Monday, 4 November 2013

DW Companions as PCs: Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart

Some time after ending his time travel campaign with The War Games, the GM proposes a new one. This will be about a semi-secret military organisation dedicated to protecting the Earth from alien invasion and investigating the downright weird. He initially gets three players for this new campaign, and they set out about creating suitable characters.

One brings back the Doctor, from the previous campaign, but now suitably changed with the addition of some nifty combat skills and, of course, no time machine. (Maybe the last episode of The War Games is actually a flashback worked out to explain this, or maybe it was planned all along, when the GM got bored of running games about time travel and future worlds).

The second player also brings back a character from the previous campaign, but this time, it's a former NPC. This, of course, is the head of the British branch of UNIT, Brigadier Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart. (The middle name 'Gordon' isn't added until quite a bit later).

That the Brigadier was originally an NPC seems fairly evident. He first appears (as a colonel) in The Web of Fear, in which he is one of the main suspects in the whodunnit sub-plot. Crucially, he is treated as such by the regular characters pretty much all the way through, and they don't start to trust him until the true villain is unmasked, right at the end. Therefore, I would argue, the players are treating him as they would any NPC suspect. Yes, he's a red herring, but they don't know that, and they aren't treating him like a fellow PC.

He turns up again in The Invasion, this time clearly as a good guy. Yet his role in the story is not one of a protagonist, except, perhaps, for one or two brief scenes. Instead, he's a Patron, a character whose main function is to give the players access to the equipment and support that they need to carry out their mission. He arranges helicopters, gives them access to the tracking station, provides troop support, and so on. Again, this is more of a role we'd expect an NPC to fulfil than a player character.

Even from Spearhead from Space onwards, however, there's still something of the Patron about him, handing out missions and providing exposition. This probably doesn't make him the easiest companion to play, at least in a regular campaign, rather than one based more specifically around UNIT. Clearly, he has disadvantages like Duty, and perhaps Code of Honour, with the former in particular limiting his usefulness in a more free-wheeling campaign.

Still, he does take on more of a PC-like role from the seventh season onwards, although not always, even then. (Consider how, in The Dæmons, he's trapped outside the forcefield within which the entire plot takes place. That's a bit cruel to his player, assuming he was there for that session). But we can point to scenes like the protracted gunfight in The Ambassadors of Death, or planning the assault on the prison in The Mind of Evil as evidence that he does considerably more than act as a Patron.

The Brigadier's skills would not be that different from those of any other senior army officer. He can obviously use firearms, would have some training in unarmed combat, be able to drive military vehicles and so on. If the game system supports them as distinct abilities, he has Tactics and Administration skills as well as simple Leadership. Perhaps one of the few times he does something outside of this remit is his use of Acting/Subterfuge to pose as a delivery man in The Mind of Evil. Not that that necessarily requires a spectacularly high skill, mind you, but he does seem to do quite a good job of not looking military.

However, there is surely no doubt as to what his number one attribute must be: his unflappability. Whether the system calls this Unfazeable, Iron Will, or whatever, the Brigadier has it in spades. No matter how bizarre or deadly the things he's faced with, he maintains the classic British stiff upper lip to an extent that some fans have described as almost Pythonesque. His most famous line is also, of course, the prime example of this:

"Chap with the wings, there - five rounds rapid."

Note also, that he appears to be no more than mildly put out when the resulting gunfire fails to have any effect! Mind you, it was quite different back in The Web of Fear, in which he panics when faced with a robot yeti, but as I've established, he was an NPC then, so it doesn't count.

Aside from that, how else should we play him? His solutions to most problems are military ones, even when they're obviously not appropriate (although one does have to be careful here, not to be too Pythonesque...) He frequently argues with the Doctor over this, and about other ways of dealing with things. Indeed, he seems to have difficulty believing any of the mad theories the Doctor comes up with, no matter how many times they've previously been proven correct. On the other hand, he doesn't (usually) go into full denialist mode once the evidence turns up, and he clearly respects and likes the Doctor a great deal, even if he finds him exasperating at times.

Although he is a senior officer, he tends to lead from the front, Captain Kirk style, and often gets directly involved in the shooting.  For the benefit of Americans, it may be worth pointing out here that, in Britain, brigadier is the highest field officer rank, not the lowest rank of general officer, as it is in the US. As a result, while they're nominally equivalent in rank to any US one-star general, the duties of a British brigadier are closer to those of a senior US colonel than they are to those of a brigadier-general.

