‘Death in Heaven’ is a resolutely modern episode of Doctor Who, mixing Russell T Davies-style widescreen excess with the endlessly imaginative twists of Steven Moffat’s dark vision for the show like a pimped-up juggernaut driven by Edgar Allen Poe.
It’s also one of the most poignant season finales the programme has produced under the auspices of either showrunner – yet despite the deeply affecting scenes between Clara Oswald and Danny Pink, the most heartrending moment comes courtesy of a character from the show’s past.
Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, stalwart of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce during the 1970s and the Doctor’s longest-standing friend ever since, has been mentioned several times since the show was revived in 2005.
In 2008, ‘The Poison Sky’ revealed that he had been knighted; news of his death was broken – not long after the passing of actor Nicholas Courtney – in 2011’s ‘The Wedding of River Song’; and the character was mentioned on multiple occasions during ‘The Day of the Doctor’ in 2013.
The Brigadier also popped up in two episodes of spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures (Courtney’s final appearance as the Brig) and his daughter Kate continues the family tradition by leading UNIT (now the non-aligned, slightly crappily-named Unified Intelligence Taskforce) as Head of Scientific Research.
However, without Courtney, there’s no way the character could be brought back. A recasting would be unthinkable. A picture pinned to the wall of the UNIT equivalent of Air Force One is the best we could hope for, right?
Wrong. Yes, a portrait of the Brig is hanging in the plane, but the indomitable old soldier has a far greater role to play. With the Doctor agonising over whether or not to kill Missy (someone with whom he’s been acquainted for even longer than Lethbridge-Stewart), the decision is taken out of his hands by a blast of Cyber-laser fire.
Whether Missy is dead or not remains a matter of conjecture (although it’s improbable that we’ve seen the last of the character, given the Master’s previous resistance to being killed off) but the identity of the Cyberman that lingered in the graveyard after all the others had flown off with Danny is only in question until the Doctor and Clara find Kate Stewart lying on the grass. Despite being chucked out of the UNIT aircraft many thousands of feet above the ground, she is alive.
‘The Cyberman must have caught her,’ the Time Lord deduces – but why? ‘She’s talking about her dad,’ Clara says … and it becomes terribly, beautifully clear.
When the Doctor meets the gaze of the metal monster, he looks beyond the blank stare and sees the face of the human being it once was: the military moustache and the wry smile, the eyes that rolled with exasperation and twinkled with kindness. For the first time, he does the one thing the Brigadier always wanted him to do, and salutes his old pal.
When the Cyberman bows its head in response, its face hasn’t changed – and yet, it has. Emotion is written across it like a teenager’s diary, the mouth seemingly on the verge of trembling and the droplets at the corner of the eyes looking more like tears than ever. It’s unbearably poignant, and when the creature blasts upwards to join its comrades saving the world, saying goodbye to the Doctor for the last time, only those with hearts of steel could fail to be moved.
Lethbridge-Stewart used to refer to the Doctor as ‘splendid fellows – all of them’, but there were none more splendid than the Brigadier: still a hero after all these years.
Doctor Who goes on, as it always does, but he will never be forgotten.
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