doctor and Peri to end 2020 on that indulges in both the positive and negative ideas surrounding fictional heroes, grief, and ultimately whether redemption can be found in the worst of times and the worst of people. The history of the French Revolution and the story of the Scarlet Pimpernel are a splendid fit for this incarnation of the Doctor’s more nuanced and upscale heroism and the soundscape is balanced between the nastier aspects of the setting and light-hearted moments of heroism and action. Some of the sci-fi elements are on the standard side of memorable and Chris Chapman’s script is so excited about some of its ideas that it fumbles with and delivers them a tad too early to where there’s an obvious distinction between the first and second halves of the audio. But the performances more than hold up even with the larger cast of characters and the production is another of the company’s finest in terms of quality and energy. Tense and gripping but yet incredibly fun, it’s a fitting rendition of the Pimpernel in Whoniverse canon and one of Sixie’s better releases to come out of the Main Range.
— 9 / 10

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