A female Doctor may be a first in Doctor Who history (if we’re not counting Joanna Lumley’s quick cameo in The Curse of Fatal Death as canon) but strong, capable women have always been a staple of the show, right from its inception. From the very beginning the creators of the show did not buy into the damsel-in-distress cliché popularized elsewhere in television and in so many movies. The female companions of the Doctors all had a special way about them—they were feminine but tough, as the Ninth Doctor learns when he meets an athletically nimble Rose Tyler during the inaugural episode of the reboot. They are wide-eyed, but also smart and capable; not just curious but actively inquisitive, like the Third and Fourth Doctor’s formidable Sarah Jane Smith.
But if we go back further, to the very source, the very first Doctor, we see that strong women have been a part of the series’ DNA from the beginning when we met our first human companion. Barbara Wright, who was played by Jacqueline Hill from 1963-65, was the first human woman to ever leave earth and travel with the Doctor, and she was—just like the companions to come after her—a force to be reckoned with.
As we say goodbye to Peter Capaldi and say hey-don’t-I-remember-you to David Bradley’s rendition of William Hartnell’s First Doctor in “Twice Upon a Time,” it’s important to remember that it was the tenure of the First Doctor that gave us the first strong, capable companion in Barbara Wright. It was William Hartnell’s Doctor who introduced this audience to real Whovian feminine strength, right at the outset, when he took on his very first companions, Barbara and Ian.
Barbara Wright was a mass of contradictions that somehow never seemed to clash. She was strong but soft, intelligent but willing to learn, sexy but never a sex object. She was a mother figure to the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan, but loved to venture on her own. Barbara didn’t play into stereotypes; she was smart, even bookish at times, and—while she was capable of using brute strength when necessary—she was also sexy. She could hook up with a super hot alien just as well as any of the male characters and no one batted an eye; no one looked down on her for it.
Barbara and her co-companion, Ian, met the Doctor through his granddaughter, Susan. Barbara and Ian were teachers at the Coal Hill School (the same school where Clara Oswald later worked) when they came across a brilliant, though strange, student named Susan. Ian and Barbara follow Susan home one day to find that she lives in a police box, of all places. When they see Susan walk into the police box, they’re understandably curious and intrigued and so they enter the box only to find that it is…wait for it… “bigger on the inside.” They walk into the first incarnation of the TARDIS: white lights and giant silver circles, very clean, very mod, very 1960s. After a brief argument with a feisty old man who is only known as the Doctor, a lever is pulled, a button pushed, and the TARDIS sets off for unknown lands. Thus, Barbara and Ian become the first companions of the very first Doctor.
Perhaps one of the most defining features of Barbara’s particular strength comes not just from the fact that she’s female, but from the fact that she is a grown woman, educated and accomplished. Barbara has a professional career back on earth, she takes her studies seriously, and when there are problems on or off the TARDIS she uses her mature sense of reasoning to keep a level head. Susan, while a Time Lady herself, calls for help a great deal and, though she did get her hands dirty plenty of times, she does an awful lot of screeching in the first few stories.
It’s important to remember the context that the show was created in, as well. After all, it was the 60s—1963, to be exact—and while the times, they were a’changin’, they hadn’t changed just yet. Many universities still required women to wear skirts to class. In fact, 1963 was the very first year Harvard University ever allowed women to graduate. In this cultural moment, Barbara was depicted as an intelligent, well-educated women who wore what she wanted. Barbara sometimes wore a skirt, but sometimes—in fact many times—she wore pants. Many institutions in England and America still frowned upon women wearing pants (many of them even forbade it), and yet Barbara wore them and looked damn sexy. In 1967, when Star Trek put women on the bridge, yes, they were strong and capable, Uhura was damn smart…but look at the short skirts they were required to wear. Barbara wouldn’t have been caught dead in that.
