Doctor Who's Ace and Tegan: "It was extraordinary to come back"
Janet Fielding and Sophie Aldred departed Doctor Who 30 years ago – but as the former companions told Jodie Whittaker, you can never really escape…
As we all know by now, Doctor Who never really leaves you. Any actor who once played Cyberman #3 in the background of an episode has a guaranteed slot at Comic-Con for life, while the series leads themselves are never more than a few steps away from being thrust a glossy 12x5 of themselves along with a sonic screwdriver-shaped pen.
Certainly, former ‘classic’ series companions Sophie Aldred and Janet Fielding (aka Ace and Tegan) are living proof of that inescapable connection, with both actors continuing to play their Who roles in audio dramas and rocking up to conventions over three decades after their last onscreen appearances.
And now, they’ve become just the latest classic companions to return to Doctor Who proper for Jodie Whittaker’s final episode (and BBC centenary special) The Power of the Doctor.
We caught up with them both to find out how Who has changed since they last stepped onto the TARDIS, what their characters have been up to in the intervening years and – most importantly of all – the advice they gave Jodie Whittaker as fellow ex-Who stars.
Your characters Ace and Tegan are back — how did it feel to get the call?
More like this
Sophie Aldred: When I got the call, I burst into tears. I wasn’t conscious of it, but it’s the call I’ve always been hoping for, you know? There aren’t many jobs where you can say that you’ve been playing the same part for 33 years. Maybe in The Archers. It’s extraordinary.
Janet Fielding: What can I say? How many shows give you that opportunity? It’s been 35 years since I acted on camera, so it was an adjustment. I did the series in my 20s but now I’m in my 60s. So it’s not as easy as it once was.
But at least, these days, I don’t have [former series boss] John Nathan-Turner telling me what I’m going to wear. When I had my meeting for the costume, it was like, "Where are the sneakers? And will there be jeans?” I’m not fighting monsters in a short skirt again, and that’s it.
SA: I remember, I wrote a book about the making of Doctor Who called Ace: The Inside Story of the End of an Era. I put in the epilogue: “And here I am, five years after I finished making the programme.”
I mean, who’d have thought that 33 years after I started on Doctor Who, here I am playing the same role. And I’m so happy to do so. I just love the part of Ace.
What have Tegan and Ace been up to since we saw them last in the 1980s? Is Ace still a massive tomboy?
JF: Let’s start at the top: Tegan has not mellowed. Those of you who are thinking that she’s become soft and gentle in her old age – dream on! She’s in her 60s and she’s taking no s**t from anybody. And that includes the Doctor, as it always has.
SA: Ace is the CEO of this charity, and wears a suit, but actually is never that far away from a baseball bat – and she still wears the Doc Martens.
When your return was announced earlier this year it became big news – did you get a lot of attention?
SA: Twitter exploded. I was just getting message after message after message, going, “I’m screaming, I’m crying, I’ve hit my head because I’ve jumped off of the sofa!”
JF: I do Twitter. I don’t do Insta. I’m a reluctant social media person. But the reaction has just been extraordinary. It’s so enthusiastic.
SA: Somebody said that the BBC News website the next day went: “War in Ukraine. Partygate. Janet Fielding and Sophie Aldred back in Doctor Who.” It really was that huge. It took us all by surprise.
What about your former Doctor Who co-stars, Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy? How did they react?
SA: Sylvester was delighted – he was one of the first people to text me. He’s an emoji king, so there were loads of little symbols and “Congratulations, I can’t wait to see it”.
JF: I’ve seen Peter, and I don’t think gloating is a very attractive thing to do, but there are times when you just have to... We are great mates. But we do spend a lot of time trying to take the mickey out of each other.
How has the production of the show changed since your time on it?
JF: From my point of view, there was a lot more time when I did Doctor Who. If you had filming and location work, you’d do a read-through and then five days of filming, 10 days of rehearsal, two days of studio, 10 days of rehearsal, three days of studio – and that would be four 23-minutes. Now, you go in and you do it. So what you don’t do is that whole process where you look if something works, and you discuss this, that, and the other.
