I heard today that Nicholas Courtney recently passed away peacefully. He was 81. My condolences to his family and friends – in the larger community of Doctor Who fandom, he was greatly loved and respected, which is really the best thing any of us can leave behind.
While he had a long and varied acting career, the role he will most be associated with is Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart in Doctor Who. Courtney first stepped into the part in 1968 in The Web of Fear, and most recently in 2008 reprised the character in “Enemy of the Bane,” in an episode of spin off show The Sarah Jane Adventures. That’s forty years!
The Web of Fear and its sequel, The Invasion, both worked as a kind of audition for the UNIT concept, which was to be a central hub of the show in the 1970’s. As first Colonel and later Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Nicholas Courtney was the chap who had to deal with Yeti invading the underground, and then Cybermen taking over London. The Doctor was more of an annoyance than anything to him, though he became an ally pretty quickly, and performed what could have been a fairly uninteresting guest role with great charisma and warmth.
Like most people, I fell in love with the Brig during the Jon Pertwee Years. When Doctor Who was relaunched in 1970, in colour and with a new style and format, Pertwee’s Doctor was matched not only with a girl assistant, but with a family. UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) was based on the idea that, if the Earth gets invaded by aliens quite as often as Doctor Who tends to suggest, surely there should be some kind of military force set up to combat said threats. This organisation, Lethbridge Stewart himself and Sgt Benton had all been introduced during the Troughton Years, but became the centrepiece of the new look version of the show.
Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, exiled from space adventuring, was teamed with this organisation, with an effect somewhat similar to what happens when Lestrade calls in Sherlock Holmes to deal with a case – only UNIT as a whole were a touch more fond of the Doctor. The first season of this era put the Brigadier up against not only the Doctor’s disapproval of shooting things, but also the chill disapproval of Dr Liz Shaw, who disliked anything to do with the military. After she left, the Brig himself chose the rather scatty but compliant Jo, to ensure that the Doctor’s companion was someone on the payroll. Later, he and Sarah Jane bonded over the Doctor’s erratic nature, once the TARDIS was fully working and UNIT’s scientific advisor could just vanish any time he wanted… and often did.
Nicholas Courtney played the Brig as a traditional military man from the beginning – clipped, no-nonsense, and with a tendency to pull out explosives when he sees aliens. The Doctor, as his scientific advisor, regularly told him how he was doing it wrong. While some stories hinged on the conflict between their two methods, on the whole they made a pretty good team. The Brigadier is probably one of the characters who showed most development in the 70’s era of Classic Who, as he went from a career officer who had only seen a couple of weird things in his life, to an alien specialist who had been there, seen that and bought the t-shirt. He still had faith, though, determined to find, someday, the alien menace who WOULD be conquered by bullets.
Infamously, even when faced with the ultimate impossible, a flying gargoyle in a small English village, the Brigadier responded with aplomb: “Chap with the wings! Five rounds rapid.” He buried the Silurians, caused a toxic maggot invasion by blowing up some caves he shouldn’t have, regularly lost the villainous Master ten minutes after capturing him, and yet was utterly believable as a competent leader who coped admirably with being constantly in over his head. While the Brigadier was often written as a bit of a duffer, there only to contrast with the Doctor’s brilliance (shades of Watson rather than Lestrade), Nicholas Courtney always played him with great dignity. The pay off was that the world-weary Lethbridge-Stewart often got some of the best lines, and even when the dialogue wasn’t there for him, he only had to lift a cynical eyebrow to make his opinion clearly felt.
The Three Doctors would have to be one of my favourite Brigadier stories, as we not only have him come face to face with his “old” Doctor, but he also sees inside the TARDIS for the first time, and really travels to another world. Also there’s the classic ‘bullet-sucking’ monsters that are so frustrating for the poor dear. I also especially love him towards the end of the Pertwee era – dancing with hippies in The Green Death, dealing stiff-upper-lip style with the betrayal of one of his best men, and embarrassedly hiding a moment of weakness when a mind reader gets under his skin in Planet of the Spiders. The most soldiery soldier of them all was also a great big squishy marshmallow underneath the uniform – the science fictional equivalent of Mr Badger in Wind in the Willows.
The ladies were always “Miss Shaw,” “Miss Grant,” and “Miss Smith” to him. He was enough of a chauvinist that it didn’t occur to him to call Liz “Doctor Shaw.”
When the Third Doctor died and regenerated, all we got from the Brigadier was “here we go again,” though he secretly seemed pleased that, unlike Sarah, he knew what was coming. And this time, he got to see how it happens!
The Fourth Doctor/Tom Baker’s first story, Robot, follows a similar formula to most of Pertwee’s UNIT stories, though it’s clear throughout that this is a different man, and that he feels little attachment to or obligation to UNIT or the Brigadier. Once that first adventure is done, the Doctor flits off into space with Sarah Jane and Harry Sullivan, leaving the rest of the old team behind. They returned a season later for Terror of the Zygons, which was a lovely swansong for Courtney’s Brigadier character, featuring many of the things that made him such an entertaining character: snappy dialogue, dry wit, and fighting aliens. In this case, the Loch Ness Monster AND aliens.
