My Favorite Lethbridge-Stewart Stories
The date was Thursday, October 9th, 1975 (at least, I think it was, if this website is to be believed. I don't remember the circumstance - probably just dealing with the trials and tribulations of being a third grader growing up in the south side of Chicago in the 1970's. (Nowadays, there are therapy groups for that, but then...). I don't remember much, but I do remember this scene burning itself into my brain:
Tall, rolling pepperpot-shaped battle machines ambush a mansion on the English countryside with cries of "Exterminate!" Their ape-like henchmen lurking menacingly, poised to strike at any and all who get in their way. Three time-tossed guerilla warriors attempting to change history by striking at the one man they believed caused their future to occur. But most importantly, I remember the regal, almost Holmes-ian hero who dared defy them, his slightly daffy female assistant...and the sharp, no-nonsense military leader who helped fight off this alien menace.
That, ladies and gentlemen, was my introduction to Doctor Who - more formally known as episode three of "Day of the Daleks." Like many of us, I was devastated to hear of the news of Nicholas Courtney's passing: I had only met the man once, casually, at a fan convention, but as someone who loves the UNIT era of the show, it was a little disheartening to hear of his passing. So this month is a personal tribute to Mr. Courtney, and to Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart: I'll be talking about my favorite Lethbridge-Stewart stories. These may not be fan favorites, or even the best Doctor Who episodes....but are the ones that I enjoy the most.
(And if you disagree, I will fight you...and I will win).
(Just a note - several of these are already out on DVD, and some will be released later this year. I'll note which is which, and I'll pretty much talk about them in chronological order by broadcast. In addition, Netflix has many Doctor Who titles available via their "Watch Instantly" feature. There's no way I can include every single great UNIT story, which is why I'm focusing on my personal favorites this time around).
Starting with my earliest (in terms of original broadcast) favorite Lethbridge-Stewart story, I'm going to go with Season 7's Inferno. You would think that a seven-part story (almost three hours) about a mining operation gone wrong, and green furry werewolves emerging would be....well, a little cheesy. However, Inferno has the advantage of integrating a side trip for the Third Doctor into a parallel world, where instead of the stalwart, righteous Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart we meet the cowardly, bullying "Brigade Leader" Lethbridge-Stewart. (In fact, we learn who Lethbridge-Stewart really is by meeting his almost polar opposite). There's a lot in this story to like - the fact that we actually see a (parallel) Earth destroyed; we see the first glimmers of the implications of the Doctor's travels and the flexibility of time travel ("So free will isn't an illusion after all...), but more importantly, in a season that helped solidify the original series' popularity in England, Inferno helped cement much of the thinking that went into the revamped Doctor Who, moving it from the children's/educational/monster-based 60s era to a slightly more mature, though-provoking nature in the 1970s....
...and Terror of the Autons (to be released on DVD in May 2011) helped solidify what we now call the "UNIT era" of the program. In all honesty, this was one of the few "holy grails" of my teen years as a Who fan (that and wanting Tomb of the Cybermen to be found...but that's a column for another day). In this story, we see the Brigadier and the Doctor begin their slightly antagonistic banter (check out the Brigadier's response when the Doctor complains about losing his assistant), the creation of a new nemesis for the Doctor; the introduction of the Third Doctor's companion, and a story that was a scarier than past Who. Don't think of this as simply a retread of the previous season's Spearhead from Space; think of it as Lethbridge-Stewart coming into his own. (It also helps that this is, quite frankly, a story that at times borders on satire, and I mean that in a good way). This Season 8 opener sets the tone for many Third Doctor stories to follow, and quite possibly, it's the Blink of its time. I'm happy to see it finally come out on DVD, especially since my VHS version is starting to fall apart.
(Yes, I still own a video recorder. I also own several videotapes. Please don't mock me)
As I stated in the introduction, Day of the Daleks is one of my favorite Who stories - not just out of nostalgia, but because it's one of the first efforts to deal with the implications of time travel. Granted, it had a slightly spotty production history - it was actually a totally different story when then script editor Terrance Dicks and executive producer Barry Letts decided to include the Daleks. (And trust me - from voices to set design, the lack of familiarity with the Daleks shows. Thankfully, the new DVD due out by Christmas will provide updated effects and voices re-recorded by new Dalek voice artist/Big Finish producer/all-around swell guy Nicholas Briggs). It's also the episode which brought us the wonderful concept of the Blintovich Limitation Effect, which answers the immortal question, "When the Doctor fails, why doesn't he just go back in time and stop himself?. (Of course, for those of you who wonder When the Doctor gets involved in historical events, why does he worry? After all, if something happened in the past, we already know the outcome..., check out Pyramids of Mars, with a quite clever - and oblique - reference to UNIT). It plays with the concept of altered time lines and changing history in a way that the series really hadn't before that point, and although it's not quite a classic, it is a pretty solid example of Who in the 1970s....and a pretty good Lethbridge-Stewart story.
Although Nicholas Courtney did play Lethbridge-Stewart in a variety of stories throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, my personal favorite is his final one, Battlefield, during Sylvester McCoy's tenure as the Doctor. Granted, some of the storytelling may not be up to snuff (even writer Ben Aaronovich admits as much in the DVD extras), and some of the special effects may not be all that special, but don't let that dissuade you. This is one fantastic story, and as a swan song for Lethbridge-Stewart, whose dramatic arc moves from comfortable domesticity and his belief that his "blood and thunder" days are over to his dramatic reemergence as a warrior.
Quite simply, if this story posits (as a premise) that the Doctor is Merlin, then it also argues - quite convincingly - that Lethbridge-Stewart is King Arthur. (Yes, I actually did type that. Out loud)
But my personal love of this story comes through some very witty - and character revealing - exchanges between Lethbridge-Stewart and various other characters. I realize it's hard to find these moments on YouTube, but rent/buy/borrow the DVD and watch, if not just to hear the words, but to witness how Nicholas Courtney says them:
Brigadier: Oh, dear. Women. Not really my field.
The Doctor: Don't worry, Brigadier. People will be shooting at you soon.
Lethbridge-Stewart: What was that?
The Doctor: That Brigadier, was the beginning of the end of the world.
Lethbridge-Stewart: Same as ever, eh, Doctor?
The Destroyer: Ah... little man. What do you want of me?
Brigadier: Get off my world!
The Destroyer: Pitiful. Can this world do no better than you as their champion?
Brigadier: Probably. I just do the best I can.
In his later years, Nicholas Courtney became an "elder statesman" of Who, because he not only worked with all but one of the television Doctors, but also because of his key role during part of the "glory years" of the program. His willingness to embrace the fan community, and his sense of humility about the role have earned him the place in many a Who fan's heart (including my own). Yes, there's a good reason why #NicholasCourtney and #ripbrig trended so high on Twitter in February.
I only hope that, in some small way, that this column can serve as a fitting testimonial from one fan about a character I've known since childhood. Thanks to Mr. Courtney for his wonderful performances...and thanks to you, the reader, for indulging me this month.
Read More! For more of Gordon's writings, insights, and
general information, please visit his blog at blogthispal.blogspot.com.
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