Interview with ‘Doctor Who’ star Sophie Aldred
Most recognisable as Ace, companion to Sylvester McCoy’s seventh Doctor, Sophie Aldred talks to Neela Debnath about her favourite assistants, the new series and how she never really left the TARDIS.
Sophie Aldred is in a hurry today. She is at the SFX Weekender, the annual science fiction convention organised by SFX magazine, which is being held in Prestatyn, North Wales this year. Due to a derailed train and the promise of more bad weather to come, I am not. Luckily, I have managed to steal a 10 minute phone interview with her in between signings and panel discussions.
She breathlessly tells me that she has been converted into a Whovian since working on the show and enthuses about the new series. ‘I was really so excited when it came back on air and I saw all three of the actors who played Doctor Who in the new version and they’ve all been absolutely brilliant in their own special way, as all the Doctors always are. I think it’s really clever and if you don’t like it one week, watch it next week because you have a different script writer or it might have a different flavour to it. I really love it.’
Aldred played Ace, a troubled teenager from the suburbs of Perivale in West London, who accompanied Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor on the TARDIS between 1987 and 1989. She was the last assistant to feature on the television series before it was cancelled after a run of 26 years. There was no warning that the show was going to be taken off the air and Aldred says that she only found out after a phone call from McCoy. ‘It was as much of a shock to us as it was to the fans. It seemed so unreal that this show that had been going for such a long time was going to stop. I did mourn it definitely but luckily I was doing a lot of other work. But there was something very special about ‘Doctor Who’ and I did miss it a lot.’
She was initially brought on for three episodes, at the time she was in the back row of the chorus in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in Manchester, and never expected to become a regular member of the cast. ‘I went down to London not chancing my chances much. I never even did a screen test for it but somehow the producer, I think he must have had a bit of hunch, cast me. He also said to my agent would I be interested in carrying on as the companion if it became a possibility. I picked myself back up off the floor. I really couldn’t believe it because as I’d never even been in something on camera before so it was all very exciting.’ She took over from Bonnie Langford who played Mel and the rest is history.
It is safe to say that Aldred played the Doctor’s most feisty companion before the show was brought back in 2005. Clad in a black jacket covered with badges, black boots and a rebellious streak to match, she personified the spirit of 1980s feminism. Ace was a smart, independent young woman and all who have come after her seem to be made from a similar mould. But more than that, Ace was really the first companion whose back story was developed and the audience learned a lot about her. Ever since then all of the companions have had a back story which has been an integral part of the show. No longer are they just random strays that the Doctor picks up during his travels.
So does Aldred think that Ace has set a precedent for all modern assistants? ‘Yeah, I like to think that Ace set that precedent. If you look at the very first few episodes of the new series, I think it bears a lot of resemblance to the one that we did ‘Survival’. It’s set on a council estate and it’s about Ace’s family and so on. So I’d love to think that [former showrunner] Russell T. Davies was influenced by Ace and by the story. With Sylvester’s Doctor, he was generous enough to allow me to have quite a lot of storyline, and so you did get to hear a lot about the companions. The character [of Ace] I felt was very well-rounded and that certainly carries on in the new series. You sympathise and get to know a lot about the companion.’
Staying on the subject of assistants, I ask Aldred who her favourite companion is. ‘Oh golly, that’s really hard to say! When I used to watch it years ago as a child, I used to love Jo Grant played by Katy Manning and Sarah Jane Smith played by Lis Sladen. Both of them whom I was fortunate enough to get to know really well which is quite amazing to meet your idols and actually work with them. So, they were my favourites and now I love the new companions. I love Rose. I thought Billie Piper played Rose brilliantly and I think Karen Gillan again, I think she’s a really strong companion for the Doctor.’
She says that she was ‘delighted’ when she heard that the show was being regenerated. ‘Sylvester and I have never really gone away from it. Because behind the scenes for the last 25 years, we’ve been doing audio dramas with a company called Big Finish and we’ve been doing conventions. So it felt like: ‘oh great! A new part of the family is going to be born’. I was very excited to hear it because I knew that the fans would really be so happy and I was a bit nervous because I really wanted it to be a success.’
Aldred even wrote a letter to Davies. ‘It was on the last sheet of headed notepaper that I had from the old ‘Doctor Who’ office many years ago and I wished him luck and hoped that it was going to be great. But the thing is, Russell T. Davies is just such a genius that I think in his hands we could be quite confident that it was going to be a success. But no one realised just how much of a fantastically huge success it was going to be and it’s just so delightful now that there’s a whole new generation of kids growing up knowing what Daleks and Cybermen are.’
But as a parent what does she make of the criticisms that the show is too scary or complicated for children? ‘Hmmm…my oldest who’s nearly 12 absolutely loves it and he doesn’t mind the complication. I think it’s patronising to say to children: ‘oh, you won’t understand this, so let’s not make it complicated’. They get what they will out of it and they ask questions about it, that’s what’s always been so brilliant about ‘Doctor Who’, that it appeals to the brain and there’s not many shows on TV that are quite so cerebral and science fictiony. I think it’s a really good thing if they are a bit complicated. As long as you don’t turn them away and within the series there’s always a few episodes which are deliberately aimed at the children or a classic storyline of ‘Doctor Who’ and that’s very appealing to children. My younger son who’s eight won’t touch it with a barge pole. He runs away when the music comes on but he’ll grow into it,’ she adds with a laugh.
With the 50th anniversary in November 2013 and Ace’s 25th anniversary this year, I ask if she would return to the show. ‘It would be very nice to go back. ‘Doctor Who’ is one of those things that stays with you throughout your career and I’m very happy with that. So, I’d love to do it again on TV but she’d [Ace] have to be played by this strange middle-aged married woman with two children.’ She adds that she would move to Cardiff ‘like a shot’ if she was offered her own show like ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’, a ‘Doctor Who’ spin-off featuring the late Elisabeth Sladen.
Our time is nearly up but before she has to go, she tells me what she has planned for the rest of the year. ‘It actually ties in quite nicely with ‘Doctor Who’ because I’ve been working for the last year on a new animation project for CBeebies called ‘Tree Fu Tom’. I’m playing Tom, it’s a voiceover and I’m this 11-year-old boy hero type and my sidekick is played by David Tennant and so I consider it full circle really.’ She’s also completed a batch of recordings for Big Finish and there are of course more conventions ‘which are great’. It sounds like Aldred will always be involved in ‘Doctor Who’ in one way or another and her portrayal of Ace has left its own mark upon the series.
For more information about the SFX Weekender visit www.sfxweekender.com
For more information about SFX magazine visit www.sfx.co.uk
Image credit: BBC DVDTagged in: doctor who, science fiction, Sophie Aldred, Sylvester McCoy
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