There is a long history in the Doctor Who franchise of actors taking on writing credits. Colin Baker, Mathew Watterhouse, Nicholas Briggs, Tom Baker, and others have written or co-written adventures featuring their characters. Sophie Aldred has (with the assistance of Steve Cole and Mike Tucker) joined this company with At Childhood’s End, a tale of her screen character Ace long after her adventures in the TARDIS have ended and she has instead taken to running A Charitable Earth. Starting as the story of a former companion still investigating, the book becomes an examination of coming to grips with the past.
The characterizations hold up in a fairly impressive manner. The Seventh Doctor is quite vibrant in his brief appearances, although on the slightly more manipulative and sinister side by his own standards. The Thirteenth Doctor drifts into the background slightly by comparison, although this is a side effect of making a clear definitive difference between incarnations, and gives the Thirteenth a few moments to shine. The Thirteenth’s companions each get their own moments, although they take a back seat to the Doctor herself and Ace. There are moments of what might be attraction between she and Graham, the older gentleman among the companions of the Thirteenth Doctor.
The antagonists are not fully fleshed out in comparison to the leads, but are constructed well enough to fill their roles: the rat-like minions, their master abducting kids, and two related but very different factions of extraterrestrials. There are subtle clues in the situations of each as to their nature and motive, and none feel as though they are doing anything simply because the plot needs them to. None of the strange creatures conform clearly to an expected heroic mould, and as a result the questions of what will happen in regard to their interactions is in the air. Indeed with one race of rats, and another called Wraiths even before they become incorporeal, who to root against will seem quite obvious to some at first glance.
Ace is tired, and embittered towards her old friends even as she knows they meant well in their way. As a result she attempts to warn the Thirteenth Doctor’s companions about the risk of manipulation, and comes across as generally well-intentioned while doing so. The depiction of the character having evolved and in her way matured, is apparent and effective. This leads the reader to believe the noticeable changes in characterization compared to the early television appearances, without having to concern themselves with the intermediate steps in audio dramas, other novels, and comics.
A part of the fanbase will appreciate this novel simply for contradicting the mean-spirited treatment that the comic strips in Doctor Who Magazine put Ace through in a strange attempt to, at best, assert their independence from the preceding novels by Virgin Books. It was a strange decision at the time, which only contributed to the overall mutual animosity the storytellers in different mediums possessed. This tale has Ace as an accomplished woman in her 50s, significantly older than her depiction there. Given Aldred’s appreciation for secondary media and referencing it repeatedly in the book, it is hard to see this as anything else.
There are moments when a reader can read the conduct between characters well, and the question of whether lying to someone for their own good or the greater good is really moral, considering the amount of hurt that may be caused. The question of regaining trust is paramount in the book, and of understanding the potential harm of past actions. The question of letting the past drag one down, whether on an individual or societal level is of key import in the book. It is reflected on a personal level and also on an intercultural one.
The beginning of the action relates to a slow but steady trickle of missing teenagers. Relatively unloved street children who might not quickly be missed are taken by aliens. Dorothy McShane, formerly Ace, decides to do what she can to find out what is happening to them. In the process our heroine finds that her old friend the Doctor is around, though not in any form she would have expected. This forces her to consider old conflicts. Meanwhile, those doing the abducting find that the past has come knocking in unusual ways.
Elements from the classic series come into play more than once, with a familiar baseball bat not only getting in a smile ensuring appearance but also serving a relevant purpose. At the same time, the device is given just enough explanation that readers only familiar with the new series will find themselves understanding the situation well enough. Comparisons as to different incarnations of the Doctor and their fashion sense and methodology are put near to one another, and the reader is given the chance to wonder who is right and wrong in these situations, and how much the Doctor has really changed.
The comparison becomes easy enough thanks to the story structure. Wherein the Thirteenth Doctor era material is occasionally broken up with short flashbacks to 1990 and an adventure between Ace and the Seventy Doctor, in which he seems just a trifle concerned with the question of a device helping to keep the Wraith imprisoned.
The cover design on this book is quite clever, the title simultaneously reminding the reader of the lead character in its coloring, and the figures of women on the cover similarly outlined. This leaves a longtime reader just slightly unsure who is depicted, which might serve to actually help understand the grey situation the two find themselves in. It is quite effective overall, even if it does not clearly match many other related books.
Overall, At Childhood’s End is easy to recommend. It’s a treat to old fans and new fans alike, and has more human drama and serious thought than one generally finds in a licensed novel. Sophie Aldred proved she understands her character, having produced a later life for the woman that is different yet not totally divorced in meaning from what some might expect. While not everyone will approve of this ending, it works far better than some, and is fascinating for the lead actress having a chance to give her take on Ace’s exit.
(BBC Books 2020)