Monday, 14 January 2013

The Auntie Matter written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: England in the 1920s. Whilst K9 is off in the TARDIS leading the Black Guardian on a wild goose chase, the Doctor and Romana are enjoying a leisurely lifestyle as the Lord and Lady of a London townhouse. But trouble never stays away from them for long, and before they know it a chance discovery of alien technology leads them deep into the heart of the English countryside where a malign presence lurks. As the Doctor dodges deadly butlers and ferocious gamekeepers, Romana is faced with a malevolent Aunt and an even deadlier peril – marriage.

Teeth and Curls: ‘Tinkety-tonk, Reggie!’ The Doctor has been tinkering with the TARDIS again, linking the randomiser to the TARDIS guidance system and left it on automatic in a low oven. I love the idea of them having a little sojourn on the Earth whilst the Ship visits a thousand worlds or so (should only take about a week) to bamboozle and distract the Black Guardian. In his way, the Doctor is trying to teach Romana as much as he was Leela. Instead of giving her an education (because she’s had the best the universe has to offer) he is trying to encourage her to let her hair down, enjoy the adventure of their lifestyle and experience the wonder of the universe. It’s an equally valid approach. He needs somebody around to ask questions and whilst Romana is gallivanting he grabs hold of the nearest human (the maid) to fill the role (‘try not to scream, trip over or wander off and we should get on admirably!’). He’s much more effective at close range especially with a sonic screwdriver to hand. I can’t tell you what delight I took from the Doctor skipping off screaming ‘BYE! BYE!’ in true Destiny of the Daleks fashion! This is long before his sexual revolution in the New Series and the Doctor explicitly states that he doesn’t know anything about romance. Its rather a lovely stance, much more agreeable than all that snogging malarkey.

Posh Girl: How can the innovation of having a new companion back in the fold be tarred with such tragedy? I have longed for the day that Mary Tamm should be invited back into the fold and enjoy some audio adventures (season 16 being one of my favourites on television) but it seems that Tom Baker agreed to work with Big Finish a little too late in order for Tamm to appreciate a whole new leash of life in this format. I don’t want to get too maudlin with regards to what turns out to be a spanking new season with the wonderful first Romana because it is such a bonus, and posthumously proves what an asset Tamm was to the series but I would have loved for this to have been the first of many seasons for this pairing. I’ll happily take what we’ve got though rather than nothing at all. The short tribute to Mary at the close of this disc was perfect, sentimental and touching but also revelling in the triumph of her return to the role.

Romana is as succinct as ever and can’t help wondering if the Doctor should have built the cloak that would shroud them from the Black Guardian before he sent away the only escape from the Earth they have. She finds the Earth primitive and unstimulating. Listening to Reggie coming on to Romana is a joy to behold, trying to pretend that he is as au fait as she is with the latest scientific theories. I suppose Romana is getting used to being proposed to for nefarious purposes, what with the offers of Count Grendel and now Reggie as well. As sharp as mustard and simply one of the most beautiful creatures in creation! I rather love the fact that Morris has both the Doctor and Romana with their own ‘assistants’ screaming ‘Run!’ at them barely a few scenes apart. It shows that Romana is more than capable of handling her own narrative independent of the Doctor and could just as happily take up the reins should he ever wish to retire. In typical Romana fashion she lets Reggie down very gently, informing him in no uncertain terms that there is no circumstances under which she would ever consent to marry him. Why do I get the impression that she is going to leave a trail of suicidal suitors in her wake the universe over?

Standout Performance: One of the (many) delights of season 16 is the gorgeous interaction between Tom Baker and Mary Tamm, how she came along and burst his bubble of arrogance and the comedy that poured forth from their fractious relationship. I’m pleased to say that has been transplanted to audio with effortless ease and within this whimsical 1920s setting they both flourish. Season 16 really saw Baker at his electrifying best; post Hinchcliffe horror and pre Nathan-Turner borderm and at the period where he was most engaged by the imagination and heroism of the part. I felt that he was far more subdued here than in his first audio season which whilst not entirely matching up to the season in hand is a massive improvement and he genuinely sounded like the 4th Doctor rather than Tom Baker effusingly trying to remember how to play him. It’s a star turn and with the dazzling Tamm in tow (who literally sounds as if she has stepped from the set of The Armageddon Factor) you have a delightful pair to kick start the this season. Given they are kept apart for much of this story, it has left me hungry for more. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Florence here is an absolute corker! Just the sort of girl you said I should find! In the first blush of womanhood, head packed with brains and liberally endowed with oomph!’
‘She might not mind being manacled to a chap who was mentally negligible once she’s seen the size of his country estate!’ – oo-er missus!
‘He could have at least killed us before losing all interest!’
‘Oh my sainted aunt! She’s deflating like an overcooked soufflé!’
‘Homicidal tendencies above and beyond the norm! Even by aunts’ standards!’
‘Given the appropriate crosswind my skull has been known to make a high pitched whistling sound!’
‘Reginald take me to your Auntie!’

