Discovering Barbara Wright of Dr. Who

I should warn you up front I’ve never watched the modern Dr. Who series, just because I always wanted to see it from the beginning. Now that what remains of the show from the early ’60s is available on DVD (some episodes were taped over, as was the policy at the BBC then!), I’ve been watching the early years with William Hartnell. I’m impressed with the show overall, but one character really stuck out: Barbara Wright.

Barbara, Ian and Susan are the Doctor’s first traveling companions we meet. Susan is the Doctor’s granddaughter, and Barbara and Ian are two of her high school teachers (history and science, respectively) in 1960s London. Susan is framed as a child rather than a woman, so she makes mistakes and screams her head off a lot to show how vulnerable she is – though she’s very smart and also sometimes saves the day. But Barbara is framed as a woman, and a very well written one.

Barbara is smart, calm and rational. Several of their travels involve ancient Earth cultures, and her knowledge of history aids and directs the group. She makes mistakes, but never stupid ones. In one particularly good series, “The Aztecs”, Barbara is mistaken for the reincarnation of a god (not a goddess!) because of a bracelet she’s wearing. Against the Doctor’s advice about not changing history, she attempts to use her power to stop the human sacrifices practiced by that culture. It’s a misguided but poignantly noble effort, and even though I agreed with the doctor, I sympathized with Barbara’s intentions.

In another series, “The Sea of Death”, Barbara is the only one who realizes they’re being brainwashed into thinking a dangerous hellhole is a paradise in which their every wish is fulfilled. She struggles to convince her friends, but this only alerts the brainwashers into realizing she’s dangerous. She manages to escape jail with the help of some others who have begun to come out of the brainwashing only to be caught by Ian, who no longer remembers her. He takes her to the creatures who control the place – snail-like things in big glass containers, but before they can hurt her, Barbara grabs a stick and whacks hell out of the snail-things until they are dead. That frees everyone from the brainwashing effect.

While the whole gang fits neatly into a traditional family dynamic, there is no hint of romance or sexual tension between her and Ian. Perhaps this is because it was seen as a kids’ show, but whatever the reason, it’s rare to see two adult characters engage as friends or pseudo-family rather than lovers or would-be lovers or might-have-been lovers or any of the annoying tropes TV foists on us routinely.

Interestingly, this lack of romance doesn’t survive a shift to movie and book media. In 1966, someone decided to make a movie to capitalize on the popularity of the Daleks: Dr. Who and The Daleks. I tried to watch it, really I did, but where the series takes both story and character quite seriously, the movie turns the characters into bumbling fools. In this version, Barbara is Susan’s sister and the Doctor’s granddaughter, and Ian is Barbara’s boyfriend. Neither of them are teachers. When I saw Barbara run to kiss Ian in the TARDIS, thus knocking him down so he lands on a lever that starts the ship off on a random journey, that was about it for me.

Fortunately, Wikipedia has informed me the movie is not considered canon. But there’s also a novel in which Barbara and Ian are supposed to have married after their eventual return to 1960s London. It’s enough to make me think some people just can’t process the idea of two attractive, adult, presumably sexually compatible human beings who do not want to have sex with each other. It’s like the very thought offends them. Or the temptation to sex things up, just because you can, is just too powerful.

But whatever. In the original TV series, Barbara is a character who happens to be a woman rather than someone’s narrow interpretation of what a “woman character” should be.

Comments

  1. The Other Patrick says

    Oh, come on, I don’t know two people of opposite gender, from which at least one is somewhat attractive, and who are just friends. No way. Doesn’t happen. At all. Uh-uh.

    Though of course it does. Every tuesday, for example, I have lunch with a very attractive woman, and we have a whole lot in common, and we talk for two hours between university classes, and there’s no sexual tension between us whatsoever – though sometimes we do talk about sex and enjoy when people who overhear it blush and start listening closely; we do not talk about having sex, though. And probably won’t, unless we’re both 90 and alone or something :)

    And still, when I see a TV show where there’s a male lead and a female supporting character (or the other way round… yeah, right, I don’t watch Bones), I figure they’re gonna hook up or at least portray that sexual tension. It’s ingrained, it’s as much part of TV as the four-act structure and ad breaks, disappointingly so.

  2. Anemone says

    There’s an episode with her on YouTube that I’ve seen, and I think she was the one who figured out what was wrong, sort of. My memory is fuzzy. I do remember the doctor apologizing profusely to her at the end. And she got some new clothes(!).

    I really don’t understand that series, but it makes more sense if it started off as a kid’s show.

    • Alexander says

      Hmmm, I’m not sure which serial you remember. She figured out what was wrong in “The Sensorites” because she had been on the ship and she came down to apply a fresh eye to the mysteries on the planet, but I don’t recall her having new clothes and an apology in it. Would that be “The Aztecs” or “The Keys of Marinus”? “The Romans” would fit the new clothes but I think the Doctor didn’t apologize for leaving Ian and Barbara at the villa.

