Thursday, 11 June 2015

The Cloisters of Terror written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: St Matilda’s College, Oxford is haunted. The building was formerly a convent and, so the story goes, three ghostly nuns wander its passages during the hours of darkness. The story goes on to say that anyone who sees the ‘three sisters’ will not be long for this world. When one of the students mysteriously disappears, the Dean of the College, Dame Emily Shaw, has no option but to call in the police. Her call appears to be answered when a Police Box arrives in her study; the Doctor and Leela have come to investigate and uncover the dark secret that has lain buried beneath the college for almost a thousand years...

Teeth and Curls: Given the uncomplicated nature of the 4DAs and the basic characterisation of the regulars it is easy to overlook just how well Tom Baker and Louise Jameson have gelled on audio. Listen to their first scene together and bask in the glory of two actors who have settled their differences, enjoyed several years of working together and slipped into a groove where they can practically finish each others sentences. The Doctor is no good at explaining things because he makes them sound more complicated than they need to be...or does he soak things in pretence to spare people the headache of having to get their heads around who he and Leela really are? He is happy to admit that he used to work for UNIT and that they probably think that he still does. St Matilda's is an all woman college and the Doctor doesn't even notice...he's clearly not the man he is going to be. Walking around and soaking in the atmosphere of a college feels very right for the Doctor, a man of learning. Causing offence is a by product of an enquiring mind. There's nothing he can't damage if he puts his mind to it. The Doctor sounds a little half-hearted about sacrificing his life at the end of the story, almost as though he would feel a little embarrassed to go out in such an anti-climactic way.

Noble Savage: More of a case study in social naturalisation than an assistant. If there is any danger you can always count on Leela to run towards. Leela under a hypnotic influence threatening to harm the Doctor...didn't we cover this ground in The Evil One? Thank goodness Jonny Morris doesn't think to hang the entire story on this.

Dame Shaw: Liz's mother Emily made such a fantastic impact in The Last Post that I am not surprised to see her back (indeed such a story was mooted even in the special features of her debut as you can hear David Richardson's eyes lighting up as he realises he has stumbled upon another character that really works), despite the tragic death of Caroline John. Liz is still working for the British Rocket Group, preparing to put a base on the moon. Emily seemed a lot more savvy in The Last Post, up to her nose in all the strange affairs that were going on behind the scenes of the public. She's a lot less sure of herself here, blanching at every extraterrestrial plot twist that the Doctor suggests.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Men in the college? Where will it all end I ask myself?'

Great Ideas: Much like the superb SJA adventure Eye of the Gorgon, if you have seen the Sisters in this story it spells out certain doom. It's a bit of a cliché but it if you listen to this story in the dark and cosy up with the characters genuine terror you might just find some fingers running up your spine. The disappearances of girls are happening in a strict geometric progression and they are becoming more frequent. Young women have been going missing for centuries and it has been dutifully hushed up by the members of the convent. Using the ships telepathic systems to send out astral projections - the appearance of the sisters in peoples rooms is all smoke and mirrors. Volunteering to sit on a powder keg and prevent it from going up is a pretty good qualification for sainthood - the girls that have been kidnapped haven't been used for an obscene purpose but to help save lives. That's quite novel, I suppose.

Audio Landscape: There's nothing insanely pioneering happening but the opening scene features some superb sound design courtesy of Jamie Robertson that is worth pointing because I am always banging on about how good he is. Well here is the chance to isolate a few minutes of material and for you to check it out. Compare and contrast to the opening of Last of the Cybermen recently (which began with similar disturbing weather conditions) and you can see the huge difference a really good sound designer makes against merely an adequate one. Choir singing makes for an extremely atmospheric opening, the rumble of thunder and the coming of rain, a ticking clock, ducks quacking on the water, the squeakiest door of all time, anti-tamper force field, sonic screwdriver, wind blowing a gale, banging on the door, a freezing wind, a ruddy great explosion!

