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.