Doctor Who: At Childhood’s End Review

When Doctor Who ended with nothing so much as a hastily added speech about how much of the universe was left to explore back in 1989, questions were left unanswered about the fate of the Doctor and his companion, Ace. Naturally our favourite Time Lord regenerated back onto our TV screens, once in 1996 and then again more permanently in 2005, but the continuing adventures of Ace were relegated to the realms of the transmedia tie-ins, such as comic strips, novels, and audio adventures.

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I say relegated, these are media which often fail to get the acknowledgement they deserve, not least for the fact that had they not kept the flame alive during the Wilderness Years, Doctor Who itself may never have returned to our screens, at least not in such the successful way which we have come to know and love.

And it is in these media that the fate of Ace was given its full potential, so much so that it all ended up a bit too wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey with the not officially canonical adventures going on to overlap and contradict each other. While most saw Ace continue to travel with the Doctor, some eventually saw her leave to return to what was left of her life on Earth, while others saw her attend and add her own distinctiveness to the Time Lord Academy itself, which was the planned outcome had the TV series continued. Needless to say head-canon is a big thing in determining what did and didn’t happen to Ace. Even the Big Finish audio range, which has featured Ace in continuing adventures, tales of the Time War, and even one appearance in their series based on Doctor Who spin-off Class, hasn’t been above the tried and tested Amnesia/Memory Wipe trope to try and accommodate such a changing rostra of possible, and contradicted outcomes.

Unambiguously returning to the role which has been at the hearts of the biggest mystery within the Doctor Who universe however, with “At Childhood’s End” Sophie Aldred has given us perhaps the closest we’ll get to the definitive answer. The closest we had ever been given to an “official” answer to Ace’s fate came in a single fleeting reference from former companion and spin-off helmer Sarah-Jane Smith, who once mentioned a Dorothy who was heading up the philanthropic organisation A Charitable Earth. As far as references that leave some wiggle room for future extrapolation go, this one was fairly conclusive, although Aldred was quoted as only believing this would be the case if the organisation was nothing more than a front for Doctor Who’s long standing protectors of the Earth, UNIT.

The idea of this charity is something which was expanded on in the trailer for the Season 26 Blu-Ray Boxset, known as ‘Ace Returns!’, which saw her wait for the Doctor finally come to an end with a familiar looking umbrella handle knocking on the door. Although, as always, the fact it’s a trailer and not an “official” adventure once more muddies the canonical waters.

Regardless of which, this is where “At Childhood’s End” enters the pantheon of Doctor Who storytelling. Picking up where The Sarah-Jane Adventures left off, the novel sees an older and wiser, but still just as determined, Dorothy as the CEO of an organisation with one purpose which is to help those in need. Any idea of it being a front for UNIT is just as mothballed as the organisation itself within the new TV continuity, although even this is handled in a way which shows such a believably accurate portrayal of a character who we first saw over 30 years ago.

What entails is a story so much more than the sum of its parts, one which succinctly weaves together not just Ace’s departure from, but also the origins of her travels with her Professor, a belated reunion with a Doctor who’s now at twice their incarnations since Ace last saw her, all tied together in an original adventure for the incumbent Team TARDIS.

The main part of the action takes place on, or around, modern day Earth. When lost and homeless children are going missing from the streets of London, including Perivale no less, there’s obviously no coincidence when an alien ship is discovered in orbit around the moon. Naturally Dorothy is one to investigate, with help from a former astronaut boyfriend, and something of her own companion which is (almost a little too) more convenient than the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver.

Though the book does start off a little rough with the prose itself a little clunky, its conviction in name dropping all the different areas of Ace’s journey through London may as well have just been transcribing a Sat Nav, but these missteps are soon left behind. The fact that the book itself seamlessly switches from referring to Dorothy as Ace along with the other characters is just one way which shows you how nothing can stop the story from letting you go once it’s Time Stormed you in on its wild ride.

The narrative itself is more than worthy of the TV episodes it is supplementing, while the written word allows for the perfect depiction of alien races that could never be sufficiently realised on screen. The characterisations of the current Doctor and companions are spot on, though it’s Yaz who shines as she ponders the effects that travelling with the Doctor has on her own life as much as Ace’s.

The main narrative is also intercut with flashbacks to what we eventually discover is Ace’s final adventure during her TARDIS heydays, and the reason for her split with the Doctor. Something the publication of the novel promised to touch on, this is just the beginning of answering the question of what happened next, and which does touch on all the various outcomes that we have seen over the past thirty years. Aldred herself stated that “I thought it’d be really good to explore how that could be, and, without giving it away, I hope we’ve done that and it’s safe to say that she, along with co-writers Stephen Cole and Mike Tucker, have succeeded spectacularly.

With the main narrative linking into the events of the final TV serial “Survival”, the flashbacks carry them on thematically with the Doctor’s manipulations of Ace and her destiny finally coming to a head. While the specific dating of these as taking place in 1990 may not leave much room for the continuing adventures as told by Big Finish, etc, the revelations we find on the Astingir planet leave no other stone unturned.

The events that lead up to Ace leaving the Doctor are a natural extension to the direction their relationship was taking before the series was cancelled, and in book designed to answer all the possibilities, the fateful line of “Professor, this is the day we say goodbye” is perhaps the only conclusion that could ever have been reached. But even when this particular question has finally been answered, everything else, all the possibilities of exactly where and when that goodbye took place are still out there somewhere.

While the events of the novel naturally contradict some previously defined specifics, this is nothing which shouldn’t be expected considering the not-officially-canon-continuity of the character stretching back three decades, but it’s the way in which it keeps the doors open to so many of the wider brush strokes of Ace’s intervening years which is where its genius lies.

At the end of her time with her Professor we see Ace herself see all the possible futures that lay ahead of her. Much like the fate of the Wraiths she saw what the outcome of all the possible futures would be, that the ultimate outcome of anything but peace was just more and more fighting, but would this apply to an individual as much as it would to an entire race?

And that’s the thing with timey-wimey science fiction like Doctor Who, the fact that there is no definitive answer is perhaps the only definitive answer there can ever be.

Which future did Ace decide? Could all of them happen anyway? Does her past even matter if she’s still got future adventures to look forward to?

The only answer that matters, is the one that we decide for ourselves.

 

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