Tonight, Doctor Who returns for Jodie Whittaker’s final run as the Thirteenth Doctor. Back with the Doctor are some very familiar faces. Former companions Tegan (Janet Fielding), Ace (Sophie Aldred) along with Kate Stewart (Gemma Redgrave) help this new-to-then Doctor fight some old foes – the Cybermen, Daleks and of course, the Master (Sascha Dhawan).
Can you talk a bit about the process of putting this feature-length episode together? What did you finally set out to achieve?
Chris Chibnall: It’s a particularly unique brief and a particularly unique episode because it’s a regeneration episode, but it’s also a celebratory episode for the BBC centenary and Doctor Who’s place within the BBC. So I really wanted to ensure that it had sufficient scale, but also that it was connected into the past, present, and future of Doctor Who.
We’re bringing back characters like Tegan and Ace, also there are lots and lots of easter eggs. Some are visual, some are verbal, some are so deeply buried that only few people will recognise them! But there are so many references to the past of Doctor Who in there that it’s got its own crazy movie length identity for the BBC centenary, whilst also saying goodbye to a very beloved Doctor.
We’ve got some exciting returnees such as Sophie Aldred and Janet Fielding. How was it having those conversations?
Chris Chibnall: One of the great joys are always the phone calls to people who’ve been in the show, or who might want to be in the show, and telling them what you think the story is how it’s going to play out and asking them back. So the calls to Janet and Sophie were wonderful and were incredibly emotional. They were amazing and thrilled and throughout the whole process have just been extraordinary.
It’s important to take a moment to praise their sheer bravery and guts – to come back to something you have not done in twenty or thirty years is incredible. To step onto a set where you don’t know anybody but to be going back to a world you thought you left behind is really extraordinary. And they are so amazing in the episode. It’s a delight to see them amidst modern Doctor Who. So that was fantastic.
We talked about where we collectively thought their characters would be now. I really wanted them to feel comfortable with what had happened in the gap between when we’d last seen those characters on screen and where we meet them here. It’s lightly sketched in, but it’s really important for them as performers and for those characters.
Did you always want to bring back companions from the past?
Chris Chibnall: It was more to do with being asked to do a centenary special, that I thought there had to be something from the past that felt strong, unique and different to what else we’d done during Jodie’s time as the Doctor. So it was just a brilliant opportunity, and as soon as we knew we were doing that, that was one of the things I wanted to do.
Those characters and those actors came to mind as I think they’re representative of certain times in the show’s history and they are both incredibly strong and vibrant characters. There are so many to choose from and in a way you want to do all of them but actually, I had to just pick two! And what both of them said separately was ‘Oh I think, Tegan would get on well with Ace’ and then ‘Oh I think Ace would get on really well with Tegan’.
We’ve also got two returning companions, Sophie Aldred and Janet Fielding, did you get to know them on set?
Mandip Gill: Yes we did. It was really nice to be working with people who love the show as much as the current cast and both have so much energy and plenty of stories from their time which helped pass time during filming. It was also really exciting trying to keep them both a secret whilst filming.
Sophie (Aldred) and Janet (Fielding) have complimented your work!
Sacha Dhawan: That’s so nice of them. I’m a huge fan of both Janet Fielding and Sophie Aldred, they’ve had so much more history with the show. It’s a huge part of their lives and you want to do it justice for them, so when they are complimentary, it means more than just an actor complimenting your work. The feeling is certainly mutual and I think they do a fantastic job in the episode.
Was it difficult to make the decision to come back to Doctor Who?
Janet Fielding: It took me oh, it must have been a whole thirty seconds to think yeah, I would (be interested)! But I didn’t anticipate that it would be anything other than a tiny cameo. I just assumed that that’s what it would be. And it wasn’t!
Can you tell me about your discussions with Chris Chibnall about coming back?
Janet Fielding: Well, he phoned me up and we had a long chat and I said I thought that Tegan would be some sort of social campaigner, that I saw her getting involved in social issues, and that amongst them would be the environment and campaigning… I thought she’d probably have a couple of divorces behind her and that she would have adopted a child because that would be an environmental thing for her to do.
