Dead Woman Walking, by Roland Moore, is in many ways a thought experiment through the medium of Doctor Who. It embraces the struggle of macro-creatures like humans against micro-organisms, like viruses or worms, and asks us to examine which version of us is the ‘best self’ we could be. It encompasses responsibility, recklessness, power, manipulation and consequences, all within little more than half an hour of prime Doctor Who.
Now, if that makes it all sound a bit heavy, don’t worry – Moore’s a storyteller first and foremost, and he does due diligence by his responsibility to the listener, so what you get here is a story of Ace in a biological dilemma, being kept alive by a biological entity which exists in symbiosis with a kind of living bomb which could blow apart the planet on which she’s standing, while a vicious civil war goes on around her. What you also get here is the Doctor seemingly baffled as to how to give both her and the planet a future in which they’re not inextricably bound together, and Ace, being Ace, showing the true quality of her character. It would absolutely spoiler you to explain how that quality of character resolves itself into a solution, but in a time when fandom has been reflecting on the power and the admirable nature of the likes of Sarah-Jane Smith, this story does good service to Ace’s character, and to the way in which her journey made her better, able to affect situations merely by the content of her character.
While it has something of The Invisible Enemy about it, this story deals cleverly with the question of how far out of your comfort zone you’d go to get a good result. While Ace on-screen was very much the gung-ho teenager, reader to shout at things and blow them up to get them out of her angry way, this is an Ace that feels somewhat more mature than that, an Ace who, while by no means comfortable with it, is prepared to go the long way round a problem if it’s clear that that’s the way of least danger. An Ace prepared to suffer, to grow older, even if need-be to die to solve the problem, but in the meantime to be the best version of herself she can be, and hope it rubs off on people.
While the Doctor is forced to leave her behind on the world with the living bomb at its core, Ace’s job is to stay alive, locked into a symbiosis with that bomb, being, while still entirely Ace, a kind of still point to whom others can look, a beacon and a source of peace, and an example of the way they too could live their lives, bigger than any petty conflict to which they may be dedicated.
In many ways, the sub-structure of this story is a thank you to those who’ve written Ace over the decades, and to Sophie Aldred for giving such vivacious life to her. Hardly a farewell, it’s a story that nevertheless could stand as one of the character’s many best days, the kind of days we remember when all other days are gone – perhaps fittingly so, given both the story’s title and its central dilemma, in which Ace’s life depends on her not putting a foot wrong over an extended period. As such, there’s the fuzzy warmth of the best of funerals about it, which is somewhat thankfully undercut at the end by the relationship between Ace and the Doctor in one of its more times, one of his teachable moments putting her well and truly through the wringer.
Is Dead Woman Walking perfect then?
Not quite – in fact, the more grammatically minded among you will take a layer of enamel off your teeth early on, as the storytelling starts off in a lazy way with shifted perspectives, like ‘If Ace had been conscious, she’d have heard the tone in his voice…’
Maybe you have to be a pedant for this sort of thing to get to you. I’m led to believe there are at least one or two in the fandom, so if this sort of thing drives you screaming to your computer to write emails of complaint, take a breath. Push on through. The story itself is worth the occasional moment of grammatical seething. Especially if you’re an Ace fan, it’s a slightly more mature take on her character, where there’s more depth to her than the child who hit Daleks with baseball bats (much as we love that version). It’s an Ace who might be mad as hell at the Doctor’s hard schooling, but who knows enough to stand still and let the world, just occasionally, change around her, because of her. And because of who she is, to change for the better. Tony Fyler