The Auntie Matter
Tony Fyler says Tinkerty-Tonk.
‘I say, Jeeves, must you always be creeping up on a blighter like one of those bally automaton fellows? Now listen and attend to the young master, and I shall update you on the circs as regards The Auntie Matter.
Young chap, name of Reginald, instructed by aunt, Lady Florence Bassett, on pain of hard stares and no more of chef’s superb dinners, to take himself a wife, toot sweet. Chap finds young girl, pops the proverbial and all seems juicy. The two young cloth-heads, this Reginald and his darling girl, tootle along a country road in the old jalopy to the ancestral home for presenting of future Mrs Reginald, or Lady Reginald as the case may be, to the formidable maiden aunt. Much to the surprise of all concerned, the aunt approves. Good news for young Reggie. Next step, reading of the banns and cold cuts for the wedding breakfast, what?’
Not what at all.
With eternal apologies for the rape of Wodehouse here committed, it does more or less set out the ‘pre-credits’ sequence of The Auntie Matter. The story is Wodehouse thievery of the most audacious and blatant kind from the first moment to the absolute end – so much so one could almost imagine it to be a Moffat Christmas Special, but no. It does however push the thievery, and the inherent absurdity, to the sort of levels that actually make you gasp.
Doctor Who does Wodehouse?
Well absolutely, why not? The format has proved it can do almost anything – if Doctor Who can do Shakespeare with witches at the Globe, and Doctor Who can do Dickens with walking ghosts at Christmas, or flying sharks and time travel, and Doctor Who can do Agatha Christie with giant alien wasps, and Doctor Who can do Robin Hood with robots, then absolutely, why would we ever imagine that Doctor Who wouldn’t be able to do Wodehouse with fearsome maiden aunts, scary gentlemen’s gentlemen, plucky maids, hopeless drones and even a frolic with a folly?
Turns out it can – and brilliantly.
Of course, the challenge Wodehouse himself faced – balancing all the farcical, knockabout comedy with a genuine and escalating sense of peril – is very much more heightened if you’re going to set a Doctor Who story in a Wodehousian world, because Who has to have real threat, possibly end-of-the-world or end-of-the-universe threat, rather than just someone-doing-28-days-in-jug-for-pinching-an-amber-statuette threat.
That’s a challenge to which writer Jonathan Morris has risen heroically – and that very first scene, which pootles along with such a sense of 1920s bon viveur, is cut off with such a dark, horrific moment (nodding heavily to The Talons of Weng-Chiang), that it brings all the froth sharply into focus like a slap in the face.
Meanwhile, our heroes, the Fourth Doctor and the First Romana, are sojourning at a townhouse in London, having Done Something Devious, mainly it seems to imagine the Black Guardian’s head exploding – they’ve sent the Tardis off on a round-time-and-space hopping race, so the Guardian will follow it hither and most assuredly yon, while they live the high life in the 1920s. The Doctor rigs a tracker to detect alien signals, just in case of trouble, but of course if you have a machine that goes ding when there’s stuff, it will find all sorts of stuff, not just the stuff you were looking for and wanted to be warned about.
While Romana goes into town to find out about quantum theory in the ’20s, the machine detects stuff, and goes ding. Missing one Time Lady, the Doctor recruits their hired maid, the fabulously Wodehouse-named Mabel Dobbs, and the two go haring off into the countryside in search of the stuff that made the machine go ding.
Romana, in her quest for quanta, instead finds Reginald, still looking for the girl of his dreams, and aided and abetted in his pursuit of a brainy young thing by his aunt’s extremely polite, and apparently moderately telepathic butler, Grenville. He promises to show Romana all the latest works from Planck and such clever continental coves, while all the time actually intended to pop the question on the way to introduce his new sweetheart to his favourite aged aunt, here played by one of TV’s many Marples, the positively delicious Julia McKenzie.
The double-helix of the story continues to play out as farce along those lines – the Doctor and Romana very nearly meeting at several points, but never quite managing to get together and exchange notes – while both of them are ultimately homing in on the same alien signal.
It’s a spoiler of very little to say that the formidable maiden aunt is really rather more formidable than her doting nephew gives her credit for, and her Jeeves-like servants – multiple Grenvilles - are less the perfect gentleman’s gentleman, and rather more psychotic robot killing machines.
The farce plays out with somewhat heartbreaking consequences for Reginald himself and there’s a certain inevitable ‘home in time for tea’ quality to the story that potentially overplays the comedy just evvvvver so slightly, with neither the Doctor nor Romana wanting the other to know that they solved the mystery of the signal, and defeated the Aunt From Hell – because there’s a valid case to be made either way for who actually deals with her – in case the other gets upset that they solved it alone. It shows their friendship developing far beyond the mission parameters of the Key To Time stories, and becoming the kind of relationship where you can imagine them both being quite pleased to knock around the universe together for a while longer.
So should you buy The Auntie Matter?
The truth is that this is very much a Marmite story – you’ll either love it or hate it. It’s probably fair to say that if you’re a fan of The City of Death, The Unicorn and the Wasp, or…well, pretty much any of the New Who stories written by Gareth Roberts, you’ll enjoy this one, even though it’s not by him at all. If you prefer your Fourth Doctor intense, quixotic and broody – this one’s notsomuch the story for you. But in the Fourth Doctor range, there is of course plenty of intense, quixotic and broody. Destroy The Infinite’s a broody one, and so is Destination Nerva. Try The Wrath of the Iceni or the Renaissance Man too, they score high on the quixotic and broody front. The joy about The Auntie Matter is that it frees Tom Baker almost entirely of all the Dark Doctor muttering and lets his innate comedic skills run riot across a Wodehousian world to which he’s magnificently suited. Mary Tamm’s Romana, too, is very well suited to the world of glamourous cocktail parties, house parties and Riviera trips – as she proved in The Stealers From Saiph. There’s something delicious about the stiff-necked, high-browed ice queen being out of her depth that makes her absolutely ripe for comedy – though here, to be fair to the character, she’s more in control of events and riding the wave of the comedy, rather than it being at her expense.
If you like a dash of Doctor Who as dark comedy in among all the broody, quixotic brilliance, you’ll most likely really love The Auntie Matter, and to that section of the fandom, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly.