So “Legend of the Sea Devils” was a serviceable, fairly by-the-numbers, classic-monster-meets-celebrity historical story that didn’t hit any truly spectacular highs or lows, but which will surely be hotly debated in the comments anyway.
The biggest reveal of the episode was in the 30-second clip before the end credits. Yes, the next episode will show us the Thirteenth Doctor regenerate into the Fourteenth, we know. And in this story she’ll be facing the Master, the Daleks, and the Cybermen which, of course she is. Who doesn’t want to bring all the big stops out for the final bash?
We expected all of these reveals…except the one that truly blew us away: the Thirteenth Doctor’s final story will feature the return of Classic Who companions Ace and Tegan Jovanka, once again played by Sophie Aldred and Janet Fielding, respectively. It is the biggest special guest appearance the series has featured since Sarah Jane Smith returned during the David Tennant era, and we are excited.
Now normally when a character returns to a show after a long absence, the intervening years are a pretty blank slate. They ride off in a cab as Albert Square retreats into the distance behind them, and that’s all we know until they burst into the Queen Vic 10 years later just as the “DUN Dun, Dundundundun” drums begin (apologies to our American readers for this whole paragraph).
But that’s not how Doctor Who works. The TV show is merely the foundation of a vast, ornate, and often non-Euclidean structure made up of comics, audios, novels, short stories, video games, other TV shows, and non-licensed cameos. Several actors who have played the Doctor on TV have spent way more time doing it for Big Finish audio dramas than they did on screen.
So, when it comes to the question, “What have Ace and Tegan been up to since we last saw them?” the answer is “A lot.” At this stage there is no way of knowing how much of this will be acknowledged, respected, or outright contradicted by the episode to come, but a quick tour may give us some clues about what’s to come…
When We Last Saw Tegan and Ace
Tegan and Ace both had very different departures from the TARDIS, raising very different questions about where they have been since.
Tegan was last seen in “Resurrection of the Daleks.” After a run of particularly violent episodes (one including one of the Doctor’s frequent Sea Devil genocides), it all gets too much for her, and she leaves saying, “It stopped being fun.”
But as the police box’s wheezing and groaning kicks in, we see Tegan running back to watch the TARDIS disappear. Was she having second thoughts?
Ace’s departure is even more veiled in mystery. Before we could see the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Ace part ways, the show was cancelled. We last saw the duo walking off into the (metaphorical) sunset as the Doctor delivered a monologue about worlds where the skies are burning and rivers dreaming and tea getting cold, ending with “Come on Ace, we’ve got work to do!”
When we next see the Seventh Doctor, in the failed pilot known only as “The Movie” (or debate your preferred title in the comments), Ace is notably absent. Fortunately, we do know a little bit about what was planned for Ace in the “Cartmel Master Plan” (named for then script-editor Andrew Cartmel). Cartmel’s plan, had the series not been cancelled, was that the Doctor would train Ace to enroll her at the Time Lord Academy on Gallifrey so that she could eventually become a Time Lord herself. It was an ending that would later be dramatized by Big Finish in their Lost Stories play “Thin Ice,” but, well, it was far from the only ending Ace would get, and the same is true of Tegan.
The Continuing Adventures
Tegan would appear on telly alongside the Doctor again, accompanying the Sixth Doctor, when he met the worst monster he would ever encounter- Jimmy Savile. This short adventure, “A Fix with the Sontarans,” was filmed to fulfill the wish of child Gareth Jenkins as part of the BBC show Jim’ll Fix It. It was only a few minutes long, and ends with the fourth wall breaking, so it’s about as non-canon as a piece of Doctor Who media can be (in that there is a licensed short story which tries to explicitly make it canon).
Likewise, Ace’s last appearance alongside the Doctor, the Eastenders-charity-crossover special “Dimensions in Time,” even if it was considered to have happened by anyone, has a plot so garbled nobody’s exactly sure what happens in it anyway.
But once Doctor Who went off the air in 1989, the number of spin-off stories only increased.
Tegan appeared multiple times in the Short Trips range of Doctor Who short fiction anthologies, as well as various annuals and collections, often in stories set after her tenure on the TARDIS. A story in the 1993 Doctor Who annual sees Tegan reunite with the Fifth Doctor again while running her dad’s farm in the Australian outback, while in the book Doctor Who: His Lives and Times, released for the 50th anniversary, there’s a story where she’s interviewed by River Song.
In the Doctor Who magazine 1992 holiday special, there is a mega-companion crossover as Jo Grant, Liz Shaw, Sarah Jane Smith, Tegan, and Ace meet up for a drink, and that’s basically the entire plot, while the Short Trips story “Good Companions” shows us Tegan’s old age.
Ace meanwhile, as the last one in before the series ended, would go on to have perhaps one of the longest tenures of any companion in terms of shear story volume, including several departures. In Paul Cornell’s Virgin New Adventures novel Love & War, Ace grows disillusioned with the Seventh Doctor’s manipulation and leaves, eventually going to join space fleet and fight Daleks before rejoining the Doctor once again.
In the Doctor Who magazine comic strip her time in the TARDIS ended with her dying, fittingly, in a Nitro-9 explosion, a groundbreaking plot twist that other Doctor Who media rushed to ignore.
A Big Finish?
But one thing all of these stories lacked was the actors, Fielding and Aldred. Big Finish changed all that.
Originally, Fielding’s involvement with Big Finish’s Doctor Who audio plays was supposed to be brief, and so fittingly they decided to do her a Final Story. That story, “The Gathering,” had the Fifth Doctor run into Tegan on her 46th birthday, when she’s working for an animal feed company and has a brain tumor, with only a year left to live.