From this point on, the Brigadier became a favourite point of nostalgia for Doctor Who fans and the production team. He turned up in Mawdryn Undead (1983) as a school teacher with a haunted past, seeming to have left his past as a soldier behind him. This story, originally written to feature actual schoolteacher companion Ian Chesterton, was a bit bewildering, and doesn’t really fit with anything else we see of the Brig’s “retirement” in later episodes. The best explanation is that he went undercover in the boys school (possibly hunting for evidence that, you know, alien political prisoners were being kept there against their will) and then got whacked by Mawdryn’s paradox, thus forgetting everything about his real job for a while. Courtney does do a very good job of what he is given, particularly playing two different versions of himself from different times, but ultimately not quite enough fits in with any other stories! I did like that his former smugness at knowing about the Doctor’s habit of regenerating is turned on its head here, and that he and the Doctor’s regular companions are convinced that he has done it again…Later that same year, the Brigadier returned in the utterly indulgent nostalgiafest that was The Five Doctors – in this, we see him at his retirement party (which surely should be BEFORE Mawdryn Undead, so how does he recognise Tegan and the Fifth Doctor, eh? Eh? Unless he wasn’t *really* retired the first time around…) and for the most part he is teamed with the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton). Their double act is one of the nicest parts of this story, two aging men having one last adventure together. Most of the characters only got one or two special moments in this packed special episode, but the Brigadier gets lots – a stroll down memory lane, a brief reunion with both Yeti and Cybermen, and especially a moment in which he finally gets the better of the Master!
Then came Battlefield (1989) in the final season of Classic Who, an Arthurian epic with guns and explosions. This story, set in 2005, was a love letter to UNIT past and future. We met the Brigadier’s successor: Brigadier Winifred Bambera, a gruff, competent black woman. We also discover that while the Doctor has been gone, UNIT has upgraded their hardware, developing weapons and ammunition specifically tailored to certain alien threats. Now that he can leave the world in good hands, everything was set up for the Brig to meet his death at the hands of a large, explosive demon from another reality… and I believe it was intended that he should do so in this story. But they couldn’t bring themselves to do it – so he was picked out of the rubble and sent home to his wife.
The Brigadier had many futures after leaving UNIT: a lonely, broken maths teacher with some strange trauma in his past, a bluff and hearty old soldier glad to make it to his retirement party even if he had to stop by the Dark Tower on Gallifrey on the way, and finally the relaxed, happy husband, pottering in his garden. His private life had only ever been hinted at in the old UNIT days, but we had once heard a tidbit about a weekend in Brighton with a certain lady called Doris – whom we meet, in Battlefield, as his wife and the reason why he has found peace at least.
Since Nicholas Courtney had appeared as another character in William Hartnell’s First Doctor era, and had appeared alongside the First Doctor in the Five Doctors, only the Sixth/Colin Baker had not appeared with him. To tick the box of this particular fan desire, they made sure to put the two characters together during Dimensions in Time, a charity special which is generally regarded as the worst thing ever associated with the show.
It is probably for this reason that the first appearance Nicholas Courtney made as the Brigadier in the Big Finish audios was alongside the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn, in The Spectre of Lanyon Moor. He then made an appearance in Minuet in Hell, meeting the Eighth Doctor and Charley. I haven’t seen the former but very much enjoyed the latter, particularly the use of amnesia and missed opportunities to keep the Doctor and the Brigadier from recognising each other at first – so that even when he knows the Doctor is about, he gets the wrong man. Once again, your smugness is unfounded, Sir Alastair!
One of the (many!) sad things about Nicholas Courtney’s death is that it puts paid to the hope of fans that he might make an appearance in the core series. The Tenth Doctor made a reference to him in UNIT story The Poison Sky, and was told he is now ‘Sir Alastair’ and that he is stranded in Peru – which makes a change from the old days, when he was always off in ‘Geneva’ when the actor was unavailable. So the Brig was knighted for his contribution to the British Empire! Good to know.
His recent appearance in The Sarah Jane Adventures was not quite what I was hoping for – and yet was lovely. I welled up at seeing him there, all lovely and Brigadier-like, even if he stayed seated at the desk most of the time (NOT very Brigadier-like, but considering he was like 78 at the time, fair enough really). The idea that he and Sarah have stayed in touch and that they still support each other made me very, very happy.
I would kind of like to have seen the Brig deal with Captain Jack, too, but we can’t have everything.
I recently dug out an old free audio play I got with Doctor Who Magazine, called The Coup (available here as a free download from Big Finish). It’s wonderful. We see the Brigadier, pulled out of that elastic band retirement of his, to make a speech – a particularly important speech, at the end of UNIT as it is finally closed, to be replaced by a new organisation. But the Silurians make an appearance, and the Brigadier is faced once more with the aliens he once blew up rather than trying to understand.
This time around, he makes a different choice.
Anyone who rolled their eyes at the cop out conclusion of the Silurian story in the latest season of New Who, anyone who has nostalgic feelings about UNIT and wants to check out how it ended and began again, and most importantly, anyone who ever loved Nicholas Courtney’s portrayal of the Brigadier could do worse than to download that particular play. It’s short, it’s clever, and I defy you not to have a tear in your eye when he finally makes his speech.
Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart (of the clan Stewart!) had many, many epilogues to his character’s journey. This rather obscure one is my favourite, and I hope you like it too.