I don’t believe you’ve met my young friend Ace, an expert in calorification, incineration, carbonization, and inflammation.
-The Doctor, The Happiness Patrol
Dorothy McShane of Perivale, UK, better known as Ace, was the Doctor’s companion in Doctor Who from 1987 until the show’s cancellation in 1989. She was young. She was independent. She was tough. She was smart. She was a glorious feminist character.
I only started watching Doctor Who when the new series came out in 2005. I’ve since gone back and watched about ten per cent of what is now known as “classic Who”. While I’ve only seen three of the nine storylines featuring Ace – “The Happiness Patrol”,”Ghost Light” and “Survival” – she made quite an impression. There was a great contrast between Ace and, say, Jo Grant, whose main job was to say ‘Doctor, what’s that?’, wear short skirts and scream. This was tempered somewhat with the inclusion of more autonomous and free-thinking characters like Sarah-Jane Smith and Tegan Jovanka. But the major shift in Doctor-companion dynamics came with the relationship between Ace and her “Professor”. It’s still my favourite Whovian relationship.
It was one of those lucky things really. We just very much got on from the moment we met. We shared a similar-ish background; I was an ex-radical feminist student with hairy armpits, and he really liked that. A bit rebellious, and he’d come from this very subversive background with his Ken Campbell roadshow. And don’t forget that Margaret Thatcher was our Prime Minister, which we weren’t very happy with at the time. So it was all a real bonding process.
Brings a smile to your face, doesn’t it? She goes on to add:
I must admit when I first got the part I thought hang on a minute, I’m not a screamer, I’m a bit of a tomboy, always was. I was a bit surprised. My concept of a Doctor Who girl was that you screamed a lot and ran around quarries in unsuitable footwear. Of course you fell over and twisted your ankle, because you had high heels on.
So when I was allowed to wear Doc Martens and not scream, it was a complete breath of fresh air for me. I think that’s down a lot to the script editor at the time, Andrew Cartmel. He was young, had his finger on the pulse, and wanted to try new thing. He and the writer of that first story that I did, Ian Briggs, came up with this character, and John went with it. Which was amazing really, because it was a departure for Doctor Who.
Most likely a combination of writers’ decisions, Ms Aldred’s personality and the relationship between the two actors allowed Doctor Who to open up in this respect.
And open up it did. The primary enemies in the show are the Daleks, a race genetically engineered by Davros, contained and transported in an oddly pepper pot-like device. And Ace took to this thing of nightmare with a baseball bat.
Yeah, well that was great. Because nobody’s done that before or since. I think that’s going to go on my gravestone, actually. I beat up a Dalek with a baseball bat! My absolute claim to fame, and I was very proud of that moment!
Ms Aldred gave an interview to BBC Norfolk on 2 February last year:
MB: Ace was quite a departure for a Doctor’s assistant. Until then they’d always been a bit glam, girlie, lots of screaming – whereas you were like the Just William of the companions.
SA: You couldn’t have said a nicer thing. I was a real tomboy when I was growing-up. I really understood the character of Ace. Twenty years ago there were no equivalent young female roles on television who were doing realistic, down-to-earth, tomboyish things. I think there was Susan Tully on EastEnders, but I can’t think of any others – so it was very exiting for me to do that part and get such great feedback from the public about having somebody realistic to see on the screen. Still now I meet women who say, ‘You were such a hero of mine. I loved the way you were so strong,’ and all that sort of thing – so I’m very proud to have played a character like that.
That’s the kind of character she was. In a world of increasing materialism, when feminism went a little quiet, Ace was a character for young girls and women to look up to. She didn’t take rubbish from anyone and she always tried to do what she thought was right, by her friends back home and by the people she met all over the universe. She was armed with her bomber jacket, her catchphrase of ‘wicked,’ her ponytail and her Nitro-9 explosives. ‘Do you feel like arguing with a can of deodorant that registers 9 on the Richter Scale?’ (“Dragonfire”) And she invoked a cliche or two in “The Curse of Fenric”: ‘If you want a job done properly, get a girl to do it. Out of the way, boys!’
Here’s a fan tribute by Tiggzz.
Title: Companion Tributes
Ace aka “Dorothy McShane”
The Doctor: Ace, where do you think you’re going?
The Doctor: Ah yes, but by which route? The direct route with Glitz? Or the scenic route?
[Ace looks bewildered.]
Well? Do you fancy a quick trip round the twelve galaxies and then back to Perivale in time for tea?
The Doctor: But there are three rules. One, I’m in charge.
Ace: Whatever you say, Professor.
The Doctor: Two, I’m not the Professor, I’m the Doctor.
Ace: Whatever you want.
The Doctor: And a third–
[He breaks into a smile and music starts]
The Doctor: Well, I’ll think up a third by the time we get back to Perivale.
[A montage ensues in which a song about not being perfect and not conforming by someonw who sounds like Shania Twain is played. Ace runs around, blows stuff up, is trapped, defeats Daleks, jumps through a window and is generally powerful and active. She emerges from a lake and is met by the Doctor.]
Ace: I’m not scared now.
[The Doctor touches her face affectionately. They each put an arm around the other and walk off. They see a sign:]
Ace: Dangerous undercurrents, Doctor?
[A shot of the calm lake.]
The Doctor: Not anymore… yet.
[They laugh and continue walking.]
It’s a bit disconcerting to think that the show was cancelled during this era, when Doctor Who was starting to show what it could really do. History shows that the cancellation had been coming for a while. In any case, Ace was a marvellous note on which to end the show.
Note: here’s my source for direct quotes from the TV show.