Doctor Who: At Childhood’s End – Sophie Aldred (BBC Books)

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We all want to know what happens to our favourite companions once they leave the Doctor (assuming of course they’re that lucky).

Ace, the companion who was with the Seventh Doctor when the axe fell on the continuous run of Classic Who, is in a particularly odd situation as far as her ultimate destiny is concerned, in that because she was never given a proper destiny on-screen, she’s been given, ultimately, several in different alternative media.

In comic-books, she died a hero’s death at the hands of one of her own cans of Nitro-9 explosive in Ground Zero. In books, she stayed behind with a population she felt the Doctor had betrayed, ending her time with the Seventh Doctor somewhat acrimoniously. And in audio, she’s done several things – been trained at the Time Lord Academy, popped back for adventures with the Doctor now and then, and so on.

But those who believe only on-screen references count as canon – and then, only sometimes – probably did a bit of a squee when, in an episode of The Sarah-Jane Adventures, she got a destiny reference point when Sarah-Jane said ‘That woman, Dorothy McShane? You know, the one who runs A Charitable Earth…’

Boom.

There it was, on-screen. Ace’s name had been established elsewhere, but even if it hadn’t, the co-incidence of ‘A Charitable Earth’ being ‘A C E’ would have been quite enough of a giveaway, thank you. So there she was, in our imaginations, growing away quite nicely, running a charitable organization to probably, knowing Ace, save the world in a thousand ways at once, every day in every way.

Of all the destinies of Ace, this is one which has been gradually climbing towards legitimacy ever since that episode of The Sarah-Jane Adventures. Older Ace, now Dorothy, running her charitable foundation. It was used as the basis for a fandom-melting trailer to the blu-ray release of Season 26. It’s recently been added to the Big Finish canon in stories like Dark Universe, and now there’s this. A novel of Ace and the Doctor, written by Sophie Aldred, who has always been the face, the voice and the body of Ace, not only showing us some of the things she’s been getting up to in the decades since we last saw her on screen, but also bringing the relationship between Ace and the Doctor slap bang up to date.

Awesome – sounds like a must-buy. But does it work?

Well, yes, it does. There’s a certain degree of formula followed, a formula more or less laid down by the recent Doctor Who Meets Scratchman novel by Tom Baker (with help from a Big Finish author). But while there’s absolutely a story, and more or less one as convoluted as you’d expect of the Seventh Doctor and Ace, including, for all you continuity-fans, a fairly mind-blowing additional revelation about how Ace was spirited up to Iceworld through the influence of Fenric, it’s important to understand one key thing. In Doctor Who, there are stories where the plot is the key thing and the characters serve the action, and then there are stories where the plot is more or less just the thing that reveals the characters and their journeys.

At Childhood’s End is very much the second kind of story – the plot’s there, and it’s suitably bonkers, with New Whoish centaur aliens and more Classic Who relatively incorporeal aliens, and a network of transport stations to zip people across vast distances, without, as Douglas Adams would have said, all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace. There’s a plot which resonates all the way back to Fenric and Iceworld and which threatens to twang forward into a new era of transgalactic kidnappings and much much worse, but it’s all more or less the stuff which needs to be worked through to show us Ace as she was, Dorothy as she is, her relationship with the Doctor then and now, and how Dorothy deals with both her 21st century life with A Charitable Earth, and the understanding that the Professor has got some new help in.

It’s absolutely glorious, frankly.

Yes, there’ll be moments when you peer behind the character development at the plot and go ‘Wait. Hang on, what’s happening now?’ but for the most part, you’re with Ace, and Dorothy, and both of them are brilliant and will keep you as safe as they can.

It’s a tale of growing up, coming back from ‘over the rainbow’ and living your life tinged with the magic of the trip, in spite of some darker moments along the way. A tale of making the most of your abilities, putting yourself between slimebags of every sort and the people just trying to get on with their lives, and how you might have the best teacher in the universe, but what happens to you depends on your synthesis of their teaching and your application of it in your real life. Just as much though, it’s a tale of reawakening, reconnection with a side of yourself you might have put behind you. Not so much a journey to find your Inner Child as a journey to find your Inner Teenager Quite Prepared To Hit Things With Sticks, appreciate the broken bits of her, realise you’ve healed those up, but rediscover the bolshy energy of that girl when faced with a universe of sleazeballs and bilgebags.

As with the Scratchman novel, there’s an almost too liberal scattering of casual references to Who stories and villains and elements in At Childhood’s End, and they’re there both to tie the story into the continuity of the Who universe but also, let’s face facts, to give your Inner Fan a bit of a thrill when you recognise them. And it’s important to note that they’re almost scattered too liberally – but not quite. By the end of the book, your inner fanboy or fangirl has been tickled to the point of spangles and giggling, but never quite to the point of wishing it would all just stop.

There’s one biggie in terms of references, and without spoiling it for you, it’s really difficult to talk about much of the second and third act character developments. But we’re not going to break that moment for you, because when it happens, it’s absolutely glorious, and you don’t want to go into it knowing or expecting it. Suffice it for now to say that the Dorothy we meet in this story has seen the breakdown of Torchwood, and is in a very particular relationship to the development of UNIT, which has consequences for meeting up with the Doctor again after all those years.

And in a very sensitive moment, the multiple destinies of Ace and Dorothy are actively addressed, rather than swept under the carpet of storytelling, leaving us with a Dorothy McShane who’s utterly modern, properly at home in this 21st century, and entirely believable as a potential anchor to her own spin-off series. The Inner Ace might be worth re-igniting in this novel, but Dorothy McShane has a centred worth all of her own, and it’s that that’s really hypnotic in this story.

The audiobook reading is of course by Sophie Aldred (Who else would it be? Even during her TV time as Ace, Aldred was in demand as a voice actress and reader). Her reading ties everything together, the writing and performance, and it’s fun to hear what she makes of some of the other voices in the story. More or less, she makes joy out of them. Joy is very much the sense with which this book and its audio reading will leave you – some of it pure nostalgia, some of it sparkling fresh and as current as can be.

Childhood may have its end, absolutely. But the blend here between the pleasure and the power of childhood, the not-knowing when you’re outclassed or outgunned and stepping forward anyway, and the more grown-up assessments we need to make, the power and the pleasure that comes with having things sorted out and still stepping forward anyway, turns At Childhood’s End into more than just a nostalgic catch-up with a favourite companion. It turns it into a hymn both to having the right kind of role models in your life, and having to take the responsibility to make your mark on the world, your way.

At Childhood’s End is a thing of beauty, a thing of joy, a thing of centaur aliens and backgrounded mysteries and at its beating heart the story of someone we know, someone we loved for her spirit when she was young, and someone we love now for the way in which she’s melded her experiences together to make the right kind of difference in the world.

It’s absolutely Ace, but much, much more besides. Tony Fyler

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