But no one is ever truly gone in the Who universe. Eventually, Fielding would come back and do more stories, but none of them were set after her leaving the TARDIS.
Likewise, Aldred has done many, many stories set after the end of Doctor Who season 26, including an adaptation of Paul Cornell’s Love & War and adaptations of her final, unfilmed stories for the TV series, and while most of them are set during her time in the TARDIS, we do get various glimpses at how she leaves and what happens afterwards. For example, “An Alien Werewolf in London” sees a still young Ace living in 90s Camden and calling in the Seventh Doctor when she needs help.
In the first two volumes The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield, (the borderline alcoholic archaeologist who takes over from Ace in Love & War, and has a long and storied history of her own), we learn that somehow Ace does eventually end up at the Time Lord Academy, graduating and becoming an agent of the CIA (Celestial Intervention Agency).
She continues working with the CIA in Big Finish’s High Space Politics series, Gallifrey, in the stories “Intervention Earth” and “Enemy Lines,” alongside other TARDIS alumni, including Romana and Leela. Now we know what you’re thinking, and the answer is yes. Ace was there for the Last Great Time War, although her war ends when Irving Braxtiel (the Doctor’s brother, don’t ask) wipes her memory and returns her to Earth (Time Lords love doing that).
The Sarah Jane Adventures
Now, let’s be honest. The odds are none of these spinoff stories are going to be mentioned in the next Doctor Who special. If the episode doesn’t directly contradict any of those stories (aside from the ones that contradict each other), it will be pretty astounding.
But as we’ve said, Tegan and Ace are far from the only companions who’ve enjoyed a life-after-TARDIS, with Sarah Jane being the most prominent. And once a door opens, it remains open, so by series four of The Sarah Jane Adventures, the show was also bringing back the likes of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and Jo Grant, as well as having the 10th and 11th Doctors pop their heads in occasionally to say hi.
In fact, when Jo Grant returned in the story “Death of the Doctor,” we also got an exciting glimpse of what happened to the Doctor’s other companions. Sarah Jane reveals she’s done some googling, turning up rumours that, among other things, Ian and Barbara Chesterton not only married, but never aged, while Ben and Polly are running an orphanage.
Tegan gets namedropped in this list, and has apparently become an activist for aboriginal rights in Australia. Meanwhile, a “Dorothy-something” has raised millions of pounds through her company “A Charitable Earth.” “Dorothy-something” is a clear nod to Dorothy McShane – Ace’s real name, although one that has never, to this day, been uttered on screen, despite being used in a wealth of spin-off media. A Charitable Earth is an acronym we’ll let you figure out yourself.
Indeed, Russell T Davies has said since that he planned to bring Ace back to the show as well. But then Elisabeth Sladen, Sarah Jane herself, sadly died unexpectedly in 2011. The final episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures ended on the hopeful note, “And the story goes on… forever.”
Then the Covid-19 pandemic happened, and Britain was put into lockdown. Many people were bored out of their minds. One way people occupied themselves was in arranging massive “Tweet-a-longs” of old Doctor Who episodes, with the original cast and writers getting in on the act and even writing new stories and filming additional content to go with them. Once of these pieces of content was an epilogue to The Sarah Jane Adventures, “Farewell Sarah Jane.” It features a stellar cast of locked-down Doctor Who and Sarah Jane Adventures alumni recording monologues in their living rooms, and it is pure, unadulterated fanfic, but if anyone has the right to produce pure unadulterated fanfic it’s probably Russell T Davies, who wrote the story.
And it mentions Tegan in passing – and that she’s in a relationship with Nyssa. Might be a challenge to figure out how that fits in with the canon below, but it’ll be interesting to see if Chibnall acknowledges it…
An Ace Revival
Aldred, meanwhile, has been very busy, seemingly relaunching the whole character of Ace from that one stray line of dialogue about the A Charitable Earth foundation. When the Blu-ray for season 26 of Doctor Who was announced, it was with a trailer that showed an older, besuited Dorothy McShane looking out across London from her office at A Charitable Earth, before a question mark umbrella appears at the door.
Back at Big Finish, Ace has had guest appearances not as the plucky baseball bat wielding teen of her TARDIS years, but as a more mature, and maybe more cynical adult. In the audios that continue the short-lived Young Adult Doctor Who spin-off, Class, Ace returns to Coal Hill School to resume her Dalek beating activities. In an extremely post-Covid feeling story, she is quarantined with a Torchwood agent. And finally, she is reunited with the Seventh Doctor in the main range story “Dark Universe.”
The things that connect all these stories are the A Charitable Earth foundation, a suspicion of authority, the various secret organizations protecting the Earth from aliens, and the feeling that Ace left the Doctor feeling disillusioned and manipulated- just as Tegan left the Doctor horrified at the regular atrocities she was forced to witness. In other words, both characters might feel somewhat more ambiguous about the Doctor than Sarah Jane did.
Finally, Aldred has written a novel, A Childhood’s End (again, check that acronym), in which a grown-up, A Charitable Earth-running Dorothy McShane encounters the Thirteenth Doctor. Now, given Aldred both wrote this novel and is in the next episode of Doctor Who, will the new episode acknowledge the book exists? Or even manage not to completely negate it? In the trailer, Ace says she’s not heard from the Doctor in three decades, while Tegan says its four for her, but will some wiggle room be left on that?
We can safely assume the Doctor won’t greet them, “Hi! I’ve not seen you since our non-televised spin-off adventures!” but there are certainly ways to write it that don’t immediately contradict these stories out of existence.
Alternatively, we can just explain away any contradictions as “It’s because of the Time War” again.
The Doctor Who BBC Centenary Special — Jodie Whittaker’s final episode as the Doctor — will arrive this fall.