In the first half of our Ace Chronicles, we looked at how the character was gradually formed during her first four stories. We saw her passion for justice tempered by a strong sense of mercy. Her hatred of insincerity and love for the Outsider. We also saw her wreck a lot of Daleks and Cybermen and set off some pretty cool explosions.
Now that the character is, more or less, fully formed. Let's look at the mission the Doctor seems to be preparing her for as the Classic Series reaches its end....
THE TUTELAGE BEGINS...
Up until her creation, we've never seen a character that was crafted quite the way Ace was. Which is part of her appeal. She truly is unique among all the companions. Layers were added to her slowly but surely. At the same time, we could enjoy all her gimmicks. In some stories, the gimmicks were even pushed to the forefront and the character development was downplayed. But this was never taken too far.
Because of this, Ace was always appreciated on multiple levels. We enjoyed watching her grow emotionally as much as we loved seeing her blow things up. We would have been just fine with regular doses of action and character growth but Andrew Cartmel decides to take Ace even further. As Ace's personality becomes fully formed, the Doctor seems to be developing a plan for her. He is training Ace for something. Guiding her in certain directions so that she may complete some sort of masterplan for him. What is it, exactly? We never find out. The show ends before this particular arc can be completed. But it is still a great arc to watch. The Doctor becomes more brooding and manipulative as Ace grows in confidence and trusts her instincts more deeply.
Some would say that this training that the Doctor is putting Ace through doesn't truly begin til several episodes into Season 26. I prefer to believe that we see the first hints of it as Season 25 broadcasts its final story.
GREATEST SHOW IN THE GALAXY - THE NEXUS POINT
One of the strongest points I'm trying to make in this particular essay is that Ace goes through two crucial journeys during her travels. The first is an effort to "find herself". To, essentially, figure out what she's really about. In so doing, of course, we also learn who Ace is. Dragonfire sees her as a fairly two-dimensional character who's a lot of fun. We see only the merest hint in that particular story that there's more to her than that. Those hints are developed to their fullest extent in Season 25. We, then, embark upon Phase Two of Ace Development: the Doctor's Secret Mission for Her.
Many would argue that Greatest Show in the Galaxy is the final piece of the puzzle in fully fleshing out Ace's identity. We see the last of her Core Traits that I discussed so thoroughly in Part 1 rise to the surface. It's displayed right at the beginning of Episode One where the Junkmail Bot taunts her. Ace is the type of person who needs to face her fears and conquer them. It's for this reason that she decides to go to the Psychic Circus: she needs to defeat her fear of clowns.
Once on Segonax, several more of those Core Traits are put on display. Ace's love for the social outcast is shown off in the friendship she instantly makes with Mags. Part of the reason she finds clowns so creepy is because they represent that artificial happiness she hates so much. She shows great tenderness to Bellboy as he shares his misery with her. And, of course, she wants to right whatever wrong is going on within the Psychic Circus. All the core traits seem to have assembled in one story so that Ace is truly fleshed out. Greatest Show is the ultimate conclusion to the First Stage of Ace's Journey.
But let's take a closer look at that new Core Trait revealed in the finale of Season 25. We see that Ace is the type of person who must always face her fears. But was she always like that? Only a story earlier, she is admitting to the Doctor that things are getting too scary for her and she wants out. The Doctor almost seems to manipulate her into staying in the battle. Could Ace's fear in Silver Nemesis have alerted the Doctor to a potential roadblock in his process of mentoring her into whatever it is he wants her to be?
There is just the vaguest hint at the end of Greatest Show in the Galaxy that the Doctor may have gone to Segonax on purpose. That he knew the Gods of Ragnarok had installed themselves' there and he was going to take them down. In much the same way that all the other stories of Season 25 were "pro-active". The Doctor didn't stumble into this adventure as he used to - he went there for a reason. I believe he had several motives for his Segonax visit. Yes, he needed to defeat the evil that dwelt there - but he also needed to present Ace with a fear for her to beat. The scene where he offers to just throw the Junkmail Bot away and continue on to somewhere else feels just as manipulative as the scene in Silver Nemesis where he suggests Ace return to the TARDIS. He knows this will goad Ace into doing the exact opposite of what he's suggesting.
