Doctor Who fans were overjoyed in 2022 when fan favourite companion, Ace, made her triumphant return to the small screen. The incumbent companion when the classic series was cancelled in 1989, fans had been clamouring for her to return ever since the show’s 2005 revival, desperate for closure on the character’s arc.
Played by Gold Coast Supa-Star Sophie Aldred, Ace was an instant hit among fans, with the character leaving a lasting impact. When we asked Aldred whether there had been any earlier attempts to bring Ace back into 21st Century Who, she shared: “Several years ago I was interviewed for [Doctor Who Magazine] by Benjamin Cook who is great pals with [Russell T Davies] – the book A Writer’s Tale is a series of emails between them. As we sat down to chat, Benjamin gave me a message from RTD who had planned to have Ace in the next Sarah Jane Adventures story and had had the first scene planned out. Sadly that was not to be of course. I would love to have worked with Lis – we had a kind of mutual admiration society and I got to know her well from our convention appearances.”
Originally meeting the Seventh Doctor and his companion Mel on the planet Ice World, Dorothy “Ace” McShane was a rough and tumble 16-year-old girl from the London suburb of Perivale in 1987. An intelligent but reckless person, she’d been transported across the universe after a time storm opened in her bedroom while she was experimenting with explosives (an event later revealed to have been manipulated by the Doctor’s ancient enemy, Fenric).
At the end of her debut story, Dragonfire, she was invited aboard the TARDIS, while Mel stayed behind. Ace would then go on to travel with the Doctor for the classic show’s final two seasons – racking up a total of nine stories across thirty-one episodes. By the end of her final story, Survival, she was still travelling in the TARDIS, with the final shot of classic Who showing the Seventh Doctor and Ace walking off into the sunset, while the Doctor’s voice-over hinted at the adventures still to come.
However, by the time of the show’s first attempted revival in 1996, the Seventh Doctor was travelling alone, with no mention of Ace or her fate. Even when she finally made her long-awaited return in The Power of the Doctor, very little was revealed about what she’d been up to in the intervening years, or why she left the TARDIS. This open-ended narrative has led to several different explorations of Ace’s fate in different media, ranging from novels to comics to audio dramas.
There actually had been plans in place for Ace’s departure, which would have come into fruition in the unproduced Season 27, but alas ‘twas not meant to be. It would have been revealed that the Doctor had actually been training her to become a Time Lord, culminating in him leaving her on Gallifrey early in Season 27.
“There is much talk of the ‘Cartmel Masterplan’; however, speaking to Ben Aaronovitch recently, as far as Ace was concerned there were just a couple of ideas but nothing written down,” Aldred said in regard to what had been discussed in terms of Ace’s future back in the day. “I was on what they call an optional contract with the BBC for half of the following year (which would have been Season 27), which, as we know, was not picked up.”
The scripts for this unmade season were later adapted into audio dramas by Big Finish Productions in 2011, although in that version Ace rejected the opportunity to study on Gallifrey, in favour of staying with the Doctor. Discussing these adaptations, Aldred said she “was so delighted to do the Lost Stories for Big Finish, not least because it was great to be bringing to life my first Andrew Cartmel script!”
It’s worth noting that this makes Ace one of the rare examples of a classic companion who actually followed something of a story arc. Even though the conclusion was never reached, Ace’s entire tenure is littered with hints of a wider narrative, with several of these even paying off in the penultimate classic story, The Curse of Fenric.
However, with her planned fate never officially becoming canon, and with Ace still being the ‘current’ companion after the show’s cancellation, other creators were able to carve their own destinies for the character.
In 1991, Virgin Publishing launched a series of Doctor Who novels called the New Adventures, which picked up where the show had left off, telling further tales of the Seventh Doctor and Ace’s adventures. These novels were generally more adult in tone than the TV series had been and it wasn’t long before they began taking Ace on a new character arc, with the aim of replacing the teenaged Ace of the TV series with an older, more battle-hardened version of the character. Here, she left the Doctor in the novel Love and War, which also introduced long-time companion and ally, Bernice “Benny” Summerfield, only to return a few books later.
However, three years had passed for Ace, during which time she’d been living in the 26th Century and had become a battle-hardened, Dalek-killing space marine. She then resumed her travels with the Doctor and Benny, before leaving once again to become a time vigilante, patrolling a particular section of time on a time-traveling motorbike.
