Doctor Who and the world that loves it bid farewell to William Russell, one of the show's earliest companions

The actor behind Ian Chesterton has passed away at 99
Carole Ann Ford and William Russell. Doctor Who: Susan's War. Image Courtesy Big Finish Productions
Carole Ann Ford and William Russell. Doctor Who: Susan's War. Image Courtesy Big Finish Productions /

Let us turn our thoughts back 61 years. The date is November 23, 1963, and on the BBC, we see a television program in which two schoolteachers in Shoreditch discuss one of their students. Susan Foreman, the focus of their discussion, is a scientific genius in one subject, but seems very confused by the facts of history in another. The two teachers determine to discuss these things with Susan's reclusive grandfather and the history teacher says she's about to lend the girl a book on the French Revolution. "What's she going to do? Rewrite it?" the science teacher quips.

With that witty opening began the serial that is now the longest-running science-fiction program in the world. Doctor Who, beginning with the serial of "An Unearthly Child," began with the concern and curiosity of Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton, who not only tracked down Susan's time-traveling grandfather The Doctor, but joined him in his journeys from 1963 to 1965.

It is with sadness that we note the passing of the man behind Ian Chesterton, William Russell. Born in 1924, he first appeared in film in 1952 in Gift Horse, though he had previously helped bolster spirits in the Royal Air Force by helping to arrange for entertainment during his national service. His television career began in 1954, but he gained widespread fame in 1956 as the star of The Adventures of Sir Lancelot.

He is known for his many roles, from an elder in the original Superman film to his portrayal of Ted Sullivan in Coronation Street, but he holds a unique record once again connected to a universe that holds the TARDIS. On October 23. 2022, he returned to Doctor Who as Ian Chesterton 57 years, 120 days after his last appearance. This surpasses the previous record by an actor reprising a role by fourteen years.

Tributes to Russell have come from Doctor Who creatives as well as fans. Nicholas Pegg, writer of short stories and articles related to the series, is quoted in The Mirror :

"Already a star when he became a crucial part of Doctor Who’s genesis, his long and remarkable career embraced everything from Shakespeare to Blackadder. A fine actor and a lovely man."

Nicholas Pegg

Meanwhile, on Instagram, Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies has shared a photo and memories of William.

This admiration from one Russell to another is heart-warming to read and it calls to mind an episode of the Doctor Who spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures. In "The Death of the Doctor," Elizabeth Sladen's Sarah Jane recounts the exploits of other companions and fondly says that there are University of Cambridge professors who haven't aged since the 1960s. Davies knew as Russell's fans do that Ian's mark on the series is timeless and unforgettable.

William is survived by four children from two marriages: Robert, Laetitia, Vanessa, and Alfred. He was also grandfather to James, Elise, Amy and Ayo.

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