Saturday, April 09, 2011


Doctor Who – The Brigadier Selection

One character from Doctor Who occupies a unique position in the series, and a unique place in fans’ hearts. Played by the lovely Nicholas Courtney, who died in February, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce served alongside no fewer than five Doctors in two dozen TV stories on screen, and many more elsewhere. For an idea of why he was so loved, why not try an entirely made up DVD box set – six DVDs, several Doctors, and the one Brigadier (or, as it turns out, more). I’ve picked out a selection that offer his very best moments. Rather than review each story in full, then, I’ve highlighted that particular golden moment – while doing my best to fillet it of spoilers, in case you’ve never seen the story before. But watch out: the last couple inevitably become more and more spoilertastic…

‘The Brigadier Box Set’ and more

The Invasion
“That was just a dozen of them. I’d hate to have to meet a hundred. Forward!”
Newly promoted to Brigadier (“I’ve gone up in the world,” he proudly and wittily explains in his flying HQ in Episode Two, as we’re reintroduced to him by the sight of his arse in tight pants. Nick didn’t think that uniform flattered his bottom, but it looks fine to me) and now in charge, immortally, of the British section of UNIT, what better way is there to remember Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart than leading from the front? The centrepiece of the final episode sees a breathlessly exciting action sequence in which Patrick Troughton’s Doctor is paired with an unlikely ally in a vital mission against the Cybermen, with the Brigadier and his troops following close behind. Grim, claustrophobic location filming and jangling music frame flaming Cyberweapons in pitched battle against grenades, bazookas and the Brig barking orders. In their first story, UNIT are as professional and dangerous as they’ll ever be.

In the novelisation, delightfully, the TV version’s anonymous Russian base that provides missile support against the Cybermen is named as the “Nykortny Space Centre”. Quite right, too.

Spearhead From Space
“I know nothing about a man from space.”
The Brigadier is best known as a regular figure in the series throughout two-thirds of Jon Pertwee’s stories, and he’s essentially the lead for that Doctor’s first adventure. Watch him – X-File on the shelf behind him – introducing Dr Liz Shaw and the viewers to UNIT (“Security. Rather amusing, don’t you think? Oh, you don’t”), pedeconferencing with his Captain three decades before The West Wing, treating the Doctor as a cross between imposter and errant child, and issuing orders to shoot to kill on British soil. What’s not to love? Assured, compelling, trustworthy, he’s clearly in charge of the series; Doctor Who looks suddenly expensive, efficient and military. Fortunately, that won’t last! I reviewed the bare-bones original DVD quite some time ago, and Spearhead From Space is to be reissued in Special Edition form with its first sequel one month from today. When you pick it up, whip to half-way through Episode 1 for a quite remarkable moment when the Brigadier arrives on the scene only to find the press have been tipped off about the strange goings-on. Directed like real news footage, with cameras, mikes and journalists jostling into shot, the Brigadier’s never been more utterly believable than brusquely dismissing the press; the book lets him come up with a cover story, but on screen he delightfully switches from calm control to looking like he wants them all shot. Immediately afterwards, he orders his troops to use live ammunition (no connection!).

Mind you, the much-copied very best scene of all from the story comes along in Episode 4, with the Brigadier only coming in at the end to react (“Try the army! Well, keep trying!”) and report on the aftermath: it involves the most aggressive January sales you’ve ever seen…

This one’s a bit more spoilery, but it’s difficult to miss what the twist is when he’s on the cover of the DVD:

“But I don’t exist in your world!”
“Then you won’t feel the bullets when we shoot you.”
Jon Pertwee’s first season as the Doctor is without a doubt the high point for the Brigadier; he’s not just in every story but at the centre of it, and sometimes a good deal more dangerous than even the Doctor is prepared for – particularly when their relationship comes close to tearing apart in the superb Doctor Who and the Silurians. If The Ambassadors of Death was out on DVD yet, it’d be very tempting just to pick those four tales as a Brigadier box set; not least because over the course of the season he moves from lead, to threat, to action hero and Mulder, to the villain in the series finale, Inferno, just as we’ve grown fond of him. In Episode 3, the Doctor is hurled into an alternative universe where his friends are fascists. And not friendly. The biggest shock is not when the Doctor’s chased by the troops that usually follow his suggestions, but when the bullying Brigade-Leader Lethbridge-Stewart is revealed (leading to perhaps the best-known actors’ anecdote in the history of Doctor Who. Fortunately, it’s told twice on the DVD to save it for posterity). Nick Courtney makes him such a different character to our very own Brig that the gripping story of the parallel world becomes far more unsettling; it’s an absolutely terrific double performance, contrasting the Brigade-Leader’s laid-back arrogance with the Brigadier’s fairness and the Brigadier’s unflappability with his terror at the end of his world.

The Green Death
“No, no, no!”
“But, Doctor, it’s exactly your cup of tea. This fellow’s bright green, apparently, and dead.”
By four years into Pertwee’s time as the Doctor, the Brigadier was a more comfortable figure; perhaps almost cosy. Perhaps the best place to see how he still stole the show is this passionately green liberal tale, where Mr Courtney seemingly effortlessly keeps in character even as his character veers from authoritarian to old softie, from canny investigator to comic relief. And back. Episode One shows off all those sides perfectly, in a more understated way to companion Jo Grant’s storyline. Trying to get a jaded Doctor involved in an investigation, then clashing with idealistic Jo over the desirability of more oil exploitation, he’s clearly become the establishment figure. While he shows that his natural views are rather conservative when talking to his friends, though, the remarkable thing about him is that later in the same episode he clashes with the big business boss that both his inclinations and his orders tell him to go along with – his integrity and intelligence means he still asks those awkward questions. Never mind fiction; if more people did that in life, the world would be a better place. Oddly, it’s every time Lethbridge-Stewart appears here out of uniform (steady; I mean in civvies) that he seems to get more shrewd and sensible.

