Doctor Who: how Ace set the template for modern companions

Sophie Aldred's Ace was a Doctor Who companion ahead of her time. We look back at the girl from Perivale's time in the TARDIS...

In 1987, Doctor Who broke the companion mould with Dorothy Gale McShane – better known of course as Ace – the streetwise, working class kid who blew up the school art room, and became the only cautioned arsonist to ever board the TARDIS.

With a fondness for homemade explosives, and hailing from a very different background to those she succeeded, Ace became the first Doctor Who companion to truly develop before our very eyes as she journeyed through adolescence and into adulthood. Laying the foundations for future companions to build  upon, she is perhaps not only a pivotal character in Doctor Who history, but genre TV in general.

“From the beginning all we knew about Ace was that she would be a fighter and not a screamer – the antithesis of some of the earlier companions (Mel was a screamer). So that was our starting point.” Andrew Cartmel (Doctor Who script editor 1986 – 1989) told me recently, “I also had made a conscious decision not to use the companion as a weary routine story device. Not just to ask questions; although some of that is necessary. More importantly, I wanted to avoid the standard cliché where you separate the Doctor and companion early in the story. But the fact that Ace began to blossom as a strong three-dimensional character is down to the fact that she was written by superb writers.”

Taking over as script editor in 1986, Andrew set about his task of assembling a team of writers capable of reinvigorating the ailing sci-fi giant, with Ace gradually evolving into an integral part of this plan.

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“Ian Briggs’ contribution cannot be overstated.” Andrew says, “But other writers who particularly responded to her and fleshed her out were Ben Aaronovitch, Marc Platt and Rona Munro. The evolution of the character, through their contributions, was an organic process.”

Much like Rose Tyler in 2005, and long before Buffy, Xena and the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica were lauded for capable female characters, progressive story arcs, and sexual subtext – Ace became the emotional core of Doctor Who. While more adult connotations were initially vetoed by producer John Nathan-Turner, who rejected discussions about the character’s virginity in early scripts, in companion terms Doctor Who was poised to step closer to the real world. Far from distracting from the character of the Doctor, this actually allowed the Time Lord to be viewed more as an enigma – removed from humanity but forever its champion. While we may never truly identify with the Doctor, here we had arguably the first companion, we all either knew, could be, or could spot on the street. Disproving the theory that a companion’s main role is to provide exposition, themes of teenage angst, racism, and eventually sexual awakening all presented themselves in young McShane – a notable first for not only Doctor Who, but all genre TV of that age. Unaware of the significance of their actions, Andrew and his colleagues were formulating and plotting decades ahead of their time, “I only realised how different it was from the standard template years later. At the time, I just knew I liked it.”

Introduced in the final story of Doctor Who‘s twenty fourth season, Dragonfire, Dorothy (Ace) McShane is the polar opposite of the then current TARDIS incumbent, Melanie Bush (Bonnie Langford). Ace was portrayed with great gusto by Sophie Aldred, who proved her acting chops in the very first scene she recorded – one in which she resisted the temptation of enlisting for the villainous Kane. Here we had an unruly, tempestuous tearaway who would be more likely to instruct an alien to “bog off” – than scream on the spot for minutes without pausing for breath. Although very little of her evolution had been formulated at this point, the first seeds of parental issues were sown, and from just the briefest of moments alone in the TARDIS, the potential for the dynamite combination of the 7th Doctor and Ace is clearly evident.

As Ace developed, so did the production team’s processes, Cartmel’s memoir of the era, Script Doctor, gives a fascinating insight into the changes he instigated, as lead actors and writers were invited to impromptu get-togethers to discuss their characters. With the trappings of the previous era well and truly discarded, and in just her first full adventure as the Time Lord’s companion – Ace quickly became immortalised in the show’s history.

Remembrance Of The Daleks kicked off the programme’s 25th anniversary season in spectacular, action-packed style. Feisty yet vulnerable, charming yet uncouth, Ace would tackle racism, face betrayal and – her crowning moment – batter a Dalek with a baseball bat – all within those 4×25 minute episodes. While it would take another year for Ace to truly share top billing with the Doctor, the template for the modern companion had been forged. Without a moment’s hesitation, and eager to go into battle for the Time Lord, Ace does not need to think twice as she holds off a patrol of Cybermen carrying nothing more than a catapult and an ancient bag of gold coins. Foreshadowing the devotion of post-2005 companions, the young McShane is beginning to realise her full potential in life and own self-worth, one which had previously been denied by birth and circumstance.

