Following on from the success of Tom Baker’s Doctor Who – Scratchman, BBC Books have released a novel by Sophie Aldred, who played the companion Ace in the era of the Seventh Doctor. Now, I have to confess that I was expecting something slightly different from this book; way back in the 80s, Target Books briefly flirted with a range called The Companions of Doctor Who, in which beloved characters from the series had adventures without the Doctor. The range produced only three novels: K-9 and Company by Terence Dudley, Turlough and the Earthlink Dilemma by Tony Attwood and Harry Sullivan’s War by Ian Marter. The latter was the first (and for a long time, only) example of an actor who played a TV companion writing a novel about their own character, and I guess that’s what I was expecting here. But I was wrong.
At Childhood’s End kind of lulls you into thinking that it’s going to be an Ace-only affair, but then when the Thirteenth Doctor turns up with Graham, Yaz and Ryan in tow, you realise that it’s something a bit more special. This is something that, after School Reunion, we all though the TV series would do more often, but hasn’t – the current Doctor meeting up, and having an adventure, with one of her old companions. Of course, I knew this before I started reading because it was all over the pre-publicity and I’d have kinda preferred if it hadn’t been. I can’t help thinking that it would have been a lot more effective if the reader had started off thinking that this was going to be a Companions of Doctor Who style solo novel and then BAM! the Doctor turns up. Not the fault of the author, of course, so no criticism intended.
Set in 2020, almost three decades since she parted company with the Doctor on acrimonious terms, At Childhood’s End sees Ace as the wealthy head of a global foundation called A Charitable Earth (see what she did there?), which promotes humanitarian and ecological projects. She hasn’t lost her eye for the strange and unusual though and when an increasing number of teenagers go missing from the streets of London, Dorothy (as Ace has now returned to calling herself) becomes suspicious and is haunted by memories of her own ‘disappearance’ many years previously. When an alien object is detected near the moon, Ace calls in a favour from an old ex, astronaut Will Buckland to arrange a trip into space, with a little help from some alien tech that Dorothy has been accumulating in the vaults of her foundation.
We’re also introduced to Kim Fortune, a TV conspiracy nut, and Chantelle, an old friend of Dorothy’s who is the small child known as Squeak in the final TV story Survival, now grown up to be a glamour model and media personality. This is a case of art imitating life as Adele Silva, the child actress who played Squeak in Survival, went on to become the darling of the 90s ‘lad’s mags’ whilst appearing as regular character Kelly Windsor in the ITV soap Emmerdale. Aldred wisely keeps the supporting cast small, because when the Doctor comes along that’s four more characters right there and there’s nothing worse in a novel than an unwieldy cast of characters that make it difficult to follow what the hell is going on. The human characters are all well-drawn and relatable and, although Kim fortune is a bit of a pain to start with, there are no real ‘bad guys’ among them.
The story reveals that the alien object around the moon is a sort of way-station where abducted kids from Earth are transported from point to point before reaching their destination. This ties in neatly with the vague explanations for Ace’s disappearance that were given on TV. The central villain is an alien called Halogi-Kari, who has the ability to whip up time storms such as the one that originally whisked Dorothy/Ace away from Earth and are now being used to abduct other humans. Halogi-Kari uses his powers for hire; he abducted Ace at the behest of Fenric (loosely referenced in the TV story The Curse of Fenric) and he’s abducting this current batch to act as conduits for an alien race called the Wraiths, who were trapped in another dimension at the end of a war with the horse-like Astingir. The Astingir are not best pleased at the imminent return of their old enemy.
The alien races are all quite well thought out. In a novel, you can go to places that you can’t on TV. Even on a modern Doctor Who budget, I think they’d have difficulty convincingly showing entire platoons of the Astingir. Halogi-Kari’s hired goons the Ratts, rat-like mercenaries that come across as genuinely disturbing, could probably be portrayed on TV, but you’d run the risk of them looking a bit silly, much like The Happiness Patrol’s Pipe People. Not all of the alien races are as they first appear, but this is a spoiler-free review, so I won’t go into more detail. Suffice to say that it’s comforting to see things aren’t always as black and white as they seem.
There’s a lot of interesting character stuff between the Doctor and Ace. Even though she’s six regenerations down the line, the Doctor still feels guilty about how things ended between her and Ace and it’s all very well written with just the right amount of emotion. The whole thing could easily have descended into heavy-handed mid-90s angst, but it doesn’t and the narrative seems to know exactly when to step back from the Doctor-Ace back-story and concentrate on the now. There’s a lovely subtlety to Ace’s journey in this book; at the beginning, she insists on being referred to as Dorothy and even chides Chantelle for calling her Ace, but at some point in her encounter with the Doctor, she puts on her black bomber jacket and becomes Ace again. It goes unmentioned in the text and is so well-handled that you hardly notice it happen.
At Childhood’s End is a good, solid read and a worthy addition to the Doctor Who range. It’s not world-altering, it doesn’t rewrite Ace’s past, and is all the better for it. My only minor gripe would be that Ace seems to fade into the background a bit as the story reaches its climax and it starts to be much more of a Doctor and her ‘fam’ adventure, but ultimately the series is called Doctor Who not Dorothy McShane, so if you’re going to include the Doctor, you’ve really got to use her to her fullest potential. More than anything, this book proves that these actor-written (with help, I know) novels really work as part of the range and I’d like to see more of them. In fact, I’d be quite happy to see another novel by Sophie Aldred as, on the evidence of this, she really knows what she’s doing.