...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Day 3706: Chap With Wings


Somewhere, somewhen, there is a TARDIS by a graveside, and the inscription on the headstone just reads:

"He saved the world."

I met Nicholas Courtney in late 2005 in the BBC shop off Regent Street. I was buying a Dalek.

I addressed him as "Brigadier" and said the new series wouldn't be complete until he was in it, a sentiment he approved. And now he won't be. And that is sad.

To fans of Doctor Who, Nicholas Courtney was the Brigadier: Brigadier Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart KBE, originally a Colonel, latterly a General, but always, forever, just "the Brigadier".

As everyone always says, he first appeared as Bret Vyon, the slightly sinister Space Special Security Service agent in the first Doctor epic "The Daleks' Master Plan". But it was as the head of UNIT (British division) that he became central to the second incarnation of Doctor Who, when it regenerated into a colour action-adventure series with Jon Pertwee in 1970.

The Brigadier, much more than the Master, is the Doctor's equal and opposite. A military man, an establishment figure, a human with no Gallifreyan superpowers or Time Lord cosmic knowledge, but with simple courage and belief in doing the right thing Lethbridge-Stewart stood up to be counted as Earth's first and often only line of defence.

He definitively Saves the World™ in "Battlefield", but doesn't claim to be the World's finest. "I just do the best I can," he says. And then shoots the monster dead.

Like the Doctor himself, the Brigadier's character changes from era to era.

The Brigadier that we remember, the crack shot, lead-from-the-front, stiff-upper-lip, not phased by anything sort of a guy, who founds UNIT and recruits Liz Shaw – who commits genocide against the Silurians, don't forget, but who also stops the xenophobic General Carrington – is actually the second take on the character, after the Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart who breaks down upon getting his troops massacred by Yeti. This, second, Lethbridge-Stewart, who greets the second Doctor as an old friend in "The Invasion" and in turn is greeted by the third in "Spearhead from Space", is smart and wily – watch how in "Terror of the Autons" he foists Jo Grant on the Doctor knowing that the Time Lord won't have the heart to tell her she's sacked, and knowing that Jo Jo is exactly the assistant his scientific advisor needs – and exactly the one who will keep him here working for UNIT.

He evolves again into the more comic, bumbling, "Scooby Doo" version of the character that we see in the later Pertwee stories, infamously "The Three Doctors", though it's less of a stretch than you might think from "Five Rounds Rapid" to "I'm almost sure that's Cromer". And he still retains a kind of dignity that rises above any mockery the script – or the Doctor – might throw at him. By "Terror of the Zygons", the fourth Doctor story that is really the end of the UNIT era (no, "The Android Invasion" and "The Seeds of Doom" don't really count as UNIT stories) he's able to wear his clan tartan and look like he means it.

In the Eighties, in notorious continuity-cruncher "Mawdryn Undead", we meet a later Brigadier, a retired Brigadier, who is somehow more fragile and more real. He becomes an icon of nostalgia, but also an exploration of how things are so much less simple than they used to be. Ironically, given that he was a late replacement for the character of Ian Chesterton, the Brigadier is perfect for this role because the Brigadier was never quite as simple as good guys/bad guys – again, see "…and the Silurians" but also the even-less-subtle (than "Mawdryn Undead") contrasts of "Inferno".

The audio adventures "The Spectre of Lanyon Moor", with the Sixth Doctor, and "Minuet in Hell" with the Eighth, develop the retired Brigadier further, making him a UN ambassador and occasional off-the-payroll assistant to UNIT – a role recognised in the new series with a nod in "The Sontaran Stratagem". (There are also a couple of extremely wonderful "Unbound" adventures – "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Masters of War" – with the incomparable David Warner as an alternative third Doctor – well worth a listen.)

The books go further still, particularly Paul Cornell's "Happy Endings" and "Shadows of Avalon", while many of the New Adventures make reference to the Brigadier leaving a legacy of "Zen Warriors", using Buddhist techniques along with the things he learned from the Doctor to train a better defence for Earth in a gentle blending of the TV Brig with the second biggest contributor to the Brigadier's character: the late soldier-turned-Buddhist, producer Barry Letts (though Barry was, in reality, a Navy man).

It's a testament to Nick Courtney as an actor that he played all of these Brigadiers with humour and dignity and made them all recognisably facets of the same man: hero, killer, friend, saviour. Splendid chaps, all of them.

In a way, it is astonishing that Russell, with his reverence for all things Pertwee-era, never managed to find a place for the Brigadier in the revived series. Yet, in a way, he did – not so much with that throwaway reference in "The Sontaran Stratagem" or an oh-so-welcome guest appearance in the Sarah Jane Adventure "Enemy of the Bane", but I now realise in the character of Wilfred Mott, the old soldier. The scene in "The End of Time" where Wilf offers the Doctor his old service revolver and urges him to kill the Master first: it's pure Brigadier.

Dr David would have loved it – he'd appeared with the Brig in a couple of those Big Finish adventures, although playing Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood rather than the Doctor. Yet somehow it seems that Lethbridge-Stewart would have fitted better with Tennant's successor. The childlike crazy erratic Eleventh Doctor would have been perfect with the stalwart, dependable Brig of later years. And there's always the risk that the Brigadier would have taken one look at the "Time Lord Triumphant" and said "Doctor, you've gone bonkers" before shooting him dead.

The television series "The Web of Fear" somehow neglects to include the iconic first meeting of the Doctor and the Brigadier. Terrance Dicks, of course Terrance Dicks, corrects this oversight in his Target novelisation of the story, and Alex gave it to me to read this morning. If… no, when we see "The Web of Fear" re-animated – and dammit I will win the lottery and pay for it myself if I have to – shouldn't it be outrageously bowdlerised by having that scene "reinstated".

Or perhaps not. There's something poetic in the idea that we will never see the Brigadier's first meeting with the Doctor and we'll never see the Brigadier's last meeting with the Doctor.

Nicholas Courtney, rest in peace. The Brigadier is forever now.

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