When the return of companions Tegan Jovanka and Ace to Doctor Who was confirmed in the trailer at the end of ‘Legend of the Sea Devils’, a certain section of the show’s fandom – for want of a better term – lost its nut. Newer viewers less familiar with 1980s Doctor Who however, could be forgiven for feeling slightly mystified by this mass hysteria. So with that in mind, here’s a handy guide to what makes Janet Fielding and Sophie Aldred’s characters such icons of the show.
Shaking Up the TARDIS Status Quo
As if she had been plucked from an entirely different genre of television, much like Donna Noble would many years later, Australian flight attendant Tegan Jovanka shook up the TARDIS status quo like never before. Given how integral a companion’s home life is to the modern era of Doctor Who, it’s of note that Tegan was the first companion to hail from contemporary Earth since Sarah Jane Smith departed the TARDIS in 1976. After leaving the beloved investigative journalist behind, the Doctor travelled with aliens, robots, and fellow Time Lords… until Tegan crash-landed her way into the TARDIS in 1981.
Carrying a viewpoint which had been sorely lacking, and never afraid to call out the Doctor’s pomposity, Tegan was a whirlwind of fresh air. Here to remind the main characters of how ridiculous and downright dangerous their lives were, if a Doctor Who multiverse had existed in the 1980s – Tegan would have been breaking the fourth wall with expletives and all. Labelled stubborn, loud, and difficult for simply daring to have an opinion – she was brilliant. And Janet Fielding was brilliant too.
Setting a Template for Future Companions
If Tegan’s presence gave the TARDIS crew a much needed kick up the backside, Ace (aka Dorothy McShane) literally blew the bloody doors off with her appearance heralding the arrival of something even rarer in classic Doctor Who – a working class character. A conscious attempt by the show’s writers to move on from the screamer trope which had plagued Bonnie Langford’s Mel, Ace appears as a fully formed, well-crafted and believable teenage character from the very beginning. With a penchant for homemade explosives, an iconic bomber jacket and slang suitable for a 7pm time slot, she afforded Doctor Who some much needed street cred. Foreshadowing the emergence of similarly kickass 1990s female sci-fi and fantasy TV characters, Ace set a template for countless other shows to follow. While she may not have influenced the creation of Rose Tyler directly, she is proof that in the late 80s, the show was not as far removed from the 2005 relaunch as some would have you believe. She was brilliant. And Sophie Aldred was brilliant too.
First Impressions: Logopolis & Dragonfire
Let’s revisit Tegan’s first appearance in 1981’s ‘Logopolis’. Brimming with self confidence and dressed impeccably, Tegan’s first day in her dream cabin crew role is rudely disrupted, firstly by a broken down car, and secondly by a murderous megalomaniac intent on holding the universe to ransom. While her Aunt is reduced to the size of an action figure, Tegan stumbles upon a blue police box and her life is never the same. A voice of reason in the madness that follows, with its entropy and block commutations – Tegan is a vital perspective character for viewers who don’t understand a word of ‘Logopolis’ either.
While Tom Baker’s swansong is likely remembered for the ‘epic’ final confrontation between the Doctor and the Master, before the ethereal Watcher arrives to ease in Peter Davison‘s Fifth Doctor, its impact is all the greater thanks to the recognisable and reassuring presence of Tegan – it’s her world and the others merely exist to interfere with it.
Eight years later, Ace made her debut in 1987’s ‘Dragonfire’. Whisked away from her humdrum existence on Earth via the appearance of a time-storm in her bedroom, she finds herself just as unfulfilled and working once again as a waitress in the trading colony of Iceworld. That is, until she crosses paths with the Doctor, Mel, and intergalactic wide boy Sabalom Glitz. After losing her job in spectacular fashion, Ace becomes embroiled in the Doctor’s quest for a fabled treasure buried beneath the lower levels of Iceworld.
The stark contrast between Ace and the computer programmer from Pease Cottage she will replace is highlighted almost immediately. While Bonnie Langford’s Melanie screams her lungs raw on cue as the monster of the story is revealed, Ace simply stares the creature down with an incredulous look on her face. Similar bravado is displayed in a fantastic scene where Ace resists the temptations placed before her by the lead villain, before escaping with Mel and holding off their pursuers with an explosive can of deodorant.
The prospect of this young tearaway teaming up with an increasingly mysterious Seventh Doctor is too good to resist, and once Mel calls time on her travels with the Doctor, Ace seizes the opportunity to join him for a trip around the twelve galaxies and then back to Perivale in time for tea.
Tegan’s Trips in the TARDIS
It’s fair to say, during their time aboard the TARDIS, both characters were put through the wringer by their respective incarnations of the Time Lord. As the Fifth Doctor suffers from the after-effects of his regeneration, and with Adric under the clutches of the Master, Tegan proves that if you want a job doing properly… you ask a woman to do it. Or two of them in fact, as both she and Nyssa show themselves to be adept at commandeering ambulances, escaping the creation of the universe, and lugging a post-regeneration Doctor around in a makeshift zero cabinet. Assuming her role as coordinator with great gusto, and despite the Doctor’s denial – I’d wager it was Tegan who landed the TARDIS on Castrovalva all along.
