Level Up Barbara

barbaraCompanion Tropes 18

It’s silly, isn’t it? I feel frightened. As if we’re about to interfere in something that is best left alone. 

  • Barbara Level One – The Unwilling Adventurer

When Doctor Who first started, the format was much the same as it is today: the Doctor and his three companions.  Each companion existed to fulfil a particular function in the narrative, and for Barbara that function was initially the voice of fear.  To a certain extent, all companions are audience identification figures, but they represent different aspects of the audience’s emotions, eliciting a desired response.  For Barbara, that audience response is fear, and Barbara is there to ramp it up by giving it voice.

Ian, I’m frightened.

So to start with Barbara seems to exist for the purpose of getting captured and screaming a lot.  She is also overwhelmingly pessimistic, quick to look on the negative side of things and assume the worst:

We’ll die in this place.

In The Daleks, she starts the story asking a lot of silly questions that Ian isn’t going to have the answers to, which is really just another way of voicing her fears:

BARBARA: Ian, where are we?
IAN: I don’t know.
BARBARA: Well why doesn’t he take us back?
IAN: I’m not sure that he can.
BARBARA: What, ever?
IAN: I hate it as much as you. I’m just as afraid. But what can we do?
BARBARA: Well, we could at least stay near the ship.
IAN: The ship’s no good without him. We’d better keep an eye on him. He seems to have a knack of getting himself into trouble.
BARBARA: You think there’s any danger?
IAN: Not necessarily.

Where are we?  Don’t know.  Why can’t we go back?  Because we can’t.  Are we in danger?  Don’t know.  Superficially, it’s a silly exchange of dialogue, but it’s there to put us on edge.

I’m afraid I’m a very unwilling adventurer.

So that sums Barbara up, initially.  The Unwilling Adventurer.  It is not by accident that our first ever encounter with a Dalek is accompanied by one of Barbara’s many screams.  But then things start to change.  Barbara levels up.

  • Barbara Level Two – The Hot-Poker Wielding Hand-Biter

In a lot of computer games, characters can “level up”.  Based on their experiences they get a bit better at everything.  They learn from their experiences.  They get better at fighting their enemies, maybe start to arm themselves more effectively, learn new skills, become stronger.  Whilst it is only in the realm of gaming that this kind of thing actually gets quantified, it is based strongly on reality.  As we go through life we grow as individuals.  We get better at things.  We learn.  In a science-fiction television show we get to see this process in fast-forward.  If somebody like Barbara is thrown in the deep end, having to adapt to a universe of weirdness and danger, she simply can’t remain a frightened, pessimistic screamer for long.  I mean, she could, and writers have made that mistake with other companions very occasionally over the years, but if she did it would be silly and she would end up being an unrealistic and irritating character.  So instead she starts to develop and learn and change…

This actually starts happening pretty quickly, but it is subtle at first.  She shows a hint of bravery even in her first story, refusing to leave Za to die when the others want to escape back to the TARDIS.  But it’s only the merest flicker of bravery, and in The Daleks she instead allows Ian to be left behind, trapped in a Dalek shell:

BARBARA: No. I’m not leaving Ian.
DOCTOR: When we get to the top, we’ll send the lift back down for you. Alright?

Well no, that’s clearly not alright.  It reduces the chances of Ian surviving dramatically.  From Marco Polo onwards, Barbara stops being the voice of negativity so much.  I mentioned above how she is overwhelmingly pessimistic to start with, but in Marco Polo she starts saying things like “we’ll think of something”.  By the time we get to The Reign of Terror, she is the voice of positivity, keeping Susan’s spirits up, with encouraging words like “He’d have got out of that house, Susan. I know he would…” and “you mustn’t lose heart, Susan.”  But it is The Keys of Marinus that gives us our major turning point, the story that really gives us Barbara Level Two.  When the Morphotons mess with their minds, Barbara tries to persuade the others about the delusion, in vain.  She rushes off to try to get help, and then ends up smashing the place up and killing the Morphotons in the process, saving her friends.  Then, when she is captured by Vasar, she defends herself with a hot poker and then bites his arm to escape.  She is still being written as the damsel in distress companion, the one who is captured and menaced by evil men, but the difference now is that she is able to get herself out of those situations.   And then she levels up again…

