Heroes of Doctor Who: Ian & Barbara

By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues

Copyright BBC

Once again we take our weekly look back at characters who have helped make The Doctor the Timelordwe love today, be they big or small, every person in his life has helped create him… 

Two for one here as Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright are, to this day in Doctor Who lore, the couple that were bound together forever as man and wife from their Tardis adventures.

In the beginning, Doctor Who was intended as an educational programme for kids. The Tardis was originally supposed to travel throughout earth history at landmark events and viewers would be educated about them through the eyes of Ian and Barbara. There was to be no bug-eyed monsters, just historical people and places. Ironic in the end that the historical adventures proved the least popular, slowly being outed by the science fiction element.

Ian and Barbara were school teachers at Coal Hill, Ian a man of science and Barbara a history teacher and both their attentions were caught by the super brilliant pupil Susan Foreman, in reality the Doctor’s granddaughter. Her behaviour at seemingly brilliant leaps of logic and a knowledge of things she couldn’t possibly know intrigued them.

Following her home, they come across an old police box in a junkyard and a crotchety old man whom they believe is keeping Susan against her will.

Forcing their way into the box, they find themselves inside the Tardis and discover Susan and her grandfather are time travellers from another world.

Russell T Davies always said Earth companions work best because they act as the door for ordinary viewers to explore the Doctor’s world by asking questions the viewer would and reacting similarly.

Indeed, their first adventure took them to the era of the cavemen seeking the secret of fire. Originally, the Doctor was very much the anti-hero, prepared to murder a man to save themselves and get back to the Tardis. He resented the two newcomers’ invasion of his home and wanted to get rid of them asap but without being able to control where the Tardis travelled, getting them home was all hit and miss. Ian and Barbara that showed the Doctor the value of humanity and, I believe, brought him to realize he was not alone and the importance of family. Indeed, he was devastated by their departure after battling the Daleks in the Chase, the first time we saw how lonely the Doctor truly was.

Throughout their adventures, Ian and Barbara’s talents were put to the test. Ian was the action hero in the tradition of the Hollywood beacons of goodness. He was fiercely protective of his friends and frequently argued with the Doctor but they had a grudging respect which evolved to the point where the Doctor trusted Ian to get them home on more than one occasion and take the lead, especially in their trek with Marco Polo and Richard the Lionheart. Barbara wasn’t afraid to tackle the Doctor either when he behaved badly, forcing the Time Lord to look at himself and actually think about the consequences of his actions on others. They forced him to be human and the more time they spent together the more the Doctor enjoyed showing them the wonders of the universe without being condescending.

Barbara was a strong-willed lady, years ahead of her time and when presented with the chance to change history and stop Aztec human sacrifices, she willingly took on the persona of a god to stop these barbaric practices. Despite the Doctor’s warnings that certain things cannot be changed, Barbara tried anyway. In the end she failed and learned a little of the world of the Doctor, forever travelling but destined to be unable to stop horrors from time to time.

The historical stories were prevalent in their time, cleverly using Barbara and Ian’s talents without diminishing the characters. This Tardis team were all equal and faced death in the French Revolution, the burning of Rome, a journey with Marco Polo, the Crusades, as well as Daleks, Voorrd, Mechanoids, Mire beasts and they even returned to their right time except they had been miniaturised. But they faced it together, becoming the family the Doctor and Susan had lost.

For many this original team was the best, fitting their roles perfectly aboard the ship without just being there to make up numbers or demographics like today’s show or the fifth Doctor’s first team.

Their return home was celebrated with a montage of shots showing them doing normal things like taking a bus. It was widely believed they married after leaving the Tardis and it was further explored in the BBC novel series. Their team featured in more Missing Adventures, another book series showcasing stories set in between the televised shows. These remain some of the strongest tales and perfectly recapture the team sending us back to the beginning of this incredible 50 year journey.

William Russell, who played Ian, has done several plays for the Big Finish companion chronicles as well as narrating audios of old Target novels. With most of the missing episodes from the Troughton era, the majority of Hartnell shows still exist though there will be a DVD release of the Reign of Terror with missing episodes completed via animation. Once again Ian and Barbara will grace our screen in another adventure just as they did all those years ago. Jacqueline Hill, who played Barbara, passed away to cancer some years back but not before she starred opposite Tom Baker in the fourth Doctor’s story Meglos where she played a high priestess. Although it wasn’t the character of Barbara, fans were delighted to see her back.

There is something ageless about this team and in the recent Sarah Jane Adventures story Death of the Doctor they are name-checked as still fighting the good fight as seemingly ageless people. It is a touching line that evokes memories and you really can believe they are married, still out there and carrying on everything they learned from the Doctor.

So in the anniversary celebrations, here’s to Ian and Barbara, the original and the best.

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