  3. says

    The Other Patrick, it really is that ingrained, and it’s incredibly predictable and boring.

    Anemone, I recall one episode like that, but can’t remember which one it was: he’s very dismissive of Barbara earlier when she tells him what she thinks is happening, then she turns out to be right, and he apologizes just as a decent person should.

  4. mana g says

    Dr Who can have its ups and downs regarding female companions, but it certainly has had several bright spots in its representations of women. Lots of the companions on the show have been amazing, and I know I’ve heard from many a female fan about how a certain female companion inspired them. (Of course, then you also end up on occasion with companions like Polly with the second Doctor, whose most useful function often seems to be making coffee.)
    Some of my personal favorite companions are Barbara, Sarah Jane, Romana, Ace, and Donna, mainly because they, for the most part, at least, would not allow themselves to be treated like the Doctor’s secretary. The Doctor, (in pretty much every incarnation), does tend to treat everyone else around him as if they were the hired help, but I will admit that I get bugged by companions that just take it from him.

  5. Charles RB says

    The Ian/Barbara romantic pairing is pretty widespread throughout all the books – and fandom – even though, thinking about it, I can’t recall a basis for this in the show. But because everyone “knows” they’re a couple, it’s easy to read it in.

    Wait until Dalek Invasion of Earth, she gets a Crowning Moment of Awesome there…

    • Alexander says

      I wouldn’t be surprised if they hooked up after the series, but they worked very well as colleagues. You’re right, thinking back there’s nothing inherently romantic about the concern they show towards one another. Of course, fans have paired people based on less.

      Absolutely! “The Boston Tea Party”. It’s a Crowning Moment of both Awesome and Funny.

    • Alexander says

      Now according to the Sarah Jane Adventures two-parter “Death of the Doctor” written by Russell T. Davies, they got married, became teachers at Cambridge, and haven’t aged since the 1960’s.

  6. Robin says

    I haven’t watched much of the early series in about ten years, but I’ve always liked Barbara. (Although my very favorite female companion was Ace. Who doesn’t love a girl with a backpack full of high explosives? And Martha’s pretty damn awesome. And Donna. And Sarah Jane. And Nyssa. There have been a lot of great ones.) It’s a shame that so much of the early years was lost in the BBC purge.

    It’s been said that a lot of the feistiness in the Doctor’s female companions came from executive producer Verity Lambert. Although she only worked on Who for the first couple of seasons, her legacy lives on and she has been subtly referenced a few times in the recent series.

  7. Charles RB says

    I was surprised to see that in Frontier in Space, weedier companion Jo Grant suddenly becomes more proactive and competent out of nowhere. (And downright amused to see she’s at her most competent in Planet of the Daleks when she’s seperated from the Doctor, then resets to normal when he comes back.)

  8. Hayclearing says

    I was always a huge fan of Jo. She was a ditz most of the time, but then would occasionally step up and remind you that ditz or not, she was capable of DOING things. Like in the Sea Devils episode, where the Doctor gets caught in a military prison, Jo appears at the window and makes several handsigns and twenty seconds later has slipped past the guard and opened the cell door, free and clear.

    In her first appearance she is the first person to track down the Master (by… doing legwork, which no one else thought to try! She’s promptly hypnotized, but still…) and occasionally the show reminds you that she IS a member of UNIT, and knows how to use a gun.

    Come to think of it, most of the episodes I just listed also involve the Master. It may be that I am being influenced by the presence of my other favorite characters, but I always loved it when Jo had moments like that.

    • Alexander says

      Or when she backed into the lead criminal in “The Mind of Evil” while he was holding her at gunpoint on the stairs, disarming him.

  9. Charles RB says

    “She’s promptly hypnotized, but still…”

    It’s a clever bit of writing that, next time he tries in Frontier, she turns out to have trained herself to resist hypnotism!

  10. Mary says

    Doctor Who always had great female characters.
    Actually I don’t think there was ever a companion who didn’t have her Moments of Awesome.
    Even Martha who started out as just another girl with an unrequitted crush on the Doctor. It took her about a year, but she got over that crush, saved the world, hooked up with a hot guy, joined a secret military organisation, dropped the guy and the organisation, married another hot guy and became a rogue “Defender of the Earth”.

  11. AmyMcCabe says

    Doctor Who has a great number of wonderful female characters…and a few really bad ones. It is one of the things I really enjoy about the show.

  12. says

    I’m sorry but I’m sure I saw some romance hints appearing in the episodes with Barbara and Ian. Though Barbara also liked some of the men she met in the past/on other planets!

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