Monday, 2 September 2013

Doctor Who at 50: UNIT

Doctor Who, by tradition, consists of only a few continuing elements: the Doctor, the TARDIS, the notion of him being accompanied by a (normally human) companion and a few recurring enemies like the Daleks and Cybermen. There is, however, a very popular recurring element that has sporadically been part of the show since the late 1960s. This is UNIT, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, a military force which the Doctor has aided (or been aided by) in defeating various alien threats to the Earth.

Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and Captain Yates wonder what the hell is going on this week.

UNIT was inspired by the serial The Web of Fear (Season 5, 1968). In this story the Second Doctor and his companions Jamie and Victoria arrive on contemporary Earth to find London being menaced by the Great Intelligence, a foe they had previously encountered earlier that season in The Abominable Snowmen. The Doctor hooked up with a British military unit led by Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart and they worked together to defeat the threat. The production team were impressed by the contrast between the Doctor's scientific, eccentric approach to the problem and Lethbridge-Stewart's more militaristic one, and the resulting butting of heads whilst also retaining a strong working relationship. They planned a sequel for Season 6, The Invasion, which would see Lethbridge-Stewart now in command of a military force dedicated to preventing Earth from alien incursions, UNIT. This was done both as a response to the several alien attacks on contemporary Earth that had happened over the course of the show to date and also as a possible 'pilot' for a new format the producers were considering. The Invasion was even more popular and acclaimed than The Web of Fear, and the production team decided to continue with their format shift.

This shift was brought about by the BBC's decision to move all drama production to colour starting from 1970. Unfortunately, this significantly raised the expense of their shows, resulting in the episodes-per-season being slashed almost in half (down from 45 or so episodes to 25-26). Patrick Troughton had also decided to leave the show along with the actors playing his companions, so the production team decided on a 'soft reboot' of the show. To help reduce costs they decided to exile the Doctor to Earth, where he would fight alien threats alongside UNIT. This allowed them to re-use sets and castmembers.Whilst remaining the same show and in the same continuity, the total change of cast and the move from black and white colour resulted in a different feel to the series (arguably this would be the biggest format shift until the show returned from its sixteen-year hiatus in 2005). There was also more of a focus on gadgets and action, with UNIT's victories often coming about to the Doctor constructing some kind of elaborate device (or 'reversing the polarity of the neutron flow' of existing technology).

UNIT, or its personnel, thus appeared on at least an annual basis from Season 5 to Season 13, and on a recurring basis from Seasons 7 to 11. UNIT stories were notable for often having the Doctor present a peaceful, scientific solution to problems and the Brigadier presenting a military one. After some butting of heads, either a compromise solution would be worked out or the Doctor would get his way. A notable exception is The Silurians, where a military solution is affected over the Doctor's objections. The clash of science and military reflected contemporary issues, where the scientific golden age of the 1960s (with the advent of computers and the moon landings) was being seen as giving way to an era dominated by the Cold War and the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Day of the Daleks, unusually, partially focuses on the Cold War by depicting the countdown to a nuclear war between the western powers and the Soviet Union (averted by a peace conference hosted by the UN).

The decision to drop the UNIT format appears to have been taken due to a desire to see the Doctor visiting numerous alien worlds rather than repeatedly contemporary Earth. This was likely assisted by an improvement to the (already impressive) viewing figures that accompanied the move. Stories set on Earth with UNIT were still popular - and the Brigadier may be the most popular single character in the history of Doctor Who after the Doctor and maybe the Master - but there was a feeling that the Tom Baker era needed to do things differently to the Pertwee one that preceded it. However, there was also the fact that thanks to the Doctor's influence, UNIT could also handle problems by itself. Several spin-off fan movies and novels showed UNIT tackling alien menaces without the Doctor followed.

The lifespan of a UNIT soldier on Doctor Who is substantially less than even that of a redshirt on Star Trek.

