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