Saturday, 26 February 2011

Last Post For The Brigadier

Nicholas Courtney, who died earlier this week, spanned three decades of Doctor Who, and acted with all but two of the Doctor’s incarnations during the ‘classic’ series. He first appeared in the Dalek’s Master Plan in 1965, during the William Hartnell era, as the gruff and harshly militaristic space security service officer Bret Vyon. In a Terry Nation story with a characteristically anti-authoritarian slant and high casualty rate, Courtney was gunned down in cold blood after a few episodes. But he returned three years later in The Web of Fear as the character for whom he will be remembered, Brigadier Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart – although at this point, he was only a humble Colonel. Sadly, this initial appearance, in which he tackled the incursions of an army of robot Yeti into the London Underground system alongside Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, has fallen victim to the BBC policy of re-using video tape, wiping whatever happened to be on it. We first get a glimpse of him in a later Troughton story, The Invasion, now promoted to his familiar rank and seeing off cadres of Cybermen who emerge from the sewers to march through the streets of London. The Brigadier became a regular character as the head of the UNIT team during the Jon Pertwee years. The Doctor was inveigled into reluctantly becoming UNIT’s scientific advisor whilst he was exiled on Earth. The Brigadier explained UNIT’s role to new recruit Liz Shaw (Caroline John) in Pertwee’s first story, Spearhead From Space: ‘We deal with the odd, the unexplained. Anything on Earth…or beyond’.

Inferno - the 'evil' Brigadier
One of the many pleasures of the Pertwee era (which, if pushed, I would cite as my favourite) is the way in which the relationship between the Doctor and the Brigadier develops from initial hostility and mutual distrust to one of warmth and friendship. By the time of Pertwee’s final story, Planet of the Spiders, it has progressed far enough for the Doctor to cease addressing the Brigadier by his military rank and call him Alastair. The Brigadier, of course, is unable to reciprocate such first name intimacies. The Doctor remains The Doctor. In the early stories, the Brigadier, with his rigid adherence to military discipline and the application of force as a first resort, almost becomes a secondary adversary for the Doctor, who never hesitates to voice the full force of his contempt. He is particularly furious at the Brigadier’s apparent destruction of the Silurians with explosives at the end of Doctor Who and the Silurians. Given the fact that the subterraenean race of reptiles have just made a pretty decent stab at wiping out the human race with an engineered virus, it doesn’t seem like a wholly disproportionate response, however. Courtney has fun playing his evil, parallel world double in Inferno, complete with scar and eyepatch. This variant on his character highlights the ambiguity inherent in the Brigadier’s role in the early episodes. The ‘other’ Brigadier (or Brigade Leader) is a ruthless fascist and, in the face of an apocalyptic eruption of the earth’s core, a coward bent on self-preservation at any cost. There is a hint that such ignoble characteristics might lurk beneath the surface of the Brigadier’s stiff military bearing and, in line with the series’ ever-present streak of anarchy, that this might be inherent in the military mentality itself.

Enjoying some 'manoeuvres'
But it’s not a line which is pursued, and the Brigadier becomes more likeable and human as time goes by, in no small part due to Courtney’s performance. When Jo Grant (Katy Manning) and The Master (Roger Delgado) joined the regular cast in Terror of the Autons (yet to make it to dvd re-issue), a perfect balancing of characters was achieved, and there was a real sense of a group of actors who enjoyed working with each other. The Brigadier was very much the straight man, his brusque manner and conventional views embodied in the swagger stick he would grasp firmly in his brown leather glove, its end tucked purposefully under his arm, waiting to be pointed at the target of attack or at some neatly outlined plan drawn on a chalk board. He was the perfect foil for the Doctor, rolling his eyes or sighing in exasperation at his latest impossible plan which rode roughshod over authorised procedure. He became noticeably more relaxed as the Pertwee era progressed, and the once the Doctor was released from his exile and revisited Earth on a voluntary basis, an odd couple friendship began to emerge. By the time of The Green Death, the Brig was no longer ordering the Doctor about, but appealing to his sense of curiosity. Attempting to interrupt his tinkering, he draws his attention to an inexplicable sickness in South Wales and says ‘but Doctor, it’s exactly your cup of tea; this fellow’s bright green, apparently – and dead’. We get to see the Brig in his civvies in this story, as he travels up to the Welsh valleys in an unofficial capacity, giving Jo a lift in his rather racy little white sports car. He sports a check jacket and flat cap with a sheepskin coat whilst out and about, and dresses down in a blazer and club tie for an evening’s relaxation. He gets on surprisingly well with the commune dwelling eco-hippies in this story, enjoying a glass or two of elderberry wine whilst puffing on a post dinner cigar, and even sampling some of Dr Jones’ experimental fungal meat substitute. By the time of Planet of the Spiders, Pertwee’s final story, he and the Doctor were enjoying a night out at a variety show together, the Brig particularly perking up at the manoeuvres of an exotic dancer, which he suggests could be adapted for his men. However relaxed the Brig might become in the company of Jo and the Doctor, though, poor old Sergeant Benton would soon receive an ear bashing if he ever attempted to partake in such camaraderie or dared to smirk at one of the Doctor’s lightly mocking comments. He would swiftly be despatched to perform some onerous task with a curtly barked ‘and that’s an order, Sergeant Benton!’ as a verbal boot up the jacksie.