I think Greatest Show in the Galaxy accomplishes two things at once with Ace's character. It finishes her slow development that we've been enjoying throughout the season. But it also embarks upon Arc B for Ace. It's the Doctor's first blatant attempt to tutor her and move her along on the Ultimate Plan that he seems to have for her. As I said at the end of Part 1 of this essay, this is a "hinge story" between the two character arcs for Ace. One story ends and a new one begins. The character is now moving in a new direction. But not before all the key points of her first journey are cemented in.
I firmly believe that Ace's tutelage begins here.
BATTLEFIELD - ANOTHER STEP BACK
And, once more, we revert back to an Ace that is, for the most part, fun. Battlefield is a high adventure that makes full use of Ace's functionalism as a woman of action. One can easily see this as she blows up a fair amount of things throughout the story. Ace using a lot of pyrotechnics is usually a good sign that this will be more about her gimmicks than character development.
Still, Ace's personality isn't completely thrown to the wayside. We do see a Core Trait on display when she instantly befriends Shou Yuing - another outsider. And the nature of my beloved Ace Moments are also taking on a new tone. It's not just pure action that gets us to sometimes punch the air for her. Ace Moments are becoming more emotional this season. Battlefield, for me, possesses a few of these sequences. Ace rising out of the water with Excalibur is a sheer delight that is more about comedy than action. And when she stops herself in mid-sentence from saying a racist profanity and breaks Morgaine's spell by hugging Shou Yuing - that qualifies as an outstanding Ace Moment for me. We are thrilled with her for very different reasons than killing Cybermen and Daleks. And we love the way Morgaine remarks: "They breed their children strong, here...."
Still, Battlefield is more about having a good time with Ace. Which was needed. A much heavier psychological journey is about to begin...
GHOST LIGHT - THE FIRST TEST
Many believe this is where Ace's tutelage truly begins. In some ways, they are right. We definitely get a sense that the Doctor is putting her through a series of adventures that will make her a stronger person. The next three stories that we see have very specific intents behind them.
What impresses me most about Ace's mentorship, is the way Sophie Aldred pulls back on the performance. The gimmicks and the street slang are still there - but they're not played up as much as they usually are. Ace seems to be taking things more seriously in these next few stories.
Right from the TARDIS' materialization in Ghostlight, Ace is informed she is being put through an initiative test. Rather than being told where and when they are, he's asking her to figure it out on her own. And it's definitely being played out like some sort of contest as Ace feels the Doctor should be penalized for bad parking.
As the story progresses, the Doctor is urging Ace more and more to figure out what is so special about the house they're visiting. He needs her to discern this to pass her first test. It would seem he is still alarmed by her panic attack in Silver Nemesis and needs her to truly conquer her fears. Overcoming creepy clowns in Greatest Show in the Galaxy was not enough. He needs to truly see that Ace will not be held back by the things that frighten her. It is interesting to note how he makes the same offer in Part Three that he did in Nemesis - he gives her the option to return to the TARDIS. Ace refuses. This seems to almost satisfy the Doctor. She's passed her first test.
THE CURSE OF FENRIC - THE NEXT STEP
And so, Ace embarks upon her second test. This one is probably the most difficult. Since her very first story, we've been hearing about Ace's estrangement with her mother. We might even call it one of her Core Traits (I was tempted to discuss in Part 1 of this essay but I was rambling on enough!). In Fenric, she must face her hatred of her mother and forgive her. Ghostlight was about Ace defeating her fear. Now, she must let go of past resentments.
