Tony Fyler pays attention to the teacher.
Of the two teachers originally kidnapped and whisked away into time and space by the First Doctor in 1963, it seems strange that it’s Ian Chesterton – chuckling, wide-eyed Ian Chesterton – who’s the scientist, and Barabara Wright – the more decisive, the straighter-faced of the two – whose discipline is history. She seems by far more the more naturally inclined to be interested in the black-and-white world of scientific endeavor, and the world of multiple perspectives does not seem in any real way to suit Barbara’s personality.
It’s important to realise of course that the Barbara we see on screen is for the most part, Barbara in a very bizarre set of circumstances. Take Barbara right back to the beginning though, and you begin to understand some of her real core characteristics.
When faced with the mystery that is Susan Foreman and her odd, contradictory knowledge and behavior, Barbara decides to investigate, and when Ian suggests that really, they’re just curious about the mystery of the girl, Barbara reacts almost angrily, certainly furious with any suggestion in her own nature that he might have a point – ‘If I thought that was all this was, I’d go straight home!’ Barbara’s not motivated by a morbid or a prurient curiosity about the girl – as she says, if Susan turned out to be just ‘meeting a boy’ it would be so reassuringly normal. Rather, it’s concern that makes Barbara take the unusual step of following her home, and demanding to speak to her parent or guardian. Concern at the gaps in her knowledge, at the bizarre specialization of her understanding of some other fields, concern for the future prospects of what Barbara instinctively understands is a bright young woman. For all the future impact of the Doctor’s companions, our relationship with him ultimately owes everything to the concern of a good teacher for her pupil.
That’s Barbara’s keynote – concern for people. And it’s when you understand that that her interest in history begins to make sense, because of course history is nothing but the study of people, their motivations, their actions and how they relate together.
While never actively seeking to attract people to her, it’s a quality that makes Barbara – who frequently seems a little unintentionally aristocratic – nevertheless someone to whom the people she meets on her travels instinctively warm. On their first trip to an alien planet, they discover a peace-loving race and a bunch of metallic oppressors (Barbara becoming the first person ever to be menaced on screen by a Dalek), and while she joins in the fight through a kind of fierce devotion to the idea that good people should not be bullied (her teaching instincts applied to the whole of the universe), she also inspires tender feelings in Ganatus the Thal, which she seems to return. But so soon after having lost everything she knows, Barbara is unwilling to leave that familiar life behind forever, and travels on with Ian, the Doctor and Susan.
This innate ability to inspire affection through her own compassion and concern follows Barbara throughout her travels – Susan herself comes to regard her much more as a friend and mother-substitute than a teacher, and it’s a role into which she more easily and comfortably fits when the Tardis crew pick up Vicki, having had by then some practice at allowing her natural compassion to flower in a maternal role.
But there’s more to Barbara’s compassion than romance and playing a parental role. Whenever people talk about Barbara, they inevitably bring The Aztecs screaming to the fore. It’s inevitable for a very good reason – it’s a tour de force for Jacqueline Hill’s performance, and her ability within the script to add flesh to the bones of Barbara, who in the 1960s TV dynamic was essentially there to be the mother figure and to do a good chunk of the ankle-twisting and screaming. Hill and the writers did succeed in making Barbara the more inherently challenging of the two teachers on board the ship – frequently demanding how or why when the Doctor insisted a thing was so, where Ian, for the sake of a more direct route to the end of arguments, adventures and ultimately their originally enforced journey, would often simply accept the will of the pilot of their ship and do whatever was deemed necessary. You can over-analyse this and reach a deeper conclusion than was ever intended, assuming that whereas science teacher Ian saw things in that black-and-white way of the discipline – this is the world with which we’re faced, let’s get on with it – Barbara, with her historical understanding of perspectives and people, wanted to know why she should or shouldn’t do a thing. She was never obstreperous for the sake of it, never needlessly difficult, but Barbara, more than Ian, took her teaching instinct, her fierce determination to do the best thing she could, into time and space with her and applied it to the universe she found.
That’s never more strongly shown though than in The Aztecs, where, confronted with the Doctor’s determination to let people be sacrificed – both individually on altars and as an entire culture when the European invaders arrive – affronts Barbara’s concern both for people and historic cultures, and as the goddess Yetaxa she sets herself up in frank opposition to the wisdom of the time travelling old man. While as events unfold, history as the Doctor knows it proves unbeatable, but it was the first time a companion had confronted the Doctor’s assessment of the universe in so blatant a fashion, and it would stand as one of the only times such a thing was done in Classic Who, though it was a question to be bitterly raised in New Who through the pleading voice of Donna Noble – ‘Save someone. Not everyone. Just someone!’ and the furious voice of Amy Pond – ‘If you don’t save everyone, then what is the point of you?’
That question, decades before, was essentially Barbara’s mantra in The Aztecs – changing history ‘for the better,’ and assuming she knew what ‘better’ meant because she had the foreknowledge of what was coming. In an age before the novel idea of ‘fixed points and flexible points in time’ had been developed, it was Barbara Wright, schoolteacher, who stood up to the Doctor’s long view of history and helped to change the old man for the better. He might be proved right in The Aztecs, but just as Ian had shown him a different way, stopping him from killing a caveman early in their travels, Barbara in The Aztecs shows him the power of compassion.
After the Doctor leaves Susan behind on Earth, it’s Barbara who instinctively steps in to take some degree of care of him, distract him from his wandering thoughts, knowing what he needs, and she’s also instrumental in helping him to accept Vicki on board. Ultimately though, when the opportunity arises in The Chase to leave the Doctor and her new vagabond lifestyle behind, it’s Barbara who weighs up the lives that she could lead, and finds a universe of wonders can be forsaken for the simple joys of life on Earth. Ian, as was never really in doubt, follows her.
Sadly of course, Jacqueline Hill passed away before Big Finish was around to offer her the chance to broaden and deepen the character of Barbara in person, as it has done for William Russell’s Ian. She’s been well represented though, in stories like The Revenants, The Flames of Cadiz, The Dark Planet and, if you can get hold of it, The Fragile Yellow Arc of Fragrance. Perhaps the last word on Barbara though belongs to Russell T Davies, who in The Sarah-Jane Adventures mentioned ‘Ian and Barbara Chesterton, professors at Cambridge,’ who it was rumoured hadn’t aged since the 60s. Barbara was a teacher first, foremost and always, and she found a way to use her compassion for young students, her enthusiasm for her subject on a broader canvas. And there, in Cambridge, we can picture Jacqueline Hill’s Barbara smiling at her class and at us, having acknowledged the love and care of Ian - her friend, her partner in adventures and eventually, her partner in life.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk