Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart – soldier, defender of the Earth, and the only man to ever be the Doctor’s boss!
Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, later Sir Alistair and often known to others simply as “the Brigadier,” or even just “the Brig,” is one of the cornerstones of Doctor Who. Played by the redoubtable Nicholas Courtney in 105 episodes, comprising 24 separate stories across 43 years (including his appearance in The Sarah Jane Adventures), the Brig even eclipses many of the Doctors themselves in the sheer scale of his association with the show.
But like many of the best things in Doctor Who, it wasn’t planned that way. Rather it evolved over time as writers and audiences came to love both Lethbridge-Stewart and Courtney. The actor had already appeared in Doctor Who opposite William Hartnell in 1965 for The Daleks’ Master Plan, as the stoic but courageous 40th century secret agent Bret Vyon.
The director of those episodes, Douglas Camfield, remembers Courtney’s skill and professionalism when working on ‘The Web of Fear‘ in 1968. He cast him as Captain Knight, the similarly serious and action ready leader of a platoon trying to protect London’s Underground from the Great Intelligence. But the same script also featured the mysterious Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart who shows up halfway through to take command, and to be a red herring in the mole hunt for the traitor within the ranks.
And when the actor originally set to play the Colonel had to withdraw before filming, Nicholas Courtney was transferred to that role and Ralph Watson brought in for Knight. Ironically, one the false clues to the colonel being the enemy establishes one of his fundamental traits. Lethbridge-Stewart immediately accepts the Doctor’s story of owning a time and space machine disguised as a Police Box and is eager to recover it, he claims, as a potential escape route for his men.
This willingness to take the uncanny and alien in his stride, whether the latest fantastic menace or the Doctor’s plan to deal with it, was a hallmark of the character and part of the reason his friendship with the Doctor resonated so strongly with fans.
‘The Web of Fear’s’ Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart was not originally intended to be a recurring character
At the time, those stories’ settings of 20th century London was a rarity in Doctor Who. But the showrunning team of producer Peter Bryant and script editor Derrick Sherwin saw in its success the potential for a whole new format. So Lethbridge-Stewart returned for the following season’s ‘The Invasion’ with a promotion to Brigadier and command of a whole new team – UNIT, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce.
The UN body set up to deal with alien incursions and homegrown threats from the fringes of science would become a major fixture of Doctor Who for the next seven seasons, and still retain a presence right up to last year’s ‘Flux.’
According to ‘Flux’ Alistair joined UNIT after the “whole thing with the Post Office Tower” under the command of General Farquhar. The general refers to him as a ‘corporal’ but we can probably assume he misspoke and meant to say “colonel,” considering the voice cameo from Nicholas Courtney involves him barking orders to get the RAF on the phone, and Farquhar also describes him as “keeping everyone on their toes.”
Considering ‘The War Machines’ is set before ‘The Web of Fear,’ though, it hints that Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart may have been dispatched by UNIT to take over from Knight, but in a Scots Guards uniform to maintain the secrecy of UNIT’s existence.
Throughout his career, the Brigadier walked the line between following his orders and standing up for what’s right
‘The Invasion’ also set out another key aspect of the Brigadier: the conflict between his orders and his strong sense of his own duty. As an inter-governmental agency, UNIT is subject to politics and influence peddlers. The Brig originally enlists the Doctor’s help for plausible deniability in his investigation of the politically connected Tobias Vaughn, before going over the head of the Minister that Vaughn has under his control.
It’s a recurring theme. In ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ he’s actually arrested by the military police and has to escape to bring the duplicitous General Carstairs to justice and end his scheme to provoke an interplanetary war. In ‘The Claws of Axos‘ he’s placed under arrest again on the orders of the buffoonish civil servant Chinn, securing his release just in time to help stop the alien vampire Axos consuming the life force of the whole Earth.
In ‘The Green Death,’ while in Wales to investigate a fellow who’s “bright green, apparently, and dead!” he bites off more than he chew, earning a dressing down from the Prime Minister himself for trying to connect Global Chemicals to the mystery. Yet, he simply becomes more discreet, sending Mike Yates into Global Chemicals undercover. And he’s shoulder to shoulder with the Doctor at the end, battling to stop a plague of giant mutant flies spreading across Britain.
The Doctor’s unique friendship with the Brigadier is built on the Brig being more than a sidekick
But this conviction to do what he sees as his duty could also put the Brigadier at cross purposes with the Doctor. In ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’ he lies to the Doctor in order to blow up all access to the Silurians’ hibernation tombs with explosives, wrecking the Doctor’s plans for mutual co-existence between the two species. It’s a moment that emphasises a relationship unique in Doctor Who.
The Doctor usually gets to set the standard for his companions, and they almost always live by Yaz’s “What Would the Doctor Do?” credo. But with the Doctor exiled to Earth by the Time Lords and working as UNIT’s Scientific Advisor the Brigadier was his boss. And for all Lethbridge-Stewart’s respect for the Time Lord, they didn’t always see eye to eye on the best solution to a problem, and nor would he automatically defer to the Doctor’s judgement.
And with the Doctor unable to simply send his friend home and fly away, their disagreements instead led to grumpy bickering followed by moving past them. It’s the type of friendship the Doctor has rarely had, before or since. Another reason the Doctor and the Brigadier’s relationship is so special is how long it lasts. He’s one of the few people to know the Doctor across several incarnations.
Nicholas Courtney ultimately appeared on screen opposite seven different Doctors
He may be best known for this many adventures alongside Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor. Together they defended the world from Autons and Daleks, not to mention the insane Time Lord Omega, Azal the Dæmon, as well as dinosaurs and giant spiders. And, most of all, the Master, whom the Brig faced six times before ultimately getting to lay out cold with one punch in ‘The Five Doctors.’
But it was the Second Doctor with whom he fought against Yeti and Cybermen. And even after Pertwee regenerated into Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor and Lethbridge-Stewart together stopped the Scientific Reform Society’s nuclear apocalypse in ‘Robot’, and an attempt to use the Loch Ness Monster to take over the world in ‘Terror of the Zygons.’
Many years later the Fifth Doctor was reunited with his old friend, now retired from the military and working as a maths teacher, in ‘Mawdryn Undead.’ In fact, the story featured two Brigadiers as a version from 1977 accidentally met his counterpart from 1983, causing the younger version to lose his memories of the Doctor and the older one to regain them. Later that year the Brig met up with ‘The Five Doctors’ when they were all abducted and brought to the Death Zone on Gallifrey – making him one of the Doctor’s few friends to step foot on the Time Lord homeworld.
Two Brigadiers were a feature of 1989’s ‘Battlefield’ too. The character’s final outing of the classic series saw Lethbridge-Stewart brought out of retirement to work alongside his successor Brigadier Bambera and the Seventh Doctor to defeat the witch queen Morgaine and her knights from another dimension. The original Brig memorably faced off against a world-eating demon known as the Destroyer with nothing but a service revolver and some silver bullets.
It was originally intended as a noble act of self-sacrifice that would kill the character off, but fortunately the decision was reversed. Instead, he was left to see out his retirement in his country mansion with his wife Doris. And Bambera herself is also creating a legacy of her own as she stars in UNIT: Brave New World from Big Finish this year.
The Brigadier’s legacy continues with his daughter Kate heading up present day UNIT
After a cameo in 30th anniversary minisode ‘Dimensions in Time’ (to finally meet the Sixth Doctor, if nothing else) Nicholas Courtney returned to the role for the last time on television in The Sarah Jane Adventures. The story ‘Enemy of the Bane’ reveals he’s now Sir Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, and he helps Sarah Jane stop Mrs. Wormwood and her Sontaran ally Commander Kaagh free the ancient evil of Horath from his prison.
Another appearance, in ‘The Wedding of Sarah Jane,’ would have seen him giving Sarah Jane away on her wedding day and meeting David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor but sadly ill health meant Nicholas Courtney couldn’t take part. Shortly after Courtney’s death in 2011, Doctor Who paid tribute to him with a scene in ‘The Wedding of River Song’ in which Matt Smith’s Doctor discovers his old friend has died in his sleep and mourns him.
The Brigadier’s legacy continued, however. 2012’s ‘The Power of Three‘ introduced Kate Stewart: UNIT’s new chief scientific officer, and Alistair’s daughter. Kate rebalanced UNIT’s twin aspects of military defenders and scientific geniuses so that, in her words, “Science leads.”
After than original adventure with the Eleventh Doctor, Kate went on to meet the Tenth Doctor and the War Doctor in The Day of the Doctor,’ the Twelfth in ‘Dark Water’ / Death in Heaven’ and ‘The Zygon Invasion’ / ‘The Zygon Inversion’ and the Thirteenth in ‘Flux.’
The character has also appeared in independent films and books, such as 1995’s Yeti rematch ‘Downtime’
Back in the world of 1960s British television, freelance writers retained ownership of the characters and concepts they created for a show. This means that the original ‘Web of Fear’ writing team of Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln held the rights to the character of Lethbridge-Stewart, and his further appearances in Doctor Who were by agreement with them. It also meant that independent productions could use the character so long as they only used Doctor Who elements created by the pair, or which they got permission to use..
These included the 1995 Reeltime Pictures film Downtime, which featured Courtney as the Brigadier dealing with the Yeti and the Great Intelligence once again, aided by former companions Sarah Jane and Victoria. Downtime also introduced his daughter Kate for the first time, originally played by Beverley Cressman.
And today, Candy Jar Books continues to publish both the Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT series of novels, and The Lucy Wilson Mysteries for junior readers, starring the Brig’s granddaughter.
As you’d expect, the Brigadier has appeared in innumerable tie-in media beyond the television show. Courtney made 29 appearances as the Brig for Big Finish’s audio dramas, as well as two BBC Audio adventures in the 1990s. And since 2019, Jon Culshaw has played the character on audio, including the upcoming ‘Old Friends’ in which Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor finally meets the Brig.
There have also been dozens of comics and novels, from appearances in the TV Comic of the 1970s, to meeting the Tenth Doctor in the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip. He’s even appeared in an issue of X-Men when Marvel held the Doctor Who comics licence!
From a red herring one-off character to the Doctor’s best friend, the Lethbridge-Stewart family have become a core part of Doctor Who’s heritage
‘Death in Heaven’ featured a return for the Brigadier himself. Resurrected as a Cyberman by Missy’s cyber-spores, he nevertheless saved Kate as she fell from a jet and was last seen flying off, presumably to join the other Cybermen in exploding to spread the cure.
We’ve even encountered Captain Hamish Lethbridge-Stewart, Alistair’s grandfather, in ‘Twice Upon a Time’ when he was abducted from the moment of his death in World War I and met the First and Twelfth Doctors. Ultimately, the Twelfth Doctor meddled with time just enough for the captain to survive and take part in the famous Christmas truce, before the First Doctor promised to look in on the Lethbridge-Stewart family from time to time.
Between them, these three heroes have ensured that the Doctor has no older or more enduring friendship than with the Lethbridge-Stewart family. What’s your favourite memory of the Brigadier?
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