His idea of civilian clothing is apparently a blazer and tie, and, at least during his time with UNIT, he really doesn't seem to have much life outside of his work. (In fairness, do many PCs?) He also enjoys a pint down the pub, at least when he's not on duty.

His life story is perhaps one of the most detailed of any companion, and deserves examination, especially if we want to use him outside of a straight UNIT campaign. The Brigadier is from the year...

Oh, sod it, I'm just going to have to deal with this, aren't I? Right...

For those of you who don't know, there is considerable debate in fandom about when, exactly, the UNIT stories are set. There is no doubt that the producers of the show originally intended them to be set in 'the near future', placing them in the late '70s or early '80s. There is plenty of evidence for this, if you choose to look for it. There's a host of experimental power stations and the like, based on advanced technology, but, more significantly, Britain has a manned space program capable of getting to Mars, video phones are commonplace, the Prime Minister is a woman, the BBC has three channels, and, to cap it all, Sarah Jane specifically says that she's from 1980 in The Pyramids of Mars.

Set against this is... well, just about everything else, really. Everything just looks so screamingly, obviously, 1970s. Plus, they listen to '70s music and watch '70s TV programs (both in The Sea Devils), and Mawdryn Undead specifies that the Brigadier leaves UNIT in 1976, four years before Sarah Jane's date for an event that's manifestly much earlier in his personal history.

You could, if you wanted, argue it either way. However, for the purposes of this, and later posts, I am going to take what seems to be the more popular opinion among fans these days, and say, yes, it really was the 1970s. My reasoning for this is, at least in part, that this makes sense if we're playing the characters. Maybe they are from the 1980s, but if so, it's a 1980s that resembles our own 1970s in every respect bar the video phones. Or at least it does for the overwhelming majority of people, who aren't involved with space missions, drilling holes into the Earth's crust, or re-wiring the brains of murderers with what turns out to be alien tech anyway.

UNIT characters from this era wear '70s fashions, and are used to what we would regard as '70s technology - at least as regards things like their cars, radio sets, access to computers, and so on. (Compare with UFO, another early '70s British TV series, also set in the 1980s and about, er... a secret military organisation defending the Earth from alien invasion. They may not have got the future fashions right, but they were very clearly trying). So thinking of such characters as if they're from that era makes sense to me. And you're free to ignore me anyway. Obviously.

So: Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart was born some time around 1930, into what the spin-off media claim was a family with a long military tradition. He would have entered Sandhurst in the early '50s, and he joined the Scots Guards. He would, incidentally have been of an age to have fought in the Korean War, although there's no evidence anywhere that he actually did so. At some point in the 1960s, by which time he's risen to the rank of colonel, he faces the Yeti. Later, he is promoted to brigadier, and given command of the newly formed British branch of UNIT.

And then there's the matter of the Brigadier's marriage, referred to somewhat obliquely in the DWAITAS Third Doctor Sourcebook.

We know, from The Power of Three, that he has a daughter, Kate, who would logically have been born around this time, since Jemma Redgrave, who plays the part, was born in 1965. We also know that, as of The Dæmons (1971-ish), he's sleeping alone. Granted, that could be a one-off, but there's no sign of a Mrs Lethbridge-Stewart in Mawdryn Undead, either. The 1996 novel Scales of Injustice explains this by saying that the Brigadier's wife, Fiona, divorced him in 1970 or thereabouts. (This needed explaining, incidentally, because Kate first appears in a 1995 novel - she was in spin-off media long before she was mentioned on TV).

According to Mawdryn Undead, the Brigadier leaves UNIT in 1976, not long after the Doctor does. He then becomes, of all things, a maths teacher at a boy's boarding school. This doesn't really make a lot of sense, but there we are. By 1995, he's retired from that job, too, and has re-married. His second wife, Doris, is mentioned as a former beau in Planet of the Spiders, and presumably they've got back together again, somehow.

At this point in his life, without the Duty to UNIT, the Brigadier is arguably a more usable character than he is earlier on. He's largely free to do as he wishes, as we see in the TV story Battlefield, as well as in the straight-to-video production Downtime, and novels such as The Dying Days and Happy Endings. The downside, of course, is that, being in his mid sixties at a minimum, his physical stats are likely no longer in top form.

During this period, incidentally, he meets the first, fifth, and seventh Doctors - having already met the second, third, and fourth. Various spin-off media add adventures with the sixth and eighth Doctors, and it's plausible that he meets the tenth off-screen in The End of Time. Of the regular companions, only Clara has so far managed to meet more...

According to The Wedding of River Song, the Brigadier dies some time around 2012, peacefully and in bed.

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