Sunday, August 22, 2021

Season 16: Episodes 5-6

Two Adventures in 1830 Paris

The following two episodes form the first two tiers of a Trilogy of the Impossible, in which Lady Penelope investigates wildly, well, impossible occurrences, exploring the uncertain territories between Reality, Fiction, Time and Eternity!

Episode 5: L’Homme de l’Ombre

Paris, February 1830. A young Victor Hugo prepares to unleash his romantic drama Hernani on the stage, breaking all the sacrosanct codes and conventions of French classical theatre – a declaration of war, which will take the literary world by storm!  Meanwhile, a mysterious being known as the Shadow Man is lurking at the edge of Reality, threatening History itself!

Episode 6: Mirror, Mirror

Paris, March 1830. Lady Penelope is enjoying her historical holiday, cruising the literary salons and mingling with some of the greatest writers of the age… and then she discovers that the famous Julie Récamier hasn’t aged a bit since they first met in 1799, at the time of the Directoire!  What is the secret of the former merveilleuse’s timeless, everlasting beauty?

Notes on Episode 5

Let’s begin with a linguistic note. In French, “Homme de l’Ombre” literally means “Shadow Man” – and it’s also the commonly used term for people involved in covert operations or secret intrigue, such as spies, undercover cops or secret counselors. In this case, the mysterious, elusive Shadow Man was none other than the merciless and relentless Inspector Javert, escaped from the Land of Fiction (which Penelope first visited in our previous season) and hell-bent on destroying his own creator – Victor Hugo himself – years before he started dreaming about The Misérables. Why?  To escape his ever-repeating torment of failure, doom and suicide – sure, it would condemn the inflexible inspector to eternal Nothingness but it would also be a victory (of sort) – the only possible victory, in fact – against Valjean, Cosette and all the others, who would also be cancelled from Fiction!

Of course, since he was a Fictional character and remained driven by his own black-and-white morality, Javert could not perform the assassination himself but had to use real, alive and breathing felons (including the notorious Lacenaire…) to attempt this crime against literature and history. Fortunately, Lady Penelope was at the right place in the right time and managed to prevent the deed – twice!

But the very nature and identity of the elusive Shadow Man still remained a mystery – even when Penelope and her TARDIS discovered what seemed to be his own private domain, a weird interstitial pocket dimension resembling the streets of Paris as seen through some kind of dark, ghostly lens... and absolutely devoid of any human presence or other form of life…

After meeting the famous (and semi-retired) Vidocq (you know, the convict turned chief of police…), she realized that all the information she had about the (so far unidentified) Shadow Man’s appearance and demeanor were reminiscent of Vidocq himself; this could have been a very interesting Red Herring but proved to be the decisive element of resolution. Since Penelope was convinced that Vidocq, who did not display any of the weird abilities apparently possessed by the semi-real (or wholly “unreal”?) Shadow Man, could not be the culprit, she came to the conclusion that the semi-spectral puppeteer behind the assassination attempts seemed to be some sort of “dark avatar” or “evil twin” of Vidocq… which lead her to the only possible answer – JAVERT himself!    

Of course, she had to check this wild hypothesis – so she made a brief visit to the Land of Fiction, to meet Professor X (the Doctor’s fictional counterpart and current warden of the Land), who discovered that, indeed, Javert was nowhere to be found!  He had obviously used the mysterious Shadow Paris pocket dimension (about which, apparently, Professor X knew nothing before Penelope’s arrival…) as a passage between Fiction and Reality…

With the help of the fictional French detective of the weird Jules de Grandin, they determined that the character’s psychology was the key to the whole situation and that the only way to expel Javert from Reality before he could wreak more havoc on the continuum was to banish him again to the Land of Fiction by confronting him with the very words of his fictional death in Hugo’s yet unwritten novel – something between a ritual exorcism and a reality check…