Isn't it Odd: After the setting and premise have been established nothing especially surprising happens in the first episode. The interactions between the characters is enjoyable enough but the plot holds no revelations. Even when science fiction comes crashing into the story with a juddering bump it feels like the author has seen State of Decay recently (three seats from the cockpit of an alien spaceship?). 'I've never known a better knocker outer than you' probably looked better on the page than it sounds once recorded. It doesn't sound like the Doctor at all. We have to deal with the background of the story in a brief flashback sequence because there isn't the time to let this portion of the story breathe properly. As is often the way with Doctor Who stories, once you strip away the supernatural elements and explain them with science...they become decidedly less interesting.

Standout Scene: Sister Francis going from villainous to martyr made me raise an eyebrow.  

Result: To say that a 4DA is offering nothing revolutionary can hardly be a surprise to anybody who has followed the range regularly. Recently I heard a suggestion that this arm of the fourth Doctor's adventures is deliberately unambitious, that they are light affairs catering to an audience that want to lie back and let a story wash over them rather than challenge them. Sometimes I'm in that mood and these stories fit the bill perfectly. Even the superb Dorney/Fitton two parter this season was frothy and amiable rather than anything that really made me work at unearthing its treasures. Jonny Morris delivers a fun enough script but it follows the 4DA pattern; well made, acted and scored but lacking any ambition than killing an hour in a reasonably amusing way. Like so many of these economically told adventures, I can't imagine waking up with a burning ambition to listen to The Cloisters of Terror again in a hurry like I do with the best of Big Finish. Everything played out in a way that made sense and the setting was rather nice and the atmosphere of ghostly spectres was very in keeping with the early Tom Baker television tales. The trouble was I never had a genuine sense of danger, especially with the Doctor taking everything in his stride and Leela and Emily acting more flippant than anxious. The SF elements don't really come off either, feeling as though they were dumped into the story rather than part of the narrative from the get go (when I'm sure that is not the case). I think if this was double the length with time for Morris to allow the characters a chance to breathe and spend more time with the aliens of the week and set up their plight this might have appealed more. As it stands it is like a bite size chocolate bar, over too soon and lacking in substance. After listening to four companion chronicles that utilised their time to tell intelligent, thought-provoking and staggeringly dramatic tales these 4DAs seem all too opaque. If Big Finish were looking at producing quality over what sells, I know which range I would reduce to box sets and which I would be releasing every month. Stunning cover, though: 5/10


dark said...

I will confess I was really not a fan of this one. I've enjoyed several fourth doctor stories (I even rather liked the Larn and Dalek contract ones), but this one never grabbed me at all, indeed compared to the much more recent and much better horror Darkness of glass this one just felt like paint by numbers.

Emily Shaw might've been good if she was in there for more than a name check, and the environment of a women's colige was used far more effectively in Breaking bubles, both because the sixth Doctor being a man played a part in the story and because the colige actually came across like a real institution of learning where people were engaged in actual academic learning and research, not just a cloistered set of young women and their matronly overseers all set for Victorian melodrama and bumps in the night. Oh and the fact that we only had two fairly interchangeable young women (but for their accents), who basically were just there to scream was pretty grim.

I did wonder if the resolution was going somewhere with revealing the alien business at the end of the first episode, but despite lots of dickering around and different people getting possessed and unpossessed not a lot was done with this and yet another "Benign aliens with freaky advanced technology that have been hanging around for years causing problems" really didn't excite me much.

Oh and for the ending? Oooh look we forget about the machine taking only young women so that either the Doctor or a conveniently penitant guest character can take the wrapk, (I wonder what would happen if sometimes the convenient vilain/misguided scientist/generic soldier wasn't around to sacrifice themselves instead of the Doctor, his assistant).

