Friday, 12 December 2014


Chris McKeon returns with the third and final part of his look at the Brigadier's influence, and absence, in Nu Who. Taking us full circle, back to his very first appearance.

My Dad often has this perspective to share: ‘If you don’t have a health problem, you don’t have a problem.’ Well, Nicholas Courtney had a problem, and a pretty terrible one. In January 2009, the legendary actor suffered a stroke and therefore could no longer take part in filming his return appearance for The Sarah Jane Adventures, series three. When that two-part adventure aired on 29 and 30 October 2009, the Tenth Doctor alone saved Sarah. Sir Alistair was again on assignment in Peru.

Nicholas Courtney - a true gentleman.

Over five years after this televised loss, I still cannot completely describe or dwell upon how much Courtney’s absence devastated my feelings as a fan and as a person. As a Brigadier fan I was heartbroken, shocked and deep in mourning: what should have been a celebrated reunion between two beloved television icons became an omission, an emptiness, an inexplicable loss. Even when Clyde Langer informed the viewer of Sir Alistair’s Peruvian whereabouts during Sarah’s wedding I felt my emotions almost swell with helpless turmoil. Even now, I still feel that story should have given the Brigadier’s absence a greater sense of loss and longing, maybe at least one moment where the Tenth Doctor asks someone, ‘Where’s the Brigadier?’

But on the personal level I felt worse for Nicholas Courtney and his well-being. I was not a personal friend or a family friend, or even a distant acquaintance, but the man and his character had been and still was – and is – one of my childhood heroes, perhaps in some ways more than the Doctor, simply because there was only one Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. And it was suddenly very real that he was a nearly eighty-year-old man.

One silver-lining in this darkening time for Brigadier fans was when the character managed to make one final on-screen appearance in a BBC-produced mini-episode, Liberty Hall, filmed in the early autumn of 2008 as part of the Mawdryn Undead DVD release for the following year. The nostalgic, seven-minute story features the Brigadier’s return to Brendan School to share some vague details of his storied UNIT career with a local reporter, including some sly references to the 1995 BBV-produced drama Downtime, as well as a few of the Big Finish audio adventures. When I watched that mini-episode I felt such a joyous swell to see Nicholas Courtney in, if not action, then at least in presence once more.

Sir Alistair returns for 'Liberty Hall'

But every presence, no matter how welcome, fades to black, even for the Brigadier. Nicholas Courtney’s health struggles in 2009 and 2010 are now a matter of public record and private feelings, and of which I don’t wish to dwell too much. It suffices to write that although the good man eventually recovered from his stroke and bravely continued to attend various conventions and public appearances throughout 2009, by the early months of 2010 he announced an even graver health condition, that of cancer. This affliction was the final monster, the last battle for the storied gentleman and cultural hero, who entered hospice care in the final days of 2010 before dying peacefully on 22 February, 2011.

Before his death Nicholas Courtney never returned to Doctor Who or The Sarah Jane Adventures, although the character was mentioned once more during Courtney’s lifetime in latter programme’s fourth series adventure Death of the Doctor (according to Russell T Davies’s book The Writer’s Tale, Courtney was approached to feature in that story but the actor’s then rapidly failing health prohibited any further filming). In the months following Courtney’s death there was a tremendous online outpouring of grief and remembrance for the actor as a professional and as a gentleman. I was at the time too devastated to share my feelings too much online, but almost exactly a year later I had the privilege of being selected to participate in the Nicholas Courtney tribute panel at the GallifreyOne convention in Los Angeles, California in February 2012. It was there I had the chance, before a few kind people, to share how much Nicholas Courtney and his famous character had meant to me as a child and as a young adult: that alongside my Dad and Grandfathers, I wanted to be the type of person that Nicholas Courtney had been, someone good and kind of whom other people spoke well. And I told the audience that it was my childhood dream to be not like the Doctor but to be like the Brigadier.

In the months following Nicholas Courtney’s there as for me as a Doctor Who fan a sense of deep loss but also of cautious hope. For even without Nicholas Courtney  to return onscreen as the Brigadier there was the knowledge that the series would continue and in such a vast and ever-possible vault of fiction there was still room for some future expectations. Indeed, I consoled myself with the certainty that although the actor had died the character of the Brigadier was still alive out there in the Doctor’s reality and perhaps would reunite with the Eleventh Doctor and his successors one future day in other story-telling media, such as the comics, novels or audiobooks.

But when the finale for Doctor Who’s sixth series, The Wedding of River Song, aired on 1 October 2011, I received one of the worst shocks I have ever experienced as a Doctor Who fan. Matt Smith’s Doctor learned by telephone that the Brigadier had died some months earlier. I will be very honest: although at the time I could see why the series decided to pay tribute to Courtney’s passing by having the Brigadier also pass away, I also felt it was somehow wrong or off. Perhaps it was how the Brigadier died that disturbed me: he waited every day for the Doctor’s return but the Doctor never came. Or perhaps it was the sense that there was no need to kill off the character of the Brigadier in-universe to honour the actor’s passing, such as when the series had honoured the passing of Elisabeth Sladen with a memorial title card after the airing of The Impossible Astronaut but explicitly kept Sladen’s character of Sarah alive in later-produced spin-off media. It may be enough to say that I hope not to see another Doctor Who episode with the words ‘The Wedding of’ in its title.

