We’re back, with another charity anthology review! Today we continue our look at the Ian and Barbara anthology, Mild Curiosities, with the second entry: co-editor James Bojaciuk’s The Wreck of the San Juan de Pasajes.
As always, there will be spoilers ahead! I do this when reviewing charity projects, because these projects are generally only available for a limited time or in limited quantities, and because they get little in the way of documentation. Although I would not give the text away for free, I believe these stories deserve to be remembered, and also to be catalogued and accessible in some way. Therefore, I include plot summaries, which are naturally heavy in spoilers. (But don’t let that stop you from buying the anthology and appreciating the work firsthand! Purchase link is at the end!)
With that said, let’s get started!
Ian Chesterton is far from young when the opportunity arises. He is an old man now, and full of memories—but it’s for the sake of those memories that he invests the money. It’s a good cause, he believes; it’s the restoration of a ship once thought lost, the San Juan de Pasajes. Perhaps, as his friends insist, his involvement is a little stronger than the situation justifies—after all, why would he show such interest in the restoration of an old wreck? Well, he can’t properly tell them why, of course—but he doesn’t need the money, and neither does his son, Johnny, who is quite successful on his own. There’s no reason he shouldn’t donate—and no reason why he can’t attend the unveiling. After all, it’s to the memory of his beloved Barbara… There are many memories Ian treasures—but the chance to revisit one: now, that is a treasure indeed. So many are lost to history. But now, as he stands in the museum and looks over the restored hulk of the San Juan de Pasajes, his mind drifts back to a snowy day, long—and long—ago.
It was a different life, traveling in the TARDIS—and that’s no common turn of phrase; it was indeed very different. Ian and Barbara, along with the still-mysterious Doctor and his granddaughter, Susan, had just come from the markets of a far-flung planet in the Tracian system, bustling with aliens. Now they step out onto Earth—but not their own part of it. Instead, it is the dead of winter, in a raging snowstorm; and to Ian’s surprise, he finds himself on the deck of a seventeenth-century sailing ship. (History was Barbara’s purview, but perhaps the science teacher was picking up a few bits.) He steps back inside for a moment of banter with the Doctor, who then leads the way out, with Barbara close behind. Ian makes to follow— –and is hurled about as the TARDIS lurches in what seems to be agony. Somewhere deep inside it, a church bell—the cloister bell, though he doesn’t know the term—begins to toll. He staggers to the console, where Susan is fighting with a lever, and helps her to pull it, setting the TARDIS on its proverbial feet again. Susan leads the way to the door…but now they are on the shore, perhaps a mile distant from the ship. They can see the Doctor and Barbara on the deck, can hear them calling out, but they can’t reach them.
As they watch, the ship runs aground, tearing a jagged hole in its hull.
Something must be done. Ian suggests the fast return switch—not a bad idea! Susan dives for the switch, and the TARDIS spins away into the time vortex…and comes to rest in the Tracian market. A second attempt takes them back to the shore. The stop aboard ship hasn’t been logged! Now the ship is visibly listing, and the crew—and Barbara—are throwing barrels into the sea while the Doctor argues with the captain. And worse: the snow is falling faster.
Ian sees the problem at once. If the crew—and their wayward companions—can’t be rescued at once, they will have to swim for shore; but with visibility quickly dropping, they can easily get lost, and hypothermia will make short work of them. He leaves Susan to work on getting the TARDIS to the ship, and looks for another solution.
Their place on shore isn’t just any landing. The ship is clearly a whaling ship; and this landing is a camp for rendering the blubber down to valuable whale oil. And it just so happens that one of the cabins contains barrels of stored oil… Ian quickly constructs two torches, and tries to signal the ship. If they can follow the light, they’ll be safe. But the snow is falling so hard that the torches are obscured, and he knows something more will be required. If Susan was making no progress—and she wasn’t—then he would need a bigger fire. He is able to make one quickly enough, but it’s still not enough; and the snow is nearly waist-deep. He’s a science teacher! He should be more inventive than this! He checks on Susan, who has disassembled part of the console in an attempt to redirect the ship; her face and hands are dark with grease.
Seeing the grease, Ian suddenly remembers.
This is a rendering plant. For whale oil.
Dragging Susan with him, he races back to the storage cabin. Together they wrestle a large barrel of oil back to the shore near the site of his first fire, which has burned out in the snow. They place the barrel on a rock, and then—praying the wood is dry enough to catch—they set it alight.
