❉ One of the most compelling and interesting writers working in Doctor Who today, this is Chris Chapman’s best Who script to date.
“Chris Chapman’s new audio for Big Finish’s monthly range, Plight of the Pimpernel, is to put it succinctly, a tour de force… If you need any proof that what some critics would call “trad Who” can be welded into genuinely meaningful and touching storytelling, look no further.”
Doctor Who and the French Revolution have a bit of a complicated history: the First Doctor called it one of his favourite time periods, and it’s been explored both on television and in the Expanded Universe – but there’s always been kind of an issue in how it’s been treated, generally simplifying a very complex and messy political situation into a straightforward “evil republicans who cut heads, nice royalists” binary (which, one shouldn’t need to tell you, is a massive oversimplification). Thankfully, Chris Chapman’s new audio for Big Finish’s monthly range, Plight of the Pimpernel doesn’t have that kind of problem, and delivers (ironically, through purely literary pastiche), one of the most politically nuanced and dramatically compelling uses of a historical setting in recent Who memory.
Which might seem like a bit of a stretch – after all, the Revolution’s reality is quite secondary to the derring-do adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel. And so it is to the audio, at least in its first half: what we’re getting there is quite plainly some of the most fun audio content Big Finish has put out in years – the Sixth Doctor and Peri sound like they’re having the time of their life (which is no doubt also true of the actors: the story’s original pitch came from Colin Baker; and Nicola Bryant gets some of her most complex, nuanced material this side of Piscon Paradox) essentially role-playing as fiction characters on behalf of their equally fictional, dying host. Peri gets to tell that the Doctor that she wants to be the dashing hero with a boy toy sidekick for a change! That’s quality content right there. The thrills come fast, the performances are a delight, the French accents are surprisingly easy on the ear for a change – a good time’s being had by all.
And then, the second half of the audio slowly unravels – obviously, no major plot details shall be given away here, but if you want to go in blind, maybe stop there. As more information comes in, the story drastically changes: from a story of escapism to a cautionary tale about the dangers of escapism. The Moffat era, for instance, had time and again pointed out that the Doctor’s insistence on dragging people along in what is essentially his fiction (and the fiction of the show) came with a cost – and Chris Chapman runs with that theme to its logical, ever-so-slightly bonechilling extremity. If it is about one thing, Plight of the Pimpernel is a story about how the language of compassion, friendship, and justice can be misused and manipulated with frightening ease: a theme he had already tackled in the wonderful Scorched Earth earlier this year, a great story he improves on even further here. It is, in short, a story about abuse (historical and personal) masquerading underneath a romp – the reference to Piscon Paradox and the works of Nev Fountain wasn’t a coincidence: it shares a great deal of DNA with the cycle of stories he has penned for Peri in the past; but Chapman’s take on it is noticeably different. There is a sincerity and rawness here that Fountain wouldn’t have embraced, at least not without quoting it into five layers of jokes and meta story constructions (which is hardly an insult to his skills). The final part of the story, which largely consists of Peri and the Doctor meditating on the events of the story, is the most human these characters have felt, maybe ever: far gone are the days of The Twin Dilemma, and instead we see two close friends who suffer and attempt to heal together.
It’s a rather impressive feat of writing to be able to balance both a pitch-perfect romp and a critical examination and subversion of that romp – but Chapman is able to do just that, to balance the fun and thrills of the historical fiction while also tackling real questions about that fiction, and, through the topics he chooses to interrogate, these ideas of justice and privilege, about the reality that inspired it. It’s, to put it succinctly, a tour de force, and consolidates his status as one of the most compelling and interesting writers working in Doctor Who today – if you need any proof that what some critics would call “trad Who” can be welded into genuinely meaningful and touching storytelling, look no further.
Which isn’t to say that the story doesn’t end in reconstruction either – it manages to contemplate very dark topics, but still walk away with resolve and happiness, and that’s another thing to its credit. There’s this sense, once again very tied to Moffat’s writing, that heroes are less people and more roles that people can aspire to, and it channels this idea to some very Romantic, very lovely ends. Maybe too lovely, actually – there’s always a part of you that craves perfection despite it being the enemy of the good: maybe the story could have gone even further into the interrogations it raises; maybe it could have been a bit more interested in humanising and complexifying the French characters and less prompt at portraying the aristocracy as similarly one-dimensional victims. But those are incredibly minor niggles – the goals it sets itself, it reaches with flying colours (and one’s not just talking about Peri’s wonderful historical outfits).
Plight of the Pimpernel is a triumph – Chris Chapman’s best Who script to date (and there is some strong competition), and a wonderful proof that John Ainsworth’s vision for the Sixth Doctor Adventures range is going to be something to behold: the commitment the Six audios have had, under his leadership, to push into new territory, both structurally (Blood on Santa’s Claw; Memories of a Tyrant) and thematically (The Lovecraft Invasion, still the highest dose of pure concentrated joy to come out of the year 2020), bodes incredibly well, and has shown itself to be a fantastically-balanced mix of tradition and modernity.
❉ Doctor Who – Plight of the Pimpernel is now available to own as a collector’s edition CD (at £14.99) and as a digital download (at £12.99) exclusively from www.bigfinish.com.
❉ Sam Maleski (they/he) writes about genre fiction and Doctor Who – including one Black Archive for Obverse Books and the Sheffield Steel essay collection series. They can be found tweeting at @LookingForTelos and blogging at @MediaDoWntime.