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Friday, May 22, 2015

The Scarlet Pimpernel & Doctor Who on the Reign Of Terror

Baroness Emma Orczy's description of revolutionary France in her novel The Scarlet Pimpernel brought home to me scenes from "The Reign of Terror," a six-part Doctor Who adventure. In the first episode, "A Land of Fear," the TARDIS lands in a forest. The First Doctor announces that they've reached Earth, but he doesn't know what country or year in which they've arrived.  So he, Ian, Barbara, and Susan step outside. 

Note: Ian, Barbara, and Susan look somewhat different in the TV show.

They travel to an abandoned farmhouse. While the Doctor searches upstairs, Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor's granddaughter Susan find a stock of clothes, food, and identity documents supposedly signed by Robespierre. Suddenly, they know exactly when and where on Earth they have arrived. The Doctor has brought them to France during the Reign of Terror!

Unbeknownst to them, they are not alone. Upstairs, someone knocks out the Doctor. 

Warning: Getting hit in the head by a hammer
can leave you with a nasty bump on the noggin.
Especially if it's Thor's hammer Mjolnir.

Then the Doctor's companions are surrounded by French aristocrats who use the farm house to smuggle people out of the country. By the time Ian, Barbara, and Susan convince them that they're not their enemies, a party of French guards show up. These patriots kill the French aristocrats, and decide that Ian, Barbara and Susan must also be aristocrats or sympathizers. So the Doctor's companions are marched them off to Paris, where they can expect a preemptory trial, a short stint in prison, and finally appointment with Madame Guillotine. 

"Come along captives, keep up the pace,
or we'll Exterminate, Exterminate, EXTERMINATE YOU before we reach Paris!"

Meanwhile, the fate of the Doctor remains uncertain, as the farmhouse in which he lay senseless was set ablaze by the French guards.

The Doctor Who story made me curious about the French Revolution, and the Reign of Terror in particular. The Scarlet Pimpernel built upon this interest, and made this period of history much more real to me. Orczy's short story, then play, and finally a novel about this Englishman who saves French aristocrats from certain death became a sensation in the early 20th century, and earned Baroness Emma Orczy lasting fame and fortune. Some even claim that her character served as a precursor for later heroes with secret identities such as Zorro and Batman. Dennis Spooner, who wrote the Doctor Who adventure "Reign Of Terror" is said to have been inspired by this classic story. Small wonder then that Orczy continued to write stories and novels about her famous hero throughout her career, and that I found this first installment had lost none of its page-turning enchantment in the hundred years since she wrote it.

Dragon Dave

P.S. You have to wonder what J.R.R. Tolkien would have thought of a last name like Orczy, don't you?

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