So Lady Penelope went back to challenge and eventually defeat Javert on his own territory, the “ghost town” of Shadow Paris. Incidentally, I added a nifty, impromptu twist to this scene. Penelope had dutifully copied the required excerpt from the TARDIS’ library copy of "Les Misérables" – just like a fictional hero would copy an all-important magical formula on a piece of paper before battling a demon… but when she faced Javert and tried to read the all-important text, she saw the letter melting away from the paper and heard Javert laugh and state that “these words had not been written yet, at least not Here”… and then Penelope remembered that, at the beginning of the adventure, she had (using her TARDIS’ forge) created a temporary piece of psychic paper, just in case she would need some kind of permit or introduction letter to move in some Parisian social circles… a Story point which had, so far, been spent in vain but now proved to be crucial!  Gathering all her Resolve and Psychic Training, Penelope managed to bring back the memory of Hugo’s words on the psychic paper, forcing Javert to enact/relive his written end (suicide in the Seine), which catapulted him back to the Land of Fiction, where Professor X, Jules de Grandin and a few other fictional sleuths were waiting for his return… Meanwhile, Shadow Paris started to fade away from existence, having been somehow created by Javert himself as a secret dimensional escape tunnel from Fiction to Reality…

At the end of “The Shadow Man”, Penelope decided to stay for a few weeks in 1830 Paris just for the fun of it and, perhaps, to learn a bit more about the aforementioned Bureau and Monsieur Vidocq’s little secrets (ah, did I mention that he had already met the Doctor, in his Second incarnation?). This will also give her traveling companion Xara more time to spend with the decidedly besotted young romantic poet Edmond Courfeyrac, which they met among Victor Hugo’s supporters at the Battle of Hernanni…

But the Time Lady was also determined to go back to the Land of Fiction and get to the bottom of the mystery of Javert’s dimensional escape and Professor X’s decidedly odd reluctance to involve Sherlock Holmes in this meta-fictional investigation…  

Notes on Episode 6

This new Parisian episode, set in the spring of 1830 (a few months before the barricades!), started as something of a literary celebrities festival, with Penelope meeting a host of famous (or, at least, historical) writers and other literary or artistic personages:

- A young Alfred de Musset in "carefree dandy" mode

- Charles Nodier, the “old uncle” of the romantic generation

- Marie Mennessier-Nodier, his brilliant daughter

 - Alphonse de Lamartine, the super-famous romantic poet

 - Félix Arvers, a fairly obscure poet who actually wrote one of the most famous sonnets of the period

- The painter François Gérard

- François-René Chateaubriand, another literary giant in a short cameo

 - Honoré de Balzac (who he?)

- And, last but not least, Fortunée Hamelin and Juliette Récamier, two rival Merveilleuses whom Penelope had already met 30 years before, in episode 15.07 (“Incroyable!”)

The story had a decidedly “dark fairy tale” feel, which, BTW, was completely fitting with some of Charles Nodier’s eclectic interests and writings. It revolved around the use of a “magic mirror” by the famous Madame Récamier – a mysterious artefact which somehow kept her from aging… and also absorbed the very existence of the most beautiful young women who came at her salon, erasing them from reality and history!  This “enchanted” item was (as you’ve probably guessed) a leftover gift from the (now dispersed) Marquis de Carabas (see episode 15.07) to the queen of the Directoire’s Merveilleuses. One should always beware of Eternals bearing gifts – but Vanity often has the last word…

Luckily for Penelope, the mirror’s dark powers only affected the so-called Ephemerals, allowing her to put an end to this terrifying nonsense, saving her companion Xara from one of those Fates Worse Than Death and restoring the mirror’s many victims to Reality in the process. It was an interesting story to run; it had no real villain per se (unless you consider the Mirror itself as an opponent) yet conveyed a real sense of menace. It also worked as a nice ominous reminder of the Marquis’ possible return, somewhere in Penelope’s future…

Like the previous episode, this one mixed light-hearted elements with darker themes, ending with some suitably romantic, melancholic undertones. 

Next stop: the Land of Fiction, where Penelope has decided to investigate the mystery of Inspector Javert’s escape to Reality!

PS: Oh… and I’ve found a title for the season: Times & Places (emphasizing the “in the right place at the right time” trope of DW).

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