Now I am still a Doctor Who fan and I will be always be a fan. But I cannot deny that on some emotional level I enjoy the programme less without the Brigadier, without the chance that maybe, perhaps, possibly, somewhere, some-when, the character can and might return. Not even the main-series debut of Sir Alistair’s daughter Kate in the series seven episode The Power of Three on 22 September 2012 could shift my sense that something fundamental was missing within the contextual structure and sentiment of Doctor Who. Perhaps that sense stems from my perception that Kate Stewart oversees a very different, almost overly-scientific version of UNIT, or perhaps it is my extreme difficulty in believing that even in his final days Sir Alistair would ever declare that science leads over soldiering. Or maybe, at the end of the day, a cosmos without the Brigadier is just unthinkable.

This thought brings me to a final point of discussion regarding the Brigadier’s status in the new series. When Doctor Who’s eighth series concluded on 8 November 2014 there was already a massive stir and shift amongst fandom, thanks to the introduction of a new, female version of the Master (which definitely holds enough material for another article). During the episode Death in Heaven, the Twelfth Doctor, as played by Peter Capaldi, was reunited once more Kate Stewart and UNIT. As had happened when Kate and UNIT appeared in the 50th anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor, there was a lovely picture of Lethbridge-Stewart on display to recall the great man’s legacy. And then, without going into too much detail for those who haven’t yet seen the episode, both Kate and the Doctor’s life were in turn saved by a lone Cyberman, a Cyberman who somehow reminded Kate of her father and who reminded the Doctor of his oldest friend.

The Doctor salutes Sir Alistair, finally.

I cannot yet say exactly how I feel about this moment. On the one hand there is the distinct sense that the Brigadier is still alive and out there in the Doctor’s reality once more, which should give me nothing but joy. But I cannot forget that this version of Sir Alistair came about through a rather gruesome and horrific process of Cyber-Conversion, and that what remains is arguably not the Brigadier at all but a friendly ghost. And the thought of Sir Alistair as an eternally wandering ghost is too terrible to consider. I suppose my best takeaway thought is while I am grateful for some version of the Brigadier, I don’t really want to see CyberBrig again.

All I know for certain is that the Doctor needs Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart and Doctor Who needs the Brigadier. I know I am not the only fan who holds this to be true. When the announcement came in October 2013 that nine previously-thought lost Second Doctor television episodes had been discovered in Africa, what I read in blog posts and forum exclamations to be the most tangible and ebullient rejoicing amongst fandom was that five of these recovered episodes were from The Web of Fear, the very first appearance of Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart. I feel that one particular YouTube comment that I read summarizes this sensational time perfectly: ‘The Brigadier. I’m going to cry.’ And I’m not ashamed to say when I saw The Web of Fear for the first time I cried, too.

So now, with the first of Lethbridge-Stewart’s episodes restored and the most recent episode of Doctor Who featuring a return-of-sorts of the Brigadier, it feels that now is a time of rising and renewed interest in the Doctor’s best military friend. And in a few short months there will be a new narration of the Brigadier’s life: On 8 December 2014, Type 40’s own Andy Frankham-Allen announced the upcoming publication of the Lethbridge-Stewart novels, which will cover the events in the Brigadier’s life after the events of The Web of Fear. The series has received full approval and licensing from the estate of Mervyn Haisman and the endorsement of Henry Lincoln, who are the co-creators of Lethbridge-Stewart. The first novel, titled The Forgotten Son, will be available out on 22 February 2015, the fourth anniversary of Nicholas Courtney’s death, and will also feature the return of the Great Intelligence, the principal villain of the classic series adventures The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear, as well as the 2012/2013 series episodes The Snowmen and The Name of the Doctor. I’m looking forward to purchasing my copy of this and subsequent novels and I’m confident that through this book range new fans of Doctor Who will come to learn just how fundamentally important Lethbridge-Stewart is to the programme.

Returning to where it all began...

And this now begs the question: will the Brigadier return again? Before Death in Heaven I would have said no, at least not onscreen. But now that Steven Moffat has, to be very honest, risked the feelings of fandom by reviving and cyber-converting one of the programme’s most, if not the most, beloved iconic characters after already giving the character an on-screen farewell, then it easily stands to reason that he could and perhaps should recast the role. And who could possibly fill Nicholas Courtney’s UNIT boots? That, like all important and, I feel, necessary decisions I leave to the experts, just as long as they make sure he can hit five rounds rapid.

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