How I got punched in the gut by Doctor Who (not literally)

Like a lot of people I’m a fair-weather Doctor Who viewer, dipping in and out and mainly paying attention to the bigger stories. I have my favourite Doctors (Eccleston, Tennant) and villains, but I couldn’t tell you the origin stories of all the companions, who polished the Daleks or who stitched on the Sesorites’ fake beards.

But when lockdown rolled around again, I found myself on Britbox, watching an episode of the frankly barking and hilarious kids’ show Rentaghost, which strangely acted like a gateway drug to Doctor Who (well it was next to it on the menu).

Soon I was watching An Unearthly Child, the first Doctor Who episode from 1963 – mainly out of curiosity. I met the director Waris Hussein a few years ago and was embarrassed to admit I’d never seen it.

The first episode introduces the Doctor’s first companions Ian and Barbara, a pair of London schoolteachers. They quickly became the perfect foil for the Doctor, and a great way in to the story world for the viewer.

Ian and Barbara are fairly prim and proper and seem to belong much more to the 50s than the early 60s, and bring a whiff of BBC-approved ‘education’ to their adventures.

I watched story after story, from The Daleks to the (gleefully mad) The Keys of Marinus, and loved the slower pacing which let the relationships develop between Ian, Barbara and the irascible Doctor. I also found myself fancying Ian a bit (OK, a lot – I’m in lockdown) and idly pictured the two of us travelling space and time together in matching outfits. Maybe one day.

William Hartnell’s Doctor is famously gruff, unyielding, but also mischievous. I was surprised when he offhandedly abandoned his own granddaughter Susan at the end of Daleks Invasion of Earth. But no matter – I still had Ian and Barbara. 

But at the end of the Dalek story The Chase (no, not the Bradley Walsh gameshow), Ian and Barbara surprisingly made their exit. It was like a gut-punch. I’ve rewatched it again and again to see why I found it so powerful.

Setting up their exit

At the start of the series, Ian and Barbara are innocents who enter the Tardis by accident and become reluctant travellers. By the end of The Chase, they’re clearly tired of the Doctor dragging them to and fro across the universe, so when they chance upon an abandoned Dalek time machine, they beg him to send them back to 1963.

Being his contrary and testy self, the Doctor naturally poo-poos this immediately. But with the help of (other companion) Vicki, Ian and Barbara finally twist his arm. Without further ado, they hop in the Dalek time machine and whiz back to London and their former lives.

We then see a series of goofy scenes of them gleefully taking in the sights of their beloved home city. Meanwhile the Doctor watches them from space via some kind of Doctor Who-fangled machine that I can’t pretend to understand.

Then William Hartnell turns away and softly says “I shall miss them. Yes, I shall miss them.” Reader, I fell apart. I can’t remember when I’d been as affected by something on TV, and I was surprised at beautifully it was handled.

The Doctor (and Vicki) will never see them again. Ian and Barbara will live out the rest of their lives as originally planned. The Doctor will go on travelling space and time and repeat this pattern over and over again, never really finding a ‘life’ of his own.

It was at the same time hopeful, funny, heartbreaking and desperately sad. It was written so simply and so beautifully I can only hope to match it.

Now I must go back to stitching mine and Ian’s matching space outfits.

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