Classic Doctor Who on BritBox: The best of Ace
Mark Harrison | On 16, Aug 2020
Offering 626 Doctor Who episodes broadcast between 1963 and 1996, BritBox is bigger on the inside. If you’ve watched all of the new series already, then why not join us as we turn on the TARDIS randomiser for a spoiler-lite monthly primer on the adventures of the first eight Doctors…
Dorothy “Ace” McShane is the Doctor Who companion that broke the mould, so it’s a shame she was only introduced two years before the series was put on a permanent hiatus. Conceived as a “fighter and not a screamer”, Ace is a troubled teenager who nicknames the Doctor “Professor” and makes her own brand of Nitro-9 explosives for recreational purposes. More importantly, she gradually deals with her earlier traumas through a selection of TARDIS trips that may or may not have been deliberately planned by her Time Lord friend.
As well as being the companion of record when Doctor Who went on an extended hiatus in 1989, Ace benefits from the final season’s new-fangled approach to making the companion just as important to the stories as the Doctor. While this equal billing has been instrumental to reviving the show in the 21st century, it marks both the character and Sophie Aldred’s performance among the most important of the original run.
Bowing out on a season in which three out of four stories are about Ace, the show never gives her an official on-screen send-off, but frankly, this only strengthens her standing in the series’ history – we never saw her killed off, randomly married, or otherwise distracted mid-adventure like some of her abruptly written-out predecessors.
Subsequently, Aldred has reprised her role in many official audio adventures from Big Finish over the years and was once intended for a guest appearance alongside fellow classic favourite Elisabeth Sladen in The Sarah Jane Adventures, before that series came to an untimely end.
Aldred also recently penned her first Doctor Who novel, At Childhood’s End, about a grown-up Dorothy McShane encountering the Thirteenth Doctor and her companions while dealing with the emotional fallout of their (off-screen) last adventure together. If that kind of School Reunion-flavoured story appeals, here’s a selection of essential stories to check out first…
Dragonfire (Season 24, 1987)
“Do you feel like arguing with a can of deodorant that registers nine on the Richter scale?”
Bonnie Langford’s Mel Bush departs as Ace arrives, in Dragonfire, a serial in which a displaced 16-year-old student from 20th-century Earth is the least of the weird happenings on the far-future trading colony known as Iceworld. We learn that she was picked up by a mysterious time storm while experimenting with Nitro-9 in her bedroom and stranded in a dead-end job as a waitress on an alien planet.
Aldred is immediately endearing as a supporting character, before agreeing to take “the scenic route” in the TARDIS at the serial’s close. If proof were needed of the era’s general upward trend once Ace arrived, this is comfortably the best story of the Seventh Doctor’s difficult first season, even though Part 1 has one of the most infamously ridiculous cliffhangers of all time.
Remembrance of the Daleks (Season 25, 1988)
“Who are you calling small?!”
Increasingly regarded as the best of the classic series’ Dalek serials, Remembrance of the Daleks sees London’s Coal Hill suburb become a battleground between Renegade and Imperial pepper pots as the Doctor returns to recover a Time Lord artefact he has hidden in the 1960s.
There are countless great Doctor-Dalek confrontations, but while the list of companion-Dalek showdowns is comparatively short, Ace going to town on one with a cosmically reinforced baseball bat easily tops it. In only her second story, you can immediately see what makes her such a fan favourite.
Ghost Light (Season 26, 1989)
“This isn’t a haunted house, is it, Professor? I told you I’ve got this thing about haunted houses.”
We’ve covered the Season 26 opener Battlefield in previous columns, but it also stands apart from the other Ace-centric stories in this season, starting with the deceptively straightforward Ghost Light. It’s a haunted house story in which the source of the haunting isn’t immediately obvious, but spooky doings prove to be the least of Ace and the Doctor’s concerns as they discover a doomed attempt to catalogue all life.
Appropriately enough for the story’s subject, this marks a major evolution of the series’ storytelling, having more in common with the Steven Moffat era of the new series than anything else. Renowned for being “confusing”, Marc Platt’s narratively ambitious serial holds up remarkably well for modern audiences. Aldred is reliably brilliant here, but this is perhaps the best example of how Ace’s ongoing character development feeds the renewed ambiguity and mercurial quality of McCoy’s Doctor.
The Curse of Fenric (Season 26, 1989)
“And the half-time score: Perivale: 600 million; rest of the universe: nil.”
World War II was hugely influential on the creation and characterisation of Doctor Who (most notably in the Nazi-like Daleks) so it’s fascinating to watch The Curse of Fenric in the context of it being the first Who serial set during the war, with the Seventh Doctor and the titular ancient evil poised to conclude a centuries-long game of brinkmanship at a naval installation in Northumberland.
But with everything else going on – involving nerve gas, vampiric Haemovores, and a quick spot of chess – Ace comes to the fore again. Introducing a guest character we won’t spoil here, the serial makes time for the kind of major upheavals that the new series would reserve for a two-part finale, both prompting and paying off major questions about her character and her relationship with the Doctor, all within the bounds of a classic wartime horror story.
Survival (Season 26, 1989)
“I felt like I could run forever, like I could smell the wind and feel the grass under my feet, and just run forever.”
We’ve covered this one in the past too, because the final serial of the original run is also a nice jumping-on point for New Who fans. As a scathing critique of social Darwinism, Survival is set between a distant, primitive planet and a contemporary London council estate that has recently suffered a spate of disappearances involving old friends of both the Doctor and Ace.
The companions are always popping home in the new series, but there’s an appreciable break with tradition that this doesn’t mark the end of Ace’s “scenic route” home, even if it ultimately marked the end of the show’s run on BBC One. Happily, writer Rona Munro’s scripts vest Ace’s increased role in a workable blueprint for modernising the series, even if it was many years before Russell T Davies took it and ran with it.
Classic Doctor Who is available on BritBox as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.