The original Tardis team was envisaged as being 'something for everyone' to reinforce the family nature of Doctor Who, but they were also each their own companion archetype. Susan the young girl to whom the mysterious Doctor was a mentor. Barbara, the voice of both insatiable curiosity and moral scruple as it was envisaged in 1960s Britain. And Ian, the brave if reluctant adventurer, doing the 'man's work' - all the heavy lifting and all the heavy fighting that the girls weren't socially 'allowed' to do, and the Doctor, as the champion of the intellect, wouldn't stoop to, however necessary it was or however much he benefited from it.
From the beginning, things were never entirely that cut and dried - William Hartnell buckled a good swash on occasion and the First Doctor was about to stove a caveman's head in when Ian stopped him, in the first adventure. But while reality is always more complicated than we give it credit for, the archetypes hold roughly true. Certainly, Hartnell's age and state of health saw William Russell's Ian Chesterton do most of the actual adventure-work.
Ian is more than an archetype though. From An Unearthly Child onward, he's the more light-hearted of the two teachers kidnapped into time and space, chuckling at Susan Foreman's oddity, while for the most part, Barbara is perplexed and worried by it. He's the one who gives voice to the absurdity and the format of the show - 'a thing that looks like a police box, standing in a junkyard, can go anywhere in time and space?' - and he's also very much the most practical of the original companions. Shouldering much of the responsibility for moving the story along, it's often Ian - in stories like The Dead Planet and The Keys of Marinus - who sees a straightforward path to the adventure's end and rolls up his sleeves to help get the travellers to that point.
Russell's portrayal of the kidnapped school teacher is a surprisingly nuanced affair. While he's initially furious with the Doctor, he comes to terms with the reality of the situation relatively quickly - if there's no direct route back, there's no direct route back, and that's all there is to it - and quickly it becomes Ian, more than Susan or Barbara, who becomes what we would later understand the fundamental companion to be: the viewpoint of the audience. Susan, who was initially supposed to fill that role for the children watching, never quite managed it because her character after all was supposed to be as alien as the Doctor was (for all she degenerated in the writing to that other companion-staple, the screaming one who gets captured and has to be rescued). Barbara became, most of the time, rather more rigid and schoolmarm than her normal character was, when she was faced with regular peril. But Ian got most of the ‘let me get this straight’ expository catch-up dialogue, making sure the audience at home could follow along with everything from complex French history and the journey of Marco Polo to the system of governance on strange new worlds that underpinned the plot of the next few weeks.
If Ian on TV was written most of the time in colours that betrayed his place in the plot, Russell’s performance frequently added much that made Ian believable as a real human being – yes, he was a flawed and ordinary human being, but Ian Chesterton was an everyman of his time, taken out of that time and thrown into the universe to sink or swim. That he swam so often is down to Russell’s interpretation of a very ordinary hero – treating the world as a friend until it treats him otherwise, strong in his support of the friends who are true to him, wide-eyed and marvelling at the wonders of the universe, but unafraid to stand on the principles his parents taught him, and put himself and those principles to the test in a good cause, or for a good friend. It’s Ian, right at the start, who teaches the Thals to stand up to the metal-plated Nazi attitudes of the Daleks, by bringing the evil of their philosophy close to home, as we can deduce it would have come for the very young Ian himself in a world of bombing and disappearing relatives gone off to war. It’s a scene that comes right back to haunt him the next time he meets the Daleks too, when it turns out they’ve invaded his home planet and he joins the resistance to their domination because, to paraphrase a later Doctor – some things must be fought.
Really, that’s telling about Ian Chesterton – for all the sixties were a time of division and change, they also had people like Ian in them: people who’d grown up with early memories of the war, and who, while embracing the world in general with a spirit of brotherhood, never shrank from saying that wrongs were wrong, and standing up for right, whether that came in the form of segregated living at home, or tin-plated pepperpots of death in fictional space drama. That’s what Ian Chesterton is: a good man, with no enemy but those who choose to be, but who, through his exposure to the universe of time and space, is forced from time to time to go to war.
Of course, as is the case with many early companions, the audio stories of Big Finish have massively rounded out Ian’s character, background, beliefs and the arc of his life. It’s remarkable that many decades later, while sounding like an older man, William Russell has been able to recreate Ian Chesterton with the trademark chuckle, and the trademark dropping into firmness and resolution of the man we saw on screen, but also to infuse him through the audio scripts with a warmth for which there was seldom time on TV. His care for Barbara in particular is something that was generally only hinted at as a kind of shared-traveller impulse on the TV show, but through the audios, it’s given a greater voice, though rarely are we in Romeo and Juliet territory – that’s not who those people were. But a steadily growing need to have and keep each other in their lives, and close, is a beautifully subtle thread throughout the audios. Stories like Domain of the Voord, like The Flames of Cadiz, like The Rocket Men and like The Time Museum show sides to Ian Chesterton that Russell’s on-screen performance meant you always suspected, but which were never given the chance to come to the fore.
Ian Chesterton, friend of the universe, warm-hearted man with a sense of right and the courage to put himself between the innocent and the evil. In so many ways, the mellowing of the First Doctor’s alien spikiness – and to some extent the rationale for the Doctor’s fondness for travelling with humans ever since – can be laid as a tribute at Ian’s feet. When he stopped the Doctor killing the caveman in the first story, the point of human beings as a potential civilising influence was first made. In some ways, the Doctor has been trying to be as good as the very best of his human friends ever since.
Never cruel or cowardly – that’s Ian Chesterton.
Tony 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 day, he 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