Imagine in your mind’s eye the archetypal army officer. You’ve probably given him matinee idol looks, a piercing stare and a finely-shaped moustache. Whichever characteristics the Season Six production team was looking for when casting commenced for UNIT’s commander-in-chief, Nicholas Courtney’s depiction of Colonel Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, soon to be promoted to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, gave us a character who, before the next decade was out, would become an icon of the series.
The story of how it all began for the Brigadier back in the heyday of Jimi Hendrix and the Soviet crackdown in Prague is common knowledge. Producer Peter Bryant and script editor-turned-producer Derrick Sherwin envisaged Doctor Who moving in very different circles to the ones it had previously frequented. They went on to map out an all-new trajectory for the good Doctor, eventually unveiled in The Invasion (1968). A season later and this action-packed format, replete with full-scale gun battles and alien invasions aplenty, became the standard recipe for writers and directors working on Doctor Who for the next five years.
However, all these bare facts can mask that special ingredient which turns a good idea into a great one. That ingredient was Courtney’s inch-perfect portrayal of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the character of the Brigadier anchored the UNIT backdrop. And let’s not forget, by helping to make UNIT a success, the Brigadier was a crucial player in promoting Doctor Who back into the premier league of television. Thus, to say that he was pivotal to the series at that time would be nothing short of an understatement.
Yet it could have been so very different. The Brigadier might simply have become just another supporting role, prone to the occasional over-the-top moment and wooden delivery. But this was never the case. Courtney took to the part with such panache that, in no time at all, the Brigadier became a series stalwart and, crucially, one who could be relied upon to make a script work.
Courtney first graced the set of Doctor Who as Space Agent Bret Vyon in the epic-length The Daleks’ Master Plan (1965/1966). Over the next twenty-three years he went on to appear alongside all but one of the next six actors to play the Doctor. His depiction of the UNIT leader saw him become part of the very fabric of the series; and one of the convention circuit’s most popular guests.
So what is it exactly about the Brigadier, or perhaps more importantly Courtney’s portrayal, that makes him such a huge part of Doctor Who? I think at least one reason lies in the charisma which Courtney was able to invest in the part. Playing a military type tends to leave an actor open to the near-irresistible temptation to ham it up for all he’s worth (eg barking orders at all and sundry; blasting bullets at all and sundry). Yet that’s precisely what the Brigadier is not. With some assured script writing in his early episodes it’s crystal clear he’s no mere scene filler; rather he’s a full-fledged, three-dimensional character with motivations and purpose. He’s a living, breathing on-screen figure – and that’s no mean feat for an actor who’s expected to play second fiddle to a television icon, whilst churning out scene after scene with little room for error.
The Brigadier is also very much his own man. And that, I feel, is another important reason for his enduring appeal. Of course, his duty is ultimately to UNIT, but he’s no government drone. More, he isn’t always seen to follow the Doctor’s advice either. Sealing the Silurians’ subterranean base at the close of The Silurians (1970) is probably the best example. You might not agree with his motives, but you’ve got to respect him for taking the tough decisions, even at the risk of alienating his much-needed Time Lord ally.
As well as being a thinker and a doer, the Brigadier is a hero to whom we can all aspire: a human being, with only one life to risk, just doing the best he can. He leads from the front, eschewing the mentality of the armchair strategist and facing the enemy shoulder to shoulder with his subordinates. In fact, whether he was fighting Autons or Axons the Brigadier was in the thick of things from the word go, setting an example for all to see and becoming the face of UNIT.
Interestingly, the Brigadier is one of the rare examples of a recurring guest character given no less than two character-developing story lines. In Inferno (1970) we encounter a Lethbridge-Stewart on an alternate Earth, shaped by a very different set of life choices. Incredibly, he is little more than a fascist glove puppet, who proves to be literally worlds apart from our Brigadier. Meantime, in Mawdryn Undead (1983), we find a post-UNIT Lethbridge-Stewart who is confined to Civvy Street as a mathematics teacher. Courtney’s performances on these occasions – especially the former – are outstanding, further evidencing the layer’s of the Brigadier’s character; and reinforcing his reputation as an iconic figure far beyond the category of the purely popular.
And when his now immortal line from The Daemons (1971) – “Chap with wings there, five rounds rapid.” – is proclaimed on T-shirts, websites and by any number of vocal fans, those seven words become the rallying cry to one of the series’ true gentlemen and long-established icons. Mr Courtney, we salute you.
This article originally appeared in Whotopia 18/© 2011 Jigsaw Publications