Tuesday, 22 March 2011

In Memoriam

Nicholas Courtney Tribute by Joe Ford

What a terrible loss. Not just to Doctor Who but to the fans. Nick Courtney was a firm supporter of the programme and dazzled audiences in conventions and appeared in various spin off programmes when the show was of the air. He was a fine actor and true gentleman of the sort there are very few about anymore.

The Brigadier is not the obvious choice of best friend for the Doctor. He works for the military, he works by a rulebook and he is the living embodiment of the establishment. As they say opposites attract and when the Doctor is exiled to Earth he turns to his old ally for a function in this world he has been dumped in. They didn’t get on at first; there was always a distant respect but their opposing ideologies kept them at each other’s throat throughout their first year together. Things soon softened and as we progress into season eight the Doctor is confronted with far more officious idiots that make the Brig seem palatable in comparison. The Brigadier saves the Doctor’s life on so many occasions but you wont here a word of gratitude, it’s an unspoken ritual that he will always have the Doctor’s back and he will always be criticised for his methods or last minute timing. It’s like a miniature version of Dad’s Army as the team develops and settles down; cuddly Sergeant Benton, dippy Jo Grant and dolly bird chaser Mike Yates! Along with the Brig and the Doctor they are the rocks of the Pertwee years and their warm chemistry and friendships make even the weakest of stories worth watching. When Jo finally leaves the fold the Brigadier is almost parentally proud of her and comforts Mike on his lost love. When the Doctor headed out into the universe once again, the Brigadier was always there when he needed him, even when he was long retired. As well as all the wonderful television stories he appeared in lets also remember how the novels, audios and comics also fleshed out the character and allowed him to meet the Doctor’s he was denied on the telly. The Brigadier appeared in 22 novels, 18 audios, 16 short stories and made 23 appearances in the comic, which makes a whopping 104 different stories he has delighted us in, including the 25 TV appearances. No matter where Doctor Who spreads the Brigadier is always in its writers hearts.

Here are my five personal favourite Brigadier stories…

Inferno – Where else could we get to see such a wonderfully portrayed anti-Brigadier in the form of the cowardly and fascistic Brigade Leader? He’s just horrible. He knocks the Doctor around, bullies his men, is perfectly willing to sacrifice people’s lives so he can survive and yet when it comes down to actually working out a solution that could save the Earth he only thinks about himself. When he gets the chance to stand up like man and sacrifice himself to let the Doctor return to his own world and save it he pulls a gun out and insists that he takes him with him. The Brigade Leader fights to the last breath, proving what a coward he really is. Nicholas Courtney loved playing this part because it was so different and deliciously villainous compared to the straight laced Brigadier back home but as a result of exploring this darker Brigadier, our Brig seems more charming than ever. Inferno features one my all time favourite Brigadier scenes where the Doctor says he will miss Liz but has had quite enough of this ‘pompous military idiot!’ and materialises the console away in a fit of pique! Unfortunately it lands on a rubbish tip and with his tail tucked between his legs the Doctor returns to his old pal to ask for some help retrieving it, piling on the charm. It beautifully encapsulates their funny, turbulent, warm relationship.

The Mind of Evil – The ultimate Brigadier as an action hero story and just how dashing does Nick Courtney look in this story? He looks gorgeous in his uniform! The Brig turns his nose up at the suggestion that his men take bribes and I love the scene where he scolds Benton ('You're too delicate for intelligence work Benton you better go an lie down!'). You can't help but sympathise with him when he escorts the Doctor to the Chinese delegates room, he is trying so hard to be the professional investigator and he is ignored and insulted (and treated like a maitre'd!). A typical example of the Doctor’s blasé attitude towards his friend. This is a story where we get to see just how busy a day in the life of the Brig is, he's got so much on here he’s sleeping at his desk (at least he has Corporal Bell to lay on some coffee). This is one of the few times we get to see the Brigadier as a proper soldier rather than a deskbound strategist. He thinks through his ambush on the prison, goes undercover very effectively and fights his way viciously through to the Doctor. There’s also a quiet moment that reveals that the Brig is human after all, his embarrassed reaction to Barnham perfectly encapsulates peoples discomfort around the mentally ill. The Brig could never resist a big bang so he tries to blow up the missile from the ground and take the Master with it – you could imagine him rubbing his hands with delight as the explosion goes off!