Around the same time as the VNAs were being published, Ace made sporadic appearances alongside the Seventh Doctor in the long-running comic strip published by Doctor Who Magazine. Here Ace was given a very different and definitive fate to any that had come before, with the character being killed off in 1996’s Ground Zero. Ace had been kidnapped by a group known as the Threshold, along with former companions, Susan, Peri and Sarah Jane.
This was the final DWM comic to feature the Seventh Doctor and the editorial team clearly wanted to end things with a bang, including a striking image of the Doctor cradling his dead companion. It was a controversial move though and it’s worth noting that this fate has never been corroborated in any other media.
When asked about Ace’s portrayal in these novels and comics of the ‘90s, Aldred said: “I was told of the various things that were happening with Ace by fans who I would meet at various conventions and signings, but I must admit I didn’t really keep up with reading the books – I was busy being a children’s TV presenter!
“I know that some fans were a bit upset at the VNA’s portrayal of Ace as a gun-toting mercenary who actually got into some relationships, but strangely enough, I’ve never minded what people do with the character, I think everything is valid – I’m just delighted that there seems to be an Ace for all seasons and with any luck, people will continue to love her as much as I do and I will get to play her into my grand old age!”
As with Doctor Who as a whole, the biggest source of Ace’s non-televised appearances comes from Big Finish Productions. They’ve been producing full-cast Doctor Who audio dramas since 1999, with original cast members reprising their TV roles. Sophie Aldred has been playing Ace for Big Finish since 2000’s The Fearmonger, and since then she has gone on some extensive character arcs.
However, since Big Finish stories are often released out of chronological order, they constantly dip in and out of Ace’s life at various points.
“It always starts for me with the script,” Aldred says of keeping track of Ace’s timeline. “And the writers are so steeped in the lore of Doctor Who and always have the characters so well in their minds, that the writing says it all. They always make it clear which Ace we’re talking about and that’s such a blessing. The recent story I did with David Tennant was a case in point; I played young Nitro 9 wielding Ace AND grown up slightly world-weary Ace and that was so fun.”
Despite this time-hopping through Ace’s life, she does have a recognisable through-line, similar to what her creators had originally intended, with her ultimately ending up on Gallifrey.
There, she completed training at the Time Lord Academy and even received her own TARDIS, going on missions for the CIA (Celestial Intervention Agency). Eventually, she even became involved in the Time War, but soon had her memories of her time on Gallifrey erased and sent back to Earth, which lines up nicely with what was shown in Power of the Doctor. According to various sources, she then went on to found a company named A Charitable Earth, and became a professor of sociology.
At this point, the final word on Ace’s fate in expanded media comes from the 2020 novel, At Childhood’s End, written by Aldred herself. This saw Ace meeting the Thirteenth Doctor and her companions, but interestingly also established that Ace’s life had been fractured into multiple timelines. This includes references to several of the fates bestowed upon the character across different media, which is a pretty nice and tidy way of reconciling these disparate narratives, rather than ignoring them completely. Funnily enough, this book was almost immediately rendered non-canon by Power of the Doctor, but thanks to this plot point, it can be seen as just another alternate timeline for the plucky companion.
It seems that Aldred herself is happy with how her novel and the TV episode co-exist. “When I first spoke to Chris Chibnall and [he] invited me to return, he also asked me what I thought Ace would be like now and what she would be doing,” she says.
“I said I loved the Ace that Pete McTighe had written for in the Season 26 boxset trailer; slightly melancholy, waiting for the Doctor to come back and get her, doing good works and at the drop of a hat would beat up a Dalek with a baseball bat! And that’s the Ace I used as a reference point of the book anyway, so it all tied in. I did mention the book to Chris but it was more with reference to the characterisation rather than the story line. And in the book, I hope I got to explain all the different timelines for Ace anyway; timey wimey and all that!”
So there you have it from the woman herself, there’s no reason why each story can’t be as valid as the other. Given how many adventures Ace has had over the last thirty-plus years, even Aldred can’t keep track of Ace’s tangled timeline(s).
“Ace’s timeline is so complex I think my head would explode if I tried to keep track; it makes me tired even to think of all the different beginnings, endings and middles she’s had! There’s a lovely fan from Wales, whose name sadly escapes me, who put together a timeline from all the various media a few years ago – that was incredible, he’d worked out everything!”
Ironically, by never receiving a concrete ending to her story, Ace has gone on to be so much bigger than most companions could ever dream of. Her story branches off in countless interesting ways, giving her an incredible number of chances for growth and development. She is perhaps, in many ways, the Doctor’s greatest companion and even after more than thirty years, her story is far from over.