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Doctor Who: At Childhood’s End (Sophie Aldred) – Review

You’ll probably know the saying which states old soldiers never die, they simply fade away. Well, it seems that old Doctor Who companions never truly leave the show, they simply move into alternative media.

Take Ace (a.k.a. Dorothy McShane), who appeared on our TV screens between 1987 and 1989, in the form of Sophie Aldred. She was due to bow out during Season 27, which had been due to hit our screens in 1990. Except, it never happened. The BBC – stung from their efforts to axe the programme back in 1985 – knew to play a much cannier game second time around, and instead of saying Doctor Who was cancelled outright, all their PR simply said they were weighing up the possible options, in order to ensure the series’ longterm future.

As a result, Ace never had an official exit, unlike the other companions who had gone before her. However, with the show off the air, that TARDIS-shaped void had to be filled somehow; after all, nature abhors a vacuum. As a result, it led to other creative outlets for the show either springing up or coming to the fore – all officially licenced, but none of them being truly definitive, despite some efforts to try and coordinate them all at times. As such, character arcs diverged as each medium went on to try and tell the story of what happened after Doctor Who ended on TV.

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This meant Ace had a number of different futures open up before her, each one contradicting the rest. For example, in the novelisation of a TV adventure, she’s shown as having left the TARDIS, and ended up living in 1887 Paris, with the ancestor of her deceased love interest from that story. The comic strip in Panini’s official magazine saw Ace sacrificing herself to save the day. The original novel series – Doctor Who: The New Adventures – had her leaving the TARDIS to join Spacefleet and fight Daleks, before becoming Time’s Vigilante.

BBC Books’ own novel series killed the TV Ace, replacing her with one from a parallel dimension. A webcast audio tale – ‘Death Comes To Time’ – saw Ace inheriting the mantle of the Time Lords when they, along with the Doctor, died out. In Big Finish Productions’ licenced audios, they’ve had Ace follow the trajectory lined up for her on TV, by staying on Gallifrey with the Time Lords, and being admitted into the Time Lord Academy; Big Finish then had her go on to fight in the Time War, which was part of the TV series’ backstory when it returned in 2005.

However, the closest we’ve got to a properly official official steer came in the form of Russell T. Davies and The Sarah Jane Adventures, the spin-off show which he’d devised. In one episode, he had former companion Sarah Jane Smith tell her friends about what she knew of the fates of other people who’d travelled with the Doctor: in the case of Ace, she’d gone on to found a charity to help orphans and the underprivileged, entitled ‘A Charitable Earth’ (‘ACE’ – you see?).

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This is the version of events that’s recently gained traction, as the Doctor Who Season 26 Blu-ray set announcement trailer – entitled ‘Ace Returns!’ – saw Aldred appearing on screen as the character for the very first time since 1993’s Children In Need special minisodes. In the trailer – written and directed by Pete McTighe (‘Kerblam!’; ‘Praxeus’) – we see Ace in the A Charitable Earth building in central London, reminiscing about her time spent travelling with the Doctor, and how it let her get to where she is now.

A Charitable Earth was also mentioned by Ace during her guest appearance in Big Finish’s continuation of ill-fated Doctor Who spin-off Class, and Big Finish have released a new Doctor Who audio in the last month which also uses the same continuity once again, consolidating Ace’s status as head of her own charity. This, then, is the jumping-off point for new novel Doctor Who: At Childhood’s End (‘ACE’ again), written by Sophie Aldred herself (with a little help and guidance from her writer friends Mike Tucker and Steve Cole).

Doctor Who: At Childhood’s End is the second in what seems to be emerging as a range of Doctor Who ‘celebrity novels’, following last year’s Doctor Who: Scratchman by Tom Baker. It seems there’s no-one better suited to bring Ace back for another trip in the TARDIS than the actress who’s inhabited her (or vice versa) for over three decades, particularly when it ties into the current series on TV with Jodie Whittaker, which certainly helps to give the novel a high profile where some potential readers might not be as familiar with the original 26-year run, and may help draw in casual fans, as well as legacy devotees.

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It appears there’s a vogue at the moment for bringing back classic companions and having them meet the first female Doctor – look at Titan Comics’ current Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor – Year Two tale – ‘A Little Help From My Friends’ – featuring Martha Jones alongside the Tenth Doctor. It’s therefore very much ‘on trend’ here to have Ace crossing paths with the Doctor once again, just not the one she was expecting. It’s nice to have crossovers between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Who in book and comic form, as it’s unlikely that they’d ever happen on telly, so they fill that void.

Ace was the original London-based council estate kid years before Russell T. Davies had ever dreamt of Rose Tyler, and she was one of the first companions to have both a proper character arc and personal growth. Coming from that time when the show started to feel more grounded, and delve a bit more into the lives of the friends and fellow travellers, it seems only right Ace should come back to meet the Doctor in an era of storytelling where she’d fit right in, having been at the vanguard of the truly ‘modern’ era of the series over 30 years ago.

Here, a series of unexplained disappearances of street kids and runaways comes to Ace’s attention, bringing to mind the mysterious circumstances which saw her whisked off into time and space as a teenager, and first cross paths with the Doctor when he was in his seventh body. We also get to see Aldred’s own look at why they parted ways off screen many years before, giving us another take on her departure; however, seeing as how Aldred literally is Ace, her version is as authoritative (if not moreso) than all the others.

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The story is actually very layered and clever, in that it takes Ace’s arrival as well as her leaving, and ties it all into what’s happening in her present, bringing her full circle and giving her some closure on unfinished business. There’s certainly no unseemly rush to make Ace and the Doctor best buddies again, particularly as there’s some wariness on both sides in light of how things ended between them; both characters have changed – quite radically, in the Doctor’s case – and it’s an interesting study of whether you can ever recapture the magic with someone after a bad breakup.

What it also does is give us a closer look at the Doctor’s current group of friends, as they have to come to terms with someone from her past (which she’s been somewhat guarded about in the series, making this fit nicely). Along with Ace realising how possessive she was of the Doctor during her travels, she sees those same traits in Yaz, who’s not only fiercely protective, but also becomes jealous when an ‘ex’ hoves back into the Doctor’s life; Yaz also realises that her time with the Doctor will one day come to an end, which makes her worry about what the future may have in store.

For fans of the show, there are plenty of throwaway continuity references in here which will scratch that certain itch, while not alienating the casual reader. For everyone else, there’s a load of incident and spectacle, while both time and planet-hopping in spades, and the story itself moves on at a fair old lick, while still giving ample opportunity for pause and reflection along the way. Aldred’s novel perfectly bridges the gap between the old and new eras of Doctor Who, and has something for everyone.

While not closing out her story once and for all, if Doctor Who: At Childhood’s End were to be Ace’s last appearance, then this would certainly be an apt and fitting one for her. However, let’s just hope that she’ll get to don that bomber jacket and wield that baseball bat one more time, as there’s still danger, injustice and cold tea to tackle. Come on, Ace: we’ve still got work to do.

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