I love it when elements of Classic Who and New Who are combined to tell a whole new story. With a history this vast Doctor Who is a franchise that’s perfect for such a mashup of the old and new. Especially given how much of a mixture of old and new this current era is – what with its female Doctor and its throwback to a three-companion TARDIS team. So, when the news broke that Sophie Alfred, the actress who played Ace (companion of the 7th Doctor and the prototype for the modern Doctor Who companion as we know them), would be writing a book detailing an adventure where Ace meets the current Doctor and her companions, I was totally on board. And, I gotta tell you, it’s a really good book. In fact, it’s so good that I wish it could be adapted into an episode or two of the show itself. (Mild spoilers follow.)
Doctor Who: At Childhood’s End (by Sophie Aldred, with Steve Cole and Mike Tucker)
Once, a girl called Ace travelled the universe with the Doctor – until, in the wake of a terrible tragedy they parted company. Decades later, she is known as Dorothy McShane, the reclusive millionaire philanthropist who heads global organisation A Charitable Earth. And Dorothy is haunted by terrible nightmares, vivid dreams that begin just as scores of young runaways are vanishing from the dark alleyways of London. Could the disappearances be linked to sightings of sinister creatures lurking in the city shadows? Why has an alien satellite entered a secret orbit around the Moon?
Investigating the satellite with Ryan, Graham and Yaz, the Doctor is thrown together with Ace once more. Together they must unravel a malevolent plot that will cost thousands of lives. But can the Doctor atone for her past incarnation’s behaviour – and how much must Ace sacrifice to win victory not only for herself, but for the Earth?
Sophie Aldred is a good writer. Yes, I know the book is technically co-written by Steve Cole and Mike Tucker, two veteran Doctor Who novelists, and it’s hard to know who, exactly, wrote what. But I stand by that statement – Sophie Aldred is a good writer. Or, at least, she knows how to construct a really good Doctor Who story. Her prose may not be the best flowing, but she totally understands the various components that make a good Doctor Who story: a really compelling mystery, some really great character work, and a lot of fun. Honestly, At Childhood’s End might rival Engines of War and The Good Doctor as my favorite Doctor Who novel that I’ve read to date.
At Childhood’s End certainly has a good hook. It’s been ages since Ace traveled with the Doctor, but she’s suddenly having bad dreams about being transported to a weird, desert planet with sand that hurts your feet that remind her of her past experiences with a time scoop. Those dreams also seem to be related to a string of recent disappearances – where homeless/abandoned children are being kidnapped by weird, rat-like aliens. Then there’s the sudden appearance of a UFO orbiting the moon with nobody seeing it approach. All of that makes for a really great hook for a Doctor Who story, especially when combined with the equally big hook of Ace meeting the 13th Doctor. But Aldred is really smart and withholds that first meeting until the very end of the first third of the novel. Instead, she spends the first chunk reintroducing readers to Ace (or introducing them to her for the first time, as the case may be) and allowing her to go on her own adventure as she tries to get to the bottom of what’s going on. Honestly, I’d read an entire book that was just Ace investigating alien threats on her own, without the Doctor ever appearing. That’s how good that first part is. But, of course, this is a Doctor Who story and the Doctor has to enter at some point, which she does with lots of panache at the end of the first part of the novel.
From there, the story plays out like any other Doctor Who tale. The Doctor enters the picture and starts to take control of the situation, gathering information from everyone involved and investigating various elements before plunging herself, and her friends, into certain danger until the story ultimately wraps up. While it’s definitely a very entertaining and engaging story, I will say that it isn’t exactly the novel’s best element. The premise is strong, but it feels like it doesn’t quite support the novel’s length and in the latter half of the book, things feel as though they’ve been stretched just a bit too thin. As a result, the momentum of the actual story just sort of fizzles out in a climax that’s not quite as climactic as it should be. The villain is interesting, but a bit under-explored and there are a few too many other potential villains that distract from the main one. It’s not that any of this is bad, necessarily, but it does feel a tiny bit underwhelming, especially when compared to the excellent characterization found throughout the novel. Still, it’s a very engaging plot, even if it does fizzle out a bit at the end. In that regard, it’s in pretty great company beside loads of other great Doctor Who stories with somewhat problematic plots.
