Companion Tropes 19
I got suspended after I blew up the art room.
When I was a child during the 1980s we were at the tail end of the Enid Blyton-esque representation of childhood. Children still tended to be terribly polite and middle class, and this continued into the 90s and 00s to some extent with shows such as The Demon Headmaster and MI High. You can still find that kind of representation of childhood on television today, but during the 80s it did feel like there was a strong move towards a more diverse kind of representation of childhood. This was the decade of Grange Hill, which had started at the tail end of the 70s. And at the more extreme end of the working class child was the “juvenile delinquent”, a term that used to get bandied about quite a lot. There was some crossover into late teens, and young adulthood. When Kylie Minogue finished her stint as Charlene in Neighbours, her first acting career move was to star in the 1989 film The Delinquents.
In 1987 Doctor Who attempted to reflect a more diverse representation of youth culture, replacing the Blyton-esque Mel (“That’s the spirit, Doctor!”) with a 16 year old delinquent, Ace (“Gordon Bennett, what a bunch of Spocks.”) She had all the hallmarks of a delinquent: thrown out of school, stuck in a dead-end job, spending her time with a gang of other dropouts, etc. Of course, she is a very watered-down, BBC pre-watershed representation of a delinquent, almost cartoonish. She carries a can of nitro nine, which is hardly a flick knife, and uses expressions such as “Gordon Bennett!” rather than swearing. This village-school nerd swore more than Ace does, although her use of “naff” in Dragonfire is a mild expletive that would perhaps be avoided a little more than it is on television if more people realised what the acronym stands for.
The problem when television shows include characters like Ace is that they are a representation of youth culture, generally written by middle-aged men. I am generalising, and the McCoy era broke the mould by using as much fresh writing talent as possible, but we still have mainly writers with probably little experience of the kind of culture Ace is supposed to represent. The approach is familiar: writing her dialogue with as much street slang as possible. As a child of the 80s, I can confirm we used to say “wicked” and “cool” a lot, but some of this is a little less realistic:
- “I know what unimpeachable means, bird bath, but what makes you so certain this map’s pedigree is twenty four carat?”
- “Right, you male chauvinist bilge bag, just you wait.”
- “That’s well boggling.”
- “Yeah, go for it, tiger. That was well brill.”
…and things like “cor, this sounds brill”, which are unintentionally Blyton. A lot of this is confined to Dragonfire, and after that point all the faux street talk gets toned down pretty quickly, but visually Ace remains a walking cliché of an 80s street kid, complete with badge-festooned bomber jacket and a massive ghetto blaster on her shoulder.
But it’s still a positive attempt to make a wider range of viewers feel like they are being represented. More importantly, it opens up the possibility of a much wider variety of storylines and some interesting character development, because a delinquent character comes pre-packaged with issues.
Firstly, in Dragonfire, we get a massive info dump about Ace’s past, and learn she was a school drop-out, in a dead-end job, and had a broken relationship with her family:
I worked as a waitress in a fast food cafe. Day in, day out, same boring routine. Some boring life. It was all wrong. It didn’t feel like me that was doing it at all. I felt like I’d fallen from another planet and landed in this strange girl’s body, but it wasn’t me at all. I was meant to be somewhere else. Each night I’d walk home and I’d look up at the stars through the gaps in the clouds, and I tried to imagine where I really came from. I dreamed that one day everything would come right. I’d be carried off back home, back to my real mum and dad. Then it actually happened and I ended up here. Ended up working as a waitress again, only this time I couldn’t dream about going nowhere else. There wasn’t nowhere else to go.
Ah, the double negative: time-honoured signifier of the delinquent. The Curse of Fenric brings this issue to its head, with Ace dealing with her past:
ACE: What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I stop hating her?
DOCTOR: You loved the baby.
ACE: But I didn’t know she was my mum!
In Remembrance of the Daleks, Ace gets a mild teenage-crush storyline, and then gets very emotional when Mike turns out to be a “dirty stinking grass”. Then, in The Curse of Fenric we get the moment where she lets the Doctor know that she is growing up and is “not a little girl”, capable of distracting a guard with her womanly wiles, even if they are predictably clunky in a teenage way:
There’s a wind whipping up. I can feel it through my clothes.
In Battlefield she makes an attempt to engage in a spot of underage drinking, until the Doctor makes her have a lemonade instead, and of course right back in her introductory story she lies about her age. Where the characterisation of Ace falters is when writers fail to give her coherent beliefs from one story to another. Having grown up with a diverse set of friends, she witnessed first hand the damage that racial abuse can do:
Then they burnt out Manisha’s flat. White kids firebombed it.
…and in Remembrance she is quite naturally disturbed by the “no coloureds” sign she finds in a B&B window. But in Battlefield, in a stunning example of out-of-character writing, she has this line:
Shut up, you yellow, slant-eyed…
Even though “somebody’s playing games” with her, it doesn’t fit comfortably with something that could even be dragged from the subconscious of somebody like Ace, whose witnessing of a racially-aggravated hate crime drove her off the rails to such an extent that she burned down a house. That brings us to Ghost Light, which deals with another chapter from this delinquent’s past, when she has to face up to her fear of a “haunted house”, and her need to escape in more ways than one. Ace, as a delinquent, is defined by her impulse to run away, her desire to find somewhere better. She needs to find her place in the universe. When she returns home in Survival she finds that everyone has changed or gone, and she momentarily thinks she has found the place where she belongs on the Cheetah planet. Her past makes her the perfect character for that kind of storyline, until she realises that it is the TARDIS that is her home now, the place where she can find her inner peace.
DOCTOR: Who knows? Where to now, Ace?
ACE: The TARDIS
But Ace is a useful character in more ways than that. It is not just her “issues” that allow for all kinds of new storylines. Her past makes her tough, a far cry from the screamers of the past. Her reaction to a Dalek is to smash it up with a baseball bat, and note how poetic it is that she smashes up a science lab in the process, the very thing she was suspended from school for doing! She kills Cybermen with a catapault, which is on the Minnie the Minx end of the delinquent scale. More interestingly, she is the perfect companion to fall in with an underclass revolution in The Happiness Patrol:
DAISY: Workers from the flatlands. It’s forbidden for them to enter the city. That’s why they’ll never leave it alive.
ACE: You’re scared of them, aren’t you. Up the killjoys!
Her violent tendencies make her a much more interesting character than a damsel in distress:
I want to nail those scumbags. I want to make them very, very unhappy.
I suppose as a character Ace is very much of her time, and some of that “street cred” dialogue can seem a bit cringeworthy nowadays. But at the time she was tapping in to a popular movement, and an important one, plus she was an acknowledgement that Britain, and indeed the universe, is not populated entirely by middle class girls from happy families. It would be a while before Doctor Who was able to make the point that Britain isn’t entirely populated by middle class white girls from happy families, but the Classic Series in its dying days was still ahead of the game, and the diversity gap between 1989 and 2005 was dramatically narrowed by Ace, a new kind of companion. RP