The Green Death - ‘Cheap petrol and plenty of it!’ is exactly how the Brigadier would react to the idea of Global Chemicals! After mis characterising him in The Time Monster and The Three Doctors as a sitcom character The Green Death story is one of the finest showing for Lethbridge Stewart yet. He seems almost paternally proud of Jo when she mutinously heads off to Wales to follow her beliefs. In a story that really domesticates the Pertwee era it is wonderful to see the Brigadier in civvies and driving around in a sports car. The Brig proudly tells Cliff that Jo works for him and she can take care of herself, his feelings for her are clearly beyond professional and they really leak out in these scenes. I love the scene where he is brilliantly out politicked by Stevens, the Prime Minister chewing his ear out! The Brig makes a charming dinnertime companion, stolidly determined. There’s even some wonderful comedy moments, I couldn’t help but laugh at the Doctor bibble bibbling his chin after he accidentally hypnotises him! When Jo and Cliff announce their engagement Mike looks devastated for a second before congratulating them and the Brigadier quietly says ‘never mind Mike, lets have a drink.’). He kisses Jo and drinks and dances, it’s enough to make a grown man weep. You really get a sense of family with the five of them throughout.

Mawdryn Undead – Another story where you get double the Brig for your money and another great example of what an extraordinary actor Nick Courtney is, playing the character with gentle differences from two difference time zones. This is the story when the fifth Doctor became the Doctor for me – he might have fought against the Cybermen already but the scene where the Brigadier remembers all those glorious days fighting monsters and recognises the Doctor cements Davison in the role because this is the Brigadier accepting him. Courtney plays the older Brigadier with a weariness we have rarely seen in him and even gets a few moments where he struggles with his breakdown – it’s a brilliant new spin on an established character. The scene where the two Brigadier’s meet is a seminal Doctor Who moment and I love his stroll into the TARDIS at the end of the story, just like old times.

The Shadows of Avalon – It be a little controversial choosing a book but the characterisation of the Brig is so special I had to include this novel. He has been severely wounded by the death of his wife and is described as being dead on the inside and still walking about. He wants the Doctor to heal him, to go back and save her but finds when the time comes he cannot ask him. He no longer fights for fair shares all around, life isn’t fair and every one has to look out for their own. He is described as being only human and that is the beauty and the horror of him. When he thinks the Doctor is dead too it is the final straw and he snaps, choking on maniacal laughter and a control freak to the last who refuses to let himself heal. He attempts suicide, which is so sensitively written it brought tears to my eyes but when he doesn’t go through with it considers the act dishonest and foolish which is more like the Brig of old that we know and love. Pragmatic, he realises with grim determination that the enthusiastic soldiers around him are going to die. ‘Every day moments became moments of great pain’ he admits, ‘I can’t move on because I’ll never stop loving you!’ He realises that loving Doris so wholeheartedly made him incredibly vulnerable but he wouldn’t have had it any other way. He realises with great sadness that the reason life, and his relationship with Doris, was so special was because it doesn’t last forever. The very first choice he makes when he has chosen to live his life again is to save Mab’s life and it is very touching to experience them beginning a new life together. He is described at the climax as a warrior turned peacemaker. Amen to that. As the Doctor says, “Alistair, you continue to astonish me.” Given recent events, this novel aches with poignancy and a love for the character. Check it out.
Farewell Brig. You will always be my hero.


  1. Nice piece. "Inferno" is in fact my favorite Who story period, and "Mind of Evil" would be somewhere on my top ten list. However, I must admit to having read only a very few novels (and heard none of the direct-to-audio adventures; my sole exposure to Barry Letts' two 3rd Doctor/Brig/Sarah Jane 1990s radio serials is via his novelizations). So I ask--which Doctor features in "Shadows of Avalon"?

  2. The eighth Doctor is in The Shadows of Avalon - it is written by Who scribe Paul Cornell who wrote Human Nature for the New Series. Here's a link to me review of the book on my Dr Who book website - http://docohosreviews.blogspot.com/2009/10/shadows-of-avalon-by-paul-cornell.html