Monday, February 28, 2011

Weekend Videos–Nicholas Courtney and Doctor Who

Nicholas Courtney passed away on February 22at the age of 81, following a long illness, reported by his former Doctor Who cast mate Tom Baker to have been cancer. Courtney was a well-regarded character actor who worked extensively in the theatre and on television. He was a regular on the comedy French Fields and appeared opposite Frankie Howerd on Then Churchill Said To Me, a series that was made in 1982 but was shelved because of the Falklands War. However it is for Doctor Who, and in particular the character of The Brigadier – Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart – that he is best known. Courtney appeared with every actor to play The Doctor in the first incarnation of the show except one – Colin Baker – and that includes Richard Hurndall who played the First Doctor in The Five Doctors. In addition he appeared in Doctor Who audio plays produced by Big Finish Productions with Colin Baker, and Paul McGann playing their respective versions of The Doctor, and with David Tennant, who played a character named Colonel Ross Brimmicombe-Wood.

Courtney’s first appearance on Doctor Who was not as the iconic character of Lethbridge-Stewart but rather as Space Security Agent Brett Vyon in the third season serial The Dalek Masterplan. Among other people to appear in this series was Jean Marsh, who had previously appeared in the The Crusades arc of Doctor Who (she kills Vyon who, as it turns out, was her brother). Most of The Dalek Master Plan is lost. However among the episodes to survive is the one in which Nicholas Courtney first appears.
Courtney’s next appearance in the series was as Lethbridge-Stewart, but not quite the Lethbridge-Stewart we know. In Web of Fear Lethbridge-Stewart was a Colonel, and UNIT had yet to be formed. Based on his hat he was in a Scottish regiment, which fits with what we later discover about Lethbridge-Stewart. He appears opposite Patrick Toughton as The Doctor, Fraiser Hines as Jamie and Deborah Watling as Victoria. Courtney was originally cast as Captain Knight while David Langton (who later played Richard Bellamy on Upstair Downstairs) was to play Lethbridge-Stewart. Fortunately – given what happens to Knight – Langton was took another job and Courtney was recast as Lethbridge-Stewart. Unfortunately most of Web Of Fear after the first episode is lost and we have to depend on is fan recreations using photos taken while the show was being made, and Courtney doesn’t make his first appearance until the second or third episode. What I have is the last part of the last episode of one of these recreations.
Significantly more exists of Lethbridge-Stewart’s next appearance (although not enough to air as a “complete” episode) and in it the major aspects of his participation in Doctor Who were set. In Invasion we learn that four years have passed since the Yeti incident (for everyone except the occupants of the TARDIS) and Lethbridge-Stewart has been promoted to the rank of Brigadier. He now commanding an element of a new United Nations organization known as UNIT. Also introduced is the ever faithful Benton (John Levene) who at this point was still a corporal. This particular pair of clips are a bit of a mixed bag. It begins with an animated recreation of the end of the missing first episode and at about the 3:50 mark transitions into the complete second episode, which features Benton and two other soldier in mufti grabbing the Doctor and Jamie and taking them to their leader whose headquarters are aboard an RAF Hercules transport. The leader is of course Lethbridge-Stewart.
It is the Third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee, that Lethbridge-Stewart is most closely associated with. In this clip, the Brigadier and UNIT’s new Science Advisor, Liz Shaw, encounter a problem that people who met previous versions of The Doctor should comment on more regularly, namely that he doesn’t look the same as he did when he knew them. In this case the change from Patrick Troughton to Jon Pertwee is just a little more than the Brigadier can absorb at the moment, though the man who (to Lethbridge-Stewart’s mind at least) is pretending to be The Doctor does seem well informed.
Perhaps the Brigadier’s most famous line in the series was from the last episode of The Daemons. “Chap with the wings. Five rounds rapid.” In fact Courtney used the line as the title for his 1999 autobiography Five Rounds Rapid (he wrote a second autobiography in 2005 called Still Getting Away With It)
The Brigadier and UNIT were pretty much fixtures of Doctor Who for the first two seasons of Pertwee’s run on the series. They became less so during the last two seasons, after The Doctor was freed from his exile on Earth by the Time Lords. About half of the serials after that featured UNIT. The final Pertwee episode had a relatively minor involvement of UNIT, with The Doctor returning to UNIT to regenerate. In this set of clips the Brigadier,and Sarah Jane witness the Doctor regenerating. This time around The Brigadier takes the whole thing entirely in stride, mentioning the first time that it happened. Of course Tom Baker’s Doctor could be a bit eccentric at the best of times, but newly regenerated he was more than a handful (as you might be able to tell I preferred Pertwee’s Doctor).
Robot, the first Tom Baker episode was the penultimate appearance of Nicholas Courtney in the Tom Baker series of Doctor Who. He’d appear one more time in Terror of the Zygons in the show’s thirteenth season, while UNIT itself would disappear a couple of serials later in the serial The Android Invasion. In that episode The Doctor goes to an office with Lethbridge-Stewart’s name on it but he’s absent. Still, you can’t keep a good character down and the Brigadier kept popping up from time to time. In Mawdryn Undead we get two versions of the Brigadier – now retired and working as a maths teacher in a British Public (which means Private) school – separated in time. One has a definite memory problem. Unfortunately, while this serial very much exists, the BBC seems to have cracked down on people posting full episodes. What we have in this clip is Peter Davison’s Doctor reviving the memory of the older, moustache-less, version of the Brigadier in a sequence which includes brief excerpts from various episodes in which the Brigadier featured. Interestingly the episode wasn’t meant to feature The Brigadier at all. It was written for William Russell, who played Ian Chesterton in the very first Doctor Who episodes. However, the actor (whose real name is Russell William Enoch) was unavailable to appear on the show and after some consideration was given to using Ian Marter and his character Harry Sullivan, Courtney was picked for the role.
Later the same year, Lethbridge-Stewart appeared in The Five Doctors special, commemorating the series’ twentieth anniversary. In this clip the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) drops in on The Brigadier at a UNIT reunion where he meets Colonel Crichton, Lethbridge-Stewart’s replacement, who doesn’t really impress the Doctor. Continuity obsessed fans were able to determine that this episode took place after Mawdryn Undead because The Brigadier recognises Tegan and the Fifth Doctor.
The Brigadier’s final appearance in Doctor Who proper was in the twenty-sixth and final season of the show’s original run. The episode was very much an old home week for Courtney as it featured Jean March as Morgaine. Marsh had appeared in the very Doctor Who story that Courtney did, The Dalek Master Plan. In that episode Marsh’s character, Sara Kingdom, kills Courtney’s Brett Vyon. In Battlefield she tries to kill him, but fortunately doesn’t succeed. In these two sequences we find The Brigadier, recalled to duty with the return of The Doctor, encountering Morgaine, and then in the second clip reuniting with The Doctor – who else could it be indeed.
Nicholas Courtney’s final appearance in the Doctor Who universe was in the spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures episode Enemy Of The Bane from the sho’s second season. The episode aired almost exactly twenty-five years after the last time Elizabeth Sladen and Nicholas Courtney had appeared together, in The Five Doctors. In the episode Sarah Jane needs access to some material that only Sir Alistair, now a special envoy for UNIT, is able to provide her with. Amazingly the entire episode has been posted on YouTube (though for how long I don’t know).
That was Nicholas Courtney’s last episode as Lethbridge-Stewart. Reportedly Courtney was supposed to appear again in The Sarah Jane Adventures episode The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith but had suffered a stroke and was unable to appear. It is also said that Courtney wanted to make one final appearance on Doctor Who in an episode that would kill the character off. Unfortunately this wasn’t to be.
Nicholas Courtney was an integral part of the original Doctor Who series, a first rate actor who took what could have been a throwaway role and became an iconic figure to the point where the word Brigadier has become a “TV Trope” (a convention or device found within creative works) for “any senior military person in a sci-fi drama who is a good guy.” And it seems to me that both Brigadier Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart and Nicholas Courtney were pretty good guys. 

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