This next one’s going to have something more of a spoiler in it than the ones above, and the one after gives the story away massively. Just so you know.

Mawdryn Undead
“Well, bless my soul. So you’ve done it again, Doctor!”
A decade after the Brigadier’s glory days, in this melancholy story Peter Davison’s Doctor returns to find him retired to a minor teaching post – and without even his memories of saving the world to show for it (he’s still stuck with a moody alien exile, but can’t even spot him). The Doctor’s prompts push a haunted Lethbridge-Stewart into a reverie of Yeti, Cybermen, Axons, Daleks, the Robot, Zygons and Doctors (or, if you’re watching the DVD Special Edition, Yeti, Cybermen, Silurians, the Master, Axons, Bok, Omega, the Robot, Zygons, curiously little Patrick Troughton and curiously much Tom Baker), all to glorious music. But everything’s not all right in a flash, or flashback: the Doctor unwisely prods at the reason for his memory loss, and you feel hurt for both of them when his old friend lashes out (watch the teacup). Cleverly, the scenes of the Brigadier not being himself are intercut with scenes of a Doctor that isn’t – then, suddenly, Nick Courtney pulls off a much more subtle but in some ways even more startling double role to his performance in Inferno, playing a younger, starchier and slimmer (how did he do that?) self. He’s terribly engaging, and more fragile than we’ve ever seen him, even getting a nonchalant comeback to the Doctor’s typical “You never did understand the interrelation of time” and a recognition of just how essential he is from one of the Doctor’s contemporary companions: “Who is that person?” asks Nyssa; “Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, of course,” replies Tegan impatiently, as if to say, ‘Don’t you watch Doctor Who?’

The Brigadier looks marvellous striding up to his helicopter (or crawling away from it) in my next choice, and who could be better recognising the Doctor, unintroduced? But there’s really just one fantastic moment to choose from the last story, and it’s part of the climax – so if you haven’t seen it, look away now:

“Pitiful! Can this world do no better than you as a champion?”
“Probably. I just do the best I can.”
Although the Brigadier’s appeared in many novels, comic strips and audio adventures since the original run of TV Doctor Who finished, and rejoined the world of TV’s Doctor Who for one last hurrah in The Sarah Jane Adventures: Enemy of the Bane, it’s difficult to think of a better send-off than his starring role opposite Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor in Battlefield, which opened the final season of the Twentieth Century. The story itself has its faults, but the Brigadier himself, lovingly written, shines. Called unwillingly back to be a man of action – “steeped in blood” – he takes the Doctor’s role of saving the world, believing it’s his duty, knowing that it’ll probably kill him… But determined to live to fight another day, if he can. Here, the Brigadier is hurled through a wall, then caught in an explosion, then underestimated by a Doctor and audience that mourn him in advance. And he’s never had a more heart-punchingly heroic scene than standing alone – standing firm – against a demon that wants to destroy the world.

I could have picked so many stories; the Brigadier was a lead character in the first Doctor Who story I ever saw, Tom Baker’s debut Robot, and in so many of the early novels that kept me enthralled. Sadly, the BBC have destroyed most of Nicholas Courtney’s first Doctor Who story, The Daleks’ Master Plan – in which he plays not the Brigadier, but Space Security Agent Bret Vyon – though you can still find him in action in some of it in the Lost In Time DVD set, and the whole epic soundtrack on CD. The same is true of then-Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart’s introductory story, The Web of Fear. I’ve pictured that above, a story that you can never see as audiences at the time saw it – both literally (thanks again, BBC) and for the character’s initial part as a whodunit suspect, before we know what a splendid chap he’ll turn out to be. I’ve added Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion (aka Spearhead From Space, again) to the pile as one of the best novelisations featuring the Brigadier, this time on the cover, and now read in full on CD by Caroline John, one of eight actors who’ve given us their own Brigadier in audiobook form. The Spectre of Lanyon Moor sees Nicholas Courtney himself return to the role on CD, in a full-cast adventure from Big Finish; and, last but not least, of all the many original novels of the Brigadier, none is finer and none makes him more central than Paul Cornell’s gorgeous The Shadows of Avalon. It revisits many of the themes of Battlefield, fashions the Brigadier into a character of myth, and is the only Doctor Who that makes me cry every time. Nick Courtney’s passing will make that even more guaranteed.

Strange to think I could love a soldier character so much, but I always did, and he helped make me a Liberal into the bargain. The Brigadier always seemed so true, and far more permanent than any Doctor; I hope trying out my ‘DVD box set’ will explain why more eloquently than I ever could. And if you watch the many extra features, I hope, too, that you’ll get a sense of why Nicholas Courtney himself will be so missed. I can’t get to many Doctor Who events any more, but if I do ever manage the odd one or two they’ll seem much emptier without Nick Courtney at them. I met him quite a few times, and he was always kind, funny, and uniquely beloved. A gent.

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