‘This is the way the world ends – not with a bang, but with a wimple.’Recently, my reviews of new Fourth Doctor audio stories have tended to fall into one of two categories – ‘Meh, notsomuch,’ and ‘Buy this right now, it’s brilliant.’
If you’re looking for a capsule review, just go with option B – Cloisters of Terror is simply brilliant. You need to listen to it, now. In fact, if it was renamed Cloisters of Brilliance, probably no-one would argue with it.
What else do you need to know? Well, firstly, it sees the return of the fabulous Rowena Cooper as Dame Emily Shaw. Yes, the mother of Liz Shaw, who made such a dazzling impact alongside her ‘daughter’ in the Companion Chronicle The Last Post. Hearing Dame Emily in action retroactively explains so much about Liz herself, except if anything, Dame Emily is more game, more in the vein of Evelyn Smythe – an incredibly bright older woman with a distinguished academic background. In Cloisters of Terror, she’s just recently taken over as Dean of St Matilda’s College, Oxford – once a thriving convent, now mostly a college, with a last handful of nuns pottering about the place, living rent-free as a nod to the history of the building.
Then girls start going missing.
In particular, they start going missing having been visited by three ghostly nuns, the ‘Sisters of St Matilda.’
When the Fourth Doctor and Leela turn up in response to Dame Emily’s having reported a missing girl to the police, things really start ramping up – quite apart from anything else, Dame Emily met the Third Doctor, so it takes a moment to adjust to this demented curly-headed wanderer who claims to be Doctor Smith’s replacement – Doctor Smith. But the Fourth Doctor and Leela are in great form in this story, puncturing a good deal of what could be quite dark material with some superb humour that will make you want to clap your hands in glee. ‘I’m sorry if I’ve given offense, it’s a by-product of having an enquiring mind,’ the Doctor explains to one outraged nun, for instance. Delicious, in a way Lalla Ward, ex-wife of Tom Baker, now wife of Richard Dawkins, would surely approve.
Above all, the material is balanced here, and the pacing is superb – the ghostly sisters are explained as not being especially ghostly (though there is a good deal of astral projection involved in their backstory) but while the threat is not religious but scientific, it’s a position of faith that has apparently been keeping the world safe for quite some centuries, so the yin and yang of a science fiction story set in a nunnery are maintained. Meanwhile, the pacing is fast, logical, and spare, while allowing situations to be well explained, characters to be well-painted and then, just occasionally, re-painted with a better understanding of context, because this is that rarest and most delicious of oddities in Doctor Who history – a story where there isn’t really a baddie, just a bad situation, and a lot of people with little in the way of choice.
Writer Jonathan Morris has of course got a very impressive Big Finish pedigree – he’s the man behind stories like Bloodtide, Protect and Survive, Max Warp, Hothouse and one of my personal favourites, The Auntie Matter. So his ability to spin a good yarn and pepper it with positively perfect Fourth Doctor humour comes as no surprise. In fact, for me, this is Morris’ second entry into the top five most enjoyable Fourth Doctor audio stories.
The cast for this story are wonderful, treating dark material with a light touch, and almost going in the opposite from what was done in another excellent recent story, The Darkness of Glass – there, the melodrama was heightened into something fairly terrifying. Here, the performances are by no means comic, but they do have a practicality that appeals, coming from an almost entirely female cast (Tom Baker’s the only male voice in Cloisters), allowing the pace to flow the story on quickly without ever feeling rushed. Rowena Cooper is excellent, and indeed Dame Emily Shaw would make a great companion in her own right. Special mention must also go to Richenda Carey, who pitches the complex role of Sister Frances Becket just right, providing both a tinge of darkness and a flash of light.
If you want one of the fastest hours of Who you’ll have experienced recently, which delivers a good dose of spookiness, a lovely bit of pseudo-scientific rewiring, a balanced approach on the benefits of scientific understanding and faith positions, and some of the greatest Fourth Doctor witticisms since The Auntie Matter, get The Cloisters of Terror today.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk