Sunday 8 August 2010

My Position On UNIT Dating

A large number of Doctor Who stories involve an organisation called the United Nations Intelligence Task Force (UNIT) that was set up to combat extraterrestrial menaces. The Doctor acted as their scientific advisor. The bulk of these stories are found in the John Pertwee/ Third Doctor era, though Invasion, the first UNIT story involved the Second Doctor and the Seventh Doctor assisted UNIT in Battlefield.

A big controversy amongst Doctor Who fans concerns when the UNIT stories are set. We could spend ages talking about onscreen fashions, the use of decimal or non-decimal currency, regulation haircuts or the layout of the London Underground, but it is best that we focus on the dates that are given onscreen. These are contradictory and leave us with a choice of three views of when the UNIT stories take place:

View 1: 1979 (The Invasion) - c.1985 (Seeds of Doom)

On this view the UNIT stories take place in the eighties. The main evidence for this view is that The Abominable Snowman was set in 1935. Professor Travers says in The Web of Fear that the events of that story took place 'over forty years ago.' The clear conclusion is that The Web of Fear is set in 1975 or some time after. The Invasion is set 3-4 years after The Web of Fear, making 1979 UNIT Year 1.

It has been suggested that the 'over forty years' is an off the cuff estimate of how much time has passed. Lance Parkin in AHistory rightly rejects that dismissal of the View 1 date:

"This line of thought usually leads to 44 being added to 1935 to get 1967 or 1968, and liberal use of the phrase 'rounding up."

This view is further supported by indications that the production team intended that the Season 7 stories be set in the near future. UNIT wear futuristic uniforms in Ambassadors of Death and the level of technology shown is in advance of the early Seventies. Most notably, the British Space Program has been sending manned missions to Mars in Ambassadors of Death. I find it much easier to believe that a successful British space program could people on Mars in the Eighties than in the Seventies. The importance of the space program must not be understated. It does appear that in the Doctor Who universe the Apollo landing took place in 1969 and not any earlier (Blink, also Ben and Polly from 1966 did not appear to be aware that the Moon landing had occurred in their time). It is hard to imagine succesful Mars missions in less than five years of the Apollo landing.

For this reason, I am convinced that View 1 is correct and the UNIT stories take place in the Eighties. One interesting implication is that some of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Doctor's visits to Eighties earth may take place while other Doctor's are active on earth with UNIT.

But we have to consider other possibilities.

View 2: c.1974 (The Invasion) - 1980 (Seeds of Doom)

In Pyramids of Mars, Sarah Jane Smith states that she is from 1980, presumably meaning the last time she was on earth in Terror of the Zygons. The UNIT events take place over a period of 6-8 years. That makes UNIT Year 1 approximately 1974. Inevitably this contradicts the previous date given by Professor Travers.

It has been suggested that Sarah may simply be rounding off, but to my mind this is a little bit odd. If I left earth to travel with the Doctor today, I would be very concerned that I got back to 2010 and not 2007!

View 3: c.1968 (The Invasion)- c.1975 (Seeds of Doom)

Mawdryn Undead states that the Brigadier retired before 1977. That makes the UNIT era contemporary with the broadcasting of the stories.

There is no two ways about this, Mawdryn Undead contradicts both Web of Fear and Pyramids of Mars. Interestingly, script editor Eric Saward confessed in an interview that the 1977 date in Mawdryn Undead was a mistake.

The majority of fans seem to favour View 3 and the majority of Doctor Who New Adventures and Past Doctor Adventures favour the UNIT stories being set at time of broadcast. The Virgin Missing Adventure Millennial Rites is an exception, however, and puts the UNIT stories in the Eighties (where they belong!).

Lawrence Miles makes much of fashion, pointing out that Sarah does not dress like she comes from 1980 in any UNIT stories, but she certainly does in the spin-off K9 and Company, set in 1981. I don't think this gets us anywhere (though the K9 and Company issue is a problem for View 1 and to an extent View 2). If technology is different in the Whoniverse, then so can fashion. Or maybe we can just smile at the fashion issue, just as we smile at Silurians with zips on their skin or Toberman being lifted up on visible strings.

We have to accept that we have to choose between three competing dates. I would suggest that we should give priority to the Web of Fear date. We should look to how UNIT was originally conceived. It makes perfect sense for the production team to opt for a near future setting for the show in Season 7 as it would allow for flexibility about political events and allow for the use of futuristic technology in keeping with the format of Doctor Who. Admittedly, the production team moved away from a near future setting towards a more contemporary feel in the later John Pertwee stories, but the UNIT setting was clearly originally conceived differently.

Mawdryn Undead and even Pyramids of Mars ought not to be given priority in determining UNIT dating for the simple reason that UNIT was not a regular feature of the program at the time of these two stories. UNIT had faded into the background at the time. At the time when UNIT was developing and a fresh idea, it was intended to be futuristic.


  1. There's also the fact that in Battlefield, Zrbigniev states that he served in UNIT under Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Taking into account the fact that Battlefield is set in 1997, along with Zrbigniev's age, it would have been impossible for him to have served under Lethbridge-Stewart in the 70's.

    The thing one finds about UNIT dating is that people who only came to the show much later will go "Ooh! Flares!The 1970s!" while longer-time viewers will notice things like the Space Programme, the Cold War being over etc. and know it was never meant to be set in the 70's. Something similar occurs where no longterm viewers believe in the ridiculous "Season 6B" idea, while people who never watched Troughton will have less or no problem accepting it.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I'm glad you agree with me about a late UNIT date, though I think we disagree about Season 6B.