Though she demonstrates her intelligence and feistiness from the very start of her travels with the Doctor, it is in the second story, “Daleks,” that Barbara really begins to come into her own. The most significant aspect of this storyline as it relates to the rest of the show is that we meet the Doctor’s longtime archenemies, the Daleks. We come in contact with them when the Doctor lands on the planet Skaro. Barbara and Ian want to leave the planet, sensing that something is wrong, but the Doctor sees a futuristic city in the distance and wants to investigate. After tricking Barbara and Ian into believing that the TARDIS needs fuel, the Doctor leads them down to the city. While in the seemingly abandoned city the Doctor and company meet metal machines, which the Doctor and his companions soon learn are not silly little robots but hateful, dangerous aliens that will stop at nothing to destroy them. We also meet a group of aliens called Thals—attractive, human-like aliens who once lived on Skaro with the Daleks. After a neutronic war which horribly disfigured the Daleks, the Thals became a peaceful, pacifist species, while the Daleks as we all know, grew into beings driven by hate and aggression.
Once they arrive in the city it does not take long for Barbara, Ian, Susan, and the Doctor to become trapped by the Daleks. Instead of panicking, Barbara reacts to the danger with a cool, intelligent head; noting that the Daleks move with the help of a machine and that the machine appears to be connected to the floor. Using her powers of deduction, she decides it would be a good idea to mess up the floor with dirt from their shoes to inhibit the movement of the Daleks. Using this strategy, they end up capturing a Dalek and are able to escape. Once they’re safe, they still need the TARDIS to get home, and so Barbara marches through a swamp to retrieve a missing piece of the TARDIS necessary for travel.
We see in this episode that Barbara goes from brain to brawn seamlessly; she is capable of trudging through a swamp to help bring the TARDIS to the group and save everyone. No one ever tells her to sit down and relax, or to quiet down, you’re a lady.
And of course, she’s not just brains and brawn…once everyone is safe and back with the TARDIS and the Doctor and company have convinced the Thals to act more aggressively, we learn that Barbara has been having a bit of a love affair with one of the Thals named Ganatus. What’s interesting about this love affair is not that it happened but how casually it’s depicted by the show. The love affair is not the focus of the story, because Barbara is not on the show or traveling with the Doctor merely as eye candy; she’s not here just to add a hint of romance and provide the kind of drama and sexual tension a love affair provides in a story. She is a legitimate part of the action, coming up with intelligent ideas that help to save the day, and at the same time, she’s a grown woman who’s not completely defined by her relationship to the group, and the fact that she has a little tryst with an attractive blond alien is her business.
A few storylines later Barbara is not only a sexual creature but a goddess. She is mistaken for the goddess Yetaxa in the “Aztecs” storyline, but before she is a goddess, she’s an intellectual, first and foremost. Prior to being mistaken for Yetaxa, we learn that Barbara is an expert Historian on the Aztecs when the TARDIS lands in ancient Aztec territory. She uses her time with the real Aztecs as an excuse to learn all she can about the culture she is so enamored with and fascinated by. Barbara also wants to find a way to save the Aztecs from the fate of extinction and while yes, this is a big time travel no-no (and of course we learn that even if the historical facts are changed, the Aztecs are still fated to fade as an advanced civilization), still, her heart is in the right place. In an attempt to save the Aztecs from themselves, Barbara uses her new power as a way to convince the Aztecs to stop the practice of making human sacrifices. As she is put on a throne, enshrined in gold and worshipped, she helps Ian and Susan come up with a plan to help the Aztecs escape extinction and get themselves back to the TARDIS, which has once again been separated from the group.
While she spars with the Doctor over her plan to stop the Aztecs from making human sacrifices, and even though she is ultimately wrong in the sense that she cannot change time or history even for a noble cause, still Barbara uses her wits to help bring about peace among the Aztecs. But when things take a turn and one of her companions is threatened, Barbara steps up and she steps up hard. When the Aztecs are about to poison Ian as another sacrifice she doesn’t hesitate to pick a fight with men much bigger than herself. When she is questioned about her status as a goddess and asked to stop two hulking men from fighting, she shakily approaches them, unsheathes one of their knives and promptly threatens one of the men. She does not like violence, she certainly does not want anyone to get hurt, and yet when the going gets tough, Barbara is ready to get her hands dirty.