Was it challenging to get back into the character of Tegan again?
Janet Fielding: I do the Big Finish audio dramas, so I’m still often in the head space anyway although usually it’s back in time and not Tegan having moved on. I’m nearly 70, so it’s slightly different, it’s Tegan not having left the world of Doctor Who, it’s Tegan before she walks out the door which I did in 1984.
Was it hard to keep your return a secret and how did you feel about the reaction?
Janet Fielding: I found keeping the secret quite difficult because people are used to me going away doing Blu-ray extras and doing the odd bit of filming for that and fan conventions, so I basically told people that I was doing Blu-ray extras, just I seemed to be doing more Blu-ray extras than normal, an awfully concentrated set of them, so that was quite funny. So “Where are you filming?” people make conversation, I made the mistake of saying “Cardiff” to a friend who instantly guessed because I’d been going away so often! She’s a really good friend and I told her if you tell anybody I’ll have to kill you, and she did keep the secret! One of the hard things was how do you get people to run lines because you need somebody to run your lines with you.
Was that aspect of getting back on set quite nerve wracking, in terms of tackling line learning, etc?
Janet Fielding: It’s a bit like driving, it’s an act of coordination and so you have to get into the rhythm of it, and so it took me a little bit, like a few days, to get into the rhythm of it. Things like remembering the lines, once upon a time it wasn’t really a problem, now it’s not as easy as it was because I’m not used to it!
The response was just amazing, to hearing that you were coming back. Was there anything that stood out to you?
Janet Fielding: I was gobsmacked! Everybody sort of said, ‘Oh my god I screamed when I saw you and Sophie (Aldred) in the trailer!’. And you go, ‘Really?’ They were so excited. Chris Chibnall and Russell T Davies both warned me, and reached out to say it will be incredible. It was truly overwhelming the number of tweets that night. And then of course all the newspapers picked up on it and all the online editions had it as a story. I sent it off to my brothers in Australia.
Did you have input into Tegan’s costume?
Janet Fielding: I went to meet with Ray Holman just before we started filming. He’s clever, Ray, and he’s so lovely, what a lovely team. I sort of said what I thought, given what her story is now and how she’s developed, and he had put together what he thought, we didn’t even have to go looking, he’d sent me a photograph of the jacket, coat, and as soon as I put it on I thought ‘yep, absolutely, love it.’
How would you describe where we find Tegan in this special?
Janet Fielding: The former companions who are on Earth have managed to get in contact with each other and she and Ace know that something is happening, and that the activity is likely to be alien. And they are investigating…
Did you enjoy working with Sophie Aldred?
Janet Fielding: Of course. How could you not enjoy working with Sophie? She’s the loveliest person.
Did it feel special to be part of Jodie’s final episode?
Janet Fielding: It felt hugely special. The first female Doctor, and a really exciting story, and also that I’ll be there for another Doctor’s regeneration – it’s the second time that’s happened!
How would you describe Tegan?
Janet Fielding: She takes no nonsense and she’s assertive and a lot of female characters of that time were “I’d be so nice to have in your drawing room” whereas Tegan would be more likely to challenge you. “Oh really, you think that? Tell me why.”
Can you tell us about the call to come back and be a part of the centenary special and was it a tough decision?
Sophie Aldred: I’ll never forget where I was. I was in the conservatory in my house and I got the call from my agent who said ‘Andy Pryor who is the Casting Director on Doctor Who has been in touch and you know what that means!’ I put the phone down and burst into tears. The call I didn’t realise I’d been waiting for all these years. The next thing that happened was a Zoom call with Chris Chibnall where he asked me if I would do the great honour and privilege of being in the BBC centenary episode. I said wild horses wouldn’t stop me! That was it.
What were your first impressions of getting that script and what were you most excited about?
Sophie Aldred: There’s a particular thing that happens which I couldn’t believe Chris put in, because it calls back to something I did thirty years ago. To do that again was just incredible. I was really lucky that I was a companion as I met the Daleks and the Cybermen and The Master. I was really excited to meet and be in scenes with Jodie and Mandip and it was a thrill to be in the TARDIS – What was I most excited about? All of it!
