My Companion Retrospective on Clara Oswald seemed somewhat well-received so I thought I would do another. This time, we're looking at the companion that was there as the Classic Series bowed out. Quite possibly, one of the best companions of them all.
PART 1: FORMING THE CHARACTER
ACE - DOROTHY WHO?
It is highly ironic that we never truly learn Ace's last name (the "McShane" is a rumor, at best and was never stated in any on-air dialogue). While her full name might be a mystery, there is probably no companion that we get to know better. So many layers of Ace are revealed before that fateful final walk together in Survival. I would even be bold enough to say that she is the most three-dimensional companion in the entire New or Classic Series.
She is also what I like to call a functional companion. It is the job of every companion to be the window that the audience sees through, To occasionally ask: "What is it, Doctor?" so that he can give a required info-dump now and again. But some companions prove to be a bit more useful than that. Some can actually skillfully carry certain elements of the plot so that the Doctor can sit back and not have to work quite so hard at everything. Companions that come from advanced societies such as Romana or Captain Jack could operate various types of alien technology that, normally, only the Doctor would be able to handle. Such characters could enable the Doctor to be stranded aboard the TARDIS while Crinothian spaceships needed to be repaired or let him go on a pleasant date with a Slytheen while extrapolators needed to be installed. Characters with such skill levels can fulfill greater functions in the story so I give them that functional companion nickname.
Characters capable of effectively handling action sequences are another type of functional companion. They take care of some of the more dangerous elements of an adventure and allow the Doctor to indulge in other activities when the fists start to swing. Most of the males that traveled with his first two incarnations were frequently required to get into all the scraps . The First and Second Doctors could just stick to the sciencey stuff and villain tell-offs while Ian, Steven, Ben or Jamie did the dirty work. It was only when the Doctor started messing about with Venuisan aiki-do that the men of action were no longer really required. Even Harry Sullivan being brought in during Season 11 wasn't all that badly needed for fighting, after all.
But a few seasons later, we were first introduced to the concept of a woman of action when Leela came on to the scene. The Doctor berated the savage for her reliance on violence - but she could also come in quite handy in a tight spot. Once more, she could fulfill a useful function in a story while the Doctor could go about dealing with mad computers, maniacal time travelers who were accepted as Chinese gods and other such things.
The next time we got to enjoy a companion of this nature, it was also a female character. Leela played with knives and Janis Thorns, but when Ace came along - it was Nitro 9 and the occasional baseball bat. I'll throw around even more superlatives by claiming that Ace was the ultimate "functional action companion" the show ever had. Leela probably had the highest death-count but Ace took out some of the most brutal of foes. Not only did she kick Cyberman and Dalek butt - but she even blew up a whole Cybership all on her own. Not too many companions can make those sort of boasts. It's usually only the Doctor who comes out of those sorts of scraps in one piece.
This is why I love Ace so much. She is responsible for some of the best action sequences the show has ever put together ("Ace Moments" - as I like to call them). But the actual development of the character was an equally high priority. We take an amazing emotional journey with her. But we also love it when blows stuff up with her Nitro 9 or kills the Doctor's mortal enemies with slingshots and baseball bats.
In some ways, Ace suffers a similar problem in her introduction that Clara has to deal with when we first meet her. It's more about gimmicks than character. With Clara, it was a plot gimmick. A mystery to solve that overtook the actual crafting of her personality in her earlier days. Whereas, in the case of Ace, the gimmick lies in what she does. The street slang. The attitude. The rucksack full of handy stuff. And, of course, the explosives. Her character traits seem to almost overwhelm the character, itself. An attempt is made in Dragonfire to give her a bit more dimension. That moment in Episode Three where she and Mel stop for a coffee break. Ace reveals her true name and discusses how she doesn't feel like she's meant to be on Earth. How she's meant to see the stars. It does give the character a bit more depth, yes. But the scene, itself, seems very forced. Almost like it was shoe-horned in. So it's only so effective in getting Ace to grow beyond her gimmicks.
But as the Doctor bids adieu to Mel and accepts Ace as the new companion (provided she goes by the rules, of course), we still feel a sense of promise. If nothing else, Ace does have a lot of cool gimmicks that we can enjoy in future stories. Really, it's hard not to like a companion who blows stuff up for fun. As the next season starts up, however, Ace's personality becomes far more interesting than any can of Nitro-Nine can hope to be.
SEASON 25: A DEEPER ACE
Many fans like to speculate that a few years have passed between Seasons 24 and 25. In some ways, it makes sense. Both Ace and Doctor Seven seem to have grown a bit. I'm more inclined to believe that they've had an adventure that has caused them to mature quickly. You can read about that silly theory here:
It's towards the end of the essay if you're that curious.
Whatever happened, when the Doctor and Ace stroll out onto the streets of London in 1963, they are both different. Particularly the Doctor. He's a darker man. But Ace seems a bit more subdued, too. Her "gimmicks" are still in place but they don't seem quite as in-your-face as they were in Dragonfire. Because of this, we can really get to know her properly. As Season 25 progresses, we see who Ace is and what she stands for. These core traits slowly emerge as the stories of the season move on.
VITAL CORE TRAITS - REMEMBRANCE OF THE DALEKS
The early episodes of Remembrance of the Daleks show us a few of Ace's more superficial traits. Right from that first shot, we see a sort of "likeable arrogance" to her. She strolls through the streets of London in 1963 with the most obnoxious of anachronisms and she doesn't care. She wants to listen to 80s Rock on her ghetto blaster and the timelines don't mean a thing to her. This should make us, as an audience, find her a bit distasteful. But, instead, it amuses us. We like the way she thumbs her nose at the rules. We will see Ace misbehave like this over and over in the next two seasons. And we always enjoy it.
Another superficial trait that manifests itself quite quickly is how Ace understands her functionalism and accepts it. She's in charge of handling the rough stuff while the Doctor goes about with the intellectual affairs. She's no dummy, of course. She'll help solve the various puzzles and riddles that the plot will present. But she also knows she's meant to protect the Doctor from any potential dangers out there. "Who else is going to watch your back?!" - she protests in Episode Two of Remembrance when the Doctor won't allow her to tag along. That one line shows a clear understanding of her role. She represents the Doctor's muscle in the story. Years before Joss Whedon was being celebrated for crafting violent teenage girls that handled all the serious action in a story, Doctor Who was doing it with style and aplomb.
As the story evolves in the later episodes, Ace's most vital core character trait is prominently displayed. She has a very strong sense of right or wrong. Most companions join the Doctor to see the Universe - but Ace is with him, moreso, to help him in his crusades. It's important to her to be a part of the battle against evil. This is why she gets angry, over and over, when he doesn't fully explain to her what's going on. She can't make a difference with him if she's not totally aware of the situation. She has a strong drive to always do what's right. Most companions that have traveled with the Doctor have highly-developed morals. But this is even stronger in Ace. She fights for justice just as strongly as he does.
The relationship she has with Mike in this story throws that trait into sharp relief. When Ace, at last, learns that her love interest has been a bit of a double agent, Mike hopes that Ace's feelings for him can be exploited and he can use her to help cover for him. But Ace's integrity comes to the forefront. Whatever she may have felt for him is immediately kicked to the wayside. Mike is a double agent and she's furious about it. He was not one of the good guys, after all. Ace wants no part of him, now.
While Ace can be this tough and righteous woman, Remembrance also makes sure to show us that there is much room in her heart for compassion, too. A little girl that has been shooting lightning bolts around a livingroom in an attempt to kill her suddenly has a complete emotional breakdown. If Ace were truly the hard woman that she portrays, she would have just let that girl sob from a safe distance. But, instead, she immediately races forward and holds the girl in her arms. Her soft side is quick to come forward when needed. She will care as quickly as she will fight.
Integrity and mercy. These are Ace's two strongest points. We will see them over and over in all of her tales. But Remembrance of the Daleks establishes them firmly. Dragonfire may have even hinted at them - but Remembrance makes them clear.
Of course, we can't talk about this story without also pointing out that it is the first time we see one of those awesome Ace Moments: an action sequence so well-executed that we will, forever, punch the air anytime we watch it. That lovely moment in Coal Hill at the end of Episode Two where Ace starts taking out Daleks with her cosmic baseball bat is nothing short of splendiforous. "Who you calling small?!" is the most perfect of dialogue, too. Again, it shows us that "likeable arrogance". It's also, pretty much, the coolest thing you could say to a deadly universal conqueror just before you hand him his ass on a platter!
