3 years, 11 months ago
It’s December 1st, 2008. Take That are at number one with “Greatest Day,” and are unseated a week later by Leona Lewis’s “Run.” Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Akon, and Kings of Leon also chart. In news, Barack Obama announces more of his cabinet, three people die in the course of shopping for Black Friday, Russia and the Ukraine get into a tiff about natural gas supplies, and the legendarily wretched Lapland New Forest, a Christmas-themed park so awful that its management was jailed, both opened and closed in Hampshire.
Rather less wretched, and on television, is Enemy of the Bane, a story designed to work on two levels simultaneously. On one level it’s the structural trick Davies has been using literally since the dawn of his television career - the villain from one part of the season is shown at the eleventh hour to be working with another major villain. This time it’s a return of the titular Bane mixed with Kaagh from The Last Sontaran. And the story’s topic is clear enough - it’s a story about adoption again, and about the legitimacy of Sarah Jane’s status as Luke’s mother. And, like most of The Sarah Jane Adventures, it gets the notes right and provides a fairly touching story about what a “real mother” is, deciding that motherhood is about actions, not biology. All very nice.
But as part of the “big epic finale,” this was always slated to be a Doctor Who crossover. The plan was to have Martha, since of course there was still a show she’d not appeared in yet. Unfortunately (for Davies, at least), Freema Agyeman got poached by Chris Chibnall when he jumped over to do Law and Order UK, leaving a hole in the story that Davies and company eventually filled by inviting Nicholas Courtney to reprise the role of Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, more conventionally known as the Brigadier.
For a project of this sort, then, there can be no other way to meaningfully approach this story. Never mind that the Brigadier is a relatively minor character in this story - a guest appearance with only a handful of significant interventions who spends most of his time standing in the background of scenes. This is the final appearance of the Brigadier. The Sarah Jane Adventures has an elegiac tone at the best of times due to its strange dual nature as a late career revival for Lis Sladen and the last work she ever did. Adding the last appearance of Nicholas Courtney to it feels borderline funereal.
And it’s easy to read the episode in this context. The trouble with endings is that they often come at a point when things are right to pass. From Verity Lambert’s departure from Doctor Who on, we have seen few endings in which things are cut down in their prime. Even when the endings have come through tragedy, it has often been a case of an undignified end that still comes near the right moment. Roger Delgado’s final scene as the Master is a crap sendoff, but the character was well past the point where he worked well. Robert Holmes’s death and the unfinished finale of Trial of a Time Lord is a terribly sad story, but the overall takeaway of that season is nevertheless that under Nathan-Turner and Saward the series had become so spun around that not even a writer of Holmes’s skill could salvage it.
And likewise, the truth is that Nicholas Courtney is visibly an old and increasingly frail man here. His marginalization within the story has clear reasons. Effort is taken to keep him from having to stand too much. Scenes where he’d have to gurn and fall over are edited so that he’s never quite in shot. It’s little things, but it’s not surprising, based on this, that he couldn’t make an appearance a year later to do The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith, nor that we are looking at a man two years from death. It is not the jarring wrongness of, say, William Hartnell in The Three Doctors, but rather something like the quiet and dignified fading of a lion that suffuses those late Johnny Cash albums under the American Recordings banner. The cliche would be to describe Courtney as “undimmed” here. No; the truth is that he is dimmed, but that even in the softer light of old age his features are unmistakable. Perhaps even all the more beautiful for it. It is wonderful to see him again, but it is the wonder of a visit to the bedside of an ailing loved one. Even if one does not know it to be the last time going in, one is aware that one of these times will be.
One wishes, perhaps, that it had been a different story given this. That we know about the dying of the light makes all the business about Luke and the Bane seem strangely superficial. The Sarah Jane Adventures can do those things any day. Often, it does, and does them well. But here they feel out of place - like jarring distractions from what is in hindsight the real heart of this story. In many ways one is glad for The Wedding of River Song, with its quietly beautiful and fitting scene in which the Brigadier is allowed to die of old age, in a nursing home, much as Nicholas Courtney himself ultimately did.