  • Barbara Level Three – Yetaxa

BARBARA: There will be no sacrifice this afternoon, Doctor. Or ever again. The reincarnation of Yetaxa will prove to the people that you don’t need to sacrifice a human being in order to make it rain.
DOCTOR: Barbara, no.
BARBARA: It’s no good, Doctor, my mind’s made up. This is the beginning of the end of the Sun God.
DOCTOR: What are you talking about?
BARBARA: Don’t you see? If I could start the destruction of everything that’s evil here, then everything that is good would survive when Cortes lands.
DOCTOR: But you can’t rewrite history! Not one line!
SUSAN: Barbara, the high priests are coming.
DOCTOR: Barbara, one last appeal. What you are trying to do is utterly impossible. I know, believe me, I know.
BARBARA: Not Barbara, Yetaxa.

That quote says it all really, doesn’t it.  Barbara is defiant, refusing to bow to the authority of the Doctor.  She is fighting for what she believes in, refusing to put her own safety first.  She is fighting a hopeless cause, because she feels she must do what is right, showing great strength of character and bravery.

In The Sensorites, she actually acknowledges she has changed, like all of them.  Anyone who thinks there isn’t character development in Classic Who isn’t paying attention to this kind of thing:

SUSAN: That’s funny. Grandfather and I were talking about that just before you came in. How you’ve both changed.
BARBARA: Well we’ve all changed.

…and she’s right.  The storylines might call on her to be captured a lot, but the way she deals with those kinds of situations changes dramatically.  In The Reign of Terror she slaps the jailer when he makes an indecent proposition, and then starts trying to dig her way out of the cell, using part of the bed frame as a crowbar.  She has become far more resourceful.

  • Barbara Level Four – the Doctor-Barbara

In The Dalek Invasion of Earth, Barbara is starting to behave like the Doctor, and is in fact more Doctorish than the Doctor himself has become at this point:

BARBARA: We could try and find their main control room. I’m sure that’s what the Doctor would do.
JENNY: And then what will happen?
BARBARA: Oh, I don’t know, Jenny, I don’t know, but look, we can try!

Forget the Doctor-Donna.  This is the Doctor-Barbara, blundering in to a Dalek control room, without a plan or any thought for her own safety.

Barbara is by now rapidly moving through the levels…

  • Barbara Level Five – the Killer

We’ve already seen Barbara kill the Morphotons, but by the time we get to The Rescue she has become trigger happy.  When she spots Vicki’s pet Didonian, Sandy, she grabs a gun and shoots it.  Then, in The Web Planet, we reach her Boss level, the moment Barbara is at her most brave and effective as the Doctor-Barbara, when she marshalls her troops on Vortis to fight the Animus, and then kills it.

Barbara is not always given her moments to shine, but in her final few stories she often tends to be the voice of bravery and hope.  In The Romans, she tells Tavius that she is determined to escape from Nero:

TAVIUS: If you should escape and you’re recaptured, it would mean your death.
BARBARA: Yes, I know.

And in her final story, The Chase, it is Barbara who persuades the Doctor to stop running from the Daleks, and to stand and fight for the sake of Vicki:

IAN: It’s the only chance we’ve got, otherwise we’ll never see Vicki again.
DOCTOR: If we can only pull it off.
BARBARA: Doctor, we have nothing to lose and now we have even more reason to stop and fight.

Of course, they have everything to lose, including their lives, but Barbara has levelled up so many times now that the thought of saving her own skin doesn’t even enter into her head.  She is the hot-poker-wielding, hand-biting, face-slapping, monster-killing, harmless-vegetarian-pet-murdering, Aztec God Doctor-Barbara.  Now that’s what I call levelling up.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyard.blog Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Companion Tropes, Doctor Who, Entertainment, Science Fiction, Television and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Level Up Barbara

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Barbara was the first to show how a female human companion can be positively transformed by TARDIS adventures with the Doctor and other companions. Thank you, Jacquie, for creating an honourably first female human companion in Dr. Who and thank you, RP. 👍🏻

    Liked by 1 person

  2. benmc47 says:

    I love Barbara! If I could consider her and Ian as one character (not completely reasonable given how tightly paired they are), they might even be my “favourite companion”. Thanks for the write-up!

    Liked by 2 people

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