Now this is a blaze!
And it works. Slowly, the crew stagger to shore. With them are the Doctor and—to Ian’s unending delight—Barbara. As he gives her his coat, the two share a quiet, but heartfelt, reunion, safe at last.
That danger, that moment of triumph—all so long ago, Ian thinks. And now he knows why he came to the unveiling: to say goodbye to someone he has loved for a very long time. As he says the word, he is gently accosted by a short man in a porkpie hat, who speaks with a Scottish accent. The man, it turns out, is also here to say goodbye to an old friend. The man tells him a bit of trivia about the ship: that in its moment of death, a woman on board made sure that the crew had reliable boats, constructed of barrels, to carry them to shore. Remarkably, she saved their lives, and her own. Together, Ian and the strange man take a moment to remember a remarkable woman. As the man starts to walk away, he pauses and asks Ian his name. And Ian—knowing that somehow, against all odds, this man is an old friend—gives the only appropriate answer: “Ian Chatterton”.
There’s no need for the man to correct the mispronunciation (although he does). After all, old friends need no introduction.
Well, it’s good to see we’re getting the tearjerkers in early! This is definitely a story to make one cry. I’ve mentioned in previous posts—though not yet in this series—that I consider Ian and Barbara to be among my favorite Doctor Who companions, if not my favorite; and here is a tribute to them that I didn’t expect to see until the end of the book. James Bojaciuk uses a frame story set in Ian’s old age to tell a story set during his travels with the Doctor; and frankly, it’s a moment I’ve been hoping to see in some capacity for a long time. (I’m still a little bitter that Ian didn’t meet the Twelfth Doctor in The Caretaker, but can’t have it all, I guess. Hmpf.)
There are a few things that get casual mention here, which are worth noting. Obviously, Ian’s relationship and marriage to Barbara is a given. As I mentioned last time, their wedding is acknowledged in several later stories, and seen in Hunters of the Burning Stone. That story also confirms that they became familiar with the concept of regeneration, although the Doctor hadn’t regenerated yet during their travels with him. That, then, plays into this story, when Ian rather casually meets the Seventh Doctor while remembering Barbara. Ian also mentions their son, Johnny, or “Johnny Chess” as he becomes professionally known. This was a detail with which I wasn’t familiar, although I’ve seen the name mentioned once or twice (and didn’t know what I was seeing): Ian and Barbara’s son John Alydon Ganatus Chesterton becomes popular musician Johnny Chess (first mentioned in Timewyrm: Revelation, first seen and confirmed to be their son in Byzantium!). I’ve since come to know that Johnny got his start as a fan fiction character, which perhaps makes it poetic that he gets a mention here in this charity work.
But this is Ian’s story, though, not Johnny’s; and it’s Ian who gets to be poetic here. It’s a rare look not so much at his actions, as at his feelings. He’s elated to be traveling; a bit caught off guard by the suddenness of their journeys; and then all of that is overwhelmed with desperation and fear when Barbara—and of course the others, but mostly Barbara—is at risk. He doesn’t think of himself as a hero here; he’s only desperate to save the people he cares about, and if possible, the bystanders as well. But that’s what a hero is: Someone who does what must be done, against all odds, without any drive for fame. Wanting to be a hero precludes you from being one, or at least, it should.
Make no mistake, Barbara is a hero here as well. Saving the crew of the San Juan de Pasajes is a team effort. But it’s Ian’s story, and the focus is on him; even he doesn’t know what Barbara did. In all the years of their marriage, it never came up, because she too is a hero, meaning she doesn’t think of herself as one. It took the Doctor to bear witness, belatedly, to her valor. And I think this is a pattern we saw often in the early TV adventures: Ian was portrayed as a hero, but in the background, Barbara (and Susan as well) was also quietly doing what had to be done. She didn’t get many moments in the spotlight, but she’s no less heroic for that.
And that’s that. Nothing else is required here. The emotion is enough. Read the story; I promise you’ll feel the tears, even if you don’t let them out.
Next time: Continuing chapter II, “Travelling Companions”, we have A Restless Night, by Jeff Goddard! See you there.
Mild Curiosities is published in support of Breast Cancer Now, the UK’s largest breast cancer charity and research organization. You can learn more about them here. The anthology can be purchased in digital form here for a limited time.