Wednesday, 23 February 2011

"I just do the best I can." - Brigadier A G Lethbridge-Stewart - Nicholas Courtney, 1929-2011

The world of Doctor Who has been rocked by the passing of a stalwart actor from its continuity; Nicholas Courtney, the actor behind Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, died in the early hours of 23rd February, 2011.

Mr Courtney's lineage with Doctor Who is unparalleled. He originally appeared in 1965 with William Hartnell's first Doctor, albeit as Bret Vyon who was a minor character in The Dalek's Masterplan. However, this would not be the last time Courtney and Hartnell would work together on Doctor Who, and the First Doctor and the Brigadier would encounter each again.

The next appearence of Nicholas Courtney was portraying Colonel Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, of the Scots Guards. He leads the battered British Army, attempting to defend London from being conquered by the insiduous Intelligence, and its memorable Robotic Yeti. He finds himself inexorably helping the peculiar little man known as the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, in the episode Web of Fear (1968). Having saved London, Lethbridge-Stewart was promoted and given command of the British division of UNIT, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce that was dedicated to protecting Earth from extra-terrestrial threat. UNIT would become a key component of the next several series of Doctor Who, serving as a backdrop for the Earth-bound stories of the Third Doctor - and would leave a legacy that would be resurrected thirty years later to work with the Tenth Doctor.

UNIT was called on again to defend London - conveniently for budgetary requirements, representing all of Earth as well - from a Cyberman threat in The Invasion (1968). It would be taken seriously enough in Britain, and by the scripwriters, that the Taskforce - and Lethbridge-Stewart - would return again in 1970, in glorious technicolour, to meet the newly regenerated Third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee. In the legendarily terrifying Spearhead from Space (1970), display dummies come to life and smash through windows to murder shoppers in an orgy of destruction that alarmed infamous moral TV watchdog, Mary Whitehouse.

The Third Doctor was stranded on Earth by the Time Lords, and became UNIT's Scientific Advisor, helping defend the planet against various alien invasions. Ironically, the Doctor and the Brigadier had a strained relationship at this time - the Doctor was frustrated by being denied his freedom to roam time and space, and being stranded on the comparatively-primitive Earth.

The Brigadier knew his ally was reluctant to co-operate with UNIT, and in one memorable instance overruled the Doctor, during Doctor Who and the Silurians (1970) when he authorised the bombing of a nest of Silurian aliens beneath the Earth's surface - where the Doctor hoped for diplomacy, Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT knew the warlike aliens would never countenance peace.

The opportunity to work again with William Hartnell - albeit in a detached sense - arose again with filming on The Three Doctors (1972), the first 'multi-Doctor' story where the time travelling Doctor runs into his earlier - or later - incarnations!

Along with th e Second and Third Doctor, the Brigadier was abducted to an anti-matter universe by Omega, an insane Time Lord and one founder of the Doctor's very society. The day is saved amusingly by the Second Doctor and his musical recorder, and the Brigadier and company are returned to our universe, having appeared with all three previous incarnations of the famous Time Lord.

Of his personal favourites, Nicholas reportedly recalls another universe jumping story, that of Inferno (1970) in which the Third Doctor travels to a parallel universe where he encounteres an Orwellian, 1984-esque version of our Earth. The Lethbridge-Stewart of this world is a deliciously-evil fascist officer called the Brigade Leader, sporting an eyepatch and a surly attitude. Fittingly enough, this twisted man is gunned down by a subordinate, the previously genteel Liz Shaw, and the Doctor returns to our world with greater suspicion of his host...only to end the episode stranded in a rubbish tip, asking for UNIT assistance!

Unique amongst characters in Doctor Who, the Brigadier is present in the first episode with Jon Pertwee, as well as his regeneration into Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor in Robot (1974).

With characteristic unflappability, as the Third Doctor begins his regeneration on the floor of his UNIT lab, the Brigadier remarks "Here we go again", now an old hand at the whole Time Lord regeneration business. However, the manic Fourth Doctor is a universe away from his erudite predecessor, and his adventures take place increasingly away from Earth. First though, he saves the world from nuclear devastation - how topical! - by defeating the eponymous menace of the episode, and as the Brigadier arrives at the Doctor's lab to extend a formal invitation to Buckingham Palace, the TARDIS dematerialises, leaving the UNIT officer to observe that Her Majesty will have to endure the delay. Nonetheless, the Doctor's relationship with the monarchy is as entrenched as any other British tradition...

The Doctor would co-operate only briefly with Earth and UNIT, most memorably during Terror of the Zygons (1975) when the Brigadier co-ordinates a battle with the impressive Zygons, and the Doctor tackles the Loch Nes s Monster as it attacks London from the Thames. Quite a resume for a single episode! The Brigadier, as befits an officer of the Scots Guards, serves in a kilt but unfortunately visual evidence does not remain!

The Brigadier's next encounter with the Doctor comes some time after his regeneration into Peter Davison's Fifth Doctor. In Mawdryn Undead (1983) whilst careening helpless ly through time, the Doctor must try and understand why the Brigadier cannot remember him at all after 1977. When a Brigadier from '77 meets himself from '83, they touch hands in surprise, causing the fantastically-named Blinovitch Limitation Effect, and save the day for all involved. All this, whilst retired from UNIT and teaching A-Level mathematics? Not bad work, Lethbridge-Stewart!

More time-travelling for our long-suffering officer occurs in legendar y multi-Doctor story
The Five Doctors (1983). Whilst attending a UNIT reunion, the retired Brigadier meets the Second Doctor - just as they are abducted through time and space to the Doctor's homeworld of Gallifrey. There adventures are underfoot as every incarnation of the Doctor is pitted against the safari-park of enemies the Time Lords have amassed - although the sadly departed William Hartnell is replaced by Richard Hurndell portraying the First Doctor, and Fourth Doctor actor Tom Baker

declined with (reportedly) some ill-grace, a decision he is recorded to have regretted. The Brigadier, an experienced hand at the confusingly-arranged world of the Doctor, takes it all in his military stride and after shaking hands and speaking warmly with the Third Doctor he clearly misses, comments "Wonderful chap...all of them!", a line delivered so delightfully that it embodies all the admirable qualities of the Brigadier, and Courtney's excellent acting.

Placing the Brigadier's encounter with Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor is a little more difficult. Certainly, the only time they co-operated on screen was the deplorable Dimensions in Time (1993), produced for Children in Need, and featuring every doctor from the Third to the Seventh - being as it was made after Doctor Who's untimely demise in 1989. It's of debatable canonicity, and dismissive quality.
Instead, first encounters between the Sixth Doctor and the Brigadier would be described both in Gary Russell's Business Unusual (1997), one of the Past Doctor Adventures novels from BBC Books, and The Spectre of Lanyon Moor (2000) from the Big Finish Audios, who would count on both actors to produce many audio stories for years after the show concluded, and was rebooted in 2005.

Then, we moved into the closing days of Doctor Who, under the stewardship of Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor. The stage is set for a final battle between UNIT and Mordred's Knights of King Arthur's era (or the BBC and John Nathan-Turner's Doctor Who!) in Battlefield (1989). The Seventh Doctor calls for the retired Lethbridge-Stewart to abandon his gardening and wife Doris (mentioned previously in Planet of the Spiders, 1974) and come to take command of UNIT, which he does - with transport of the Doctor's own, his famous roadster Bessie.
The battle would be fierce, although the Doctor successfully foiled the evil sorceress Morgaine at every turn. However, she eventually unleashed the extra-dimensional beast known as the Destroyer on our universe, confident that the pacifist Doctor would find it difficult in the extreme to kill the Destroyer. In his stead was Earth's most dedicated defender, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart - who knocked out the Doctor so he could confront the Destroyer without distraction! Armed only with a single revolver, filled with silver bullets, he single-handedly saves Earth...bringing down an entire castle on his head. A distraught Doctor is mourning the loss of his oldest friend, until the hardy soldier recovers and flippantly dismisses the Time Lord's fears.

Battlefield is one of my personal favourite episodes. There are so many touching moments between the Doctor and the Brigadier, such as the line "Ah. Women. Not really my field." to which the Doctor responds "Don't worry Brigadier, people will be shooting at you soon."
When he confronts Morgaine the Sorceress, she describes Lethbridge-Stewart as "Steeped in blood" and threatens to kill the Brigadier the next time she sees him. Which she does, in two thousand years, when Sara Kingdom (played by Jean Marsh, actress behind Morgaine) murders Agent Bret Vyon (Nicholas Courtney) in The Daleks Masterplan (1965)! It's that kind of circular story-telling and complex continuity that makes Classic Who absolutely engrossing...

That was the swansong for the Brigadier, the United Nations Taskforce and Doctor Who. Paul McGann's involvement as the Eighth Doctor in the abortive Doctor Who: The Enemy Within (1996) did not involve Nicholas Courtney. Nonetheless the Brigadier met the eighth incarnation of his old friend in the last Virgin New Adventure novel, Dying Days (1997) and the actors both co-operated on the Big Finish Audio Minuet in Hell (2001), sealing their relationship again. After the events of Dying Days, the Brigadier received a much-deserved promotion to General, but preferred to retain his older rank as a descriptive!

The Audios and Novels continued enthusiastically throughout this drought of televised Doctor Who adventures. By 2005 the show had been resurrected, with Christopher Eccleston portraying the Ninth Doctor. UNIT is mentioned and features in Aliens of London and World War Three (2005) but the Brigadier is not present. Probably for the best, as UNIT becomes even more cannon-fodder than it was in the show's previous incarnation.

The Brigadier was also not able to meet with David Tennant's Tenth Doctor in the show, but enthusiastic writers and artists had the two characters meet in the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip The Warkeeper's Crown (2007).

By the following year, UNIT would return in force and in a brief, touching nod to the Brigadier's character, the Tenth Doctor muses out loud about the absence of his longest-serving human friend and ally in The Poison Sky (2008)...

Nicholas Courtney eventually returns to portray the Brigadier in 2008, but on Doctor Who spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures, ironically reuniting him with another 1970s staple of Who action, Sarah-Jane Smith as played by Elisabeth Sladen! With thanks to Steve Goble who blogged about the particular episode in question - Enemy of the Bane (2008) - and included two photos that make a beautiful comparison between the two eras, and reproduced below.

On a sadder note, according to writer and producer Russell T Davies' book, Courtney was considered a late alternative to having current companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) feature in the episode instead, but who could not be made available. Whatever the motivation, this inclusion of the Brigadier was hugely beneficial, hopefully inspiring the Sarah Jane Adventures' young audience to find out more about this elderly but vigorous ally of their hero, and discovering the hugely entertaining UNIT adventures of their parents generation.

We will never discover if the Brigadier had any place in the Eleventh Doctor's world, as played by Matt Smith. His sudden passing a few days ago robbed a whole generation of fans the chance to see him for the first time - or return, for those of us with longer generations.

Critics will note I do not make much mention of the 'extended universe' of Doctor Who, which features a much wider selection of encounters between the Brigadier and the Time Lord. Due to the immense scope of these novels, audio dramas, comics, computer games, fan stories, etctera, I would be overwhelmed immediately. Nor would I confidently talk about Nicholas Courtney as the actor, who was reportedly an enthusiastic attendee at the many conventions - as I was sadly never able to meet the man personally. I will leave such recollections to those with the delightful, funny and inspiring anecdotes of meeting him, which I have read with real enjoyment over the past few days.

Instead, I've taken us on a lengthy trawl back through one of the most astounding histories of a supporting character, in one of the most popular - perhaps the most definitive - science fiction television shows ever. The Brigadier's longevity and inarguable popularity stems from his relationship with the audience. We must never forget that the Doctor is a mysterious alien being, dedicated to saving our world from its many dangers and enemies, but ultimately a man of another time and space entirely.
Lethbridge-Stewart is the everyman we can connect with, a mortal human who risks his life even more than the Doctor, and saves the day time and again. It is his face and presence that has remained unchanging for forty years whilst the Doctor comes and goes - it is his unflappable, steadfast nature that always offsets the Doctor's madcap schemes, it is his virtue and dedication that often rescues our titular hero from whatever scrape he's landed himself in this week.

There is some debate about whether or not the Brigadier constitutes a 'companion' in the show's convoluted sense of continuity. When you consider the grounds for what constitutes a companion - and Amy Pond's cast-iron reinforcement of every negative stereotype that has applied to 'the Doctor's woman' - I would say the Brigadier is about as far from the category as you can get.

And rightly so, too. There have been, and will be, many companions. There has been, and never will be again, one Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart.

With Thanks - The TARDIS Wiki, the Daily Mail website, the Internet Movie Database , and a whole host of blogs. No infringement intended, no hotlinking pre-meditated, please direct all queries to the Space-Time Telegraph!

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