Tuesday, 18 November 2014


Our Brigadier theme continues with a new three-part article looking at the Brigadier's presence, or lack thereof, in the series since it returned in 2005, with guest contributor, Chris McKeon...

I am a Doctor Who fan. Although this is always special to say in late 2014 it is nothing unique to state – since the program’s return to television in early 2005 (or really mid-2004 if you were lucky enough to see Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper filming in person) practically everyone in the world is either a fan of the show or will be tomorrow. It’s just that popular to be a Who fan in modern life.

I can remember very clearly when it wasn’t. I may be one of many today, but not too long ago I was the only person in my school, my city, maybe even (as I probably flattered myself), my entire country, who proudly claimed to be a Doctor Who fan. Although these days I don’t attract so much constant attention to myself about my personal program preferences, I still think I am one of the few American twenty-somethings who was an active and unashamed Who fan during the series’ barren Wilderness Years, or as real-life calls it, the 1990s.

Bret Vyon, descendent of the Brigadier?

So if there is anything I can claim rightfully, it is I am a lifelong Doctor Who fan. I am also a never-say-die supporter of the series’ arguably (but in my opinion there is no such argument) greatest supporting character: Brigadier Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart.

Anyone who reads this article probably already knows who the Brigadier is and that he was portrayed on-screen and in audio adventures by the late and sorrowfully missed Nicholas Courtney. Therefore I need not rehearse in detail Courtney’s roughly forty-six year association with the program, during forty-three of which years he played Lethbridge-Stewart (if someone reading this wonders what Mr Courtney was doing with Doctor Who before there was a Brigadier and UNIT, I recommend a fun internet search with the words ‘Bret Vyon’). 

I will take a moment, but only a moment, to describe how much I love the character. Never mind that my formative years watching the program were the repeat airings of Jon Pertwee’s UNIT Years, where the Brigadier and other stalwart UNIT friends helped the Doctor and companions defeat monsters, madmen and the Master; never mind that while watching every story between Planet of Evil and Snakedance not an episode passed that I didn’t wonder (as Tom Baker’s Doctor forcefully demanded in The Seeds of Doom) ‘Where’s the Brigadier?’. Never mind that when Lethbridge-Stewart finally returned in Mawdryn Undead my heart swelled with joy; and certainly never mind that when the adventure Battlefield reached my screens something special happened that made my less than ten-year-old self leap across the room. If I may, I will recreate the moment here in prose (please keep in mind I somehow missed the opening scene at first viewing).

“This is a nice story. Future knights and that lady from Willow and Ace and Merlin is the Doctor. And there’s now a grey-haired man with a moustache in a military uniform. Wait, that grey-haired moustache man looks like – IT’S THE BRIGADIER!”

Never mind all of that (although I will always remember it). I love the Brigadier’s character so much because he reminds me of my Dad and my Grandpa, men I hope to emulate in my life. My Dad I still have. My Grandpa I don’t, not since March of 2002. That was a sad day that I had to accept emotionally, and which I have, but as long as Nicholas Courtney (whom as I grew up I became happily aware was a kind and good man deservedly beloved by countless people) and his Lethbridge-Stewart character were both still alive I felt, in some small way, that I still had a part of Grandpa (who amongst many things was a World War II naval veteran) still alive with me.

Memories of good people sweeten my life; in fact, I think those flavoured memories are what keep me alive and happy. So let’s take a trip down a recent alley of Memory Lane, through a brief corridor I saw as leading to something special, which really led to something more bitter than sweet, but which I now feel may one day have a sweeter, if uncertain future.

Wind back the clock just over eleven years to 25th September, 2003. On this date the world heard the official announcement of Doctor Who’s approaching return to television. Now for me this date of destiny was deferred to 8th June, 2004, when I learned about the good Doctor’s return in a postcard from a friend (I was serving as a church missionary during 2003 in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas and so was mostly removed from all matters science fiction). But from that day onwards I was more than excited, I felt liberated, almost vindicated: all those teenage years of waiting and hoping and defending the good Doctor with the honest, heartfelt anticipation that one day I would hear of his imminent – and I considered inevitable – return had finally proven the adage of waiting for good things.

The Brigadier and the woman from WILLOW

First and foremost on my mind were all the old friends and foes that would return to reunite with the Doctor. I was honestly never worried about the chances of creatures like the Daleks, Cybermen or the Master – I was nearly certain those most frequent of villainous favourites would drive children behind their sofas once more. In fact, although I wanted all of the great monsters and allies to strike the screen again (and some of those greats have only recently arrived to terrorise; is there no love for Ice Warriors and Zygons?) these are the few characters that I felt were either secure in their returns, simply because to me without their presence Doctor Who almost cannot be Doctor Who:
  • The Daleks
  • The Cybermen
  • The Master
  • Davros
  • The Time Lords
  • The Brigadier

Almost from the beginning the Daleks proved their essentiality to the series’ renaissance in the spring on 2005. On 5th March, 2005 I was happily surprised to see the Autons return even before the horrible pepperpots, but seeing the Nestene soldiers awaken in a manner shatteringly similar to their first appearance in Spearhead in Space made me long for the stalwart presence of the Brigadier even more. UNIT’s brief cameo in the Aliens of London/World War Three two-parter did nothing to make me forget that Nicholas Courtney’s signature role was absent from the main proceedings of the 2005 series. And this absence worried me, for although Lethbridge-Stewart was undoubtedly on my list of ‘must-returns’ to Doctor Who, I could not then nor can I now deny that his space on that most wanted list came with not only the most heart-warmth but also the least guarantee.

As Doctor Who series one aired on television I enjoyed the Doctor, the companion, the new TARDIS interior, and the new monsters. But my familiar face-longing thoughts kept returning to what Craig Hinton told me at the January 2005 Gallifrey One Los Angeles convention, when I asked him if he thought the producers would ask the then 75-year-old Nicholas Courtney for one more go. I will never forget the sad look in Craig’s eyes as he sighed and said: ‘Well, he’s not getting any younger’. I wanted to hope that what Craig really meant was that the almost-elderly Courtney and his enduring Lethbridge-Stewart were far too valuable to the program to delay their reappearance. But when series one ended with no Brigadier in sight or mention, and a departing Doctor who never (and still has not) met his best military friend, I began to find it hard to ignore that Craig had really meant something else.

Still, Doctor Who was on television again and with a cliffhanger ending that meant there would be more stories to tell. With the casting announcement of the then relatively unknown but highly promising David Tennant in the role of the Tenth Doctor, the future of the series seemed bright with expanding horizons. By the time series two debuted on 15th April, 2006 fandom was aware of not only the returning Cybermen (another checked for my ‘must-returns’) but also the welcoming home of former 1970s companions Sarah Jane Smith and K9. And their return was a spiking moment of rising hope for me: for not only were two long-departed companions crossing paths with the Doctor again but they were returning after decades of absence and the series was not afraid to show it: Sarah was middle-aged; K9 was rusted and broken down. And as I enjoyed a healthy dose of Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker nostalgia, I felt a swell of hope that if one UNIT-era companion could return then so could another, even a then 76-year-old man called out of retirement. Surely Lethbridge-Stewart could return.

And then, he did. Just not quite in the way I expected.

Part two... soon!

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