I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I didn’t become a Doctor Who fan through the TV series, at least not at first. No, I came to the show through the novelisations that lined the shelves of my local library, and later my own collection. Because of this, I’ve got fond memories of stories and characters that were shown on TV long before I was born. Chief among these was Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, commanding officer of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce.
Some Doctor Who history. Back when Jon Pertwee took on the lead role it was decided to revamp the series. The Doctor was exiled to contemporary Earth and found himself working for UNIT, a branch of the military dedicated to tackling alien invasions. His boss was Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, making a full-time return after a couple of guest appearances in the Patrick Troughton era. The character became a favourite of mine, and so, when I started watching videos and repeats, I focused on the Pertwee ers outwards. That’s when I discovered Nicholas Courtney’s portrayal of the Brigadier and, several years down the road, why waking up to hear of his passing was so sad.
I never met him, not being much of a convention goer, but it’s clear from those who did just how loved and respected he was, practically an honourary Doctor in his dedication to the show and its fans. So much so that he’s been trending on Twitter today, not just in the UK (which would be understandable) but worldwide – that’s a heck of a tribute and one that, I confess, brought a lump to my throat.
(And, I guess, it’s a testament to fandom and its extended community – sure it’s often virtual and strange and dysfunctional and hard to define but it is a community; that’s why, when David Tennant’s mom died, Fans were almost immediately raising money for her hospice, why we call actors we’ve never met Matt and Karen and Nick, and why Mr. Courtney trended today throughout the world, alongside Bieber’s haircut.)
So why the popularity? Part of it is his place in geek culture, fandom’s kindly grandfather (compared to Tom Baker’s crazy old uncle). Part of it is how he could make the Brigadier so loveable, even when the character made some dubious decisions.
But. I think a lot of it is in Nick’s portrayal of the sort of man who is present at every major conflict: the charismatic leader, fearless in battle, who’d never ask his troops to do something he wasn’t prepared to do himself. Doctor Who’s relationship with the military has always been ambiguous – maybe even hypocritical – but somehow The Brigadier rose above all that, Nick playing him as a very British archetype, brave, honourable, chivalrous, stiff-upper-lip (that’s something that gets to me – yes, I shed a tear at The King’s Speech).
And so when, in the 1989 story ‘Battlefield’, all about Arthurian myths, sleeping heroes and the futility of war, the Brigadier delivers a line that, in retrospect, is a great epitath for the character and for Nick. The Brigadier is facing the Destroyer, an armoured demon-like creature come to bring war to the Earth. Only an old soldier stands in his way. The Destroyer sneers: “Can this world do no better than you for its champion?”
“Probably,” replies the Brigadier. “I just do the best I can.”
Rest in Peace, Sir Alistair.
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