Beware, minor spoilers abound…
Why are the Doctor and Peri aiding the Scarlet Pimpernel is his efforts to rescue French aristos from Mme la Guillotine? How has the Pimpernel proper become so injured that the Doctor is forced to take his place? Why is there an android stomping the streets of Paris? And perhaps the most perplexing question of all: how do the Doctor and his companion come to be in eighteenth century Europe conversing with and abetting a person who is, let’s face it, fictional?
It is to writer Chris Chapman’s immense credit that this latter question is adeptly avoided for almost all of the first episode of Plight of the Pimpernel – right up until the Doctor asks it, straight to the point and out of the blue. This piece of narrative is executed with subtlety and skill, the elephant in the room having been so well ignored up until that point that the listener either entirely believes the fictional universe the Pimpernel inhabits to be the one the Doctor is currently in, or wonders if this is a piece of ‘Robots of Sherwood’ style literary legerdemain in which we are invited to consider the Pimpernel an historical reality. That this rug of imagination is pulled out from under us in a single line is almost a laugh out loud moment.
And this skill is evident in Chapman’s writing for – almost – all of the story. Very obviously not a pure historical from the start, the script expertly sets up peril and a bevvy of questions demanding answers right from the get-go. The action sequences are exciting and pretty quick, which actually works in their favour; the ever-deepening mystery teased out with narrative that is every bit as efficient as the ‘but he’s fictional’ moment described above; and the characters, of which there are just the right number, feel like people rather than caricatures, with enough depth to gain the listener’s empathy.
Obviously this speaks to the quality of acting, direction and sound design too. With regard to the former, the performances are, as is rarely not the case in a BigFinish production, exemplary. Colin Baker’s Doctor – bombastic, sympathetic and taking of far too much personal responsibility in equal measure – continues to just get better and better; and Nicola Bryant’s Peri is, as always should be the case, every bit the equal of her companion. Her portrayal of Peri-playing-Lady-Blakeney is particularly good, with a voice that comes somewhere between Tracy-Ann Oberman and Linda Snell off of the Archers – not a criticism.
Jamie Parker’s Sir Percy is also a fine performance, the nobility and sacrifice of the Pimpernel being made evident right from the start, seamlessly translating into other equally believable aspects of his personality as the story progresses. Similarly Oliver, albeit a second-tier character in the writing, is made utterly believable by Joe Jameson’s performance.
Sound design by Andy Hardwick is seamless, creating a very believable universe for the action to take place in. (Andy also created a ‘remote recording dialogue assembly’ – I don’t know what one of those is, but I imagine it’s made necessary by the pandemic, and therefore can only be part of his job having got harder. Further respect to him for that.)
I really only have one beef with this story, and that is that, in its closing, it falls back on an awful lot of exposition. There is one especially long piece in the closing moments that explains what the listener has just listened to over a period of time that is, I’m pretty sure, longer than the time it took to listen to it.
I’ll admit I was surprised by this, considering the skill evident in the earlier episodes. It feels a little like Chapman ran out of time, or hit a word limit that he struggled to cope with, and fell back on a device that at least got the story told, but not in as satisfying a way as the earlier episodes told their parts. Having said that, after the closing moments there are actually a couple of extra scenes that, IMHO, were not really needed. I wonder if there may have been scope for a little honing there? A bit less tell and tell some more, and a bit more show of just the important bits?
Overall, though, a great listen, and one of my favourites of the main range of recent months. Big Finish continues to excel, and I genuinely look forward to more from Mr Chapman.