UNIT itself apparently vanished after Season 13, though a retired Brigadier did make return appearances in Mawdryn Undead and The Five Doctors (both in Season 20). In Season 25 the production team had the Doctor working on Earth against a Dalek incursion and ended up having to ally with a British military force. As the story - Remembrance of the Daleks - was set in 1963 (the year the show began, as part of the show's 25th anniversary celebrations), UNIT itself could not appear. Writer Ben Aaronovitch instead created the Intrusion Counter-Measures Group under the command of Group Captain Gilmore. The ICMG was a military force with scientific advisors and with connections to the British Experimental Rocket Group (a teasing in-joke by Aaronovitch which seems to establish that Doctor Who and the Quartermass serials take place in the same fictional universe). The Doctor himself notes the similarity to UNIT by referring to Gilmore as 'Brigadier' at one point. Subsequent materials suggest that the ICMG was a fore-runner of UNIT and some of its personnel, equipment and methodology was adopted by it.

The production team enjoyed the UNIT-like dynamic so much that they decided to bring back UNIT 'properly' the following year. Season 26's Battlefield, again written by Aaronovitch, introduces a new UNIT commander, Brigadier Winifred Bambera. Once again the Doctor and the UNIT detachment work together defeat an alien menace, this time a force of invading high-tech knights from an alternate dimension. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart is called out of retirement to help defeat the menace and ultimately saves the day.

When the series returned in 2005, UNIT was initially kept to a background role. UNIT advisors appeared briefly in the Aliens of London/World War Three two-parter but played a bigger role in The Christmas Invasion, when UNIT shoots down the Sycorax ship over London. The new show preferred to develop its own Earth-based anti-alien force, Torchwood, with the two organisations shown to be uneasy allies at best. The Sound of Drums three-parter reveals that UNIT is now based on an immense flying aircraft carrier, the Valiant, to better handle alien threats.

It wasn't until the Season 30 (Series 4 of the new run) storyline The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poisoned Sky that UNIT made a full and proper appearance, with the Doctor joining forces with UNIT to defeat a Sontaran attack on the planet. UNIT made extended cameo appearances in later episodes, most recently in the Season 33 story The Power of Three, which establishes that UNIT's new scientific advisor is the Brigadier's daughter, Kate Stewart (who had previously appeared in several spin-offs).

 UNIT's logo, as used in the 1990s.

Fictional History

UNIT - the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce - is a joint military and scientific force organised under the aegis of the United Nations to combat extraterrestrial and other threats to humanity. It was founded either in the late 1960s or early 1970s after a string of alien incursions on Earth (curiously, a lot of them in England) alerted governments to the threat. These incursions included a battle between two factions of robotic cyborgs in the Shoreditch area of London in late 1963, an incident involving a powerful AI (also in London) in 1966 and, most notably, the incursion of a race of robots disguised (for reasons that remain debatable) as yetis into the London Underground in the late 1960s.

Each of these events was defeated by the activities of an alien individual named 'the Doctor'. During the incident with the yetis in the Underground, the Doctor worked alongside a British military force led by Colonel Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart, a highly decorated soldier. After this incident Lethbridge-Stewart's report proved pivotal in paving the way to the founding of UNIT. UNIT's first operational success came four years later, when the head of International Electronics, Tobias Vaughn, allied with the Cybermen to bring about their invasion of Earth. With the help of the Second Doctor, UNIT successfully defeated the would-be invasion.

A year or so later, the Doctor was forced to regenerate by this own people, the Time Lords, and exiled to Earth. UNIT successfully rescued the Doctor, who was suffering from post-regenerative trauma, and he aided them in turn in defeating an attack on Earth by the Nestene Consciousness and its Auton minions. With the Doctor stuck on Earth for the time being, he agreed to work with UNIT as their scientific advisor. In this capacity the Doctor helped them defeat several attacks on Earth by alien forces, the planet's original reptilian inhabitants (the Silurians) and also by the Master, another renegade Time Lord.

After helping to save his homeworld of Gallifrey, the Doctor was allowed to travel in time and space once more. However, he continued to treat Earth and UNIT HQ as a base of operations and returned several times to aid UNIT against additional threats. After his regeneration into the Fourth Doctor, however, he became less sentimental about Earth and his friends in UNIT and returned to wandering in space and time. UNIT continued operating and facing alien threats in his absence. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart retired from UNIT in 1977 to become a teacher but was recalled to duty on occasion to help with additional problems. By the 2000s Lethbridge-Stewart had become
 a special envoy for the UN due to his extensive experience.

