William Russell as Ian Chesterton (Doctor Who)

Recently, I’ve been listening to (and blogging about) various Big Finish Doctor Who audios.  A big reason I got into these was because of a title called The Five Companions, which is a “bonus episode” that you can get if you buy a certain story or subscribe to one of their lines (eg. buy 12 titles in a row).  The reason that The Five Companions got my attention, leading me to subscribe?  Primarily because it co-stars William Russell as Ian Chesterton.

When Doctor Who began on TV back in the 1960’s, the star of the show was William Hartnell, playing the Doctor – an elderly grandfather who had a mix of dangerous crotchetiness and twinkling childlikeness. He was a mysterious figure who kept you guessing and off your toe as he traveled time and space in his strange machine with his granddaughter. In the opening episode of the series, he is reluctantly joined by his granddaughters two school teachers, Ian and Barbara. They were there to be the human point of view for the series, as well as to provide an opportunity for the show to be a bit educational (one of them taught science, the other one history). They were also a lot younger and more athletic than the title character, especially Ian.

With an elderly Doctor who initially evoked as much suspicion as trust, Ian and Barbara were basically positioned as the show’s leading man and woman. Indeed, at the time, nobody would ever have called them “the Doctor’s companions” – that was really a term that began to be developed after they (and Susan) left the show and were replaced. Back then, they were just all part of the cast, part of the TARDIS crew.

I didn’t start watching this series until I was a young teenager, back around when Peter Davison was finishing up his tenure as the Doctor. My first William Hartnell story viewed was The Dalek Invasion of the Earth, which I saw at a convention before, as far as I know, these episodes were aired on any of my local public television stations. In it, Ian wrestles with Robomen and stops a bomb from destroying the earth’s core while Barbara plows a truck right through a bunch of Daleks and distracts others with nonsensical history lessons. Right away I connected with these guys.  In spite of the old-fashioned presentation, these guys were awesome – especially Ian.

Ian was a bit of a hero for me. He was tough, he was brave, he was smart and he was resourceful. He could be a bit wooden, and could by no means be referred to as “cool” or “hip”, but in a lot of ways, he really anchored early Doctor Who, allowing the Doctor himself to a bit more off-beat and unpredictable. There was not always a lot of time given to characterization on the show back then, and so Ian wasn’t necessarily “developed” very strongly (even as much as Barbara was), but actor William Russell brought strong presence to his scenes, even if he was also guilty on occasion of some awkward stagey-ness.  To this day, even with all of the years that I’ve been watching the show and all the characters that I’ve seen come and go, Ian remains a strong contender for my favorite companion.

Seeing him on the show made me aware of the actor, and I started looking out for him in other projects. If you don’t blink, you can catch him as one of the doomed Kryptonian elders in the original Christopher Reeve Superman movie. He shows up in episodes of Blackadder, Robin of Sherwood, and Poirot. He also has a minor but noticeable role in the movie The Great Escape (one of my favorites) as the guy who is in charge of security (I don’t know that they ever say his name) for the escape, where you can see that same focus and command of presence that he had on Doctor Who.

I briefly “met” William Russell at a convention in Chicago in 1993. My friend and I had a photo taken with him and snuck in an autograph-request at the time, which he was gracious enough to grant, because we had missed the opportunity at another point. Foolishly, I had him sign a more-or-less random page of a giant Doctor Who­-related book that I own rather than just a page of my little autograph book. That was a bit silly, and I am regretting it especially now that I am trying to downsize all my junk.

A lot of my Doctor Who experience in those days came from novelizations of tv episodes, released by Target. In the book for The Daleks (one of the first ones they did, apparently), the story was narrated by Ian, and the possibility of romance between he and Barbara was made more overt. This was something that was never spoken about on the series but was so universally obvious to everyone that I don’t think I’ve ever seen an “expanded universe” story that includes them that doesn’t assume that they didn’t get married sometime after leaving the Doctor. That convention I attended was not long after Jacqueline Hill (the actress who played Barbara) died, and he shared with the audience that he’d appreciated all the people who had expressed their sorrow at her passing to him – almost like she’d actually been family.

Ian’s lack of presence during Doctor Who’s 50th year is what I’d consider the show’s biggest lost opportunity. William Russell did cameo as a BBC doorman in An Adventure in Space and Time, which was nice, but I guess I wasn’t just looking for William Russell – I wanted to see Ian Chesterton. Well, with The Five Companions, I had my chance.

I’ve spent so much time on Ian Chesterton here that I will save commenting on the story that brought all this up for the next post.

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3 thoughts on “William Russell as Ian Chesterton (Doctor Who)

  1. I was hoping for a larger presence for William Russell during the anniversary too though I was happy to see the board outside Coal Hill School that at least said the character was still alive and well in 2013.

    Ian has always been one of my favorite companions for exactly the reason you mention – that he never really seemed like a companion but rather someone having their own adventure alongside the Doctor. I have really enjoyed a lot of his recent work with Big Finish too and can’t wait for the new Early Adventures range to kick off next month.

  2. The Five Companions is my only real exposure to William Russell in Big Finish so far, (aside from his cameo in “The Light at the End”), but I’d like to hear more, and can suddenly understand the appeal of “The Companion Chronicles”.

  3. If you are interested I would suggest The Transit of Venus as a good example of his Companion Chronicles work but his best Big Finish release to date is the First Doctor lost stories box set. Farewell Great Macedon is a fantastic story and Russell voices both Ian and the First Doctor.

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