Season 26 began with the divisive, yet eventful romp, Battlefield, which in hindsight gave us our final glimpse of the teenage tearaway just as adulthood beckoned. Arguably, the remaining stories of the season were crafted around Ace. Described as a trilogy by some, the first of these, Ghost Light, begins as Ace has at some point causally mentioned her greatest fear to the Time Lord, and as this is the 7th Doctor he promptly drops her right in it. Arriving at Gabriel Chase in 1883, Ace must confront the Doctor over his trickery, and face the origins of a terror which her young self will act rashly upon in a hundred years’ time. With her future self sensing the impression of evil left behind by the villainous Light, the young McShane will burn the Gabriel Chase of 1983 to the ground. Lashing out after the racially motivated murder of her school friend Manisha, Ace finally reveals her guilt to the Time Lord in the stories’ final, memorable dinner scene. The Doctor may have a grand plan for Ace, but is he truly acting in her best interests, or is there an ulterior motive behind the Time Lord’s interest…

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In The Curse Of Fenric, several momentous events befall Ace that alter the youngster from Perivale forever. The character’s background is explored in ways never previously afforded to a companion, but which were to become commonplace in the 2005 revival. The Doctor and Ace materialise at a secret British naval base in 1941, just as a team of Russian commandos prepare to attack, and vampiric creatures lurk beneath the waters of the nearby Northumberland coast. Revealed to be one of the ‘Wolves of Fenric’ – descendants of Viking settlers cursed by the ancient evil, who in turn engineered the teenager’s first meeting with the Time Lord. Had the youngster really been nothing more than a pawn, in a centuries-old game between Fenric and the Time Lord? A paradox of her own making, Ace must face revelations that shape her own future and make peace with her conflicting emotions towards her mother. A pivotal scene in her story arc, and in hindsight the programme’s history – sees the young woman offer to distract a guard to aid the Russian Captain’s escape. “How?” enquires the Doctor. “Professor… I’m not a little girl.” The scene perfectly highlights the potential of an emotionally charged Doctor Who, and unbeknown at the time, in this moment perhaps – the show’s glorious future is assured. The young girl from Perivale, destined to bleed into the minds of future Doctor Who writers, as they settle on the role of Rose, Jack, and their like 16 years later.

If Fenric closed the door on one chapter of Ace’s life then Survival, the final story of Doctor Who’s twenty-six year run, gave a glimpse of where she could be headed. Now a mature young woman, Ace takes charge of her former gang members when found trapped on an alien planet and hunted by its feline inhabitants. Laced with a subtext which would have done Xena: Warrior Princess proud, Ace becomes emotionally linked to Karra, one of the female felines. As writer Rona Munro stated in a 2007 interview, “I think the actors that were cast, from what I was told, were doing all this wonderful expressive facial work, and then these ‘Puss In Boots’ things were dropped on them – and so then you can’t see what they’re doing under there. Particularly Karra and Ace, there were whole amazing scenes between them and for me, that was supposed to be my lesbian subtext – and you can’t see it!”. Themes and undercurrents, which were to be praised to the hilt in a variety of TV shows in the years to come, were already bubbling away within Ace and an unloved twenty-six-year-old – yet still most innovative – programme on British TV.

By the end of the 1989 season, the immature and emotionally scarred teenager had blossomed into a confident young woman. Having vanquished her inner pain, the brash exterior Ace had developed to mask it now fell away. Although a sad loss to those of us thrilled by the good work in 1989, we can at least look back and revaluate that final walk into the sunset for the Doctor and Ace. No longer a painful goodbye, it should be viewed as a job well done – and one which lay the foundations for the greatest television comeback of all time.

Whatever happened to Dorothy McShane? That sounds very much like a spin-off just waiting to happen. And fittingly, unlike most companions, Ace’s final fate has never truly been realised. While we were denied the opportunity to see the Doctor enrol her into the Time Lord Academy as mooted, the Target novelisation of The Curse Of Fenric has Ace settle down with an ancestor of Captain Sorin in Paris, 1887. Doctor Who Magazine comic strip, Ground Zero, had Ace killed off, while a more favourable ending is suggested in Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures, which made mention of a Dorothy who became the head of a charitable trust which raised billions.

Who knows, future show runners may just pick up on Russell T. Davies’ idea that had The Sarah Jane Adventures continued, Ace would have made an appearance – and it could yet bear fruit in some form or another. Perhaps, that baseball bat really will live to swing another day.

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