Doctor Who: Ace – “…I always leave these things to the last moment” (Whovember #7)

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The 50th birthday watch reaches a sad end… Or is it a beginning? After 26 continuous years, the Seventh Doctor may have seen the classic series off, but he did it with style. In fact,  those last few serials brought the focus back to the Doctor’s companion, and in doing so it laid noticeable roots for a later regeneration… “The end – but the moment has been prepared for” indeed.

#7: The Ace Trilogy: Ghostlight, The Curse of Fenric and Survival

“SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST”. IT’S ONE OF THE BETTER THINGS TO DRAW FROM THOSE, THE LAST DARK DAYS OF DOCTOR WHO. The three final stories of the classic series, forming a loose ark around companion Ace, are preoccupied with that key Darwinian thought. That the last of the serials is Survival is only part of the irony.  It’s far more satisfactory than the theme of entropy that accompanied latter Tom Baker stories simply for being more positive. But of course, while that prophecy of entropy in the early 80s took a few years to come true, the Darwinian rule that came at the end of the 1980s was proved wrong immediately.

Ghostlight (Season 26, 1989)

While it was Survival that ended the run via a hastily recorded voice over, it was Ghostlight that was last to be filmed. A fitting end, with Darwinian Theory part of the plot and not just an analogy, it delved into some of the show’s darkest corners.

Writer Marc Platt lays on classic tropes thick and fast. The body-horror. The Victorian domestic tragedy. The big game hunter. Pygmalion. Deification of more advanced civilisations. Vampirism. Nocturnalism. The evil in the basement. A Royal assassination. An inspector Calls. Taxidermy with glowing eyes… And mixed in there is a bit of biography for Ace. It’s a doomed house, she’s already destroyed it in the future, but how do we get there?

Anyone claiming this isn’t a classic slice of classic Doctor Who – yes, classic – needs to be sent to Java. But like any classic, it has flaws.  There’s has to be a sacrifice.  It’s not immediately comprehensible and indeed, if any serial should have had the run of four episodes, it was Ghostlight.  But that said, in a tale governed by cause and effect, three parts seems oddly balanced.

Ghostlight is deliriously and wilfully surreal within its stagey, set-bound surroundings. Almost every scene carries foreboding as character switch and change from villain to victim. Devastating plot revelations are quickly revealed and then cut short by, literal petrification or reversion to primordial soup.   And by the end, the two main aliens have swapped their roles, and set out into the unknown with a Neanderthal and a big game hunter. At the speed of light.

Then there’s the game-playing Doctor. At points, his motivation is obscured, there’s a real sense he may get to any length to uncover the truth but also that he knows everything all along. As would be repeated in the next two stories, this Doctor not crippled by the myth of The Other that surfaced in Season 25, as the show teetered on the edge of revealing too much about his origin. He’s simply and darkly Time’s Champion – an alien uncovering and solving problems to get to the truth, where everything and nothing is significant. It’s a shame this Doctor is only seen for one season, four stories.

I’m deliberately excluding Battlefield to concentrate on this Ace-centered trilogy, but it was in that serial, that this Doctor was established.  The future, potential, (ginger) Merlin Doctor is more compelling than the Doctor’s ancient routes and has persisted to this day (ginger). Not for the last time, Ace is at the heart of this story, a conduit for the Doctor to solve his mysteries.

Not for the last time, there are moments when it looks like he’d go to any lengths to get the end-game. The denouement is one of the strangest in Wholore, the Doctor versus an Angel. Light can wander at a whim, and its alien nature is one of the most effective realisations seen in Doctor Who, oblivious, confused and silly. For the first time in years the Doctor captures the presence to stand up to such a being with believability, McCoy’s pratfalls used sparingly for effect. Of the serials I saw live as a kid, parts of Ghostlight have stayed the longest.

It’s a walking metaphor where Doctor Who can run riot. In some ways a fitting end for a show that would not be filmed again in Britain for many years.  But then, this trilogy is full of different endings…

Ghostlight brought the house of Blink, Ghostlight brought the secret life of Amy Pond.

