Nicholas Courtney, who has died at the age of 81, was one of Doctor Who’s most significant presences. He made his first appearance on the show in 1965: his second, in 1968’s ‘The Web Of Fear’, was as a character he went on to play in five different decades, eventually notching up more screen-time than most Doctors. As Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (or simply ‘the Brigadier’, a moniker which stuck to him long after he should logically have been promoted) he appeared in more than half of Jon Pertwee’s stories, and is so strongly associated with that era of the show it feels like he was in all of them.
For the uninitiated, Lethbridge-Stewart headed up the British wing of UNIT, a military operation aimed at tackling special threats, for whom Pertwee’s Doctor worked whilst exiled to Earth. One of the fondly jokey criticisms you often hear levelled at UNIT was that it bore little resemblance to any real military operation, that the soldiers didn’t seem like real soldiers, that they didn’t seem hard-bitten, that the whole thing was cosy and even a little camp. Good, I say. I’m not a huge fan of military science fiction: those endless riffs on the space marines from Aliens bore me to tears. Who wants to see a bunch of characters like that in a show like Doctor Who? They’re OK for cannon fodder (as in ‘Dalek’), but I don’t want them week in, week out. I love UNIT precisely because it bears little resemblance to any real military operation.
What Courtney did, as the embodiment of UNIT, was to reconcile this within his performance. He’s the charming, cuddly authoritarian, an old-fashioned presence in a brave new world of accelerating technology and alien invasions. In the hands of a different actor, Lethbridge-Stewart’s edge of sexism and tendency to resort to violent solutions might have turned viewers off him altogether, but Courtney has too much warmth for that. We’re aware of Lethbridge-Stewart’s flaws (he’s a foil for the Doctor, and naturally the programme comes down on the Doctor’s side of the argument), but we like him anyway. There’s a fundamental decency to him. You’d want him on your side and so you understand why the Doctor does, even if they do infuriate each other.
The actor made a success of the character, not the other way around. In ‘The Web Of Fear’ Lethbridge-Stewart is introduced as possibly an agent of the villain. Had he been played by someone else, the character might never have been picked up again. Instead Lethbridge-Stewart developed around Courtney’s performance and became an integral part of the show’s set-up in the early 1970s. UNIT stories without him don’t quite feel like UNIT stories: he was hard to replace. If you’ve never encountered him before (or have only seen him in The Sarah Jane Adventures), check out ‘The Invasion’, ‘Spearhead From Space’, ‘Inferno’, ‘The Green Death’ or ‘Mawdryn Undead’.
In 2008 I was lucky enough to write for Lethbridge-Stewart in an audio play called ‘Masters Of War’. This was a parallel-universe version of the character, but I didn’t change him too much – because as his lengthy list of return appearances demonstrates, people loved seeing him again, perhaps more than any other character in the show, and I felt people would want essentially the character they loved. It’s hugely saddening to realise we’ve seen him for the last time.