“There’s a woman called Tegan in Australia fighting for Aboriginal rights. There’s Ben and Polly in India, running an orphanage there. There was Harry. Oh, I loved Harry. He was a doctor, he did such good work with vaccines, saved thousands of lives. There was a Dorothy something. She runs that company, A Charitable Earth. She’s raised billions. And this couple in Cambridge, both professors. Ian and Barbara Chesterton. Rumour has it they’ve never aged, not since the sixties.”
Even when they have left his side, the former companions of that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as Doctor Who continue what they have learned to better the world as well as, if rumours are to be believed, benefiting from the side-effects of their association with one whose aging process has been altered by exposure to the space-time vortex.
It was as a teenager that Dorothy McShane was whisked away from her bedroom in Perivale to the ice planet Svartos where she ended up working as a waitress at a cafe in Iceworld, not by the Doctor but by a time storm which was eventually revealed to be an action of the ancient entity Fenric; rather, it was the Doctor who rescued her, and invited Dorothy, using the nickname Ace, to join him in the TARDIS providing she abided by the rules he would establish.
Their parting never chronicled, the Doctor travelling alone in a radically transformed TARDIS when he was next seen seven years later, the only clue as to Dorothy’s later life came from a conversation between two other former companions of the Doctor, Jo Jones and Sarah-Jane Smith, but now Ace herself has stepped forward to fill in the blanks in At Childhood’s End, written by Sophie Aldred with the assistance of Steve Cole and Mike Tucker.
It’s a post-UNIT world, the offices of A Charitable Earth overlooking their former residence in the Tower of London, and much like Torchwood before her Dorothy has taken to scavenging the odds and ends of alien technologies they have failed to gather and neutralise, using what she can to build her business empire and use it as a positive power in the world and when necessary intervene directly when a threatening alien presence is suspected.
Missing persons reported across the greater London area, the epicentre is her home town of Perivale where there are also strange sightings, creatures lurking in the shadows of alleyways behind the housing estates, recurring nightmares of abductions which match her own; any doubts Dorothy had when she began her investigation evaporate when a vast alien spaceship is detected orbiting the Moon.
Perhaps unsurprisingly; Aldred and her co-conspirators have captured her character well, the reclusive businesswoman Dorothy McShane falling easily back into the mindset and habits of Ace, fearless, furious and sometimes a little too eager to leap to the fight, convinced that she needs nobody by her side even as she stands up for others, the years having increased her technical knowledge and capability but not blunted her tongue, still keeping everyone distant from her so she cannot ever be abandoned by them.
The threat very much in the present, it is also tied with her past and the events of her separation from the Doctor and also reflects the possibilities of her future as depicted in the stories of the New Adventures and Big Finish, but when the Doctor enters the picture alongside her current companions Graham, Yaz and Ryan they do little more than scowl and bicker, other than Graham who offers a cup of tea and a biscuit.
Like many of the “big name” books published in the last few years At Childhood’s End is a recreation of the televised format which takes no advantage of the possibilities of the novel, the depth in which an adventure can be experienced alongside a character rather than viewed, and rather than being aimed at the readers who grew up with Ace, now in middle age like the character, despite the title it reads frustratingly like a children’s book.
Perhaps for commercial reasons, rather than a story about an independent adult Ace it is a Doctor Who book with the current Doctor and her overcrowded TARDIS, the written counterparts of her “fam” as underwhelming as their televised selves while the Doctor herself runs and points her sonic and exclaims a great deal but says very little, a faithful interpretation of the series but wearying for those hoping for more, but with a coda which hints that if Aldred returns to write another volume it may be a very different story.
Doctor Who – At Childhood’s End is available now from BBC Books