The End of a Legend

I just went to the Guardian website to check reviews for a new British TV show and was shocked to see that British actor Nicholas Courtney died yesterday aged 81.

Nicholas Courtney is best known for playing Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart in the original Doctor Who. He was the longest serving actor in the series, appearing opposite all seven original Doctors. Well, he only appeared with the Sixth Doctor in a Doctor Who meets Eastenders charity short and some audio dramas, but I guess we can count that one. I’ve also seen him in many other British shows, e.g. in All Creatures Great and Small or The Avengers, but for me and many others he will always be the Brigadier.

Though he first appeared in Doctor Who in 1965 in a different role in a story that is largely lost and was promptly killed off by Daleks and his first proper appearance as the Brigadier in the 1967 story The Web of Fear was wiped by the BBC as well, the highpoint of the Brigadier’s appearances in Doctor Who happened in the early 1970s during the era of the Third and Fourth Doctors.

The Brigadier was in the very first full Doctor Who story I ever saw, Spearhead from Space*, and I liked him at once. He remained my favourite male Doctor Who co-star/companion until Captain Jack Harkness came along and returned to the number one spot once Jack Harkness turned into an irredeemable bastard. It is a testament both to the acting skills of Nicholas Courtney and the likability of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart that I took to the character so immediately, because I usually dislike soldier characters on sight and it takes me a long time to warm up to them. It took my several seasons to warm up to NCIS and that’s only because my mother is a fan. And even now, I still want to strangle Gibbs on occasion. I never wanted to strangle the Brigadier, not even in The Silurians. If anything, I wanted to strangle the Doctor in that one.

It’s very sad that Nicholas Courtney, who had appeared with all seven original Doctors as well as with Number Eight in several audio plays (and audio plays are pretty much all there is of Eight), never got the chance to appear in the revived Doctor Who or even in Torchwood, when it was still good. I mean, come on, you just know that Jack and the Brigadier have shared many a drink and swapped tales about the Doctor since the 1970s. At least, Nicholas Courtney did get to play the Brigadier one last time in 2008 in The Sarah Jane Adventures, the Doctor Who spin-off for younger viewers, but it still wasn’t the same as an actual guest part in Doctor Who. It’s also very telling that Russell T. Davies put Sarah Jane Smith and the Brigadier, two of the most beloved characters from the original series, into a spin-off aimed at children.

When I first encountered UNIT and the Brigadier**, it was the era of the X-Files and its ilk, when military organizations investigating strange occurrences were inevitably shadowy, evil and up to no good. I immediately took to the Brigadier, because here was a leader who handled these issues in a rational manner, he shot at the bad aliens (usually unsuccessfully, since most of them were immune to bullets) and cooperated with the good. And he was absolutely uncorruptible. At the time, the Brigadier was a much welcome counterpoint to the Smoking Men and other shadowy figures in The X-Files.

Later on, he provided a counterpoint to Captain Jack Harkness, because the Brigadier and Captain Jack basically played the same role, the military commander of a super secret unit in charge of investigating strange occurrences, and they fulfilled the same function, quarrelling with the Doctor about ethics, providing firepower when needed and otherwise being the best and most loyal friend in the universe (though Jack would like to be more). They both even faced down the Master. Perhaps, it’s the comparison with Jack Harkness who basically plays the same role, which shows how great a character Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart truly was. The Brigadier never got any regular member of his team killed (I faintly remember the predecessor of Captain Yates being killed off, but that’s it) let alone four. And the Brigadier would never ever have sacrificed and killed children. One can only imagine what Torchwood would have looked like with the Brigadier in charge. It would still have staff, for starters. And I would still be watching it.

In many ways, the passing of Nicholas Courtney feels like the death of the old Doctor Who, the Doctor Who that I loved. Because while I gradually lost any respect for the Doctor himself, an effect which unfortunately retroactively affects all previous incarnations, I always liked the Brigadier. Perhaps that also was the true reason why he never appeared in the new series, because the Brigadier’s appearance would have highlighted only too painfully how much the show has changed.

*I briefly saw about fifteen minutes of a Seventh Doctor story I suspect must have been Delta and the Bannermen upon original broadcast, but never saw a full episode until 2003, when an online pal who couldn’t believe that I had never seen Doctor Who hooked me up with some videos.

**The real deal, since Marvel’s old British X-Men spin-off Excalibur featured a very UNIT like organization for investigating strange occurrences named WHO (!) headed by a female commander with the rank of Brigadier named Alysande Stewart (!), who had a scientist brother named Alistair (!). Even more amazingly, WHO had a darker rival organization that was a sort of proto Torchwood twenty years early. Even more amazingly, there is a police officer who clearly is Gene Hunt in several old Marvel UK comics, also twenty years early.

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