“My son, who’s gay and a drag queen, came running downstairs and said, ‘Mum, I’m going to start watching Doctor Who now.’”
Like any other Doctor Who fan, Ace actress Sophie Aldred has got some major theories in mind for the 60th anniversary specials.
“I think that Jodie [Whittaker]’s regeneration, I think that was unstable. So I think the Doctor is going to kind of come in and out, you know? And then Ncuti Gatwa, what a great choice for a Doctor,” she points out to RadioTimes.com, clearly as excited about the prospect as the rest of us.
Explaining that she and her husband binge watched Sex Education, she adds: “He’s gonna be such a brilliant Doctor. He’s just got everything, he’s just amazing. And also, when it was announced that he was going to be the new Doctor, my son, who’s gay and a drag queen, came running downstairs and said, ‘Mum, I’m going to start watching Doctor Who now,’ because he’s not watched it, he’s not been that fussed.
“And I just think it’s brilliant, all these amazing casting choices that Russell T Davies is making.
“So, I think we’re just gonna have a whole new generation and a whole new fanbase for Doctor Who, which is very, very exciting. So, yeah, I’m thrilled to see how it’s gonna go.
“And Bonnie [Langford], of course, yay! I’ve been texting her saying, ‘I’m so jealous. I’m so jealous.’ And then I saw the picture of her on this Vesper, which I never got to ride. I thought, ‘Hang on a minute, that’s just not fair!’”
“It’s very, very exciting,” she sums up. “I think it’s going to blow our ideas of what’s possible with Doctor Who out of the water. I mean, let’s face it, Russell’s got a pretty good track record of that, hasn’t he?”
He certainly does. But so does Sophie, with her iconic companion Ace.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Ace changed the game for companions. Following years of slightly questionable representation of the Time Lord’s female companions or “assistants”, a teenage Ace burst onto screens in 1987, clad in a cool leather jacket and taking absolutely none of the Doctor’s nonsense.
“There wasn’t a part like that on TV at the time, there just wasn’t female representation in a popular show, and so many people have been inspired by the character of Ace, not least, I think, the modern companions,” Aldred explains.
“When you look back, there was no Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Young women just used to kind of have small parts or be girlfriends. It was a very, very unusual thing.
“And I think we have the script editor Andrew Cartmel to thank for [changing] that. And the writers, obviously, the new writers he was using, because he’d come from the comic book culture where women were represented, weirdly, in a more realistic way, in a kind of a funny way – maybe not visually, but sort of temperamentally and emotionally. So, I think I’m just so privileged to have played that part.”
As for her journey to get that part, though? She describes the audition process as “bizarre”.
“You’d never think it now, you know, in the age of self tapes, and people just auditioning and auditioning and auditioning. I’ve never heard a similar story.
“So, I was in the back row of the chorus in Fiddler on the Roof in Manchester with [Chaim] Topol, who obviously originated the role, having a great time, and my agent put me up for three episodes of Doctor Who. I’d never done any TV before, I’d never even been in a TV studio…
“And they wanted somebody who looked younger than they really were, and who could ride a motorbike, and I just happened to be able to ride a motorbike. I went down to London, begrudging the train fare, because I was on Equity minimum in the back row of the chorus and I had to have a peak ticket to get back in time to do the show that evening.
“I met the director, read a bit of script, did a bit from Daisy Pulls It Off, had a chat with the director, got back on the train thinking, ‘Yeah, that was a waste of money.’ And then didn’t hear anything until two weeks later.”
Aldred went back to London to meet the producer, John Nathan-Turner, for a 10-minute meeting, still thinking nothing of it (other than forking out for another pricey train ticket). When her agent left her notes at the theatre urging her to call her, it became clear she’d not only got the job – but was there to stay as the new companion.
“It was just the most exciting thing. I never even had a screen test. I mean, I’d never been in front of a camera, as I said. So, the first time I did that was the first day of filming on Dragonfire. And then, at the end of the day, John Nathan-Turner came down the stairs from the gallery, lit up another cigarette and said, ‘Well, darling, we’re on if you’re on,’ and I took that to mean that yes, I’d passed the screen test and got the part as the companion.”
Aldred starred alongside Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor, taking over from Bonnie Langford as Mel. The pair had incredible adventures, including Aldred’s favourite story, The Curse of Fenric, and, despite what many might think, Doctor Who was still proving successful before its cancellation in 1989. But the BBC had fallen out of love with it.
“We were meant to do another season after the one where we finished, and Ace – there were a few ideas for her,” she recalls. “I think the one I liked best was that she was going to go off to Gallifrey and train to become a Time Lord. I mean, that would have put the wind up the Time Lords, and that was covered in the Big Finish audios, which is great.
“But there are so many timelines of Aces. It’s great because all the writers have taken their own idea of Ace. Even I wrote a book with Mike Tucker and Steve Cole, and we tried to explain how many timelines she’s got in that. But I’d like to think that she’s always somewhere around, in some timeline somewhere with the Doctor.”
Yet, of course, Aldred did eventually reprise her role as Ace on-screen, in last year’s The Power of the Doctor, Jodie Whittaker’s final episode, reuniting with McCoy’s Doctor in scenes both of them describe as “emotional”.
“It was extremely important, because the last thing that anyone had ever seen from us was that we’d walked off into some bushes. I mean, it was actually in a quarry in Dorset, and the beautiful speech that Sylvester gives, it was actually a voiceover that was added on later, and written by the script editor, Andrew, to sort of cover the fact that it was going to be the last time that you saw Doctor Who for a while.
“So, to come back, and to have the opportunity to have that scene that we never had, was just very emotional. And it was, I think, something that the fans had always wanted.
“It was a very emotional moment. And I think the crew were quite emotional, as well, about it. I came and read the lines for Sylvester when he did his bit on green screen, so we were actually physically there together.
“There were a lot of people around the monitor and in the studio that day, as well, who’d come to see that. And it was pretty emotional, just standing there seeing Sylvester in that costume again after all these years. I mean, we’ve done it at conventions and things, but actually being filmed to do that scene together.
“He said, for him, it was as though the years just rolled away, and there we were back again. And the only thing that I felt, I think we probably both did, was, ‘What a shame we’re not about to start a new series again!’”
But, for now at least, it’s time to welcome back another returning Doctor and companion, David Tennant and Catherine Tate, before saying hello to the new duo, Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson. So, from one companion to another, does Aldred have any advice for Gibson?
In perhaps the most Ace-appropriate adage of all time, she says: “Just make the most of every single moment. Oh, and pick up some props and stuff, as well, nick stuff from the set. Because it will come in handy later for your pension…”