We witness her prove her power once again when Barbara helps save earth from the first (at least chronologically) Dalek invasion of Earth in story number ten, appropriately titled “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” Here we not only see her as a woman with a good head on her shoulders but as a strong mother figure. Barbara stays with Susan after she hurts her ankle when the TARDIS lands in a future version of London that we later learn has been overrun by invading Daleks. Barbara helps Susan and calms her down as the girl grows more and more nervous about their situation, especially when the Doctor and Ian do not return from staking things out right away. Later, Barbara also plays the role of caretaker as she helps feed an army of renegades trying to keep the Daleks from completely taking over London, while also tending to the survivors of a recent Dalek attack (one that not only aims to kill humans but also turns them into Robomen who will do the Dalek’s bidding). But she not only cooks and helps tend to the survivors—she also becomes a leader, in her own way. As the men are discussing how best to go about surprising the Daleks with their next attack, she suggests that they use the Robomen helmets they found earlier to disguise the humans who are advancing. This tactic, we learn later, works, enabling the humans to get close enough to the Daleks to mount a successful attack.
Barbara doesn’t stay a nurse for very long, soon venturing out into London with Jenny, a woman she meets while with the survivors. They head out into the streets, eventually returning from their journey via a lorry they’ve found and fixed up together. As they pass the bodies of people they once knew, Barbara does not shriek or panic but stays strong and focused. She urges Jenny to stay strong, as well, and when they come to a line of Daleks waiting to intercept them, Barbara does not hesitate to run the lorry directly into them, crashing into the Daleks and getting away.
When they are subsequently captured by the Daleks and sent to work in a mine, it is Barbara who keeps morale up, encouraging Jenny to remain strong so they can find a way out. She does not give up hope, and in fact, she has learned well from her travels with the Doctor—not that she must depend on the Doctor to save her, but that she can save herself. Barbara keeps her eyes and ears open and soon gains access to a control room. Once there, she is able to stall the commander in the control room by lecturing him on great war heroes of history. She then notices that the Robomen are controlled through a microphone and quickly formulates a plan to take control of the microphone in order to command the Robomen and stop the Daleks. Of course, when it comes to actually getting the microphone Barbara does not go it alone—she is helped by the Doctor, Ian, Susan, and Susan’s new companions. Barbara is not so foolhardy that she would jump into a plan without thinking it out, without working with the Doctor and her companions. Still she holds her course, as always, and paves the way for the next adventure.
Crashing into walls of hostile Daleks, fighting the Aztecs, formulating clever plots, engaging in love affairs with attractive aliens—it’s all in a day’s work for Barbara Wright.
At the end of it all, however, after two years time traveling with the Doctor, it is Barbara who demands to be taken home during the conclusion of “The Chase.” After so many adventures, Barbara sees that she needs to return to real life. Adventure, danger, time travel…it’s all very well and good, but at the end of the day Barbara wishes to return to her own life, in her own time. When the Doctor argues against leaving she cries out stubbornly, “I want to go home!” Ian then concurs with her, and after a bit of further arguing, the two are allowed to leave the Doctor and return to 1960s England.
Though she ultimately leaves the Doctor and that life behind, Barbara’s legacy of strong womanhood can still be seen as a blueprint of sorts for the many brilliant women of Doctor Who who have followed in her footsteps. Barbara Wright was always part of the team, but as the very first female companion she stood out on her own, not only as a positive role model for young women but as a force to be reckoned with. She used her intelligence and emotional and physical strength to get out of some tight fixes while never losing her sense of self or her sexuality. In 1963 there weren’t many women in pants fighting Aztec warriors on television, but Barbara paved the way for so many more strong women in sci-fi—from companions to superheroes, soldiers, slayers, warriors, and even, at long last, the next Doctor.
Jessica Stilling lives, works and teaches in New York City. She writes like a hermit, works out like a Viking and really wishes she had more time for TV. You can check out her blog or find her twitter @JessicaStilling.