The best aspect of the novel, however, is easily its characterization. Aldred not only understands exactly what makes Ace tick, but she also has a deep understanding of what makes the 13th Doctor, Ryan, Graham, and Yaz tick and she’s able to write all of these characters as if she’s been writing them for years. The biggest joy, of course, is seeing how Ace has changed and grown in the years after her adventures with the Doctor. It’s not as though Doctor Who’s expanded universe hasn’t explored Ace’s life after the classic run of the series ended, of course, but rarely has a story jumped this far into her future and explored what her life might be like after the Doctor. This is an Ace who departed with the Doctor on less-than-good terms (an event which is hinted at throughout the novel in interludes but never fully shown) and, as a result, has taken that pain and allowed it to harden her in certain ways while pushing her to focus her energy on doing the most good she can do – which she does by running her charity, A Charitable Earth. This evolution of the character feels totally in line with the arc she went through during her time on the show. It feels like a natural continuation of her story and it’s a large part of why her interactions with the 13th Doctor work as well as they do.
Speaking of the Doctor, her relationship with Ace contributes a lot to the novel. It’s a lot of fun to see how this Doctor is both similar and different to the 7th Doctor, the one Ace is more familiar with. That Doctor was a lot more blatantly manipulative than the 13th Doctor is, but both Doctors cake their manipulations in a layer of “we’re just trying to do what’s best.” Ace, of course, is more than fed up with the Doctor deciding what’s best for her. In fact, one of the more interesting elements of Ace and the 13th Doctor’s relationship is how Ace’s knowledge of the Doctor’s past influences Yaz’s opinion of the Doctor, presently. It’s also really interesting seeing how both Ace and the Doctor have changed since they parted ways. Ace has lived the rest of her life and simultaneously distanced herself from her past while allowing it to shape her into the woman she is today and the Doctor has been through… so much trauma that’s definitely informed who she is. Both of them are different but both of them are also the same in a lot of ways. They’re often at odds with each other, but they also easily slip back into their old friendship. Their relationship is the heart of the book and it’s in these moments that the book shines its brightest. I almost wish it could have been an adventure with only those two just so we could see more of their dynamic. But as it is, it’s some really good stuff and it’s clear that Aldred has a lot to say about their relationship.
At Childhood’s End has quite a large cast – there’s Ace, Will (a British astronaut and Ace’s ex), Sam (his coworker and current partner), Chantelle (Ace’s childhood friend), Kim Fortune (a podcaster), the Doctor, Ryan, Yaz, and Graham. That’s a sizeable cast and while Aldred does her best to give all of them a fair amount of page time and things to do, some of the characters will inevitably get left by the wayside – most notably Sam and Will, who completely disappear from the story in the final third, and Chantelle and Kim who make very little splash, in general, save for some attention in the climax that might have been better spent elsewhere. It’s a shame because all four make a pretty good impression in the first third of the book before the Doctor enters the picture. But once the current TARDIS team arrives, they sort of suck all the attention away from the rest of Ace’s friends. Which is understandable, if a bit sad. It makes me wish for Aldred to write more books with this cast of characters, just without the Doctor appearing in them.
However, Aldred does an excellent job of capturing the voices of Ryan, Yaz, and Graham and giving them something to do and ensuring they each get a fair chunk of attention throughout the story. Aldred clearly understands what makes these characters tick and it feels as though she’s been writing them for ages. Yaz is definitely given the meatiest role of the current companions as Aldred uses Yaz as a character to contrast with Ace. While Ace doesn’t trust the Doctor, Yaz doesn’t trust Ace and she finds that she’s jealous of Ace’s past with the Doctor. This tension leads to some really good scenes later in the novel where Ace tells Yaz about the Doctor’s darker side, truly shaking some of Yaz’s faith in the Doctor. Combined with the ongoing arc in the current season of the show, this characterization of Yaz really enhances what audiences are seeing on screen and, honestly, it’s the kind of characterization the show should be showing more of. It leads to some great scenes where Yaz confronts the Doctor about her subtle manipulations of the companions, giving us a really nice moment where the Doctor actually apologizes for her actions. It’s good stuff. While Ryan and Graham don’t get the same development or attention that Yaz and the Doctor do, they feel true to their TV selves, but they aren’t given much to do outside of what they normally do. But honestly, it’s okay because what characterization At Childhood’s End does have is really wonderful and it carries the book a long way.
At the end of the day, At Childhood’s End has everything you want in a Doctor Who story: a really good mystery, a lot of meaty character drama, and a rollicking good adventure. It’s paced really well, written really well, and easily grabs your attention. It’s one of those books that you pick up for the gimmick of a previous companion meeting the current Doctor but stick around for the excellent characterization and truly entertaining story that’s being told. For a debut novel, At Childhood’s End is a really promising one and I would love for Aldred to continue writing novels about Ace. This novel should easily please fans of both the classic and modern eras of Doctor Who; it’s a beautiful merge between the two eras and is so well-executed that I really wish it would be adapted as a televised Christmas special or something. It’d be really Ace. Pun intended.
4.5 out of 5 wands.