In Nicholas Courtney’s previous “proper” appearance, Battlefield, I suggested that the story would have been better served had the Brigadier died saving the Earth there, which Adam Riggio correctly pointed out was nonsense on toast, as allowing the Brigadier to have the end the Doctor wished for him - to die in bed - was far more appropriate for the sort of hero the Brigadier was. And is. And yet if we are going to have a character who winds his way through decades of Doctor Who, appearing with Doctor after Doctor, one is not unjustified in wishing he would get a finale. A story that is about him, as opposed to one in which he is another part of a buildup to someone else’s epic.
All of which is to say that the story Enemy of the Bane has become through the accidents of history is, in many ways, a more powerful one than the one it set out to be. The dying of the light is worth beholding in all its awful, silent majesty. And this story is what we have - the point at which we say goodbye. Being as the farewell exists in the real world and not in the realm of narrative tidiness, we are forced to face it as real people do, not with carefully scripted glory. Death is not an event but an absence: a breath not taken, a returning story not made. A hasty farewell edited into a story that’s not about its most important scene.
But if there is a thing that TARDIS Eruditorum is good for, it is surely the fact that the past can be revisited with narrative clarity. And so let’s tell a different story. Or a story at all, instead of an awful jumble of causalities. Let us note the car that pulls away at the end, bearing within it the most constant of Doctor Who characters. Designed first as one of many suspects in a base under siege, and brought back for no reason other than that Douglas Camfield happened to enjoy the actor, the Brigadier, once he became the Brigadier - the definite article, you might say - was defined by exactly that: a constancy. He was a comedic character, born of the great tradition of drawing comedy from a sane man in a completely mad world. A straight-laced military man defined by his absolute and total unflappability, he was a needed side character for the Pertwee era.
But the Pertwee era, as we saw at the time, was an oddity for Doctor Who - a case of the show being taken as far in a given direction as it was possible for it to go while remaining Doctor Who. The Brigadier was wonderful within it, but he was very much made for a purpose. He is an artifact of an era when the show was, if not going against its underlying moral principle, at least exploring an edge case: the avatar of alchemical mercury working for the military.
And so it is fitting that he be a character defined by his persistent returns. In Terror of the Zygons, in Mawdryn Undead, in The Five Doctors, in Battlefield, and here, yes, but also in a bevy of Big Finish audios, in both the Virgin and BBC book lines. He’s a character who, across all of Doctor Who, loves, loses, ages, grows young again, and, most importantly, lives on. The sixth decade of the series’ life shall be the first that he doesn’t appear in. And even then, given that 2013 brought a Third Doctor novel featuring him, this cannot be entirely ruled out. Even if he doesn’t appear in anything for the next ten years, his legacy is ensured via Kate Stewart. Paul Cornell suggests the way to understand the Brigadier is as the Doctor’s best friend. But this isn’t the truth; that’s Sarah Jane, and even Cornell admits it in later work. No, the way to understand the Brigadier is not through his friendship with the Doctor. It is this:
Through fifty years of Doctor Who, he does not change. He is as steadfast as he was when he became the definite article. And yet he always works. He works as the sane man in a Troughton story. He works against Pertwee. He works to introduce the madman Fourth Doctor, as a symbol of nostalgia for the fifth, and as a weary solder in Battlefield. He can be the good part in a rubbish story like Minuet in Hell, he works. And even here, as a shoehorned in guest appearance in Enemy of the Bane, he works. He is a character from the most outlying era of Doctor Who, and yet he works in every era, with every Doctor. He is the proof that Doctor Who, for all its changes and reinventions, remains a coherent thing. It must, as the Brigadier always works within it.
In this regard, a final story is perhaps the wrong choice anyway. A character who never changes is not well-suited by a story about the inevitability of change. Not even the Brigadier can stave off death. He dims and fades, as all things do. But that’s the only reason he has to: because it’s what things do. One day, they’re not there anymore. In the end, that’s the only sort of change the Brigadier ever could go through - the only one that would ever make sense. He waves goodbye, drives off, and that’s the end. Life goes on, except for those for whom it doesn’t. The world keeps turning.
But this is a story. And stories need not be true. We need only avoid being false. The world keeps turning, yes. Constantly. But here, at least, we know to whom its constancy stands tribute.
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