Further tribulations await Tegan on the lush, tropical – BBC Studio – planet of Deva Loka. Janet Fielding gives a tour de force performance in ‘Kinda’, as Tegan is coerced into giving up her body as a conduit, so an ancient evil known as the Mara can threaten the peaceful inhabitants of Deva Loki once again.
A reluctant traveller to begin with, Tegan starts to rally and by the end of ‘The Visitation‘ is unapologetically bashing a Terileptil to death with a shotgun!
Shaken by the tragic death of Adric in ‘Earthshock’, Tegan and the crew finally make their way to Heathrow Airport in what should have been a grand finale to her first full season in the TARDIS. Unfortunately after a fairly promising first episode, the budget runs out and ‘Time-Flight’ fails to live up to the promise offered in returning Tegan to her natural habitat. Shockingly, or perhaps intentionally, the Doctor leaves Tegan behind at the end of the story whilst attempting to escape from the Master once more.
While being left behind must have left a very sour taste in her mouth, the Doctor gets his comeuppance as Tegan makes a swift return in the following season and continues to demonstrate how much easier his life would be if he’d just shut up and listen to her. She is the first to spot new companion Turlough for a wrong ‘un after all.
Even the return of the Mara, the departure of Nyssa and the appearance of several other Doctors can’t shake her resolve, until the death toll in her final adventure, ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’, rocks Tegan to her core. Deciding that life in the TARDIS has become too grim, Tegan leaves with haste as the Doctor begs her not to, or at least not like this. With the TARDIS dematerialising, Tegan rushes back to find the Police Box has gone for good this time.
Despite the constant bickering between the pair, the Doctor does care for Tegan and her departure is a bitter pill for all to swallow. Brave heart, Doctor.
Ace’s Wicked Ride
Following her successful audition in ‘Dragonfire’, the Seventh Doctor wastes no time at all and throws Ace right in at the deep end by introducing her to one of his deadliest foes in the action packed ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’. A story that not only takes the programme right back to its very beginnings in 1963, but also cements Ace’s position as one of the greatest Doctor Who companions of all time. After the Doctor equips her with a supercharged baseball bat – capable of incapacitating a Dalek – he promptly leaves Ace to her own devices and she engages a trio of Skaro’s finest in a now legendary action sequence. It’s not all non-stop action though, as these episodes allow Sophie Aldred to display her acting prowess, most notably after the dashing Sgt. Mike Smith – to whom Ace has taken a shine – betrays her and the Doctor.
Subsequent adventures see Ace dispatched on her own time and again by the Time Lord – to take on either a squadron of Cybermen with nothing more than a catapult and a bag of gold coins, or face one of her greatest fears – in the form of creepy mechanical circus clowns. It’s a habit the Doctor would repeat in their final season together, as his compulsion to settle scores sees him take greater risks and push his companion to her very limits.
In ‘Ghost Light’, the first in an epic trilogy of adventures centred around his young friend, the Doctor’s true intentions come to the fore, and while he may be attempting to tutor and test his companion to prepare her for greater things, he deems it necessary to return her to the scene of one of her most traumatic experiences and force her to revisit several painful memories.
With the girl from Perivale now sharing equal billing with the Time Lord from Gallifrey, ‘The Curse of Fenric’ reveals more truths and several shocking revelations around Ace’s lineage, as plans which have been in play long before her very first meeting with the Doctor come to fruition.
Things come full circle in ‘Survival’, as the Doctor and Ace finally make their way to modern day Perivale, and the Master reappears to lure the disaffected youth in the area to the planet of the carnivorous Cheetah People, “Do you know any nice people? Y’know, normal everyday people, not power-crazed nutters trying to take over the universe?” Ace asks the Doctor in a unique moment of self-awareness for the programme. In another dangerous and reckless move, Ace forges a deep connection with one of the Cheetah People in the hope of returning everyone home, but risks losing her soul in the process.
At the conclusion of ‘Survival’, the Doctor & Ace stroll off into the sunset and this final adventure in the series original 26-year run, now dovetails neatly with the very first episode of the revived series.
Although the Seventh Doctor returned without her in the 1996 TV Movie, comic strips, books and magazines have all speculated as to what may have happened to Ace in that time – if her televised adventures are anything to go by, it will have been a harrowing, relentless but altogether wicked ride.
As brilliant as each other, Tegan and Ace both rocked the Doctor’s world, and we couldn’t be happier to have them back and no doubt recognising each other as kindred spirits in ‘The Power of the Doctor’.
‘The Power of the Doctor’ airs on Sunday the 23rd of October at 7.30pm on BBC One.