Charity Anthology Review: Mild Curiosities, and Touch the Stars

We’re back again! Now that I have a few reviews of charity projects under my belt, I’ve begun to garner a little attention for these reviews, and have been approached a few times about these projects. It’s been interesting; the fan project world—though it seems to get more circulation in the UK than here in the US, even with the help of the internet—is and remains a niche corner of the Whoniverse. It doesn’t get the type of cataloguing efforts that licensed works receive (there’s no TARDIS wiki for charity works—though if I’m wrong about that, someone please point me there!). I can only assume that timely reviews and other publicity are hard to come by as well. This is the primary reason I’ve accepted these requests for reviews: I think many of these projects, being for good causes, are worthwhile, and generally they embody a quality selection of authors and work, which deserves to be remembered and catalogued somewhere. This is doubly true in the case of charity projects, because, once their initial publication run ceases, they generally become unavailable; and those stories can be lost to time. Here, I’m not seeking to record the actual text—that wouldn’t be acceptable—but I do include plot summaries as well as my opinions, and thus preserve them in some way.

Full disclosure: this has been a bit of a refreshing change for me as well. In my personal life I have a lot going on, including issues with an illness that I don’t usually talk about here, but that takes up much of my time and energy. As a result, I’m a bit burned out on the licensed materials. Watching an episode is easy enough, but committing multiple hours to an audio drama or days to a book—as much as I enjoy doing those things—is, for the time being, something of a chore for me, and especially when I need to review it afterward. Reading and reviewing a short story each day is a bit easier, and doesn’t require digging into continuity the way the licensed materials do.

Mild Curiosities

Mild Curiosities cover

With all that said: On to something new! Or new to me, at any rate, because this isn’t an initial release for the project I’m discussing. Rather, it’s a digital re-release, which puts me in the odd position of knowing that some of you will already know what I’m talking about. The project we’re looking at today, and for the next few weeks, is the Ian and Barbara charity anthology, Mild Curiosities. Edited by Sophie Iles and James Bojaciuk—both of whose work I’ve covered before—this anthology was published in 2018, and is now receiving, as I said, a digital re-release. You can purchase it here for a limited time. I also want to mention that this project was released in support of Breast Cancer Now, the UK’s largest breast cancer charity and research organization; to learn more about this wonderful organization, you can find them here.

The anthology is divided into chapters, with each chapter containing one or more stories, and arranged in roughly chronological order for Ian and Barbara’s lives. (“Roughly”, because what is chronology when we’re talking time travel?) There are a total of thirteen stories. Chapter I, titled “An Earthly School”, which we’re covering today, comprises one story: Touch the Stars, by Kara Dennison. Let’s get started!

There will be spoilers ahead! For my reason for taking this approach, see above.

Ian Chesterton never thought of himself as awkward, and as a teacher, that was only appropriate. So it came as quite the shock to him to find that he was losing his cool—a phrase that wouldn’t be extant for some years yet—over the pretty history teacher at Coal Hill School.

Of course, there was first the problem of whether his interest in her was even appropriate. They were colleagues, and faculty at Coal Hill tended to be on the reserved side. Still, appropriate or not, he couldn’t get Miss Barbara Wright out of his head, despite only seeing her on rare occasions, and never talking to her.

It was having her in his head that started the trouble.

It wasn’t so much that Ian found himself staring at the corridor ceiling and thinking about Barbara—that would have been alright, if distracting. It was that Barbara found him that way, and decided to check on him. And thus the normally confident and capable science teacher found himself doing the most unscientific thing imaginable: babbling nonsense at the one person he wanted most to impress. Great work, Ian! Well, this was promising, wasn’t it.

As it turned out, it was.

The little conversations began to accrue. First the corridor, then the faculty common room—he stammered his way toward asking her out that time, but fell short, only mentioning the tea room to which they might go, never actually inviting her. Later he took the initiative and approached her in her classroom–dear heavens, the audacity!—under some pretext, and learned a bit about her tastes in music. As usual, he made a bit of a fool of himself; but by now she was coming to expect that, wasn’t she? Besides, in for a penny, and all that. More meetings, more awkwardness…

It was too much, really. This living in limbo, not getting anywhere but always with her on his mind, was doing no one any good; and so Ian decided to take the professional approach. Eyes front, soldier! And while it was far from what he wanted, it did seem to work…for about two weeks. Until she approached him.