How intentional this test was is difficult to tell. The Doctor goes to the British base in the 1940s that has the Ultima Machine to finally battle Fenric. He knew Ace was being used as a Wolf of Fenric - did he also know that her mother would be there and that she would be forced to forgive her? In this incarnation, he could be just that dubious. Whatever the case, Ace passes the test beautifully.
Fenric also shows off, quite clearly, the restraint Aldred is showing in the role now that she is being put through her tutelage. Ace gets several of her more notorious gimmicks in this story (cool stuff in the rucksack, blowing things up with Nitro 9). But she handles them differently, more calmly. Compare her exuberance as she blows up Arthur's ship in Battlefield versus how she acts with explosives, here. Ace is definitely transitioning and the actress playing her acknowledges it by tweaking her interpretation accordingly.
Of course, Curse of Fenric also has some of my favorite Ace Moments of all. Again, they're not action-based. There's a nice comedic moment where she comments on the way Millington's chess set is booby-trapped. And then there's some great dramatic moments. The way she cries out: "Mom! I'm sorry!" in front of the firing squad. Her choosing to seduce the guard to distract him is another moment I greatly relish. It really shows how much she's grown. She doesn't need to chuck explosives at her problems, anymore - or club them with a baseball bat. She can actually use social skills, now. She's far from being the "emotional cripple" the Doctor must call her to break her faith in him. She's a fully fleshed out three dimensional person.
Of course, her greatest Ace Moment is the last few minutes of the story. Where she truly passes her test and comes to terms with the fact that she loves her mom - regardless of who she is. Diving into the water and facing the undercurrents is a beautiful symbolism to the whole moment. One might even say this is the best scene a companion has ever gotten.
SURVIVAL - CUT OFF TOO SOON
It's hard to determine, exactly, what is the test in this story. The Doctor keeps trying to get Ace to reconcile herself to her past. In this instance, he seems to be getting her to conquer her own sense of nostalgia. Nothing stays the same and your memories can be cherished but they can't dominate you. It's a simpler test. But then, after the brutality she faced in the last story - perhaps it's time to go a little easier on her.
There also seems to be a whole test of Ace trying to control the more savage elements of her character. To cage the beast she has within her. But this one probably wasn't intentional on the Doctor's part. He couldn't know they would end up on planet of the Cheetah People and that she would be contaminated. Nonetheless, Ace's refusal to fight at the most crucial of moments in Part Three certainly shows that she passes this challenge, too. It might even be one last good Ace Moment before the show must end.
And so, the Doctor and Ace stroll off for more adventures as we enjoy a voiced-over monologue. Sadly, we won't get to see any of them.
THE ACE THAT COULD HAVE BEEN...
According to Andrew Cartmel, himself: Ace was being put through all this mentoring so that the Doctor could take her to Gallifrey during Season 27 and enter her into the Time Lord Academy. How exactly a human can become a Time Lord is not certain. But this could creep into another essay I have in mind.
The failure to complete this arc is painful, of course. Almost as difficult for me to process as the fact that the Sixth Doctor was cut off before his character growth reached its full potential. These are the true consequences of all the behind-the-scenes drama that went on in the late 80s: some great stories were never finished.
Somehow, Ace disappears from the Doctor's side during those "Wilderness Years". It does pop up, from time-to-time, in fan forums that the New Series should let us know in some way what became of her. Some have said she should get a special story of her own where the Doctor adventures with her for an episode or two. Others would just be happy if a little throwaway dialogue was inserted in a script to mention what she's doing, these days. But, more than likely, how Ace left will remain a mystery.
But the time she did spend in the TARDIS was certainly some of the best material the show ever produced. And we can always treasure that....
Well, that's it for this Companion Retrospective. I did mention earlier that Ace just might be the best companion of them all. Did I mean it? Perhaps this might be my latest End-of-Year List!
Want to read my other Companion Retrospective in Clara Oswald? Here's Part One:
And Part Two: