Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart is a stalwart of Doctor Who, having first appeared as a Colonel way back in 1968’s tale ‘The Web Of Fear’, taking on Yetis in the London Underground. He reappeared later that year, promoted up to his now-familiar rank, and now in the role of head of United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) in the UK, fighting an invasion of the Cybermen.
The Brigadier became a regular fixture of the programme for several years, after the Doctor was captured and put on trial by his own people, before being exiled to Earth with a brand new face as punishment for meddling in the affairs of others. Taking up the post of UNIT’s Scientific Advisor, the Doctor at first worked uncomfortably alongside the Brigadier, given he disapproved strongly of that militaristic mindset when it came to dealing with threats to the planet; however, it was to later become a mutual respect, and – eventually – a firm friendship.
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When the series went on its extended hiatus and Big Finish picked up the baton, crafting a range of new, official Doctor Who adventures on audio, they were sure to include as many elements of the TV version as possible, so they engaged the services of actor Nicholas Courtney, in order to bring the Brig back for more adventures. His last appearance on screen was in spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures, and it was planned he would meet David Tennant’s Doctor in a crossover story in that same series, but Courtney was unfortunately too ill to appear, and so the Brig’s part was written out.
Not long after, Courtney sadly passed away, and it appeared that any possibility of having Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart cross paths once more with the Time Lord had gone forever. This particular old soldier, however, never truly died, nor did he ever fade away, and Big Finish took the decision to recast the part, choosing impressionist and longtime Doctor Who fan Jon Culshaw; now, several years on from his first taking up the swagger stick, Culshaw’s Brig has at last encountered Christopher Eccleston’s incarnation, in the latest The Ninth Doctor Adventures set, ‘Old Friends’.
Deferred gratification is in play here, however, as the long-awaited meeting is held off until after the first story, David K. Barnes’ ‘Fond Farewell’. The Doctor arrives at a futuristic funeral parlour – Fond Farewell – to pay his respects to an acquaintance, Professor Flynn Beckett (James Doherty); in a novel twist, the invite came from Beckett, who is attending his own wake, thanks to the power of technology. However, something seems amiss, and the Doctor soon finds himself wondering whether the deceased is the man that he used to be…
Doctor Who has dipped into the rather macabre territory of funeral homes before, with 1985’s story ‘Revelation Of The Daleks’, which was a mixture of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One and Soylent Green. Here, Barnes manages to avoid any real comparison, by making his tale a look at the nature of identity, and whether or not a person is just the sum of their memories, which does make the whole endeavour quite the fascinating dive into philosophical debate, backed up by an impressive cast, which includes Juliet Stevenson.
Sadly, ‘Fond Farewell’ rather suffers from being bedfellows with the two-part finale of The Ninth Doctor Adventures’ first season, Roy Gill’s ‘Way Of The Burryman’ / ‘The Forth Generation’. It really is a shame Barnes’ thought-provoking episode is overshadowed by the main event, which sees not only the first meeting of the Brigadier and the Ninth Doctor, but also the unexpected return of the Cybermen, after they had already made an appearance in the previous set’s final story, ‘Monsters In Metropolis’. Whoever’s script landed the first spot would have ended up as bridesmaid, alas.
However, ‘Fond Farewell’ actually ends up being the perfect companion piece to Gill’s climactic event, as the Doctor finds himself drawn to visit the Brigadier, after all the exploration of mortality, remembrance and loss makes him realise that he should take the time to tell his old friend just how much he means to him. It shows a growth in the Doctor, no doubt spurred on by his still all-too-raw recent experiences in the Time War, where he ended up losing his home world and all his people.
It marks an interesting twist, as the Doctor’s actions are no doubt informed by his having to become a soldier himself in his previous incarnation, softening his antipathy towards anything associated with the military. He and the Brigadier have long since become full-blown genuine friends, rather than just colleagues or uneasy allies, but the Doctor feels it is now long past due for him to actually say it outright, which is a particularly interesting twist, given that this incarnation is the one wanting to actually say it.
The Ninth Doctor was rather damaged and guarded when we first met him on TV, putting on a brave face to try and mask the sadness or melancholy he clearly felt from his survivor’s guilt. Even the Brigadier notes the change in the Doctor, and realises at this point in his friend’s life (prior to his first ever appearance on screen), there is no travelling companion for once. Both men are old soldiers now, and the various ravages of time would seem to have now created not simply a greater understanding, but an even closer kinship.
While not quite matching Courtney’s rich, fruity and mellow tones of his later years in particular, Culshaw still manages to do a good enough job to make you forget there is a different actor playing the Brigadier. Eccleston appears to have really grown back into the part over the course of this series, with any initial hints of perhaps holding back a little while he gets the lie of the land having long since evaporated, and you can register how joyful and ebullient his Doctor is to be reunited with the Brigadier, marching the actor’s own enthusiasm in the part.
Over the course of these four sets, Big Finish would seem to have accomplished a minor miracle, by getting Christopher Eccleston not only to reprise his role, but also apparently have a whale of a time in doing so, and enable him to put behind him some of the personal reservations he had which led him to relinquish the mantle so soon on television. With more series in prospect, if Big Finish can manage to sustain the high standard they have achieved here, then it really will be fantastic.
Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor Adventures – ‘Old Friends’ is available now from Big Finish.