Great Ideas: What a delightful title, a witty pun on a scientific term. Make no mistake, this is the closest that Doctor Who will ever come to a Wodehouse novel and your opinion of this is likely to be determined by what you think of this particular brand of class oriented whimsy. It does give Jonny Morris the chance to indulge in some positively extravagant dialogue, most of which made me howl with laughter. Given the economic running time the story gets straight to the point in revealing the premise of the Aunt from Hell planting her mind in body of young suitors for her nephew. I don’t know if this is where Morris got his inspiration from but I recall David Fisher (responsible for two of season 16’s finest) pointing out that he often referred to the villainous women in his stories as his ‘maiden aunts.’ It seems as joyful a starting point as any. Its how all the usual Doctor Who staples gate crash the Wodehouse setting that make this such a delight, android butlers and alien spaceships dressed up as a gothic Folly. The romance between Reggie and Mabel might be predictable the second they clap eyes on each other (she has a habit of burning kippers and that’s just the way he likes them!) but I love the symmetry of both the Doctor and Romana losing their assistants and re-discovering each other. Reggie wasn’t brought up by a succession of aunts but rather then same aunt in a succession of bodies. Florence is actually from the Valjax, a meditative race that was cursed with a virus that began killing them off. She crash landed on the Earth by accident and took on human form to extend her life. It extends the ageing process so she needs a constant stream of new bodies. It’s a story so slight and to the point you have to admire its straight-lacedness!

Audio Landscape: Birdsong, a car scattering chickens, mad cackling laughter, sizzling kippers, shop bell, alien technology booting up, a car growling along the country roads, firing bolts, beeping alien tech, the ships defences activating, sonic screwdriver, the android butler performs a very amusing shutdown, ducks quacking, water lapping.

Musical Cues: Unlike Jamie Robertson with the first season of fourth Doctor adventures, Howard Carter doesn’t take his cues entirely from Dudley Simpson and thus the score (and the story) feels more than a nostalgic trip and is more in line with the contemporary atmosphere brewed up in the Main Range for the other Doctors. Like the story it is light, spunky and very agreeable.

Isn’t it Odd: The plot is so self explanatory you would have to be in a churlish mood to complain about that so I guess the only thing to worry about is the tone. But that would mean you don’t enjoy having fun which no Doctor Who fan would admit to, surely?

Standout Scene: Its all so sunny its hard to choose one moment. Just listen to the thing and then delight in the final scene where both the Doctor and Romana take credit for defeating Auntie.

Result: ‘Leave the man! It’s the girl I want!’ Whimsical, funny and with a delightful atmosphere; I’m really pleased to see this range going for something a little more out there. Its not the space faring nostalgia fest that Destination Nerva was (thank goodness) but instead season two of the fourth Doctor adventures takes a new route – simply providing a rollicking good time! I love the slower pace of this adventure, not trying to cram everything into an hours adventure and having the chance to enjoy the scenery and indulge in some warm and witty characterisation. I would do anything to listen to the divine Julia McKenzie getting the chance to embody one of Fishers ‘maiden aunts’ and she doesn’t disappoint and for the chance to enjoy Baker and Tamm back in action (slipping into this period with consummate ease) is a delight. Its light on plot but full of energy and has more great lines than you can shake a stick at. There’s a dash of The Stones of Blood (a succession of aunts over time) and a pinch of The Androids of Tara (Romana is proposed to again) but this exists very much independently of them. However very much like season 16, The Auntie Matter isn’t the most intellectual exercise but if you are after a story that will make you beam from ear to ear throughout then you should look no further as this is the best example yet from this range. The image of the fourth Doctor screaming along the country roads in a vintage roadster like some mad take on Toad of Toad Hall, scarf flailing about him makes me giddy with joy: 8/10
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