SA: Apart from that rehearsal period, I was surprised at how similar it was, really. The other thing is the size of the equipment. The cameras are now tiny – although they’re pretty heavy still.
The trailer teases some action for Ace and Tegan in the new episode – what can we expect?
SA: Chris [Chibnall] said, “What do you want to do?” And I said to him, “Well, I never got to ride a motorbike, which is what I was cast originally for.” They wanted somebody who looked a bit younger than they really were, and who could ride a motorbike.
But that wouldn’t cut it with health and safety these days. When I got the script, yeah, it’s not the motorbike, but I wasn’t disappointed – let’s put it that way.
JF: Yeah, that’s all very exciting.
Jodie Whittaker is leaving Doctor Who – but are you both living proof that you never really say goodbye to the show?
SA: I remember when I first got the part, someone said to me, “Welcome to the family,” and I immediately thought, “Yuck!” But it’s absolutely true. It is a family. We said to Jodie and Mandip [Gill], “You’ll never leave.”
JF: I don’t think Jodie even needed telling about that. I think she was already aware of it.
SA: It’s funny because Jodie and Mandip were asking us about life after Doctor Who. Because for us, it’s like: oh, yeah, they don’t know yet.
We were like, “You’re always going to go to conventions.” They were asking about: what are the American ones like? What can they expect? It was really nice, actually. It was like, “Oh, yes, we’re the old hands at this. We’re the mentors.”
Back in the day, what was upsetting for Sylvester and me was that Doctor Who had been cancelled [in 1989]. This isn’t cancellation. It’s something that Jodie has been expecting for a long time, and working towards, so it’s more like a sort of completion.
This episode also ties into the BBC’s centenary celebrations – what’s it like to be part of that legacy?
JF: Forget the BBC, I feel as though I’ve been around for 100 years. We should do a Doctor Who story where we go back to the founding of the BBC. Lord Reith has got a completely different idea for the BBC, and, actually, it’s Doctor Who that sorts Reith’s thinking out…
SA: The BBC is a global wonder, it really is. Radio 4. The children’s programming. Open University. The access that people have had around the world to really amazing programming. It’s the jewel in our crown. I’m incredibly proud to be part of that celebration.
Could you see yourselves coming back again, or is this the final farewell for Ace and Tegan?
JF: I think if they said they wanted me back, I would say, “When? Just give me enough notice, and I’ll be there.” It’s such a riot to be a part of.
Over the years, you run into people who say, “Doctor Who was so important to me when I was going through this…” Gosh, that’s such an honour, to be that kind of figure; to be part of that element in people’s lives.
SA: It was extraordinary to come back, and to think of all those years that have gone in between, and that, actually, Doctor Who is still – maybe even more of – a global phenomenon than it ever was.
Yeah, I’m very proud of it, and I’m very proud to be involved in it. There’s something very special, and there’s something unique about having been closely involved with Doctor Who.
A condensed version of this interview appeared in the Radio Times magazine.
Read more Doctor Who news:
- Doctor Who star says “epic” special is celebration of Jodie Whittaker
- Jodie Whittaker says "rage" over Doctor Who casting was "terrifying"
- Doctor Who "would not exist" outside of the BBC, says Chris Chibnall
- Mandip Gill on Doctor Who representation: “It brings people to tears"
- Doctor Who showrunner promises "very different" regeneration scene
- Tearful Jodie Whittaker recalls "most special time" on Doctor Who
- Doctor Who star pays tribute to Jodie Whittaker: 'Best I’ve worked with'
- Jodie Whittaker broke the TARDIS before Doctor Who filming wrapped
- Doctor Who star John Bishop drops hints about Dan's future
Doctor Who: The Power of the Doctor will air at 7:30pm on Sunday 23rd October on BBC One. The series is available to stream on BBC iPlayer with episodes of the classic series also available on BritBox – you can sign up for a 7-day free trial here.
The latest issue of Radio Times magazine is on sale now – subscribe now and get the next 12 issues for only £1. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to the Radio Times View From My Sofa podcast.