Maybe it's just that I listened to this one on a very sunny train journey across the North of England, maybe it's that there was a lady in the seat in front of me speaking in the exact same south Yorkshire accent Megan attempts. Maybe it's that I'm not particularly a fan of these women's boarding school settings, (I only enjoyed Winter for the Adept second time through), or heck maybe it's just I've never been a major Tom Baker fan much as I think Leela is awsome, but I just didn't care for this one at all.

Actually, it was listening to this one that made me realize why! T Baker has never been one of my favourite doctors, and that's because he takes everything in such an offhand and commanding way you really can't get the idea that he's rattled by anything at all which really kills the tention, look at his instant logic leaps in stones of blood when confronted with death or the damp squib of his supposed possession in Destroy the Infinite (very irritating sinse that one was built up so much).

I won't deny he's tremendously entertaining, and hugely fun whether in his whimsical or melancholic moments, but too often I tend to feel there's not much jeopardy in a story when good old Uncle Tom is there to sort everything out, ---- quite different from most other doctors, heck the way the ever commanding Pertwee plays his fear in Planet of the Spiders always really! scares me.

So, not imho a good release, I probably wouldn't have been as generous as 5-10, it'd likely have got a 4 or a 3 from me sinse while yeah it was sort of meh and okay, sort of meh and okay is what I expect of Steven Moffat not! of Big finish.

Makes me realize how much I liked Suburban hell last time, or for that matter the two rocket men master stories before hand.

Anonymous said...

For "Dark": Where the hell have you been? Big Finish has started to decline since "Antidote to Oblivion" all stories are "sort of meh and okay". The Sixth Doctor and Peri are all good now. Even the worst stories of Moffat have something challenging and innovative to show that the Fourth Doctor adventures. I am more disappointed by Jonathan Morris for writing this story.

dark said...

Well Moffat is probably something we'd have to debate elsewhere (sinse right now I'm of the firm opinion that there are only ten encarnations of the Doctor and yes the time war did still happen).

However I disagree totally on Big finish, and indeed it's the fact that Bf have had some interesting releases lately that makes their forays into flatness less than interesting.

Entropy plague, equilibrium, Widdow's assassin, Masters of earth, scavenger, ---- heck I personally even rather liked Tombship for the crazy environment and action adventure plot (although moonflesh was pretty dire).

Not to mention in the 4th doctor adventures the last three being pretty fun and definitely rescuing matters from the slump they have been in.

Anonymous said...

To "Dark": If you want to be isolated in your bubble of the past, your problem. The Time War happened, and concluded the way I expected since the universe of the RTD era was very normal and quiet as to believe that was devastated by war. But that is the fault of RTD to focus more on Rose Tyler than in the inhabitants of the galaxy.

There are few Big Finish's stories that you named in these two years, I remember a time when the whole year was full of good and challenging stories.

rumblebars said...

I listened to this one earlier today and afterwards tried to predict what the Oho Score would be for it. I was thinking Oho's would be 4 or less. My personal score was 5-ish like Oho. Mostly because bits of the story bothered me to no end. If there was an agent at the head of the convent that was aiding this process of maintaining the alien ship, why were there ANY mentions in the archives? (had the young girls found an old private historical account, that would have been different) Just how and why did the Doctor even "intercept" the call to the police and show up? (typical 2-episode story compression). If the alien machinery grants extended life, hundreds of years in the first case, why did just ONE of the three replacement pilots die the first time? and then why did they only drop one at a time from then on? Why did a mental call go out to *all* the young girls nearby at the end, instead of just targeting one, and unless I missed something, why did that call continue after three young bodies had been plugged into the works? I just had too many eye-rolling plot moments.

The characters and the voice acting were fine though, no problems there. Sound design and music, perfectly adequate. It was the story that bugged me.


dark said...

Good point on the inconsistancies there Andy, though as I said it was more the "paint by numbers" aspect of this one that got me here.

Oh well, hopefully we'll get a better one next time.

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David Pirtle said...

I kinda liked this one. Like the review says, it's light on substance, but well produced and performed. Maybe it's because I listened to it while stuck on a bus, and I was just happy for the distraction.