The Curse of Fenric (Season 26, 1989)

The stories that follow the set-bound Ghostlight have the distinction of being two of only three classic serials completely filmed on location. In terms of effectiveness, The Curse of Fenric steals it.

Fenric is quite possibly the greatest Doctor Who serial of the 1980s. Its scope and realisation is incredible, from the atmospheric opening with the Russian troops landing at Whitby. Like Marc Platt’s Ghostlight, the number of ideas that Ian Briggs condenses into these four parts is stupendous. But unlike Ghostlight, the plot is, ironically for much of it, relatively watertight. It not only creates a powerful Doctor figure (both time’s Champion, but also dessert – sitting, sculpting chess-player) but even fits in some time paradox.

Ace is very much at the forefront, not here because of Perivale antics seen in the serials either side, but by a genetic, pre-determined route that brought her into the Doctor’s path.  The huge personal issues brought to bear on the companion are only rendered larger by the fact she is simply a small pawn in a game of millennia.

And then there comes one of the strangest moves in Companion history, one of the boldest: the blatant sexualisation of a companion. This isn’t Leela or Romana showing off their wardrobe, this is Ace deliberately luring a soldier for distraction.  There were other ways, but neither the Doctor nor the companion discuss it.  “Professor, I’m not a little girl” – that’s not somewhere that Doctor Who goes very often, even as the current series attracts criticism for its over-sexualization …  It’s a sharp change in the TARDIS crew relationship, and one that’s a little lost in the following serial.

That scene sits against a backdrop of the unravelling relationship of Ace and her mother. There’s no Blinovitch Limitation Effect here, that would just serve to undermine what is easily a forced storyline. There is that neat idea that Ace is subliminally examining her parental issues.  But that’s soon swept over by the fact that she is a Wolf of Fenric.  She creates herself, and much of what she hates.

It’s fitting and understandable that Ace has her strongest development in the hands of Ian Briggs.  He created her in Dragonfire two seasons before, and here is a dramatic and fitting resolution.  When he first invited her, the Doctor was left with an unwritten rule: “And the third… Well, I’ll think up the third (rule) by the time we get back to Perivale.”  Somewhere along the way, it seems to have been written.

Elsewhere, the pacing is on the most part great, propelled by the location filming with only a few random edits showing that at one point it was considered as a five part serial.  One unfortunate scene includes the reference to Gabriel Chase, a dark memory of Aces that in the event of broadcast, was explained one serial earlier.  , It’s a reminder how surprisingly strong the entire final season is, considering rescheduling and reshoots, lost footage and location filming.  Briggs had significantly less time to complete the serial than he was expecting.  Perhaps most surprising in this sharp and compelling serial is the uncredited directing nod that John Nathan Turner earned for this classic.

It’s an indication of the perception that affected all of Who in the late 1990s that Nicholas Parsons is unfairly dismissed for his role here. This is no gimmicky turn and forms a large part of the exploration of faith, obsession and ideology.  A brilliantly realised character, he is just one of the strong characters who earn our sympathies. A special mention must go to the historical parenthesis that Fenric sits between.

The Viking history – ever an atavistic pull for the British – is incredibly evocative, carried through script and a montage of the underwater longboat wreck rather than flashbacks. The journey of Fenric from the East with the Ancient Haemovore in constant pursuit is also effective. That creation brings with it, the flip side. The paradox of the Ancient One creating its own future may be a little too much, but the mysterious vampires of humanity’s future are brilliantly realised in their period garb. It’s an old trope, the dead rising from the waves, but not for the first time in Doctor Who they are ghosts of the future as much as the past.

That the Great Serpent and his master forms a basis for Norse mythology while drawing Whitby and Dracula into the web is masterful. The fact that it takes the liberty of reversing some coincidences you find in Who serials is incredible. It’s far more than just another waster role for Anne Reid in Doctor Who.

For a number of reasons, Fenric is about as removed from Doctor Who as children’s programme as it can be.  And still, it manages to avoid the far more gratuitous violence of the Colin Baker years.  How it does it is brilliant: having strong motivation and scripting.