Barbara Wright was never one to leave a problem unaddressed. Having seen the change in Ian’s demeanor, she did the natural thing, and assumed something was wrong, and set out to fix it. What could he say? There was something wrong, but not something he could easily explain—especially when every conversation turned into rambling, one-sided lunacy. And so no one was as surprised as Ian when she took the initiative, and asked him out.

In later days, he would most likely tell himself that he asked her. She may even have allowed him to think so. But, as so many events in Barbara’s life would demonstrate, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. And so, with the greatest of poise, Barbara Wright prompted Ian Chesterton to take her on their first date.

Of course, the tea shop was closed.

In hindsight, it was probably meant to be. When awkwardness is the rule of the day, it tends to assert itself in every situation. But this time, it wouldn’t win; Barbara, ever collected, smoothly redirected their walk into a walk to the station instead. And along the way, something magical happened. A talk about that most dry of subjects—how they came to Coal Hill—turned into a talk about the stars. It was Ian’s subject, of course—science and all—but his approach was clinical. Barbara, a bit put off, took the romantic view. What could be more romantic than to see the distant stars up close? And in a moment that both would remember for years to come, stuffy, scientific Ian leaped the gap into romantic territory, and declared that one day, he would take her to see them. After all, science—becoming as always a part of history—was proceeding apace, and one day surely there would be ships that could take them there. They would be the first in line when that day came.

Smiling, Barbara agreed. Find the ship, and she would go with him. And so the duo walked on, while off in the distance, a strange wheezing, groaning sound could be heard…

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Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: On television, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright were hardly a couple. They were companions of convenience, but not romantic partners; and each had at least momentary romantic involvements with others, though of course nothing substantial. I can only imagine that, whether written or not, one of the rules of the original (and more education-minded) version of Doctor Who was to avoid romantic plots. However, Eleventh Doctor comic story Hunters of the Burning Stone would show that Ian and Barbara did in fact have a relationship, by showing their wedding; other stories have also expanded on their relationship. I think it’s no great stretch to show that the seeds were sown as early as their first year at Coal Hill School. It makes sense to me that something as shocking and stressful as traveling in the TARDIS would put those feelings on the back burner for some time, giving us the version of the characters that we see in the series. But it’s wonderful to know that something magical was happening between them right from the beginning.

This story takes place over a period of time, but it ends just as the Doctor and Susan Foreman come to Earth, as evidenced by the TARDIS sounds that can be heard as the story ends. Other stories (Hunters of Earth, et al) have established that once the TARDIS landed on Earth, it was in need of repairs, and thus stranded for some months, which ultimately leads to Susan’s enrollment in Coal Hill. Given that the TARDIS takes the Doctor where he needs to be, and that this situation led to…well, everything else in Doctor Who history, one may wonder if possibly the TARDIS strategically broke itself? After all, I’ve made the case for a long time that without Ian and Barbara, there would be no Doctor. Even the name, Doctor, seems to be Ian’s doing—he mistakenly refers to the Doctor as “Doctor Foreman”, which confuses the Doctor, and that is the first time we ever hear the term. (Full disclosure: some of the handful of stories set before An Unearthly Child, seem to contradict this detail—but not the general thrust of my argument.) I would argue that it was Ian and Barbara’s example of heroism and goodness that inspired this angry, cranky old Time Lord to become the “good man” that calls himself the Doctor. Even the Eleventh Doctor, in Hunters of the Burning Stone, admits that it was because of them that he took on other companions over the years.

And it all starts here.

There have been numerous attempts to describe how the Doctor got started. All are fascinating, but all fall a bit short—after all, this ancient alien was even more, well, alien back then. We can’t truly relate. But sometimes, a good origin story for the companions comes along, and when it’s good, it’s perfect. I’ve been a professional; I’ve been in love; I’ve been awkward about it. I can put myself in Ian’s shoes. They’re a good fit. And likewise, this is a good story. It’s well worth your time.

Next time: We’ll move on to the next chapter with The Wreck of the San Juan De Pasajes, by co-editor James Bojaciuk! See you there.

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