This review is based on the MP3 download from Big Finish, and contains spoilers.
The Auntie Matter reunites the fourth Doctor and the first Romana, albeit under sad circumstances with Mary Tamm having passed away not long ago. It’s a tragic turn of events acknowledged by the tribute contained on this release, and it’s something that casts an inescapable shadow over the otherwise light, frothy tone of Jonathan Morris’s P.G. Wodehouse pastiche. Morris is also, of course, pastiching the appropriate era of Doctor Who, as well as firmly playing to Tom Baker’s flamboyant persona (one section of dialogue even sounds suspiciously like an infamous Baker anecdote). And though the ‘behind-the-scenes’ feature reveals a number of Baker gags that failed to make the final release, I suspect the Doctor’s mistaken addressing of housemaid Mabel as “Mary” was a Tom ad lib. There are also some very amusing riffs on well-known Who dialogue: “take me to your leader!” gets a make-over, and at one point Time and the Rani is unexpectedly, wittily brought to mind.
But if Jonathan Morris is playing with audience memories of Who, he also takes this story a step further than televised Doctor Who ever managed, giving Romana far more to do – in story terms – than was often the case on TV. Here, there’s a real sense of Romana’s capabilities, independence and resourcefulness: she’s very much a Time Lord in her own right rather than a companion. And by splitting the story into dual strands, following the Doctor and Romana, this adventure also takes on a sharp comedic edge as the two time-travellers continually fail to spot one another’s involvement.
The Auntie Matter is cursed with a lumberingly daft title, however, even if its basic formulation isn’t so far away from something like The Armageddon Factor. But whereas the culmination of season 16 had an earnest, portentous identity, this time around we’re treated to some pretty facile punning. And the story’s guest star – Julia McKenzie – goes so far over the top that she’s close to stratospheric on a few occasions.
Given the broad satire of some of what’s on offer, I think a few other performances could have been profitably toned down by Ken Bentley's direction: for example, Reggie (Robert Portal) is such a cartoonish figure that it’s difficult to care about him, or to believe that Romana would decide to accompany him anywhere. By contrast, housemaid Mabel (Lucy Griffiths) and factotum Grenville (Alan Cox) are performed more naturalistically, creating a sense of realism and stylization rubbing up against each other in a rather indecorous way. Perhaps the story's mildly schizoid nature comes from Jonathan Morris trying to second-guess which antics might appeal to Tom Baker, and which different tonalities might appeal to the nostalgic listenership. As it is, the play’s centre of gravity shifts around, veering from P.G. Wodehouse to G. Williams and back again.
Mabel gives the story some genuine heart; she’s an inquisitive housemaid who plays an unusual role for Doctor Who: in essence, she’s a multi-companion, being paired up with both the Doctor and Romana at different moments. But despite excellent, unshowy work from Lucy Griffiths, there’s little room for the character to be fleshed out, and her eventual fate seems implausible, with conventional sensibility triumphing over story sense.
Tom Baker seems to be enjoying himself immensely throughout, and the same can be said of Mary Tamm’s return to the role of Romana. Post-Key-to-Time, we hear a Romana who’s surer of herself, and who enjoys the Doctor’s banter whilst pointing out his lapses in logic. K-9 is missing from this release, though, meaning that we'll have to wait for The Sands of Life for a full-scale TARDIS crew reunion. (On this occasion, the Doctor doesn’t seem at all bothered about sending his canine computer off on a randomized tour of a thousand worlds… you’d almost think he wanted to spend some quality time by himself with Lady Romana).
As always with Big Finish, sound design is top notch and unobtrusively contributes to this tale’s realization of a 1920’s stately home and gardens. But clever plotting and sharp structuring are the real pay-offs here, once all the Wodehouse window-dressing has been tidied away. What makes this drama most compelling is the fact that it so obviously rewards its two returning leads, giving both Tom Baker and Mary Tamm something interesting to play. The Auntie Matter is surely an ‘actor matter’: written to please its stars as much as its listeners. And if such a strategy was instrumental in reuniting this particular Time Lord team, then Big Finish and Jonathan Morris have done us – and them – proud.