Fenric brought the horrors of war and the art of paradox back to Doctor Who, Fenric brought Time Lord walking in eternity to the New Series, Fenric brought the consequence of Sex to the TARDIS that would one day threaten the Doctor’s life.

Survival (Season 26, 1989)

Survival returns Ace and her Professor to Perivale, but not the stage show of Ghostlight. The weakest of the final three, it still contains moments of mystery and a strong and alien story that even rather patchy video effects can’t destroy Writer Rona Munro has bemoaned the Cheetah people costumes – a decision that robbed the script of its lesbian subtext.

True, they look a tad too costumey for what are a wonderfully literal race, robbing the actors of everything except very broad moves.  Still, they aren’t completely ineffective.  Three in a row, Survival dishes up yet another form of tension.  The horse mounted cheetahs and the vulture-like kitlings with their vast teleportation abilities.  Of course, one kitling spends most of its time as an animatronics puppet.  It’s obvious, but adds an unsettling element to the Master’s stalking.

It’s no worse than some Hollywood effects of the 1990s, that’s for sure. But the real joy comes from the blunt nature over nurture sci-fi trope.  The idea of the civilisation destroyed by their planet is riveting.  It would always be ambitious to realise that on screen, but provides.  The rhythm of transformation may be off kilter, but at last brings us a Holmes and Moriarty like clash to the Doctor and his main Time Lord nemesis.  And it must be said, the Seventh iteration of the Doctor really can’t stand the Master.  In turn, the goateed Time Lord is more than happy to acknowledge the Doctor’s superiority in escape, before lapsing back into pure malice.

There are little moments of joy here.  The bored Doctor, the Master darker than he had been for some time.  But overall, it really shows how close the series was to getting it right.  Within two decades, a future Doctor would be similarly stalking an estate in London while tackling humanoid cats.

Yes, Survival brought the cement of the Powell Estate, Ghostlight brought the soap opera family of the Tylers.

Endgame…

The final three serials of Doctor Who’s classic years offer up moments that can sit happily next to the best in the show’s history.  True, McCoy never fully loses his clown, and he never reaches the same balance as Patrick Troughton but this was the year that secured him a place in Doctor Who history.  Not only that, McCoy’s Doctor seems far more alien than the character had been for years.  Actually, he wouldn’t be beaten until matt Smith.  As such, it was also the year that had the grace to make Virgin’s New Adventures an inevitability.

While there are pratfalls at the wrong time, but not all of them are. The Haemovores, a vampiric, amphibious – and crucially – potential evolutionary dead-end of humanity in the chemical wasteland of the far future. The alien, control-based survey team overwhelmed by evolution. The ultimate vision of nature over nurture.

In each of these serials, the writers aren’t shy of chucking in the kitchen sink.  But somehow it remains more effective than that modern version.

Unfortunately, the rot had set in long before and the scripts of Ian Briggs, Marc Platt and Rona Munro among others, under the editorship of Andrew Cartmel could never shout loud enough. After a far too prolonged period of entropy, Doctor Who wasn’t the fittest anymore. Those who wielded the axe were those who ripped the rug from the console room floor. Inevitable in a show with such a long shelf life, those in charge had increasingly been separated from it and its glory days.

One thing is clear though. Turning the show back to a focus on the companions was crucial.  On one hand it enables the Doctor to remain an enigma, enhances the mystery when done well.  On the other hand, it draws the audience in.  The Doctor’s story stays the same, it is the run of companions that bring change to the show and new stories to tell.  The greatest storytelling use the companions to investigate the Doctor and his universe…

But just when the show remembered its strength, it was put on hold.  But with its time trickery, biographical redemption and even skulking around after the puppet cats of Perivale, the Doctor had already laid in a timey-wimey way, the roots of its return when the TARDIS doors closed on 6th December 1989. Rose wasn’t such a leap. Doctor Who remained Ace. Doctor Who remained fantastic.

TIMEY-WIMEY:  Read on for the, mope, complete Eighth Doctor in Whovember #8!

8 thoughts on “Doctor Who: Ace – “…I always leave these things to the last moment” (Whovember #7)”

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