Doctor Who Inspirations – The Scarlet Pimpernel

The seek him here, they seek him there...

Adventures in time and space.  This is the perfect synopsis for Doctor Who because at its core, this is the scope of the show.  It is only as limited as the imagination of the writers and the audience.  Nowhere is this scope most-perfectly illustrated than under its first producer Varity Lambert.  Lambert took this mandate seriously, that a time-traveling stranger could go anywhere.  In her first season as producer, Lambert took the show from 1960s England to The Prehistoric Era.  We saw the devastated planet Skaro and the sands of The Gobi Desert.  These early episodes alternated between travel in space and travel through time.  And while this particular scope for the show hasn’t been abandoned, it has been altered.  The early historical dramas of Doctor Who have been largely turned into bio-pics in the 2005 series in which The Doctor meets a famous figure from history (Charles Dickens, Vincent Van Gogh, Shakespeare, and so on) and together they face an alien menace.  These episodes are still referred to as ‘historicals’ by fans, necessitating the term ‘straight historical’ to differentiate the early stories from the first four seasons of Doctor Who in which there was no alien menace, no science fiction elements beyond the time travel which delivered our characters to the setting.  Writers such as John Lucarotti and Dennis Spooner crafted their own style of historical that was both educational and entertaining.  But where John Lucarotti turned to historical research to flavor his Marco Polo and The Aztecs serials, Dennis Spooner’s Reign of Terror seems to draws much of its inspiration from Baronness Orczy’s novel of high adventure, The Scarlet Pimpernel.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is an early example of the masked hero.  He is the forerunner of the

Just a bit off the top, sir.

mystery men which later evolved into the superheroes that populate comic books.  Like Robin Hood, The Scarlet Pimpernel fights for injustice, but the injustice he sees is the treatment of the aristocrats during The Reign of Terror in post-Revolutionary France.  After the fall of The French Monarchy, France went through violent riots as an attempt was made to form a stable government.  The Committee of Public Safety was formed, and men like Maximilien Francois Marie Isidore de Robespierre were placed in positions of extreme power.  Some historians, and certainly his opponents, claimed that Robespierre became the de-facto dictator of France.  His view of the monarchy and the aristocrats led him to encourage capture of those who were against The Revolution.  This included moderates.  Traitors to the republic were imprisoned and executed by guillotine.  He was given the nickname “Sanguinocrat” by Louis-Sebastien Mercier, a writer and moderate who was imprisoned during the Reign.  The Reign of Terror is an example of the pendulum swing that revolutions often create.  The oppression and disregard for the lives of the lower classes by the aristocrats completely shifted to oppression and disregard by The Revolutionaries for those they overthrew.  “Long live the king” became a cry of allegiance that was punishable by death.

It is in this environment that The Scarlet Pimpernel takes place.  Written in 1903 (and originally a play), it takes the side of the aristocrats.  Baroness Orczy, herself a Hungarian noble displaced by peasant rebellion, obviously felt affinity toward the nobles during The Reign.  Indeed, the violence had gone unchecked and seemed to have no end in sight.  Thus, Orczy created a hero, the masked Scarlet Pimpernel.  Like any good mystery man,

I'm just dandy!

The Scarlet Pimpernel was the hero name of Sir Percy Blakeney, an English baronet.  He was the leader of a secret society of twenty English aristocrats who rescued French nobles from the guillotine.  Once rescued the league would smuggle the French nobles out of the country.  Sir Percy was a master of disguise and an excellent swordsman.  He often played the persona of an English dandy when not acting as The Scarlet Pimpernel, not unlike Bruce Wayne many decades later.

Dennis Spooner draws a great deal of influence from Baroness Orczy’s novel.  The plot, when not revolving around The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan attempting to reunite after getting separated, deals with a covert smuggling ring.  The third episode in the serial sees two agents of this ring attacking a trundle full of prisoners, then taking the prisoners into hiding until they can be led out of the country.  Robespierre is cast as an unrelenting, power-hungry, sadistic villain, certainly in line with Orczy’s view of the Reign.  Members of the smuggling ring have infiltrated French society, acting as supporters of the revolution in order to gain access to prisoners.  Likewise, there are spies working for Robespierre within the ring.

Much like the book from which he drew inspiration, Dennis Spooner plays loose with historical accuracy.  The Scarlet Pimpernel took real events but recast them to include the characters of the league.  Spooner does the same to include The Doctor and his companions.  Most notable is the inclusion of Napoleon toward the end of the story, as he meets with Barras and they conspire to eliminate Robespierre.  This meeting was fictional, likely included to hint at what would occur after The Reign ended.  Robespierre would be replace by Napoleon.

Historical alterations aside, The Reign of Terror is an excellent adventure that can truly inspire the viewer to seek out more information about The French Revolution.  Drawing inspiration from The Scarlet Pimpernel was a good idea, especially if Spooner didn’t have much knowledge of The Reign (which, incidentally, I don’t believe is the case) because if he matched the tone and feel of the novel, it would still feel right in the public consciousness.  Often, this goes a long way toward capturing an historic feel.  How many scenes exist of people being executed by guillotine as women knit furiously?  This is a detail that comes from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, but it has so infiltrated the public consciousness

Madame Defarge looks on with approval.

of The Reign and The Revolution that it feels right.  It adds flavor by appealing to a popular image.  Often, a good writer can fake historical detail by referring to images from established works.  This is quite prevalent in Doctor Who, and Dennis Spooner used it quite effectively. In addition to capturing historical flavor, though, by drawing inspiration from The Scarlet Pimpernel, Spooner was able to inject life and adventure into a story that could have been a dry recitation of facts.  History is a fascinating subject, but all too often it can be boring due to bad writing.  A well-told historical tale can be a great deal of fun and it can inspire the reader to seek out more information, which will ultimately lead to a greater appreciation for the history, but also the art that was inspired by it.

The Scarlet Pimpernel became extremely successful.  It spawned a few sequels, but none achieved the popularity of the original.  There have been many movie and television adaptations, a parody starring Daffy Duck, and rumors abound that a 21st century film adaptation could manifest.  Clearly the character of The Scarlet Pimpernel endures.  He is a worthy addition to heroic literature and high adventure and the inspiration of many heroes and archetypes that would follow.

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