Classic Doctor Who on BritBox: The best of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart
Mark Harrison | On 31, May 2020
Offering 626 Doctor Who episodes broadcast between 1963 and 1996, BritBox is bigger on the inside. If you’ve watched all of the new series already, then why not join us as we turn on the TARDIS randomiser for a monthly primer on the adventures of the first eight Doctors…
Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart casts a long shadow in Doctor Who’s history. As one of the founders of UNIT, the Brigadier appears in 23 stories in the original run of the series, with Nicholas Courtney acting opposite five different Doctors as the Time Lord’s best Earthbound ally.
He’s not a travelling companion and so his tenure as a regular came during Jon Pertwee’s run, when the Doctor worked as UNIT’s scientific adviser after the Time Lords exiled him to Earth. Though this is perhaps the definitive era of the Brig, he was around before the Third Doctor and reprised his role several times afterwards.
For newer viewers, Lethbridge-Stewart is probably best known from Enemy Of The Bane, the Season 2 finale of The Sarah Jane Adventures. Tragically, a planned encounter with the Tenth Doctor in the third season of New Who never came to pass due to problems with Courtney’s health.
His presence is still felt in New Who – his daughter Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) serves a similar role as head of UNIT opposite the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors. The news of the character’s death is a major moment in the Season 6 finale, The Wedding Of River Song, and even after this, writer Steven Moffat embeds major references to the Brig in his Twelfth Doctor episodes, Death In Heaven and Twice Upon a Time.
If you remember those moments and you’re curious about where to start with the Brigadier, we’ve compiled the following spoiler-lite guide to some of his landmark stories, many of which feature foes you’ll know from New Who. All of these stories are currently available to stream on BritBox, so here are six rounds rapid with one of Doctor Who’s most iconic companions:
The Web of Fear (Season 5, 1968)
“There are one or two questions I’d like answered. For a start, is there anyone else down here playing hide-and-seek?”
After a role as space security agent Bret Vyon in the epic lost serial The Daleks’ Master Plan, Courtney made his second appearance in Doctor Who as Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart in 1968’s The Web of Fear. This one is a contemporary London serial of the sort we’d see much more frequently in the years that followed, which has Lethbridge-Stewart aiding the Second Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria against a robotic Yeti infestation in the London Underground.
The Yeti are controlled by the Great Intelligence, best known to New Who fans as Richard E Grant’s malign consciousness in Season 7. From the Intelligence’s point of view, this one takes place between the events of The Snowmen and The Bells of Saint John. This serial was mostly recovered in 2013 (Episode 3 is made up of telesnap reconstructions) and grants us a very early look at the man who would form UNIT in his very next appearance, The Invasion (as covered in our guide to the Cybermen).
Spearhead from Space (Season 7, 1970)
“We deal with the odd, the unexplained. Anything on Earth… or beyond.”
In glorious Technicolor for the very first time, the Third Doctor arrives on Earth and promptly collapses in front of his TARDIS. Initially confused that the man who’s found outside the police book looks nothing like the Doctor he knows, the Brigadier is eager to secure his help in investigating a mysterious meteor shower that has carried the Nestene Consciousness to Earth.
While the Second Doctor got on famously with Lethbridge-Stewart, the new Doctor is immediately a bit pricklier with him, creating a funny employer-employee dynamic. There are a lot of firsts in Spearhead from Space, but even at this early stage, Courtney’s character is being set up as the constant. The Brig would also be around for the Fourth Doctor’s debut, 1974’s Robot, this time witnessing the regeneration with a resigned “Here we go again…”
Inferno (Season 7, 1970)
“I keep telling you, Brigade Leader, I don’t exist here!” “Then you won’t feel the bullets when we shoot you.”
At the other end of Jon Pertwee’s first season, Courtney plays an iconic role in the time-bending final serial, Inferno. Attempting to repair his TARDIS, the Doctor is distracted from an experimental drilling project that UNIT are overseeing. He winds up slipping into an alternate universe and catching a sneak peek of how badly the experiment could go wrong.
Mirror universe stories are a staple of sci-fi TV and Doctor Who’s early run gives Courtney’s darkest-timeline Brigade Leader an eyepatch, rather than the time-honoured goatee – he doesn’t even have his usual moustache. Still, he’s clearly having a ball playing a more sinister version of his regular role, ramping up his antagonism with the Doctor terrifically as his less genial self.
Terror of the Zygons (Season 13, 1975)
“This IS an emergency!”
At the end of Robot, the Fourth Doctor fancies a change of scene and whisks Sarah-Jane and Harry off into time and space in his now-working TARDIS. He’s disgruntled to be called back by the Brigadier a few serials later to investigate alien attacks on several North Sea oil rigs. While the Loch Ness monster is suspected, the shape-shifting Zygons soon emerge as the culprits.
The series was decidedly less Earthbound in Tom Baker’s era, but it’s still lovely to watch him and Courtney spark off each other in the two stories they had together. With his appearances becoming less regular, Courtney suggested to producer Phillip Hinchcliffe that the Brigadier might be killed off, going out in a blaze of glory at the end of this story, but happily, that idea was turned down – Doctor Who wasn’t done with Lethbridge-Stewart by a long stalk.
Mawdryn Undead (Season 20, 1983)
“If I was suffering from amnesia, I’d be the first to know about it, wouldn’t I?”
Before Courtney reunited with Patrick Troughton in the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors, he got his very own multi-Brigadier story in the shape of Mawdryn Undead. Taking place between 1977 and 1983, (which is where the oft-discussed UNIT dating controversy gets really sticky) the story sees the Fifth Doctor meet the Brigadier he knows and the retired Mr Lethbridge-Stewart, a maths teacher who has suffered a nervous breakdown.
Strictly one to watch after you’ve been through some of the earlier UNIT stories, Mawdryn Undead fits in with the anniversary season’s effort to bring back characters and monsters from the show’s past, and in that capacity, Courtney makes a valiant return. In the midst of a convoluted story about the title character attempting to steal the secret of the Time Lords’ regeneration, his return is very welcome.
Battlefield (Season 26, 1989)
“My blood and thunder days are long past.”
We’ve already covered Battlefield in our celebrity historicals feature, but it’s worth mentioning again here for a more triumphal return of the Brigadier than Mawdryn Undead. The Brig is flown in by his successor, Winifred Bambera, (Angela Bruce) when the Doctor arrives to help fight wicked witch Morgaine and her knights.
It’s a shame the new generation of UNIT didn’t get more time to develop before the series went on hiatus in 1990, but this serial makes a fine opener to what’s inarguably the best season of the 1980s. While it’s a more traditional run-around than the other serials in this season, the Brig’s presence is perfect for a story that’s about English folklore and the Doctor’s own emerging role in it. If nothing else, it’s a fitting send-off to a beloved character.
Classic Doctor Who is available on BritBox as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.