The Doctor would assist UNIT in defeating an incursion by dimension-hopping warriors in the 1990s and a Sontaran attack in the 2000s, but the days of lengthy associations between the Doctor and UNIT were passed. In addition, by the late 2000s UNIT had become too high-profile a force, with several alien incursions targeting UNIT assets with destruction as part of their attacks. For a time, the focus on defeating alien threats shifted to the clandestine Torchwood organisation, which was much smaller than UNIT and able to work more effectively in secret and behind the scenes. However, UNIT remains operational with Kate Stewart, the Brigadier's daughter, serving as their chief scientific advisor.

 Yes, it even has its own logo.

The UNIT Dating Controversy

UNIT stories occupy an awkward position in the fictional history of Doctor Who. The UNIT stories take place in the 'near future' to the time of broadcast, with a few notable differences to contemporary events. For example, The Dæmons has characters watching 'BBC3', when the real BBC3 didn't start until thirty years later. The human race is also engaging in manned space travel to Mars. Dating the UNIT stories has thus been a source of constant controversy amongst fans.

The only on-air clue is given in The Hand of Fear (aired in 1976), when Sarah Jane Smith reveals that the year where she comes from is 1980. Publicity material for The Invasion (aired in late 1968) said that it was set in 1975. This led to the conclusion that UNIT stories take place between four and six years in the future. However, Mawdryn Undead would later say that the Brigadier had retired in 1977 and that the current year was 1983, when the serial was broadcast. Reconciling this is not impossible but awkward: if The Invasion took place in 1975, then the last mention of the Brigadier as a serving member of UNIT (in The Seeds of Doom in 1976) must take place in 1977. This compresses the entirety of the Third Doctor's time in exile on Earth into just a year or two, which strains credulity.

More convincing is to abandon The Invasion's date altogether (publicity material information is not canon, especially if contradicted by on-screen evidence) and to add further, unseen adventures with the Fourth Doctor and Sarah before her departure. This would take 'her' current year up to 1980 without contradicting the date given for the Brigadier's departure from UNIT. UNIT's stories can then be fitted into the timeline from the early 1970s through to the late ones. Several Doctor Who reference books take the same lines, suggesting that the 'near future' means one to two years in the future, not five or six.

The UNIT dating controversy remains a fiercely-debated subject on Doctor Who forums to this day (and possibly constitutes the definitive #FirstWorldProblem), to the point where the show itself has poked fun at it. In Season 26's Battlefield the Seventh Doctor makes rather a lot of the fact that they have travelled into the near future and Ace is shocked by the price of a pint of beer. In The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poisoned Sky the Doctor mentions he can't even remember if he worked with UNIT in the 1970s or 1980s.

UNIT-Focused Serials

Season 5
The Web of Fear

Season 6
The Invasion

Season 7
Spearhead From Space
The Silurians
The Ambassadors of Death

Season 8
Terror of the Autons
The Mind of Evil
The Claws of Axos
The Dæmons

Season 9
Day of the Daleks
The Time Monster

Season 10
The Three Doctors
The Green Death

Season 11
The Time Warrior
Invasion of the Dinosaurs
Planet of the Spiders

Season 12

Season 13
Terror of the Zygons
The Android Invasion
The Seeds of Doom

Season 26

Season 30
The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poisoned Sky

Season 33
The Power of Three

In addition to the above, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart would also appear in Season 20's Mawdryn Undead and The Five Doctors, as well as an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures. UNIT would play a minor background role in Season 27's Aliens of London/World War Three and a slightly more prominent (but still supporting) one in Season 29's Utopia/The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords storyline.

1 comment:

RobH said...

Thanks for the history on UNIT. I agree that Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart was definitely my favourite pseudo-companion on the show, and I loved it when they were able to bring in back in episodes like Mawdwyn Undead and Battlefield. And I enjoy that the connection with Kate Stewart continues in some of the new episodes - hopefully we'll see her more in the future.

And I agree - it must have been awfully hard for UNIT to recruit given the casualty rate outside of the Brigadier himself, Benton (another favourite character), and Mike Yates.

Looking forward to more of your posts on the history of Doctor Who.