VITAL CORE TRAITS - HAPPINESS PATROL
Happiness Patrol still remains a huge "vote-splitter" among fandom. Its camp sensibilities cause fans to absolutely love or hate it. But, whatever you feel about the story (I love it, by the way) it does continue to add layers to Ace's personality.
Within the first few minutes, we see another important trait emerge. Ace comments on the "lift music" that is playing all over the place. How it's too saccharine for her tastes. This would be another vital core trait that presents itself again and again throughout the next two seasons. Ace requires sincerity. The moment you start acting under any kind of false pretense - she begins to dislike you. Terra Alpha, with its overabundance of primal colors, bad lift music and laws on public happiness all become something she must take down. She can't stand the fakeness of it all.
Another core trait that surfaces prominently in this particular tale is Ace's love for the Outsider. During the heartfelt moment with Mel in Dragonfire, she confesses that she felt like she was meant to be in space. That she didn't fit anywhere on Earth. This seems to give her a strong sense of empathy for anyone who seems to be rejected by their peers. Anytime Ace sees someone else who doesn't seem to fit in - she takes to them. She'll stick up for them and even defend them to the best of her abilities. We see this happen for the first time when she meets Susan Q - a member of the Happiness Patrol who seems incapable of staying happy. Ace can't resist forming a deep bond with her and the two become best of friends over a very short period of time. Standing together in solidarity and proud of the fact that they will not assimilate into the corrupt regime they are trapped in.
It helps, of course, that most fans of sci-fi feel like outsiders, too. So when we see someone who almost seems to favor the square peg, we can't help but fall in love with her all the more.
SILVER NEMESIS - A STEP BACK
Season 25 progresses and we reach Silver Nemesis, next. After a few really strong stories that develop Ace well, we revert back to Dragonfire for a bit. It's more about gimmicks than character. But that's okay, in some ways. Ace is, by this point, almost fully-formed. We definitely see the complexity of her and understand most of her layers. There's not much more to add to her - so getting back to basics with Ace is actually welcome.
For a bit, Ace is just the tough-talking street kid with some legitimate firepower to back her up that we saw when we first met her. In this state we are able to really focus on some awesome "Ace moments". Blowing up the Cyber-shuttle with her rucksack is one of them. But it's pretty quick. Taking out a bunch of Cybermen with gold coins and a slingshot is a longer much more enjoyable moment. Yes, the Cybermen seem almost too vulnerable to gold, now. Yes, their aim also seems pretty awful. But this is still a great sequence. Particularly as she makes her way up to the gantry. That scene is, pretty much, Ace at her absolute coolest. As she stands in the cross-hairs of three Cybermen with only one gold coin left, we can't help but marvel at how much of a bad-ass she is. Faced with an almost inevitable death, she simply yells back: "Who will live and who gets it?!" . Ace's bravery has never shone brighter. The fact that she comes up with a clever way out of the whole thing gets us to love her all the more.
And yet, like Dragonfire, Silver Nemesis still makes sure to give us a bit of vulnerability. As they stroll through the forest in Episode Two, Ace suddenly feels overwhelmed. Ever-so-briefly, she admits to the Doctor that she wants to back out of all this. The Doctor seems to be almost manipulating her as he offers to let her return to the TARDIS. Like he knows that the offer will re-galvanize her courage. It works as Ace suddenly remembers her place in the story. As always, she needs to guard the Doctor's back. Considering she will soon be placed in the deadliest of situations and still manage to fight her way out, it's nice to actually see that she gets a bit scared of all the huge things that, sometimes, go on around her. Unlike the coffee break in Dragonfire, this scene is quite effective.
THE NEXT PHASE OF ACE
As Silver Nemesis concludes, we are now quite familiar with Ace. There are a few nuances that still need to be brought out, but it's also time to do something more with character. Many claim that the Tutelage of Ace is an arch that only gets embarked upon in Season 26. I say that Greatest Show in the Galaxy is the actual starting point. If anything, it acts as the "hinge" for the turn Ace is about to take in her life. It still fleshes out one or two more vital core traits but it also shows the Doctor beginning to very succinctly mold her into something.
We'll take a better look at that in the second half of this essay
And so, the Celebration of Ace will continue in a later installment. This half was meant to cover the development of the character. But now that she's just-about fully formed, we'll focus in on the very specific mission she seems to be on throughout the rest of the show. The Tutelage of Ace shall be our focus in Part Two....