The Brigadier bridged the transition between the Pertwee and Tom Baker eras, witnessing the regeneration and leading UNIT once more for Baker’s first story Robot (and, it has to be said, making a fairly disastrous tactical blunder which leads to the mechanical monster growing to huge, Manga-style proportions). That was largely it for UNIT, but the Brigadier returned in Mawdryn Undead in 1983, during the Peter Davison era. Here, Lethbridge-Stewart has retired to teach maths at a public school, and we meet him both in 1983 and 1977. Courtney gets the chance to bring out the Brigadier’s more sensitive side, portraying his confusion and fear as the Doctor re-ignites suppressed memories. The centrality of the Brigadier to Doctor Who was confirmed both by the popularity of this story and by his return, later in the year, in the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors. At the conclusion of this story, he was able to warmly inform the gathered incarnations, that they were ‘splendid fellows…all of you’. He almost met his end, having been summoned from his comfortable retirement, in the 1989 story Battlefield, in an act of noble sacrifice as he was caught in the crossfire between warring factions of reawakened Arthurian archetypes. But he lived to return to a quiet life in his country house with his wife Doris (perhaps the same Doris alluded to in the scene outlined below). He made an enjoyable return a couple of years ago in a two part story in the Sarah Jane Adventures. By now he was an outsider helping the Doctor’s former assistant to infiltrate the military establishment he once represented from the outside. So in effect, his appearances span almost the entire history of Doctor Who, from 1965 to 2008. It’s a shame he never got to appear opposite any of the recent post-revival Doctors. He would have been a great foil for Matt Smith, sighing with an ‘I’ve seen it all before’ air at his antic behaviour. He’d roll his eyes at the assertion that ‘bow ties are cool’. The club tie – now that’s the thing. By the way of a small tribute, here are some favourite moments:

Inside the Tardis with Jo, the second Doctor and his 'damn fool flute'
In The Three Doctors, the Brigadier, along with Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, summarily plucked from his own time stream, and the confused Sergeant Benton, dashes for safety into the TARDIS and witnesses its counterintuitive interior for the first time. After an initial moment of shock and startlement, a knowing look settles onto his face and he says, as if clearing up a troubling anomaly in the accounts, ‘so this is what you’ve been doing with UNIT funds and equipment all this time’. Later, driven to distraction by the second Doctor’s seemingly absent-minded rambling and ill-timed concern for the whereabouts of his recorder whilst mobile cairns of fake electric-fire coals are rampaging outside, he says, rising to a final pitch of hysterical disbelief, ‘for the last time, will you let me out of this madhouse. My place is with the men out there, trying to do something about that…whatever it is out there…not standing about here messing around looking for SOME DAMN FOOL FLUTE!’

Memories of Doris
In The Planet of the Spiders, the Doctor asks the Brigadier for a personal item which a stage psychic he is conducting an experiment upon in his lab can handle, retrieving (with the aid of a bit of technological wizardry the Doctor has knocked together) residual memories associated with it. He proffers his watch. The psychic begins to receive some vague impressions. ‘This watch was given to you 11 years ago’, he suggests. ‘You received it in a hotel…a hotel by the sea. Brighton, was it? From a young lady called Doris. She said it was to mark her gratitude…’ The Brigadier loudly interrupts, declaring ‘yes, all true, absolutely spot on’ and bringing the experiment to a premature conclusion. ‘Well, surely you’ve got enough, Doctor’, he adds. ‘A little too much, Alastair’, the Doctor replies, with a wry smile. In The Daemons, a gargoyle springs into the path of the UNIT troops in the graveyard of a country church, animate and crouched ready to spring. Unruffled, the Brigadier shouts out his orders: ‘Jenkins…chap with wings there. Five rounds rapid’. In Robot, Tom Baker’s first story, and the last of that era of UNIT tales, the he laments the recurrent failure of all known weaponry at his command to put the slightest dent into the forces he has faced over the years as the bullets ricochet off the tin leviathan towering above his men. ‘You know, just once’, he ponders, ‘I’d like to meet an alien menace that wasn’t immune to bullets’.

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