Thursday, February 24, 2011

Doctor Who: Memories of the Brigadier

Nicholas Courtney, the actor who played the legendary Doctor Who character Brigadier Sir Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, passed away two days ago at the age of 81 following a long battle with cancer.  Although the Brigadier wasn't an official companion who chose to travel in time and space with the Doctor, he was about as close as you could get, often acting as a version of Dr. John Watson to the Doctor's Sherlock Holmes.

Unlike most fans who were introduced to the Brigadier during the Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker eras, my first experience watching the character was in the Peter Davison episode "Mawdryn Undead."  Having retired from the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT), Lethbridge-Stewart took a position as a A-Levels mathematics teacher at Brendon Public School.  He suffered, we soon learned, from a state of partial amnesia, caused by the Blinovitch Limitation Effect when two Brigadiers, one from 1977, another from 1983, touched and created an energy discharge. 

My own Doctor Who experience had been a whole twelve weeks old by this point, but I recall being very taken with the character and after seeing the brief flashback where the Brigadier regains his memories, I gathered there were earlier appearances with previous Doctors that I wanted -- no, needed -- to learn more about.  This curiosity about the Brigadier was sealed when I next saw him in "The Five Doctors," finding his scenes with the Second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton, to be very entertaining and showcasing his relationship as a the Doctor's longtime friend and ally.

The local PBS station airing weekly Doctor Who stories, WVIZ out of Cleveland, Ohio, then went back and cycled through the Tom Baker era again, which allowed me to catch up on some earlier Brigadier appearances.  (Remember, back in the Stone Age of 1985, there was nothing so convenient as the internets and YouTube or iTunes to feed a specific Doctor Who fix at will using a few clicks of a mouse.)  I watched "Robot," the first Tom Baker story, and saw the Brig's reaction to the Doctor regenerating, revealing that he knew about, but hadn't seen, another previous regeneration.  I gathered this was the regeneration from Troughton to Pertwee, but again with such limited resources of the time, all I could do was wonder, wait and hope that I would eventually find out the circumstances behind the comment.

After cycling through the Davison stories again and then Colin Baker's, where I was dismayed that there was no appearance by the Brigadier, WVIZ finally aired the Jon Pertwee era.  Although the Pertwee era isn't one of my top favorites, it still has a number of must-watch stories, starting off with the classic "Spearhead from Space."  At long last, I was able to see the newly-regenerated Third Doctor be exiled to Earth by the Time Lords and hook up with the Brigadier and UNIT out of a mutually beneficial arrangement.  It was here and in several episodes that followed, where the core of the Doctor's friendship with the Brig was formed, even when the Doctor was being written as the liberal Dove-like ideological opponent to the Brigadier's conservative, Hawkish viewpoint.  Despite their occasional arguments, the Doctor knew he could rely on the Brigadier to order "Five rounds rapid" whenever some alien menace needed to be shot at, regardless of how futile the gesture ultimately was.  The Brigadier was the perfect solider, something the Doctor seems to need at times, as we eventually learn with future companion Martha Jones.

WVIZ cycled through the rest of Pertwee's episodes, then went back to the very beginning with WIlliam Hartnell and "An Unearthly Child" and cycled all the way through the entire series, understandably skipping past the incomplete or entirely missing Hartnell and Troughton stories.  Ultimately, though, I was finally able to watch the Brigadier in the Sylvester McCoy era story "Battlefield," his final official appearance on Doctor Who.

Although I had become used to the notion of the Brigadier getting older after seeing "Mawdryn Undead," it now seems strangely fitting that "Battlefield" was his final Doctor Who story.  He had retired and settled down with his second wife, Doris, but came back for one last adventure to help the Seventh Doctor and his UNIT successor, Brigadier Winifred Bambera.  The story was a great showcase for Nicholas Courtney, who got a proper sendoff for his beloved character even if we didn't know it at the time.  I later learned that there was talk about killing the Brigadier off in this story, but that was thankfully changed, if only so we had the potential to see him again somewhere, somewhen, down the road.

Even with Doctor Who's cancellation in 1989, there were several more appearances by the Brigadier in various novels, comic strips in Doctor Who Magazine, Big Finish audio adventures (where he met the Eighth Doctor in "Minuet in Hell"), and even the non-canonical adventure "Dimensions in Time" for the Children In Need charity telethon.  If nothing else, this poorly-executed story was good for keeping Courtney's streak of meeting the First through Eighth Doctors alive, however brief the actual meeting turned out to be.  These were some wonderful nods to fandom, to be certain, but they obviously paled in comparison to another full-fledged TV appearance by the Brigadier.

In 2008, we saw the last televised appearance of Brigadier -- now Sir -- Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart in an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures entitled "Enemy of the Bane."  Despite the occasional mention on the current series of Doctor Who that started in 2005, Courtney never returned to the series, much to many fans' disappointment.  He did, however, get a reunion with former Doctor Who actress Elisabeth Sladen in her Sarah Jane Smith spinoff series, which revealed that the Brigadier was now considered a "Special Envoy" for UNIT, serving on diplomatic missions.  At his advanced age, the Brigadier is merely a plot device to advance the story, but he does provide the necessary charm of nostalgia to make the story more special, especially in his scenes with Sarah Jane.

Sadly, unless the role is recast at some point, this will probably be it for the Brigadier as a Doctor Who character.  Thankfully, Nicholas Courtney left behind a large number of very entertaining episodes for his fans to enjoy over and over again.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Brigadier, I heartily recommend checking out the episodes listed above and learning for yourselves what a vital part he was in Doctor Who's history.

Splendid fellow...all of him.

1 comment: