Geek Couples: Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright

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Tony gets schooled in the art of grown-up love.


It’s the oldest cliché in the book that shared peril breaks down boundaries and inhibitions, and builds a bond unlike any other. Of course, it’s become the oldest cliché in the book because it has often proved itself true, and because it speaks to an innate sense of logic in our brains – if life shapes our actions, and our emotional responses to the world, then to have a life shared, a life in which perhaps survival depends on a mutuality of regard, of trust that’s justified time and again, will inevitably make us closer than we are with people who don’t share those life-or-death experiences.

That said, it’s by no means a given that we then go off to live happily ever after with the person with whom we’ve shared such perils. Tegan and Turlough shared peril aplenty, and came to at least respect each other’s distinctive qualities, but the idea of them going off to make red-headed babies is just wrong on every level.

But Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright?

Yes, that seems to fit. We can look at them and see a happy ever after in their eyes.


When we first meet them, they’re friendly, but in quite a parochial, sixties way. There’s a sense perhaps that Ian’s interested in Barbara – he goes out of his way to help her, to give her a lift, to become part of an intrigue with her, albeit a small one, about the mysterious Susan Foreman. But when he tries to jokingly call her on her interest, she gets defensive, as if sounding a warning to him not to presume too much about what he thinks he knows.

When their interest gets them whisked away into time and space with a crotchety old man and with Susan, their lives as they’ve known them are thrown into turmoil and it’s to each other they cling, not in a loving sense necessarily, but as cornerstones of normalcy as they know it, their 1960s understanding of good and evil and right and wrong. It’s telling that in their first adventure on another world, Barbara lets herself feel for the dashing, protective Thal, Ganatus. But when he obliquely asks her to stay with him, she can’t – she’s not yet ready to abandon her hope of getting home and getting on with the life she’s known and lived. But neither, at that point, is she feeling especially bound to Ian as any kind of partner, except in that sense of having been taken away together.

Soon though, their roles on the Tardis, which seem mostly self-defined by that sixties sensibility (or rather by the sensibilities of previous decades), become fairly routine – they fill the “mother and father” roles to Susan, who, precocious as she is, is still incredibly naïve about a lot of things. Meanwhile their roles in the various adventures they have are similarly defined by the gender stereotypes of the age – if there’s rubble to clear or heavy lifting to do or villains to fight, Ian’s up, whereas if there are twisted ankles to bathe or tea to make or patients to look after, Barbara’s your girl. These are roles in which they’ve each been taught to feel inherently comfortable, and they’re roles they instinctively look to each other to fill, but it’s also important to understand that neither believes the other is especially more ‘clever’ than them – the gender paradigms they bring to time and space are social, rather than intellectual, meaning they feel an equality in themselves as people which, even a generation earlier, might not have been the case.


How does that make them a believable couple? Simple – they become each other’s rock. The person in their imperilled and mad existence, divorced from time, on whom they can each absolutely depend. Many times, in those early adventures, we see one or other of them trying extra hard to do the impossible thing, because the other is depending on them. Ian fights monsters to keep Barbara safe, or to get to a place where he can say he’s done his bit, to save Barbara from harm. Barbara faces her fears, jumps gaps she doesn’t want to jump, goes on when her body tells her she can’t, because to do anything else would be letting Ian down. They understand that the Doctor and Susan are different, and would probably be fine adventuring on their own, but the only people who can get Ian and Barbara safely through safe and time is Ian and Barbara, together. That said, they unite in care, too, of first Susan and then Vicki (and ultimately, even, of the Doctor himself), showing each other in a primal sense their qualifications as provider, example, caregiver, protector and nurturer of both the young and the old.

The Big Finish audio stories have made more of their loving connection than the TV show ever did, because in the sixties, the emotions of the companions weren’t seen as things on which especially to dwell, certainly not in terms of love. But listening to stories like The Rocket Men we get the distinct sense that Ian at least has grown aware that something has changed in his appreciation of Barbara, that he’s become emotionally dependent on everything she does and everything she is, her strength, her care, her smile. Does Barbara return those feelings? It’s difficult to say – we’ve been robbed (at least until now) of an equality of voice for her by the sad death of Jacqueline Hill before audio became the rich medium for Who storytelling that it is. Honestly, while there’s certainly a softening in Barbara as Tardis time goes on, and she certainly comes to depend on Ian’s being there to talk to, Barbara as a character seems level-headed enough to separate the time of their adventures from the importance of any decision on a partner to share her life with. She’s probably the one who’s sensible enough to say “I like you, Ian, I really do, but let’s defer any decision on what we are to each other until we get home, shall we? This life we lead is crazy paving, and we both deserve better than decisions based on that.”

That they eventually make the move together to give up the Tardis and return to London in their own time seems to underline the idea of their adventures having bonded them though – long before The Chase they’ve become a unit, they’ve become “Ian and Barbara,” rather than “Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright.” If has become unthinkable, through adventure, through mutual care and through having no-one else who understands their mindsets, that they should separate and live different lives. If nothing else, who would they tell their stories to? Who would understand them as they understand each other?


The post-Tardis love of Ian and Barbara exists more in the heads of fans than it does in what we still laughably call ‘the canon.’ Sarah-Jane mentions the teachers who haven’t aged since the sixties, but more concrete evidence comes from other sources, such as books and comics, in which we find Ian and Barbara married, and parents to a son. The point about which is that, like the idea of peril bringing people closer together, it makes sense to our minds. Ian and Barbara, we can believe, have lived since their return to Earth, united both in the adventures they can’t tell anyone else about, and, far more importantly, in mutual admiration of the qualities they reveal to each other during their travels – Barbara’s fierce belief in the goodness of people, Ian’s resolution that some things, the right things, are worth fighting for. Her compassion, his open-minded amity with the world until it proves to be his enemy. And both, together, aware of how strong they actually are, a strength born in the years before they met, raised in war-torn and ration-impoverished Britain, but a strength never demonstrated so much as when they needed each other to be strong. They each survived their adventures in time and space because the other needed them to. When you’ve been through that, you become close in a way that no-one else could even understand, let alone hope to undo or come between. That’s why Ian and Barbara make sense: they are a couple forged in the heat of necessity, but welded together not by that necessity, but by the positive human qualities it brings out in them. Travel in time and space is essentially their courtship, and by the time they come home together, they’ve learned to make each other the person that makes any place a home. They’ve learned what they need to take on all the challenges in the world, and lean on each other to get them through.

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 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

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