Set in the former convent school of St Matilda’s College in 1977, The Cloisters of Terror deals with the centuries-old phenomenon of young girls disappearing shortly after they see an apparition of three ghostly Nuns. Young Megan (Claudia Grant, of An Adventure in Space and Time fame) witnesses her friend Lynn (Allison McKenzie) fall under the thrall of the ghostly sisters, and the college’s Dean, politely blocked at every turn by the venerable Sister Frances Beckett (Richendra Carey), she has no other option than to get the police involved.
That Dean is none other than Dame Emily Shaw, (Rowena Cooper) mother of Liz, previously introduced by Big Finish in The Last Post. And Dame Emily finds a police box in her office, as the Doctor and Leela have intercepted her call and elected to investigate.
Dame Shaw quickly gets to know this incarnation of the Doctor, having previously met his ‘very odd’ predecessor - and their repartee is a joy. There’s a gentle nod to absent friends, as the Doctor asks after both Liz and the Brigadier. (Also, UNIT-dating fans - this is set in 1977, and the Brig is apparently in South America, presumably just about to pack it all in for teaching. Can we just say that Sarah Jane bumped her head before she mentioned being from 1980, or was just rounding up?)
Rowena Cooper plays Emily as a formidable but fun old battle-axe, and Tom Baker thrives with this kind of character to bounce off, giving us a slightly less irreverent but clearly grinning Doctor, a man who relishes a good mystery to solve. He’s also excellent when faced with the layered character played by Carey. Clearly all-female casts agree with Tom Baker, who's having fun but is also on his best Doctorial behaviour. He does manage to get a terrible pun about a wimple through, though.
Leela, meanwhile goes ghost-hunting with Megan, and it doesn’t take her long to get headhunted by the ghostly sisters. Everyone very soon gets locked in the crypt with the sisters by the duplicitous Sister Beckett, and it’s all very atmospheric, with reverse-reverbed ghostly voices and echoey cloisters. Perhaps the only criticism of this story is slightly blowing the whole story pretty much wide open a little too early, but Jonathan Morris’s clever script makes it all work. Bits of what could be quite clunky description and exposition are neatly handled by making the sisters only visible to young women, therefore Leela and Megan do a lot of the talking for them.
Classic Doctor Who largely stayed away from the sticky subject of religion. The BBC already had Mary Whitehouse to worry about, let alone complaints from the church - who were remarkably understanding about an alien mass-murderer posing as a vicar, then apparently raising the devil, culminating in an exploding church and a bit of gentle tea-time pagan ritual. The Daemons is a bit of an exception, and can’t be seen as a dig against religion. Bloodthirsty priests do get around a bit in classic Who, but only really in alien cultures or a distant, barbaric past. Nothing too close to the knuckle. Best not to push your luck, when depicting people of the cloth as monsters or villains.
The Cloisters of Terror seems to do just that, but manages to neatly subvert the notion of a sinister sisterhood in what turns out to be a meditation on self-sacrifice for the greater good. To say too much would be too much of a spoiler, even if the eventual resolution is signposted right from the episode one cliffhanger. Let’s just say that the obviously alien threat isn’t actually evil, this is more of a ‘stuck switch’ kind of story.
This is a thoughtful minor tale, creepy and atmospheric, but somehow fairly cosy, with a touch of the BBC drama Ghost Stories at Christmas series to it. It’s perfect late-seventies contemporary-England Who. It’s not as original as Suburban Hell, but it’s very good indeed.