Were there any big differences in being on set, was the family feeling always there?
Sophie Aldred: The family feeling was completely the same, run by Jodie. That was totally her, it was incredible. The banter, the jokes, but also the hard work ethic, having fun, everyone, cast, crew, production. It was lovely to see the relationship between Jodie and Mandip. It reminded me of how it was with Sylvester (McCoy) and me. The same close relationship which I’m sure will be for life, like mine with Sylv.
I think the only thing that was very different was not having rehearsals like we used to have at the BBC in North Acton and COVID of course. Everyone was in masks. It was quite weird because my wonderful makeup artist, India, was wearing a mask, and when I saw her without it, I had no idea who she was!
Was it difficult to keep it a secret, were you shocked by the response?
Sophie Aldred: Yes it was difficult to keep the secret because I did quite a lot of appearances and podcasts during COVID and people were asking me direct questions about it. There were some fans that were awfully near the mark and I just couldn’t say anything! I knew the trailer would be well received by the fans, but I didn’t think that we would break the internet. *laughs*
The following day someone told me that on the BBC news website ‘Janet and Sophie back on Doctor Who’ was one of the biggest topics which was just bonkers. I had no idea it would be such a big deal. People were still tweeting, nearly two weeks later, and still going now!
How has it changed when you’ve been at conventions?
Sophie Aldred: The conventions that I love most are the small ones with about a couple of hundred fans. That’s like a family really; that’s not changed. Although people are incredibly excited and always tell me how they screamed and shouted and jumped off the sofa when they saw the trailer. As for the bigger ones, the Comic Cons, my queue for one recently was all day long, and I didn’t stop!
I’ve never had that, not even when we were doing the original series. Demographic wise, there’s a lot of young women, who have fallen in love with the series via Jodie and now who have gone back and watched the classics and they really relate to the character of Ace. They love the realism, her feistiness, her wearing her heart on her sleeve and she speaks to them.
How difficult was to get back into Ace’s skin on set?
Sophie Aldred: In Big Finish and other audiobooks and spin offs, I’m usually playing a younger Ace, probably up to age 30. So suddenly to play middle-aged Ace… I’d had a chance to think about how she’d be and how she’d be with the Doctor (through other projects like the Torchwood audios and the Blu-Ray box set trailer). It doesn’t take her very long to get back into this youthful frame of mind!
Can you tell us how you prepared for Ace’s stunts – I hear you were looking forward to that side of things?
Sophie Aldred: I was talking to Janet Fielding in one of our breaks and I said when Chris asked me what I’d like to do, I wanted to show that middle-aged women have still got it! We can be fit and active if we choose to and do that same stuff and I said to him that I’d love to do what I used to do. Janet said several expletives *laughs* because of course she had to chase me around up the stairs, run around and do all that as well. I think she was secretly pleased!
Did you strike up any bonds on set and how was it working with the core cast?
Sophie Aldred: It was gorgeous to see Jodie and Mandip’s bond. I really get the feeling that they would do anything for each other as people. I’m sure they see each other a lot but I remember when Doctor Who stopped I missed being with Sylvester (McCoy) on set and I’m sure it’s the same for them.
I think the relationship that has delighted me (as well as deepening the friendship with Janet of course) has been the one with Jemma (Redgrave) because the three of us, me and Janet and Jemma planned meeting up after – we haven’t done it yet! Jemma’s always working! We will eventually!
How was the atmosphere on set?
Sophie Aldred: It was bittersweet. We weren’t there the day they did the last scenes but I know there were lots of tears shed. I said to the crew, ‘Gosh you’re going to miss this.’ It was a really solid group of people who loved each other’s company and working together. There was no hierarchy.
Don’t forget to watch Doctor Who: The Power of the Doctor tonight on BBC One 7:30 pm as we say goodbye to Yaz (Mandip Gill), Dan (John Bishop) and the Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker).