The Doctor’s Best Friends


On the new series’ return Zeus Blog takes time out to mark the passing of two of the most beloved and irreplaceable Earthbound heroes of Doctor Who.

Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart was many things to Seventies Who. To the Third Doctor he was anchor, millstone, combatant, ally and friend. The friendship carried on into the next regeneration, as it had itself carried over from the Third Doctor’s predecessor. Courtney’s Brigadier character would go on to appear alongside all of the ‘classic’ series Doctors, plus for Big Finish sharing an audio adventure with the Eighth Doctor. For many fans and even a few casual watchers of Who in yesteryear, the Brigadier was quite simply as much a staple of the programme as the TARDIS, the Daleks, and the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver. Courtney’s association with the series predates his most famous role of course, and it’s a matter of no surprise that during the series’ Wilderness Years the actor was a frequent presence at conventions, TV appearances (notably in 1993′s Thirty Years in the TARDIS documentary), while the Brigadier returned in licensed books and the fan-made spinoff Downtime. Following the death of Jon Pertwee Courtney was made honourary president of the DWAS, a role he held with great respect.

I think it’s significant that the treatment of Courtney as an elder statesman – a stand-in Doctor almost, was as far as I’m aware, reciprocated with fan respect. The Brig’s cameos in the Nineties are no less silly than the regular appearances in later Pertwee episodes, and there seems to be a genuine fondness associated with them – Downtime gives him a family and a grandson to fight for; Paul Cornell (no Pertwee fan at the time) brought him into his New Adventure Happy Endings with a gentle elbow nudging – the Brigadier as naff Dad tapping his feet to a camp Silurian musical duo. There’s a nod to the slightly embarrassing but harmless paternal side to the character, never seen in the TV series of course, but while playing against the Man of Action type, Cornell’s ageing and softening of the Brigadier acknowledged the same in the actor, forgiving and acknowledging the passing of years rather than condemning them or sweping them under the carpet as we are wont to do with the various Doctors. The Brigadier represented in that figure a very human hero. Cornell later gives the Brig his years back, as it were, the UNIT soldier restored by alien tech; would that real life could have offered the same reprieve. The Brig – and Nicholas Courtney, was fandom’s friend too. Grateful for the role that defined his career, his other appearances in the series marked the same return favour by his writers – in Big Finish’s adventures he cameoed as Wolsey the TARDIS cat, and later still as a personification of the TARDIS itself, both loyal to the end. Of course it’s a great shame that Courtney never got to share the screen with the recent Doctors, but what we still have is an impressive series in itself, an evolving character who mellows with the affection shared between himself, the Doctors, and their fans.

In Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith the Doctor had a new type of companion, a reinvention of a woman with a professional career, enlightened enough to challenge her place in a modern society, but with the warmth and sympathy that would attract the Time Lord’s’s friendship. Sarah is the median line of companions, a Barbara Wright with the Doctor as her Chesterton. Strong enough in personality and appeal to warrant two attempts at a series of her own, not because her character was endowed with special powers or insight (although the later spin-off generously afforded her an arsenal of technologies to almost equal her with the Doctor), but because she was nothing special, and for that we could recognise her and perhaps ourselves in her.

What’s remarkable is that Sladen’s character though her easy appeal and the influence of her original UK fans around today’s BBC genuinely spans two generations, realising yet again Tom Baker’s oft-related image of the whole family sitting down to enjoy Doctor Who together. It’s a great pity, and it seems so unjust that this potential has been cut off so quickly and suddenly. All the more distressing for her fans, her friends and colleagues – Big Finish had reportedly begun negotiations on returning Sarah Jane to their audio fold, accompanying the Fourth Doctor for the first time since 1976. With Sladen gone the question might well be asked who among those remaining companions of the Classic Series now best suits the mantle of ‘everywoman’ to the alien Doctor, the next-in-line as it were. It’s a question that’s too soon for the asking, if it ever should be.  Sarah Jane hasn’t gone away, she’s just not here anymore. But we have her adventures with no fewer than seven Doctors (eight if you count her guest role in the DWM Seventh Doctor comic strip End of the Line), the one-off K9 special and three complete series of her own Adventures to share and enjoy. It’s fitting though, perhaps, that of all her successors there hasn’t really been another Who girl quite like Sarah Jane – variously alien, younger, less English, less or more metropolitan… indeed, they broke the mould soon after her arrival in The Time Warrior. But what a mould. And what large footprints to leave to this day.

Splendid chaps, both of them.


One Response to “The Doctor’s Best Friends”

  1. Al Says:

    Splendid obits, both of them.
    Nicely put, Peter – it’s been a sad year in so many respects, so far. I had just finished giving the BBC ‘Silurians’ audio book and Big Finishes’ ‘Masters of War’ a re-listen, and was as impressed as ever by these equally genuine and natural performances at either end of his career, when you told me about Courtney’s passing.
    What an asset he was to the programme. Perhaps like many of us, I cursed the fact that we never got to see the Brig on the new series, his swansong having to be the Sarah Jane Adventures instead. But then the second piece of shocking news rocked a barely recovered fandom, and now that final appearance seems a little more appropriate.

    With Sladen and Courtney’s passing not only does Doctor Who as a whole seem a little diminished, but somehow the joy in being a life-long fan. Whatever wonderful new world you find yourselves in now, Brigadier and Sarah, I’m pretty sure it isn’t Cromer, or Croydon.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.